Tag Archives: book review

Keith Richards: Life, a Candid Autobiography

Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography Life is a solid exposé and memoir on the life lived by the Rolling Stones guitarist. Weighing in at 547 pages of narrative, it’s clear that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer intends for the reader to come away with a full picture of himself, not just as a founding member of one of the greatest rock bands in history, but as an individual apart from that legend.

The autobiography kicks off with a scandalous story from the road of when Keith and Stones’ rhythm guitarist Ronnie Wood were arrested with a number of illegal substances in Fordyce, Arkansas in 1975. It’s one of the more exciting stories in the book and it sets the tone for numerous tales of drugs and legal issues to follow it.

After that, Life immediately shifts to Keith’s childhood, adolescence until he meets and begins playing music with Mick Jagger (p. 77). This was the hardest part of the book for me to get through. It seemed overburdened with trivial details about Keith Richards the child. While some meaningful events and information is relayed her such as his initial introduction to music and guitar a lot of it seemed unnecessary, but then it is the story of his life, not just of his adult music career.

This makes for an autobiography that is well balanced between the author’s personal life and ideas and his superstar music career. It’s not written in a manner that tries to glorify the rock and roll lifestyle or to revel in fame, but it doesn’t shy away from it or wrap itself in false humility. Keith opens up and tells us quite a lot of personal information about himself, his origins, his philosophies, his loves, his strengths, and his weaknesses. He writes intently on the subject of music and how he came to it with passion, the origins or the Rolling Stones, his often adversarial friendship with lead singer Mick Jagger, his addiction, resulting arrests and subsequent rehabilitation.

The book is chocked full of stories and candid details. Some of the points I liked the most include the following.


The Rolling Stones didn’t write their first song until 1963 when their manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked Keith and Mick in a kitchen together in Willesden and told them to “come up with a song.” Before that, Keith thought songwriting was someone else’s job. This is easy enough to understand since up until this time in music history it was very common for the songwriters to be different people from the performers. Truthfully before the Beatles made it fashionable popular bands rarely composed any of their own music.

Keith makes it quite clear that there was never any rivalry between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, or between any of their respective members. They were friends. Keith refers to the two bands as being a “mutual-admiration society.” He even says that they would call each other up and plan their single releases so to not compete with each other (pg 141). Any amount of rivalry that may have seemed to exist was nothing more than media hype.

As mentioned above, Keith speaks very candidly about his drug addiction. Early on in his life, Keith experimented with recreational drugs, alcohol and cannabis. He was introduced to amphetamines while on tour in the US with R&B acts including Little Richard and Bo Diddly. He talks a bit about LSD in the 60s and a particular three-day trip he took with John Lennon which was so significant that neither of them could quite remember what all had happened. His terrible addiction to heroin however came about in a far less cavalier manner. It happened the same way it seems to happen with the opiate epidemic plaguing the US today; from an injury and overmedication. He was in a car wreck and afterward was in such pain, having a nurse come to clean his wounds everyday that he was prescribed morphine. After several weeks on the drug he became hooked. When the doctor took him off the medication he had severe withdrawals which he treated with underground opiates and eventually heroin which he continues using for the next several years.

I really love that Keith talks about his experiences with Reggae and Rastafarians in Jamaica where he lived for some time. He speaks very highly of the culture, philosophy and most especially the music of the Rastas he became friends with, and how that was a major influence on him and helped him get his head straight from years of excess.

If gleaned properly there is probably a solid handbook’s worth of advice and information on beginning in music, theories on how to approach playing guitar, songwriting, performing live, recording and band dynamics. Keith doesn’t come across with any rock star pretentiousness to speak of. He does get a little preachy and high minded at points, but otherwise stays well-grounded even when telling tales of times when Keith was anything but grounded.

Life is a thorough trek through the years of Keith Richard’s history. It’s sometimes a little wordy, a bit snide, and long. It isn’t always a page turner, but it does hold a reader’s attention fairly well and it delivers all the juicy, candid details a fan of the Rolling Stones, or just rock and roll history will enjoy.


Dr. John: Under a Hoodoo Moon, Review

The funky bluesman Mac Rebennack, otherwise known by his stage name Dr. John is a much-honored part of the cultural fabric that is 20th and 21st century New Orleans.  His autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon chronicles Rebennack’s life from his time as a child coming of age in The Big Easy, through a young struggling musician’s career, and eventually building a legacy as one of America’s most treasured musical icons.

