The piece I wrote about Keith Richards’ autobiography–“Please Allow Me To Correct a Few Things”–got a lot of attention, which I’m happy about ’cause it took a lot of work! Slate said I could write a review (straight) at 1100 words, and they ended up with this, which was close to 5500 and written from an indefensible point of view.
Iâ€™m grateful they published it and appreciative of everyone who took the time to read it.
The genesis of it was the re-release of the 1972 concert movie, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, which, if you haven’t seen it, is one of the great lost documents of the era; I did a reported piece about it for the Wall Street Journal.Â
That ferocious documentary got me on a Stones kick for the first time in at least ten years. Then I noticed Richards’ autobiography would be coming out in a couple of months, and so started reading all my old Stones books.
I made an old friend from high school (weâ€™d seen the band together in 1978) come over and watch Rolling Stones movies with me for a weekend. (Thanks, Dirk!)
In the end, I watched Gimme Shelter, One Plus One, Cocksucker Blues, Hyde Park, Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, all the way up to the Forty Licks filmsâ€”along with virtually every bit of film footage of the Stones that existed, from the early 1960s TV appearances to the 1970s-era short films by Michael Lindsay-Hogg to the cheesalicious 1980s videos.
The publisher said the book was embargoed, and wouldn’t give me an advance copy. I spent my time reading STP, the Robert Greenfield 1972 tour chronicle; Old Gods Almost Dead, Stephen Davis’s fairly substantive but poorly sourced history; the essential Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, an unputdownable memoir by Richards’ infamous drug-runner, “Spanish Tony” Sanchez; Bill Wyman’s memoirs; all of Rolling Stone magazine’s original coverage of the band; and many other various things I had lying around–the band’s oral history, some funny artifacts from the 1960s (like David Dalton’s fabulous omnibus volume), second-tier bios of Jagger and Jones, etc. etc.
I also listened to a lot of Stones stuff with fresh ears. Most dutifully, I made an mp3 disc of post-Tattoo You studio work, which I listened to while driving around. This brought up painful memories of preparing to see the band on their latter-day tours. I am quite sure that, “Keith Songs,” aside, there is very little worthwhile on those albums.
Look at the dozens, the scores, of songs the bands has released on live albums and concert films in the last 20 years. “Start Me Up” aside, post-Some Girls material is rare, post-Undercover work virtually nonexistent.
Finally got the book the day it came out. (My review copy came in the mail a week later. Thanks, Hachette.) Read it and talked to Slate, who gave me the 1100-word assignment on the Friday. My mind just took a weird turn over the weekend. I sent a 4500-word version to my editor on Monday morning. I included a note of apology at the top and acknowledged it wasn’t the assignment. He could kill it if he wanted.
At some point during the first reading he replied, “This is crazy in a fascinating way.”
â€¦ and then said it was fine!
He asked the central question: How much of the piece was speculation, and how much was absolute fact?
If anyone cares, here’s the answer: I tried to have it all be fairly incontrovertible. There are quite a few other stories in the quote-unquote record, such as it is, about the Stones, much grimier than what I included. In the deathless memoir of Spanish Tony’s, there are a lot of disputed stories. One is Richards’ going to Switzerland to get his blood replaced. Richards says it didn’t happen, and someone I talked to who was there at the time said it didn’t either, so I left it out.
Sanchez also has a horrific story to the effect that, while living in Jamaica Richards started to mix it up with the local gendarmerie … and then split town, leaving Anita Pallenberg behind. Pallenberg, the story goes, was arrested and thrown in a fetid local jail for a week, with horrific results. Davis repeats it without supporting documentation and Richards denies it, and I left it out, too. Davis also says, incredibly, that Bill Wyman’s wife was assaulted in Jamaica as well–as Wyman cowered under the hotel room bed! There’s no source; I couldnâ€™t figure out where that story came from. He also says Richard’s third child, the one he sent off to live with his mother, was born with a cleft palate, another unsourced aside; Richards doesn’t mention this at all, and neither does Spanish Tony, who you’d think would.Â
I believe most of Sanchez’s book, though. Richards himself, who like most of his coterie holds Sanchez in contempt, nevertheless much later said, “Well, yeah, it’s all factually true â€¦”
These stories all would have added some more of the unpleasant reality I think was missing from Richards’ books, but I didn’t feel comfortable including them. Just for space reasons I left out a litany of the many friends of the band who died from drugs or drug-related causes, and the very talented people (Jimmy Miller, Gram Parsons, Stanley Booth) who spun wildly in the Stones’ centrifugal circle before being thrown out, generally with debilitating new habits suddenly much harder to maintain.
