In Keith Richards' memoir, Life, the Rolling Stone guitarist rocks readers along his lifelong journey that began on December 18, 1943. Life chronicles Richards's career with the Rolling Stones since 1962 and tracks them from small clubs to massive arena concerts. Expected are the Rolling Stone drug induced antics, sexual escapades, and belligerent disregard toward authority. According to Richards, "If you're going to kick authority in the teeth, you might as well use two feet."
Unexpected is Keith's ability to recall detailed minutiae such as the precise amount of money the Stones were paid for their very first gig in London; it turns out that Keith maintained a thorough diary. The Stones guitarist is articulate and well narrated with the assistance of James Fox. Particularly enjoyable was the description of how he came up with possibly the most iconic tune of all time, "Satisfaction," literally while he slept!
Keith Richards' contribution and historical importance as a guitarist and songwriter cannot be overestimated. Life details Keith's love of music, his guitar playing style and chord construction techniques. More specifically Life delves into how Keith attains his unique signature sound and more importantly describes how his desire to imitate banjos from the old American south led him to remove the low "E" string and tune his guitar to an open "G."
As a guitarist, retuning the instrument creates a discovery world since structured chords and scales are no longer applicable. This tuning was used to create archetypal Stones classics. Keith stated, "With the five-string it was just like turning a page; there's another story. And I'm still exploring. With five strings you can be sparse; that's your frame, that's what you work on. 'Start Me Up,' 'Can't You Hear Me Knocking,' 'Honky Tonk Women,' all leave gaps between the chords."
Guitarists who cover Rolling Stones songs with a standard tuning know something's wrong, that an element is amiss. Altering to Keith's open "G" tuning makes songs such "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" simple to play. To tune the guitar like Keith, remove the low "E" string and tune the 5th string from "A" to "G" and the high "E" string to "D," permitting the fifth tone to ring through, creating Keith's inimitable sound.
Even with Keith's tuning and equipment, the feel is all important. Richard's says, "Music is a language that doesn't speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it's in the bones, it's in the bones." Keith also feels that beginning guitarists should learn on acoustic instruments. He states, "I firmly believe if you want to be a guitar player, you better start on acoustic and then graduate to electric. Don't think you're going to be Townshend or Hendrix just because you can go wee wee wah wah, and all the electronic tricks of the trade."
Keith gave prudent advice to songwriters. "To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart," Richards notes, "is a connection, a touching of bases." He added, "Sometimes I think songwriting is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack."
Richards' outlook on life is quite positive. He has outlived doctors that gave him six months to live and understandably no longer trusts medical professionals. He quips, "It's really good to be here and as I always say, it's really good to be anywhere!" When questioned about the Stones longevity he replied, "You've got the sun, you've got the moon, and you've got the Rolling Stones."
This comprehensive book is recommended to Rolling Stones fans, guitarists, musicians, and individuals who enjoy well written non-fiction novels. Of the dozen non-fiction musician books that I have read over the past three years, the memoir Life is hands down my favorite.
About the Author: George Rajna, M.B.A., Masters of Science in Communications Disorders, is a bilingual speech therapist who has traveled to over one hundred countries across six continents. He composes music on the guitar and ukulele, and spent two years working in rural education for Peace Corps Paraguay. He is the co-author of Traveling in Sin. Since July 2012, George and Lisa have been living abroad in Southeast Asia follow their journey at We Said Go Travel.