Under a Hoodoo Moon is written in a loose manner with a bit of Rebennack’s New Orleans vernacular, giving it a sense of authenticity and the playfulness that is characteristic of funk music in general and New Orleans music specifically.  The book for the most part follows a linear path, but it repeatedly backtracks to cover stories that Rebennack decided were more relevant at a later point in time. In some cases this seems like a less efficient method, but it does not detract from the overall presentation.

At times Rebennack’s story seems to focus more on the development of his career, business associations, projects and the politics surrounding the music industry, without any emphasis on the personal, philosophical, emotional and inspirational experiences that contributed to the making of the man.  Then he very candidly writes about his struggle with heroin addiction that plagued him for thirty years until he finally kicked it in 1989, but not before doing a stint in Louisiana “Angola” State Penitentiary.  In his writings, it seems Dr. John tended to compartmentalize his professional activities from his more illicit affairs. He introduces the reader to an assortment of characters, hustlers, and junkies along with the musicians he calls family.

In his early days, Rebennack paid the bills by gigging with racially integrated bands at a point in American history when such groups were technically outlawed, and by working as a session musician for countless popular acts. He paints a picture of a golden era of New Orleans music in the 1950s and early 60s before the musicians unions caused so many problems which drove national recording acts to take their business to other cities such as Memphis and Los Angeles.

In 1965, after Rebennack was released from prison, with the music scene dead in New Orleans he too set out for the west coast.  In California he made contact with several colleagues from back home and began working as a session musician with many of the top acts of the day.  These included The Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Sonny and Cher, the O’Jays, Frank Zappa, and Iron Butterfly just to name a few. Dr. John offers some interesting and often humorous observations about some of these acts and his experiences working with them.

During his tenure in Hollywood Rebennack created and adopted the persona of Dr. John, a New Orleans hoodoo medicine man from the 1860s and recorded his ground-breaking Gris Gris album. This is a point in the story where more strictness toward a linear narrative would have improved upon this biography.

Though Dr. John rose to fame on the popularity of Gris Gris with all its voodoo and hoodoo imagery, there is very little in the first two-thirds of the book about his experiences with those traditions.  Up until this point what is mentioned amounts to a brief reference to making goofer dust, a companion burning a black candle to curse the police during a drug score, and more humorously a brief description of a joint ritual in California with another musician who practiced Aleister Crowley styled ceremonial magic in order to curse a producer who had screwed them both in a deal.  It’s not until chapter nine, well after he covers the recording of Gris Gris that Dr. John goes into any detail about his personal connection to a Voodoo temple, and his investment in a voodoo curio shop in New Orleans which really inspired the album.

Under a Hoodoo Moon is a great read, and also provides a fair bit of ethnographic gems covering the roots of the New Orleans musical tradition. He describes his first experiences with the Black Indian Tribes, Mardi Gras Krewes that competed for marching routes during the annual Mardi Gras festivities and pioneered second-line drumming that gives New Orleans music much of its uniqueness.  He also dedicates a significant chunk near the end of the book to speaking nostalgically and reverentially about his time playing with Professor Longhair, the New Orleans pianist who had more influence upon him than anyone else.

I enjoyed reading every page.

          


First Fieldwork; the misadventures of an anthropologist

First Fieldwork; the misadventures of an anthropologist by Barbara Gallatin Anderson

First Fieldwork is a first-person account of the author, Barbara Anderson’s experiences and misfortunes as an anthropologist in the field during her graduate thesis.  Although fictionalized, it is a clear testament to the perils of being an anthropologist thrust unprepared into the field.

During her fieldwork studying the effects of urbanization upon a small Danish Island village, Anderson is faced with challenge after challenge to fitting into the regular patterns and expectations of the people.  From the beginning she nearly catches her family’s cottage on fire.  As a means of better adjusting to the community she takes a cooking class, only to quit the course due to a series of embarrassing episodes beginning with a disastrous meatloaf resulting form her mistaking the Danish word for flour for the word for sugar.
        

I was especially amused by the chapter about the Danish bathhouse in Copenhagen.  A situation like this, without much knowledge of the culture or the language is a perfect example of just how alien one can be even within another Western country.  And just as the bath attendant announced to the other patrons in the pool as Anderson entered; “Here comes an American lady” could just as easily have been the second title for this book, perhaps with “Look out!” preceding it.

Overall First Fieldwork was an entertaining read with insights into fieldwork and the potential problems to be encountered as profound as they are humorous.  The lesson for me was that although fieldwork can include a series of embarrassing and uncomfortable events, it is often those very things that can be of the most value in learning to effectively navigate and describe a culture.