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July 2, 2009

Book Notes - Jessica West ("What Would Keith Richards Do?")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

What Would Keith Richards Do? collects the wisdom of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards into a Scripture for our times. Incredibly well-curated, the book is filled with surprisingly thoughtful and always entertaining quotations.

The Toronto Star wrote of the book:

"West boils the notoriously loose-tongued Richards down to his most bon of mots, and lays them side by side with those of Aristotle, Plato, Saint Augustine (!?!) and Neitzsche. The result is a fairly (um) sobering case that the Rolling Stones' 65-year-old guitarist, a man so buffeted by trouble and impervious to chemical indulgences that he was once allied with cockroaches as the creatures most likely to survive a nuclear holocaust ("Poor old cockroaches," quipped Richards), is a virtual walking testament to the transcendent human spirit."

In her own words, here is Jessica West's Book Notes music playlist for her book, What Would Keith Richards Do?: Daily Affirmations from a Rock and Roll Survivor:

I've always thought that Keith Richards was the perfect person to write a self-help book. When it didn't seem that that was going to happen anytime soon, I figured I had to step in and do it for him. Sort of.

What Would Keith Richards Do? is a guide to Living Life the Keith Richards Way, an investigation into the Tao of Keith, plus a compendium of the Wit and Wisdom of Rock n Roll's premiere survivor.

The playlist that motored the writing of the book was made up only a little bit of Stones music, a little more of Richards' solo work, but mostly of artists and songs that Keith has gone on record as having inspired him. The book was about channeling Keith and his attitude, so I wanted to listen to the songs and artists that shaped him—that perhaps created Keith Richards. Within this soundtrack I found a fascinating line-up of gangsters, trouble-makers and trouble-magnets, and mythical beings-- "bad men who made beautiful music"—those who courted the dark side, if not the devil himself, then turned it into something haunting and gorgeous. A lot of the songs I played had subject matter that mirrored the issues that Keith has talked about so often: doing it your own way, the exuberance of being alive, rebellion, coming to terms with others, the mystery of the blues, honesty, looking the devil straight in the eye, the dark side, finding the beauty in the sordid, and taking joy in giving someone the finger when you have to.

In many of these songs, you can hear the building blocks of later Stones music, particularly those that would end up on "Exile of Main Street" (the most Keith of all Stones albums).

The playlist for writing What Would Keith Richards Do? was vast, but the main playlist is as follows (with some Keith quotes added on):

1. Robert Johnson - Preaching the Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)

Johnson is not only the "grandfather of rock" but maybe the grandfather of Keith—a shadowy human riff who shook hands with the devil. Maybe this story is true: Johnson met the devil at the crossroads near Dockery Plantation at midnight; the devil tuned Johnson's guitar, played it, and then gave it back to him. In exchange for Johnson's soul, he would play the best blues guitar ever heard. In listening to Johnson's voice, there's an exhilarating spookiness, and it always reminds me of Keith. Keith: "There's a demon in everybody. It's the trying to express it—there's a dark piece in us all."

2. Jackie Brenston - Rocket 88

Many consider this to be the first rock n roll song. It's like listening to the future while listening to the past.

3. Leadbelly - The Midnight Special

In comparison to Leadbelly, Keith is an amateur when it comes to being a ‘gangster'. Here is one of the original "bad men who makes beautiful music." Prison, addiction, fights, trouble. He also brought a political edge to his music, writing on everything picked up on his cultural antenna-- from Harlow to Hitler. Pre-Keith Keith.

4. Blind Willie McTell - Talkin' to Your Mama

Another mythical, doomed, but magical original. McTell became a wandering busker after leaving home at an early age, and at life's end was playing for whiskey and quarters in the street. Here but for the grace of God go I.

5. Clarence ‘Gatemouth' Brown - Okie Dokie Stomp

The "Gatemouth" nick-name came from a teacher who told Brown he had a voice like a gate. It's like they saoid about Keith—a voice that only a mother could love.

6. Amos Milburn - Down the Road Apiece

A standard of Rock n Roll, originally recorded in the 1940s. I love this recording. Anyone could fall in love with rock on hearing this.

7. Clarence ‘Bon Ton' Garlow - Bon Ton Roulet

A wonderfully happy song—and a Keith favorite.

8. Professor Longhair & His Shuffling Hungarians - Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Another bad boy with beautiful music. Longhair started out as a street hustler; was also a janitor and a gambler. He never made it big, but he was an original. Keith: "The mundane has never interested me."

