Tag Archives: Keith Richards

Empathic Vibrations: How Music Allows Us to Understand One Another

This post is part of a series of daily blog posts written during the month of May as a form of artistic protest. This Blog March was organized by writer/musician Robin Renée. You can learn more about Robin and the Blog March by visiting her website.

A few years ago, I had a co-worker who was really into music. When he found out that I enjoyed many of the classic rock bands that he liked, he’d come by my desk to have long, meandering conversations about music. One day he and I were discussing Hendrix, and he said that he didn’t like Jimi Hendrix and thought he was overrated. I told him that I tended to agree, that the cult of personality surrounding Hendrix had gotten a bit out-of-hand. Then in another conversation, we were having about guitarists we thought were overlooked, I suggested Prince and his reaction was one of disgust. “Prince? Prince? Surely you are joking…” I thought that was an odd reaction for such a big music fan to have, but I didn’t think too much about it. Then there was the time the subject of blues music came up, and he emphatically told me that he couldn’t stand it and that it held little artistic merit (or some such thing). I thought that was a pretty odd perspective to have, especially considering his favorite band was The Rolling Stones. I called him out on this, and he shrugged me off.

Imagine my surprise, however, when his hero Keith Richards released an album of all blues covers. There was no way that this guy was going to like that, right? Wrong, he loved it. I called him out on his inconsistent stance on blues. Then I asked him if he listened to any music made by a black artist and he told me frankly: “I don’t listen to black music…it just doesn’t speak to me. I can’t relate to it at all.” I laughed, not because the statement was funny (though it was) but because I thought this guy was joking. He was not. It turned out this guy avoided “black music” and only listened to bands/singers who were white, like him. Now, whether or not this guy was racists is neither here nor there–the point is, I think it’s pretty common for people to enjoy music made by people who most resemble themselves. As I’ve said many times, I didn’t seriously listen to female bands/singers until I was in my early 20’s when radio host/E-Street Band member Little Steve told me that Tegan & Sara were “cool.”

Now, if you think about it, it doesn’t make sense for this guy to think he has more in common with Keith Richards than he does with someone like Robert Johnson. This guy was a teacher so economically, Johnson and his day-to-day life were much more “relatable” than Richards (who is a millionaire-vampire).

As I’ve matured and expanded my sphere of listening, I’ve come to realize how valuable it is to hear music created by people vastly different from myself. About a year or so ago, I was listening to a rap song, I wish I could remember what song or who the artist was (I think it was Run The Jewels), but I remember taking my headphones off and thinking: Oh, my God…”Black Lives Matter” means “All Lives Matter.” I had never taken issue with the sentiment of BLM, but like a lot of middle-class white people, I also thought it should be “All Lives Matter.” But through exploring both classic and modern rap/hip-hop, it became apparent to me that the way I experienced the world was fundamentally different than the way people of color experience it. Listening to rap provided a window of insight into how other people see and feel about things. I no longer have a problem with “Black Lives Matter,” because I can see now how they currently don’t matter (in this country and elsewhere in the world) and it was music that allowed me to begin the process of understanding. And right now what the world needs more than anything right now is more understanding.

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Run the Jewels.

100+ days ago, I would say this revelation would be pretty important, but now in May of 2017, I think it’s probably the most important thing music is. No matter who you are, take the time to explore the art of people who are different from you. Art is where we exalt our joy and preserve our pain. That old saying about not knowing someone until you walk a mile in their shoes? Well, one way you can do that is to experience their films, books, and music. I love Keith Richards to death, but it blows my mind that a person could enjoy his work and have zero interest in his mentor Chuck Berry. Don’t you dare be that narrowminded.

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The master and the apprentice.

Our Hater-In-Chief and those like him can only see divisions, but the truth is that our world is overflowing with art that can link us together. We’re all floating islands of isolation, but art tethers us not just to this world but to one another. Stop reading this post and listen to music made by someone who doesn’t look like you.

And if you want a suggestion:

 

Check out the next Blog March blog, by David Jamison here: https://davidjamison.wordpress.com/

 

 

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Happy Birthday Keith Richards!

Today is Rolling Stones guitarist/mummified junkie Keith Richard’s birthday.  It’s sad that Richards (who turns 70 today) has become a bit of a joke simply because he’s managed to not-die.  Although to be fair, the joke isn’t that Keith Richards the musician is still alive, it’s that Keith Richards the vagabond-druggie is still alive.  There’s cheating death and then there’s dropping your pants and taking a huge dump on Death’s chest–Richard’s been doing that for decades.