I also left out Jagger’s reflections on “Brown Sugar” and John Lennon.
All of the other stuff is pretty well established; the vast majority of it in Richards’ actual book–just told from his unreflective perspective.
Anyway, the editor said he could use the piece, and I repaid his indulgence by adding another 800 words.
Bill Wyman, the band’s bassist, seems to be an interesting guy; you have to remember, though, that he was seven years older than Jagger and Richards, had a wife and kids, and had served in the RAF. He wasn’t part of that fetid demimonde than spawned the Rolling Stones.
His massive memoir, Stone Alone, is an exhausting retelling of just the band’s first six or seven years, unfolding with perhaps a bit too much attention to financial and sexual details, right down the pounds and pence he was paid for each early show.
But he’s very frank about Stones macro-money matters as well, including stuff that seems banal from the outside but might really matter from the inside, particularly if, as I tried to convey in the article, you really weren’t making money commensurate with your fame.
For example, when the band settled with Allen Klein, they split the settlement two ways. Half went to Jagger and Richards (the songwriters), half divided amongst the full band, minus expenses. Wyman and Charlie Watts had to point out that they were paying 20 percent of the legal bills but only receiving ten percent of the settlement.
Â I love stuff like that. They eventually got a bigger share.
Â Similarly, it was Wyman and Watts who, 15 years after Ron Wood joined the band, raised a ruckus with Jagger and got Wood a full share of concert proceeds. If that’s true, since then Wood may have taken in a quarter share of some $1.5 billion in gross tour receipts alone, so it probably was worth the wait.)
(Wyman left after the 1994 tour, leaving four core members again.)
Â Wyman, of course, also sent me a cease and desist letter about ten years ago. It was largely silly, but for some reason it briefly became literally an international news story. I spent two weeks doing “Morning Zoo” radio shows across the country and being interviewed on radio stations over most of western Europe and Australia, which I did just because I thought he was being, even by his standards, excessively anal.
Â You can read my account of that here.
Since I was a rock critic for a long time, the entirely uninteresting fact that I shared the same name as a rock performer was never mentioned inside the music industry; Stones publicists had been giving me press tickets and even backstage passes without comment for twenty years.
The only other time our lives intersected was some time in the early 1990s when I started getting checks in the mail â€“ checks for odd amounts: $32.81 and the like.
It’s obvious in this context what was going on, but at the time it was a mystery. The checks, which had my social security number on them, were written from the account of a company with a generic name that was awful hard to find. This was in pre-internets days. The company didn’t have a listed phone number, for example, in any of the cities I tried.
I finally found it and talked to its proprietor. It turned out he paid out residuals for Dick Clark Productions. I was a member of AFTRA at the time; that’s how the wires got crossed.
The Rolling Stones had been on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert back in the day and VH1 was rerunning the episode. Wyman made 30 bucks each time it did. The guy spent most of his time tracking down American Bandstand dancers.
For an example of how times have changed, I remember a story Paul Williams, the great early rock critic, told me. He was at Warners in LA back in the day and bumped into Richard Perry, a pop superproducer of the era.
Perry told Williams he’d just auditioned a new group, one of whose members he was going to sign. The singer’s name was Paul Williams, too. “But donâ€™t worry,” Perry said. “We’ll make him change it so there won’t be any confusion with you.”
“Don’t bother,” Williams said.
There’s been some confusion about the piece, besides people thinking it was real. Some say it was parody, some satire.
Â It’s neither.
It’s just a book review, done to make a central point: That the solipsism of Richards’ book becomes, if you stop to think about it at all, slightly disconcerting. Step away for just a bit and look at it from a new perspective, say from that of a close associate, and it becomes almost monstrous.
