Glory bumps, vowel movements


by Jenny Davidson

I have nothing in particular either for or against the Rolling Stones: you heard a lot of ’em, one way or the other, growing up in Philadelphia in the 70s and 80s with classic rock playing on the radio in cars and restaurants and elsewhere, but they’ve never been a band I’ve listened to seriously. But Keith Richards’ Life is superb. There is something interesting or captivating or striking on every page (Mick and Keith as Aubrey and Maturin from Patrick O’Brian’s books; Keith musing with Paul McCartney on a beach in the Turks and Caicos on creating inflatable dog kennels with patterns to match the breeds within – spotted for Dalmatians, etc. etc. etc.).

(Why didn’t I spend the early 70s doing pharmaceutical-grade cocaine, writing songs and driving speedboats hither and thither across the Mediterranean, the Long Island Sound and various other bodies of water?)

A sample of the sort of thing the musically inclined will find irresistible:

I asked Johnnie Johnson, how did “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Little Queenie” get written? And he said, well, Chuck would have all these words, and we’d sort of play a blues format and I would lay out the sequence. I said, Johnnie, that’s called songwriting. And you should have had at least fifty percent. I mean, you could have cut a deal and taken forty, but you wrote those songs with him. He said, I never thought about it that way; I just sort of did what I knew. Steve and I did the forensics on it, and we realized that everything Chuck wrote was in E-flat or C-sharp–piano keys! Not guitar keys. That was a dead giveaway. These are not great keys for guitar. Obviously most of these songs started off on piano and Chuck joined in, playing on the barre with his huge hands stretching across the strings. I got the sense that he followed Johnnie Johnson’s left hand!

(It is slightly a pity that we are not in the near future, really the Kindle edition of this book – which was what I read – should have clips of all the chords and musical examples.)

And an early passage that caught my attention, thematically appropriate given the fact that I have an ongoing horrible bronchial ailment involving much phlegm that will not go away (it is making me wretched), a passage I feel certain no other reviewer will have quoted thus far (it describes an early flatmate):

Phelge was a serious flobber. Mucus from every area he could summon up. He loved to walk into a room with a huge snot hanging out of his nose and dribbling down his chin, but otherwise be perfectly charming. “Hello, how are you? And this is Andrea, and this is Jennifer…” We had names for all different kinds of flob: Green Gilberts, Scarlet Jenkins. There was the Gabardine Helmsman, which is the one that people aren’t aware of; they snot it and it hangs on their lapel like a medal. That was the winner. Yellow Humphrey was another. The Flying V was the one that missed the handkerchief. People were always having colds in those days; things were always running out of their noses and they didn’t know what to do with them. And it can’t have been cocaine; it was a little too early. I think it was just bad English winters.

(Vision of alternate universe in which Sylvia Plath encountered Keith Richards that winter…)

Piece crossposted with Light Reading

Watch Chuck Berry and Keith Richards perform Sweet Sixteen:

Watch Chuck Berry and Keith Richards perform Little Queenie:

Read an excerpt from ‘Life’ by Keith Richards here