Kids these days are more likely to know him as Johnny Depp’s pirate-dad than for “Satisfaction.”  That bums me out because Richards has contributed a lot to the world of rock n’ roll beyond his off-stage antics.  It’s widely accepted that Keith Richards is a fantastic guitarist and that his ability to write amazing riffs is second to none.  What’s not so widely-accepted is his ability to sing songs.  Since 1967’s BETWEEN THE BUTTONS Keith has been allowed to sing lead on at least one song per Rolling Stones album.  This has been viewed by many as a bit of rock n’ roll charity, similar to an arrangement The Beatles had with Ringo Starr.  But I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that, with all due respects to Mr. Jagger, 80% of my all-time favorite Stones songs are sung by Richards.

Keith is 70 and doesn't look a day over 700.

Keith is 70 and doesn’t look a day over 700.

Does Keith Richards have a pleasant singing voice?  No.  But there’s a haggard, raw quality to it that Mick Jagger’s voice lacks.  When Keith sings about hard living and late nights alone, you can hear his suffering in the timbre of his voice.  Time (and cigarettes) haven’t been especially kind to Richards voice, but in a way his rougher sound serves to accentuate his songs with a extra layer of desperation.  Much like with Bob Dylan, another take-him-or-leave-him vocalist, I find that hearing Richards sing his own songs adds an extra dollop of sincerity.  I’m sure Mick Jagger could have sung all the Stones tracks, but we’d be much poorer for it.

To that end, I present to you my Top 10 Keith Richards songs.  These feature Keith on lead vocals and while they may not have set the Top 40 charts ablaze, have a special place in my heart.  Here’s to 70 great years!

My Top 10 Keith Richards Songs

1. “Before They Make Me Run” off SOME GIRLS.  First off, this song has an amazingly good guitar riff.  The song is all about Keith’s legal problems following numerous drug busts.  At the time, Richards was facing the real possibility of doing some serious jail time.  So of course he writes a boozy song about “walking” before he’s forced to “run.”  It’s a badass song.

2. “Happy” off EXILE ON MAINSTREET.  This is Richards signature song, the one you’re guaranteed to hear him sing if you see The Rolling Stones live.  It’s heralded as his best song and with good reason.  Despite being recorded during one of the darkest periods in Rolling Stones history, “Happy” is bouncy and well…happy. There’s a real off-the-cuff aspect to his singing on the song, it’s almost like he’s making it all up as he goes.  This joyous spontaneity and the bright horn section make “Happy” truly great.

3.  “Wicked As It Seems” off MAIN OFFENDER.  This track is not a Rolling Stones song but rather a straight-up Keith Richards solo-song.  The song’s a slow burn with a  great groove.  This is the track that convinced me that Richards really was the heart-and-soul of the Rolling Stones.

4.  “You Got The Silver” off LET IT BLEED.  Keith Richards may be a rocker but he’s got the soul of a country artist.  In fact, my all-time favorite Rolling Stones affectation is when they do a country song. “You Got The Silver” is a mix of country and dirty blues, it’s simple but damn earnest.  I still get chills when I hear it to this day.

5. “Coming Down Again” off GOATS HEAD SOUP.  A gentle piano ballad sung by Keith Richards? Yep.  Add a knowing nod to drug abuse and you’ve got yourself a fantastic song.

6.  “Little T&A” off TATTOO YOU.  People give TATTOO YOU a lot of grief, and while it’s not the best Rolling Stones album it does have this tight little gem on it.  Many considered Richards past his prime by 1981, but Richards proves on this track that he’s just as spry as ever.

7.  “Locked Away” off TALK IS CHEAP.  Another Keith Richards-solo track, “Locked Away” almost sounds like a serious Traveling Wilbury’s song.  Richards is full of self-doubt and this track which also makes reference to prison/jail which like death has always loomed threateningly over the guitarist.

8. “Hurricane” off VINTAGE VINOS.  A short little acoustic bonus track recorded during 2002, “Hurricane” finds a creaky-voiced Richards quietly singing with just a guitar.  Even though it’s just a short, dashed-off track the song is endlessly compelling.  I think it’s the world-weary voice.  Keith sounds sound beaten it’s kinda heartbreaking.

9. “We Had It All” a bonus track recorded during the SOME GIRLS sessions. Another bonus track, “We Had It All” is a gentle ballad drenched with regret and sorrow.  Not quite country, not quite blues, the song wasn’t right for SOME GIRLS but it’s still really good.