9. Hoagy Carmichael – Georgia on My Mind

I like the fact that Keith got evicted from a New York apartment for blasting Hoagy repeatedly at 4:00 AM.

10. John Lee Hooker - I'm in The Mood

Listen to the Stones song "I Got the Blues" and then listen to this. It's a mirror. Hooker's half-spoken style, and his roots in spiritual music reminds me also of Keith (he did get his start in the church choir).

11. Muddy Waters - Rollin' Stone

Keith: "I just want to be Muddy Waters."… "There's a demon in everybody. It's the trying to express it—there's a dark piece in all of us."…"Muddy is like a very comforting arm around the shoulder. You need that… It can be dark down there."

12. B.B. King - Everyday I Have the Blues

Keith on the blues: "It's about the most important thing that America has ever given to the world."… "It's a part of everybody."

13. Howlin' Wolf - Moanin' at Midnight

Another Keith favorite; a musician who sings from the dark valley.

14. Hank Williams - You Win Again

Keith: "You should never underestimate the importance of country in rock n roll."

15. Chuck Berry – Little Queenie

It was on hearing Berry that Keith decided to devote his life to music. This song just gets better over time. Keith: "Rock n roll doesn't die, it matures." Berry became a continuous character in Keith's life, but it didn't always go so well. Keith: "I couldn't warm to him [Berry] if I was cremated next to him."… "There are limits to hero worship."

16. Little Richard – Tutti-Frutti

Keith: "'A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom.' For me, the world then went from black-and-white to Technicolor."… "It was a bit of a shock, but it was a great one, like, shock me some more."

17. Ry Cooder - Jesus on the Mainline

Keith: "I nicked a lot off of him. I took him for all he was worth... I ripped him off." With a line like that, how can you not make Cooder part of your soundtrack?

18. Gram Parsons – Streets of Baltimore

Keith: "Beautiful pain. He had it to the max." There are rumors that it was Parsons who wrote "Honky Tonk Woman" and that he was the inspiration for "Wild Horses." Many have noted that after Gram died you could hear his ghost in Keith's songs. How can you not listen to Gram when conjuring Keith?

19. Bob Marley & the Wailers - Jah is Mighty

Keith: "If you go to Jamaica, you see people living to that rhythm. It's magic in that it's an unexplored area…. I call it ‘marrow music'. It's beyond the bone…I can give you the history of the world—just give me their music."…And…"I love God. But I hate preachers."

And from the Stones:

20. You Can't Always Get What You Want

A self-help book in song form.

21. Satisfaction

Whether it's true or just a great legend: Keith wrote this in his sleep. It's also the song he says every other one he's written is a variation on. "I had to stop doing Chuck Berry and start doing Keith Richards."

22. Before They Make Me Run

Written following the drug arrest in Canada, the song expresses a hallmark Keith quality: courage. Keith: "At least I faced it. It's the only thing I'm proud about in all of that period—that I faced up to it and said, okay, that's it, and it's all over… I was looking down the bad end of the gun."

23. Sympathy for the Devil

Keith: "You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can…Don't forget him. If you confront him, then he's out of a job."

24. Coming Down Again

Drugs, drugs, drugs. But again, it's about finding the beautiful in the sordid. Keith: "I wouldn't have written [this song] without [drugs]. It kept me in touch with the street, at the lowest level."

25. Blue Turns to Grey

After Brian Jones died, Keith took over the role of self-destructive drugged and wild rock star. This song reminds me of Brian's passing—and the strange guilt, sorrow, and relief that must have transpired; and how you just have to keep going.

26. Gimme Shelter

Like hearing a storm come in. If you shy away from writing about dark subjects, "you end up writing about embroidery." No embroidery here.

27. Happy

I still don't know what he was happy about. But I love the song, because the scraggly voice reminds me of the "bad men making beautiful music". The sound is pure Keith.

28. Time Waits for No One

For all the jokes about the aging Stones, in this song aging and time are viewed with vulnerability and surrender. For all their "we'll outlive you all" bravado, it is, ultimately, their fragility that is the most moving. And it's in this song.

Jessica West and What Would Keith Richards Do?: Daily Affirmations from a Rock and Roll Survivor links:

the book's website

Finding Dulcinea review
Pop Damage review
The Rumpus review
Time Out Chicago review
Toronto Star review

New York Times' Paper Cuts preview of the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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