13 November 2015

Keith Richards: not slipping away just yet


Review of Crosseyed Heart, the third solo album by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. EMI, RRP £7.99

It is usually a bad idea to write about one’s heroes. You probably don’t want to read me extolling the virtues of the Rolling Stone’s chief bad boy and guitar-wielding genius, especially if you preferred the Beatles, or never saw the point of the Stones full stop, or you like Mahler or Miles Davis (so do I), or, and I’m sorry for you if this is the case, you just don’t like music.

But I’ll ignore all that and break the rules because it’s Keith Richards who has a new album out. Another reason I want to review it is that it feels as though there won’t be too many more opportunities to review new work by Richards. There is talk of the Stones recording another album, but even if it happens there are unlikely to be many beyond that. Anyway, those albums since their return, after the mid-1980s war between Jagger and Richards, have been largely unsatisfactory affairs. On each one, from Steel Wheel’s in 1989 to the most recent A Bigger Bang, there are several extremely good tracks, but none of the albums come close to forming a coherent whole.

Add to that two outstanding standalone singles – Highwire from 1991 about the first Gulf War and Doom and Gloom in 2012 – and you have enough for a top quality double album drawn from the last 40 years of work.

But that is not the point. The Stones exist not as a studio band, but as an epic travelling medicine show and feelgood multi-billion dollar moneymaking machine that gives pleasure to many millions of fans. Their power lies in the increasingly fragile link they provide back to the culture wars, excitement and stupidity of the 1960s, and to a period between 1968 and 1972 when the band made its most vital music, mingling blues, rock’n’roll, country, soul, gospel and pop.

Measured against that peak, anything that followed was likely to disappoint. But Richards always took the sensible, pragmatic view that the old blues men he had begun by trying to copy had performed as long as they could stand up straight and strum a guitar or blow into a harmonica. From the mid-1970s he also formed a close musical partnership with the underrated Ronnie Wood, who had been in the Faces with Rod Stewart but was born to be a Stone.

Now Richards is out on his own, and his new solo album has been supported by a blizzard of media activity. There was a biographical film on Netflix and an appearance as a castaway on Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4.

Is the album that garnered such attention any good? I waited to review it, as I wanted to live with it for a while first. Many times down the years a “return to form” has been hailed prematurely and once the excitement fades it becomes clear that even if the new stuff is interesting in parts, there will never be another Exile on Main Street. That early 1970s masterpiece was a product of its time and circumstances, the culmination of years of hard work by the Stones perfecting their craft, while they pretended to be sloppy and disdainful of effort.

Crosseyed Heart is something else entirely. Not only are two thirds of the songs of serious quality, the enterprise is deeply moving and poignant. Richards explores themes that he first touched on many years ago in a hidden Stones gem called Slipping Away. Keith is coming to terms with mortality and doing so with his sense of humour intact.

Even the songs on this album that fail, or the songs with slapdash lyrics that needed editing by a young Jagger, are forgivable. The admirer of Keith Richards and all he has achieved in music surely permits him such lapses and gives thanks he was around in the first place and still is.

I’m trying not to think of this album as a swansong. It seemed like a miracle he was still alive when I first saw the Stones play live a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps Richards will continue to make a fool of his doctors and put in another decade or two. I hope so.

But he himself acknowledges, in the film of the album, that he nearly retired recently. On his East Coast US estate he has the love of his live (his wife), a library stuffed with books on war and music, endless good guitars, grown-up children visiting with grandchildren and happy memories. Why go out on the road and record? Because he wants to keep going as long as he can.

This determination has at times tested the patience and endurance of even his fans. The most recent Stones concert I saw I had intended to avoid. They had had enough of my money down the years, I told myself, and I had seen them many, many times. But I live relatively near the venue, which is close to where the Stones played their first concerts in Richmond in London.

There it was that a friend of mine’s father was encouraged to go see the young Stones in the back room of the Station Hotel in 1963 because they had “a singer who struts around like a f***ing chicken.”

Fast forward almost fifty years, and when the night of the concert came I walked to the stadium on the spur of the moment and found a ticket just as the first song got underway.

They were sloppy that night, in my view. The sound bounced around the stadium roof. The guitar parts didn’t gel. At one point I thought about leaving early. And then Richards took a solo spot, singing his customary song or two when Jagger goes off for a rest after the exhausting business of still “strutting around like a f***ing chicken”. Keith stood alone, without a guitar and had a conversation with the audience, reminding us that it had all started just down the road in Richmond. Wow, it was good to still be here, he said.

Then he was handed his Fender Telecaster, Charlie Watts kicked in, Ronnie Wood played beautifully and Richards sang that song Slipping Away with a feeling and grace that eclipsed a thousand songs sung by singers with perfect voices.

I thought that night as he sang the melancholy refrain, and my eyes pricked with tears: Oh no, Keith Richards is slipping away. But I was wrong. He will slip away. But not just yet.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX