Keith Richards and the Act of Cultural Recovery

by Michael Potemra

I think most people who are not in the more devout echelons of Rolling Stones fandom will agree that the new memoirs of Keith Richards are too long; but there will be substantial disagreement about what parts could profitably have been left out. In my own case, the details about sex, drugs, and booze could have been reduced by about 75 percent without appreciable loss in the reader’s enjoyment. What impressed me most is the sense the book conveys of a man who absolutely loves his work, in Richards’s case the task of creating music. It comes across in passages such as the following, inartfully written but all the more poignant for that:

I love “Satisfaction” dearly and everything, but those chords are pretty much a de rigueur course as far as songwriting goes. But [“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”] is particularly interesting. “It’s alllllll right now.” It’s almost Arabic or very old, archaic, classical, the chord setups you could only hear in Gregorian chants or something like that. And it’s that weird mixture of your actual rock and roll and at the same time this weird echo of very, very ancient music that you don’t even know. It’s much older than I am, and that’s unbelievable! It’s like a recall of something, and I don’t know where it came from.

(Cf., yet again, T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”) Richards is a true artist: a rebel, perhaps, in his social posture (as I mentioned above, the book goes into massive detail on that aspect of his life), but, much more important, a man deeply committed to cultural recovery in his chosen field. In the book’s earlier chapters he discusses his boyhood passion for the blues, a passion that would animate his career down to the present day. He summarizes the work of the Rolling Stones:

The most bizarre part of the whole story is that having done what we intended to do in our narrow, purist teenage brains at the time, which was to turn people on to the blues, what actually happened was we turned American people back on to their own music. And that’s probably our greatest contribution to music. . . . I wouldn’t say we were the only ones — without the Beatles probably nobody would have broken the door down. And they certainly weren’t bluesmen.


These are the words of a true music lover – someone so captivated by the joy of what he’s doing that he views it as “bizarre” that he could have been helping to set in motion anything as sober as a recovery of culture.

It’s a shame that in the minds of many casual observers, the Rolling Stones are unavoidably associated with the Riefenstahlian aesthetic of stadium concerts. Richards admits in the book that stadiums — generally designed for other purposes — are far from ideal as concert venues. The book’s criticisms of Mick Jagger have received much attention, so it’s appropriate that one of the most touching passages is a description of how “Mick’s artistry was on display in [the small club] venues” of the Stones’ early years – “perhaps more so” even than in the later years of great stardom: “With our equipment on stage, we’d sometimes have no more room than a table as a viable space to work. The band was two feet behind Mick, he was right in the middle. . . . Because Mick was playing a lot of harmonica, he was part of the band. I can’t think of any other singer at the time in England that played harp and was the lead singer. Because the harp was, still can be, a very important part of the [blues] sound.”

The reintroduction of this sound to a substantial U.S. audience is a major cultural achievement of the past half-century. The best analogy I can think of is the following: I love traditional Japanese music — e.g., the music you hear in kabuki and Noh drama; the sound of the koto and the shakuhachi. Go on the Internet and you will find many radio stations in Japan that stream music, but just about all of them play anime music, J-Pop, American-style music, or even American music tout court. Listen to these stations, and you would be forgiven for thinking that Japan had no musical tradition going back before, say, 1982. If some American, or Ghanaian, or Cambodian lads (and/or lasses) were to form a band that helped spark millions of Japanese into a renewed affection for their traditional music . . . that would be an achievement very much in the spirit of what Keith Richards and his mates accomplished.

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