Which brings me to the second point, if I can get on a high horse for a moment: It’s also a piece of press criticism. It’s remarkable how many people just take celeb bios on their own terms. Particularly considering Richards’ big selling point is his alleged no-holds-barred honesty, there’s a lot of obvious questions raised in Life that aren’t answered. It’s odd to me virtually all the other reviewers didn’t notice them.
Beyond that, leaving aside the various horrors Richards didn’t talk about, you can also turn the question around.
Here’s what’s being presented. In that context, it’s fun to think, Well, what are they thinking about? Virtually everything we read about them, remember, they’ve decided they want us to think about. That’s how modern pop-culture marketing works.
That’s what I like about the Allen Klein story. This is perhaps the greatest artistic theft of the 20th century. It makes me sick to my stomach to think about. I think it would still be in their minds.
Desperate for sophisticated management at the height of their ’60s fame, the Stones thought in Klein they had a ruthless guy who could do battle with the record companies. He presented the band with papers to sign that appeared to consolidate their affairs into their existing company.
Actually, he had incorporated a new company in the U.S … and named it after the Stones’ outfit. That’s how they lost their music.
There’s very little extant coverage of the court battle, some years later, during which the band ultimately severed its relations with him; you’d think that the Stones would have had a case against such blatant theft. But I assume that Klein knew what he was doing legally–and in the end, what could the band say but that they hadn’t read the documents they signed carefully enough?
According to Wyman’s book, the band figured Klein owned them $17 million in royalties, a pretty large sum in the early 1970s, but settled for $2 million, and did not get back control of their songs.
This created a tangled ownership structure that must have been humiliating; for example, a planned live album from the 1972 U.S. tour never came out after they got into permissions issues with Klein and Decca, their original British label.
I think the Stones don’t talk about it that much because it’s embarrassing to have been taken by such a crude trick. Then again, they aren’t the only major stars from the 1960s to have come out of the decade essentially broke.
I liked writing about the money, a point at where Jagger’s interests presumably dovetail with mine. Rolling Stone magazine, particularly, has a tic of presenting Stones tours as if they are big financial gambles, playing up how expensive the stage is and so forth. Leaving aside the quaint idea that it’s the Stones who are risking money, as opposed to the promoter of the tour, in crude terms the Stones cover their stage expenses their first week on the road. The amount of money the band generates on tourâ€“as I say in the piece, sometimes $6 or $7 million a night from ticket sales alone–beggars belief.
Anyway, I didn’t expect there to be any real confusion about whether the thing was real–just on the ground of utter preposterousness.
But the Twitter feed was instructive; when things go viral, you can’t expect that everyone knows what Slate is or appreciate puckishness when it is presented to them.
At the same time, while I don’t believe in deliberately fooling people, the internets are quite corrective in these issues. Look at the comments thread in the story, or the Twitter feed; When someone thinks it’s real, they are quickly corrected.
Still, I have been surprised by those who I thought would have known better who didn’t get that the alleged manuscript was fake. So I didn’t mind that Slate tweaked the subhead to, “Imagine if Mick Jagger responded to Keith Richards about his new autobiography.”
A TV station in Philadelphiaâ€”Fox, natchâ€”wrote a story about it as if it were real. The site took it down, and didn’t say why.
Google cached version here.
I also got a funny call from a big paper in New York. The guy started asking me about how Mick Jagger had sent me the piece. I interrupted to say that I’d written it.
What followed was one of those movie cliches — he kept asking me follow-up questions, until what I’d said registered.
“Wait — Mick Jagger didn’t write that?”
I said yes, he was correct. This is an exact transcript of what he said next:
“Oh, no–it’s on our story list. I can’t — I have to go. I have egg on my face!”
And he hung up the phone.
A lot of readers like the swipes at Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone. It’s pretty amusing to see the Spanish edition of the magazine buy the thing hook, line and sinker.
Finally, there are a lot of perceptive comments on the Slate comments section, which is here.
Again, many thanks to all who read, tweeted, commented on or wrote me about the piece.