Keith Richards ambled to the stage last night at the New York Public Library, hand in one jacket pocket, his now-gray locks free of 80s voodoo tchotchkes and lost holiday ornaments, a kind of hipster Beaux-Arts Bing Crosby in the appropriately similar Celeste Bartos room. There were no Telecasters to be found, just two large arm chairs and a few hundred guests and ticket-buyers, assembled to listen to a capella riffs on Life, the instant karmic classic from the Glimmer Twin sergeant major of open G rock classicism.
The genial almost grandfatherly presence that Richards inhabited during the 90-minute interview with a gentle, nearly apologetic Anthony DeCurtis was tinged with a surprising element that you don't normally associate with the pulsing, surging, synthetic Stones: wisdom. Life (which I received in signed glory last night and will read eagerly) is promoted as the back-stage memories of one of rock's true wild men, the against-the-odds survivor of the syringe and myriad hotel hi-jinks. Yet what Richards talked about last night comprised more lessons and guidance; the creator of Satisfaction morphed into beloved secular shaman, the dye-job on his ragged hair forsaken for a suburban vicar's authenticity. And there in the front pews like minor royalty at the feet of the liege were some of the bold-faced faithful: Steve van Zandt, Lou Reed, Jimmy Fallon, Lorne Michaels rubbing elbows with Library patrons who support its mission of knowledge and community wisdom.
Drugs, relations with women, conflict with life partner Mick Jagger, mortality itself (an end-state associated with the wild Keef since his mid-20s), the role of a band-as-family over a long period of time - these were the threads that might have led to tension and topical insight. (The only real news on the night was the Richards tip that the Stones may be back at it next year). Yet in this relaxed, seminar-like setting they did not. A part-time New Yorker and Connecticut gentry since the 70s, Richards bantered easily and with a shiny grin, pausing like the old hoofer he is for the laugh lines to take hold. And like his own guitar playing, he allowed white space to filter into the song, and he kept an ear out for the rhythm section along the way. As in many a Stones show, the best stuff from Keith came from a fill, a short riff, an unexpected upstroke.
When DeCurtis gently prodded him to talk about the women in his life, Richards parried easily - yet his answer was almost Confucian: "I found it very futile to write anything bad about women ... [pause - thumpa-thumpa] ... It just doesn't swing." Words to live by. A sea of nodding bald spots. The phrase "right on, man" was heard to be uttered by attending Boomers wearing faded Stones t-shirts over $200 jeans.
The biggest light of the evening came from a surprisingly sweet topic toward the end, when DeCurtis asked Richards about his own children. Clearly a direct hit, and one that brought an older man's spoken version of the opening riff from Happy (at least to this fan's ear): “Wife, family kids. Nothing can come between them.” Then his own question. “What is a family? It sticks together." Salt of the earth talk from the leather-clad former junkie new age Dumbledore of modern living. Yet it swung.
Yet it's the music we want to hear about, that sonic wellspring we want to read about. In her rave review of Life in The Times - "by turns earnest and wicked, sweet and sarcastic and unsparing" - Michiko Kakutani says that...
...the most insistent melodic line in this volume has nothing to do with drugs or celebrity or scandal. It has to do with the spongelike love of music Mr. Richards inherited from his grandfather and his own sense of musical history, his reverence for the blues and R&B masters he has studied his entire life (“the tablets of stone”), and his determination to pass his own knowledge on down the line.
Or rather, all down the line. Whether talking about the Beatles - "primarily a vocal group where either Paul or John or even George took the lead" - or about the insistence of Motown in all of 60s rock, Richards evinced an obsessive's knowledge of both form and history. Expected of course, but still thrilling in its way because you realize that on Friday night in the old building on 42nd Street, you're in the presence not just of rock star fame (it's New York, after all, happens every day) but of perhaps the greatest living "wizard of synthesis" of that moment in time when British rockers took American blues and R&B and churned it into a different, brilliant and lasting form.
And in that context, Richards was at his most generous to Jagger. "Ain't nobody else could sing Midnight Rambler," he said, remembering conscious efforts to write for "the best front man in the business."
Richards was charmingly comfortable with his fame, while acknowledging that it sometimes destroys other people. "I've sort of grown into it," he said seriously, pausing to chuckle a smoker's thick chuckle. "I'll be as famous as you like."
Vitally aware of his place in history, Richards was entirely approachable on the subject of that place - but insistent that he didn't know it back then, "not consciously," at least. He maintains that he and others served almost as channels for that musical synthesis.
"When working, making those albums [mid-60s to early 70s] it seemed very easy at the time," he said. "I'd guess you'd say we were on a roll. We were working a lot and, uh, songs were just popping out al over the place ... You do get swept along in the general tide of feelings. Obviously, something was happening and we were trying to put our finger on it ... In a way what can you do except to mirror or express what you're hearing around you?"
Then he added: "That's what a writer does."