10. “This Place Is Empty” off A BIGGER BANG.  The most recent track on my list, this song also has the roughest sounding Keith Richards vocals.  It’s a little creepy to hear old-man Richards ask his lady to “bare your breasts” I’ll admit, but this is a good song.  The song’s I-miss-you sentiment pairs well with Richards voice and somewhat halting delivery.

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Rock ‘n Read: Some Girls (33 1/3)

I recently finished Cyrus Patell’s book on The Rolling Stones 1978 album SOME GIRLS.  Patell’s book is part of the 33 1/3 series, which for those of you unfamiliar, are short little books written by one author and are dedicated to one classic album.  It’s basically a long-form version of my Classic Albums Revisited posts, which I once did on this very albumThis is the third or fourth book in the series that I’ve read, though currently there are 80+ books in the series.  The 33 1/3 series covers more than just classic rock, there are rap, metal, and country albums in the series as well.

3313somegirls

The books cover the behind-the-scenes/making of-aspect of the albums in addition to providing a track-by-track analysis.  Typically the book will be constructed around a theme of some sort, and of the small sample I’ve read, include a personal story from the author’s life.  Patell’s book on Some Girls is built around the conceit that The Stones record is basically all a love-letter (of sorts) to the late 1970s version of New York City.  Most but not all of the songs, Patell points out, are in some way about New York.  It’s pretty obvious, but strangely enough I never really made that connection.

Some Girls also is structured around Patell’s childhood in New York, around the time of the album’s initial release.  The death of one of his beloved teachers, the author’s first brush with death, plays a pivotal part of the first few and last chapters of the book.  Although I did find it interesting, I almost wish Patell had just stuck to The Rolling Stones.  Had this book been a typical long format book I wouldn’t have had as much of a problem with Patell’s personal connection to the record—but Some Girls (like all the books in the series) is a very short, very compact book.  I had a similar issue with the series entry on PET SOUNDS, but unlike that book, I walked away enjoying Some Girls.

My enjoyment of Patell’s book is two fold: he provides an excellent history of the band and the band’s efforts to record SOME GIRLS while at the same time giving a great history of late 1970’s New York.  He doesn’t just tell us that “Miss You” was written as a nod to the current disco culture, he explains to us that Mick Jagger and company were hanging out the infamous Studio 54.  Then Patell proceeds to give us a brief, but informative history of the club.  Patell’s deft ability to balance band history and history-history is what makes Some Girls such an enjoyable read.

There was one minor annoyance that almost got me to stop reading the book, and that was the author’s reliance on Keith Richards memoir Life.  At the start of the book there were so many long quotes taken directly fromKeith’s book that I nearly put the book down because it seemed like I was basically re-reading Life.  Thankfully, once the author turns away from basic band history and starts discussing the album in detail these direct quotes from Life are less intrusive.  Look, I get it, Patell wasn’t able to actually talk with Keith Richards…but some of the quotes are ridiculously long, taking up damn near an entire page.  I’m glad I didn’t give up on Patell’s book because it really is a good read.

Even if, like me, you’ve read five or six books on The Rolling Stones you should still check out Some Girls.  Patell’s analysis of the songs both lyrically and musically (he gets pretty deep into chords and tuning) is worth a read. If like me you’re a big fan of SOME GIRLS you owe it to yourself to check out Patell’s book, it’s a quick but insightful read.

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Crossfire Hurricane & Becoming A Better Stones Fan

I love documentaries.  I really love them.  I don’t think I’ve seen a bad documentary, per say.  I subscribe to the theory that at the very least, a documentary will tell or show you something you didn’t know, and thus it wasn’t a complete waste of time.  Some are better than others.  The Martin Scorsese film on Bob Dylan, for example, is a damn good documentary.  Recently, I sat down and watched HBO’s Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, which while not as good as Scorsese’s No Direction Home, was entertaining.

crossfire hurricane poster

And how could anything about the Rolling Stones not be entertaining? As far as legendary bands go, the Stones are tops when it comes to drugs, debauchery, death, and deceit.  All the makings of a compelling documentary, right?  Well Crossfire Hurricane covers all the major points in the band’s storied career, but doesn’t really dig in very deep.  Some of it felt rushed and major chapters in the band’s career are glossed over. It wasn’t until the credits started to roll (and I thought, “That’s it?”) that I saw what the problem was: the band were the producers.

So Crossfire Hurricane is really the whitewashed version of the Stones as told by the Stones. If you’re super-fan, you’re not going to necessarily gain any new insights, but the backstage/behind-the-scenes footage is worth seeing.  We see the Stones at the height of their success doing drugs and running around half (or totally) naked backstage.  It’s all very cheeky and fun.

