Some of you may know Mike Corbett as the lead singer and guitarist from the Brooklyn-based rock band, Midnight Spin. If you don’t, check them out now, and catch them in New York or D.C this January. Keith Richards is his favorite guitarist of all time, the man who led Mike into rock and roll. That’s why I thought it’d be appropriate to get his take on Life, which he finished reading within days of its release.
Keith’s book was everything I could hope for and a little bit more. I first fell in love with music watching the 1986 Documentary “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll!” which documented Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday celebration and return to his hometown of St. Louis. The band was put together, at the request of Director Taylor Hackford (Ray), by ‘Musicial Director’ Keith Richards. It was this film that gave me a glimpse not only into where rock and roll music came from, but the personalities that shaped it.
Keith starts us off in England, his crib being bombed in 1943 by Germans – “Hitler was already on my trail”. In his book, he begins by recalling his post WWII childhood in the London suburb of Dartford. With he and his schoolmates growing up on rations, (“one piece of candy per week”), the grey, stuffy English society is set up in a way that is just begging for the new generation to bust it open. Enter rock and roll music. Keith largely credits Elvis, not Chuck, for opening his ears to rock and roll. After being kicked out of the London Boys Choir (he performed for the Queen), Keith loses faith in the established order and begins looking for a way out. He learns how to play guitar in the ‘toilet’ – a sort of boys’ rec room at school, and getting Beatnik and Mod/Rocker culture through his art school classmates, who were little more than community college boys with bohemian aspirations.
What amazes me most are the saved letters Keith has – to his mother, aunts, and friends, that bring you into the past so vividly. He recalls re-meeting “a guy named Mick Jagger” at a train station one day. He happened to have an armful of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters records, and the Stones were on their way to being formed. I was particularly fascinated by the way business has changed for independent bands since 1962. It has, a lot. It’s incredible to see Keith’s personalized re-caps of each gig that he had saved from an apartment when it was just he, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and a particularly disgusting friend of theirs – who birthed the songwriting pseudonym “Nanker Phelge”, and it is them living their early ‘Animal House’ era. Which is, of course, incredibly tame compared to Keith’s later living. Marlon Brando tries to have a threesome with Keith and his girlfriend, John Belushi is dropping by Mick’s apartment, and John Lennon is hugging Keith’s toilet because he can’t handle his heroin like a Rolling Stone. The stories are unreal. But it’s more than just a party, there’s a deep heart to this book.
The book is essential reading for anybody who has a sincere curiosity of rock and roll – the black American roots, the British kids who took it to a new place, and the ‘Almost Famous’ decadence of touring rock and roll bands in the glory years of rock music. It’s incredible to hear these stories of busts, near-busts, ODs, songwriting sessions, failed romances, and the underlying shift in worldwide generation attitudes that come with them. As Keith describes, they were a “pirate nation, living under our own flag”. It’s complete arrested development. There’s literally too much to cover in this book in a single review, but the intro is what will suck you in: it’s 1975 in Arkansas, and Keith and Ronnie Wood have been getting high on heroin in the truck stop bathroom for 40 minutes. As Keith said, “you don’t do that down there.” Read this book, it’s safer than the actual 10 year heroin habit.