I really wanted to recommend Crossfire Hurricane as THE Stones documentary to see…but it’s not.  The real story is what happened after the credits had rolled: the next morning, all I could think about were the tunes.  I fired up Spotify and started skipping around in the band’s massive back catalogue. And then a funny thing happened: I discovered my all-time favorite Stones song.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

I was listening to STICKY FINGERS while doing my laundry, when I heard “Bitch.”  I’d of course heard it before, but I didn’t hear it until this week.  The cocky, self-assured Jagger vocals, the brilliant Keef guitar lick…it was your standard-issue Stones song until the horns kicked in.  Holy shit, the horns take “Bitch” from good to fantastic. It was like hearing “Satisfaction” for the first time: I was blown away.

Which got me thinking, if a great never-played-on-the-radio song like “Bitch” could hit me like a bolt of lightning—what other astoundingly great Stones songs am I missing out on? Suddenly being a more causal Stones fan doesn’t seem so cool.  There is only one course of action: I must listen to everything by the Stones to ensure that I’m not missing out on any other gems.

To be fair, “Bitch” was a B-side to “Brown Sugar” so it wasn’t cast off into complete obscurity, but with B-sides like this who knows what awesome deep-cuts I’m missing out on.  These are the problems of a true music-nerd.  There are too many great bands with too many great songs left undiscovered.  Whenever I find a blank spot on my musical map, I try to fill it in.  That a band like the Rolling Stones has so many blank spots on my map is embarrassing, to be sure.  So even though I’m pretty sure I could die a happy rock-enthusiast without hearing the entirety of the Rolling Stones 80’s output—I’m gonna listen to it all.  Just knowing the singles and key albums is good, but the odds ‘n sods/deep-cuts are what keep me going, both as a fan and as a human being.

That endless quest for my next favorite song, that’s the very essence of what DEFENDING AXL ROSE is all about.  In the coming days, weeks, and months, I’ll post more about my travels in the Stones back catalogue.

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MAD MEN’s $250,000 Beatles Sample

So this just ties into the post I did yesterday about Girl Talk’s 100%-sample-album FEED THE ANIMALS: The New York Times is reporting that the cable channel AMC paid $250,000 to air a portion of “Tomorrow Never Knows” on last Sunday’s episode of MAD MEN. It was a great moment, one that perfectly encapsulates how the times are changing and how those times are passing a certain character (no spoilers).  Though $250,000 sounds like a lot of money to most people (myself included) I actually think that it’s a pretty good deal for AMC considering The Beatles are one of the most protective bands when it comes to their catalogue.  You see, the show didn’t just air the song performed by another singer/band–the MAD MEN episode played the ACTUAL song performed by the actual BEATLES.  This is a pretty rare event, as noted by the Times article which states the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” has never been performed on television.

With all those royalties, The Beatles have it made in the shade…

It also turns out that this marks the first instance where The Beatles have allowed one of their songs to be featured on a television series (with the only exception being the ABC animated Beatles cartoon show that ran in the 1960’s, of course).  When I saw the episode on Sunday I was pretty excited that the song was used, being the huge Beatlemaniac that I am, but I didn’t stop and consider just how pricey such a cameo by the band might be.  I feel sorta bad for MAD MEN’s creator/writer Matthew Weiner, after all when doing a show set in the 1960’s it’s pretty much impossible to avoid the Fab Four.  It was only a matter of time before AMC had to pony up the big dough to feature the band.

I wonder how pissed Keith Richards/Mick Jagger are right now?

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On Genre and Space Cowboys

Prologue: Genre Sucks

Genre is pretty stupid thing if you think about it.  Trying to categorize music (or any art for that matter) into a neat little box is often an exercise in futility.  I think a lot of critics and fans alike miss the point when they try to put singers or bands into one specific category.  Worse still, people put themselves into a “genre,” telling themselves they only like one specific type of music.

My iTunes does not display “genres,” I switched them off because the iTunes database is ridiculously loaded with so many stupid (and hopelessly redundant) categories. The worst is offender being Alternative Rock which gets tagged as “Alternative,” “Alternative Rock,” “Alternative and Punk,” “Punk and Rock,” “Punk Rock” and so on and so forth.  If, like me, you’ve give up on genre and all the stupid baggage that goes along with it, you’ll find yourself descending into the rabbit hole of awesome music.

Case in point: I used to be a “no rap or country” guy until I realized how foolish and narrow-minded such a worldview was.  For one thing, rock music (which I love) has it’s roots firmly planted in country music–so much so that to deny a love of country would be hypocritical.  Rap music, on the other hand, is probably the only culturally relevant art form going right now, not like rap or denying it credibility would like people in the 1950’s ignoring TV.  I mean, to do so  (and many did) meant they missed an incredible cultural shift.

* * *

Part I: Space Cowboys

But enough philosophizing, this post is called “Space Cowboys” because Keith Richards got me to listen to some damn fine music. I read his epic tome LIFE when it came out, and one of the most interesting bits was his relationship with Gram Parsons. Parsons was Richards brother-in-arms during the late 1960’s.  Whereas Richards came from the RnB/blues  school, Parsons came from more of a country background.  Their friendship was pretty interesting and profound (influencing both Parsons and The Stones).   Keith liked Gram so much he let Gram record one of his greatest songs first (he let him record “Wild Horses” first, if  handing someone your greatest masterpiece isn’t bro-love, I don’t know what is).  In a way they became almost mirror images of each other, until Parsons tragically died of a drug overdose.  Anyway, Richards got me interested in his friend Gram (he spoke so highly of him) so I started digging around in his music.

Gram + Keef = BBF's 4 Eva

Turns out Gram Parsons pretty much invented Wilco.  Well, to be precise, he invited “Alt-Country” or whatever the hell the dipshits at Pitchfork.com are calling the music being created today that strattles the line between alternative rock and country music (drat! foiled again by descriptions of genre).  In 1969 he put out the first country-rock album…ever with his band The International Submarine Band.  After that he joined the floundering Byrds and convinced them to put out a country record (!).  That album, SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO, shouldn’t have surprised people (is there really much distance between folk and country?) but it kinda did.  It kinda blew everybody’s mind, and thanks to Parsons, the band put out one of their best records.  And all he did was rather than having the band make music influenced by country, Parsons had the Byrds doing country music. The stylistic jumble was basically country music, but not quite. Thus a genre was born.

But Parsons was a maverick and was soon out of The Byrds and forming The Flying Burrito Brothers.  I know what you’re thinking–incredibly stupid name, but I was blown away by this band. 1969 was a strange time, and the combination of psychedelic rock merged with country music bred a new kind of cowboy: the Space Cowboys.  These brave men were schooled in the popular Top 40 rock of the day but loved classic country music.  From these intrepid “astronauts” bands like Wilco, Old 97’s, The Jayhawks, The Wallflowers…hell even REM came into being.

Flying Burrito Brothers, not known for their fashion sense.

The first two Flying Burrito Brothers records, THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN and BURRITO DELUX, are two fantastic records from end to end.  Songs like “Wheels” exist somewhere in between psychedelic rock and country–in a place that I never knew existed (or was quite frankly, so fucking exquisite).  At first I found myself pulling away from the “country” aspects of Parsons creations and only admiring their “rock” elements.  But after awhile my prejudices/hangups fell by the wayside (mostly because “Sin City” is fucking righteous song) and I found myself enjoying music I would have otherwise dismissed outright.

* * *

Part II: What does it all Mean?

Delving deeper into this exciting genre of “Space Cowboys,” I happened upon a band with an even stranger name than The Flying Burrito Brothers (if you can believe that): The New Riders of The Purple Sage.  With a name like that, I’m sure you won’t be too terribly shocked when I tell you that famous Dead-Head Jerry Garcia was a member of the band.  More than just a “country side-project,” The New Riders are a ridiculously  awesome hybrid of rock and country.  Taking the next logical step from The Grateful Dead’s AMERICAN BEAUTY  album, THE NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE turns down the stoner-folk and turns up the country.  Both the Parsons albums and The New Riders could be classified as straight “country”  or straight “folk” or straight “rock.”   That they could also be (and are) part of a new hybrid of existing genres should speak volumes for how awesome this music is.  That this movement of “Space Cowboys” happened at the end of the 1960’s/early 1970’s was no accident.  The 1970’s saw an explosion of country influenced rock (and vice versa rock influenced country).  Hell, the era’s biggest, most successful band, The Eagles (also known as “the fuckin’ Eagles, man”) was a country-infused rock band.

So what does all this mean? Well I think it’s important to realize that some really awesome stuff happens “in between” the boring, staid genres.  It’s like tectonic plates bumping and colliding, forming mountains–the best shit tends of happen at the spots where genres collide.  I’ve grown as a music fan/aficionado and now, instead of staring blankly into the middle of a particular genre (even if it’s one I love, like rock) I know go out of my way to explore the fringes of all the genres.  After all, today’s “cowboys” living on the fringe of art often become the next generations mainstream heroes (Wilco).

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