Low Concept

Please Allow Me To Correct a Few Things

Imagine if Mick Jagger responded to Keith Richards about his new autobiography.

Editor’s note: On a recent morning, the journalist Bill Wyman received a UPS package containing a typed manuscript. On reading it, he saw that it seemed to be the thoughts, at some length, of singer Mick Jagger on the recently published autobiography of his longtime songwriting partner in the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards. A handwritten note on an old piece of Munro Sounds stationery read: “Bill: For the vault. M.”

From this, Wyman surmised that the package was intended for Jagger and Richards’ former bandmate, the bassist Bill Wyman, who has assiduously overseen the band’s archives over the past five decades and with whom Wyman the journalist coincidentally shares the same name. Wyman the journalist, a longtime rock critic, was once threatened with a cease-and-desist letter from Wyman the bassist’s Park Avenue attorneys and felt no compunction about perusing the contents of the package. The manuscript he received is reprinted below.

I am, I see here, marginally endowed, if I read Keith’s sniggering aright. I do not sing well, either. I am not polite to employees; indeed, I have even been known to say, “Oh, shut up, Keith,” in band meetings. I do not appreciate the authenticity of the music or the importance of what we do. I want to “lord it over” the band, like James Brown. I am “insufferable.” I slept with Anita.

Most of that is in just the first quarter of this overlong book, but a tattoo of my failings sounds all through it and culminates in almost 20 full pages of rambling invective near the end.

I don’t mind this, really, for reasons I hope are understandable and will get into later. This is all from a guy pushing 70 for whom gays are still “poofters” and women “bitches.” I think so many things about Keith. We were close, the two of us, for many years. We had known each other in grade school, if you can believe it, in the same undistinguished eastern suburb. Then we bumped into each other in a train station at 18 or so and started talking about the blues. We were different; I’d already been on TV with my father, who was a fairly notable expert on physical education at the time. Keith was … rougher, let’s say. For the next nearly 10 years, we were rarely apart. Even after we were famous, we lived at each others’ flats or houses. We were still very young, and, like puppies, we’d cluster together.

We were barely a band before our lives changed, but I think still of the time we spent, squalidly, before we were a group, in a very cold and small flat, more filthy than you can imagine. Our flatmate Jimmy Phelge was a veritable comic virtuoso with a pair of soiled underwear. Certainly we—I—wanted to be famous, but can I point out our road to it was not absurd, exactly, but unthinkable, in the sense that we couldn’t even imagine a way to do it? The London music scene was entirely insignificant, and we didn’t even play the trad jazz (Charlie’s métier), which dominated.

Still, we practiced day and night out of some unspoken impetus, innocent suburban boys abruptly living quite near the edge of a dark milieu. This brings me to Brian, who played guitar very well and was a brittle devil. We knew that because of many things, not least that he spent an inappropriate amount of time beating up his girls in the next room. I’m not proud of that. Keith gives himself (too much, I think) credit for rescuing Anita, eventually, from Brian; but that of course was years later. Earlier, we both listened to or watched his cruelty, in the bedroom and elsewhere; we paid no attention to the half-dozen kids he’d fathered and ignored the savagery he accomplished on tour. We didn’t know better; we were priapic jackals ourselves, fucking even one another’s girlfriends if they got left, as it were, unattended. But it was wrong to have let Brian do that, and Keith should have owned up to this in the book.

I supposed it is a karmic justice for Brian that we continued to watch as he descended from there to hell, harried by the police and increasingly incapacitated artistically, which further estranged him from us. Oh, that’s not true; we didn’t just watch. We ushered him along, ridiculing him, you might say, to death as he began to lose his ability to contribute. Again, we were young. What were you doing at 25? We didn’t know about depression, insanity, addiction, or what acid might have done to him. It’s unclear to me whether the drugs diminished his ability to contribute or whether the drugs were in effect a way to cover up something that wasn’t there. The first song Keith and I wrote was a hit single; Brian couldn’t write a song to save his life, literally. And let’s remember that he was a total asshole.

I’m digressing but I’m trying to explain where we came from. We didn’t have a template. Nothing against Steven Tyler, but there’s a difference. We felt around in the dark; we were famous within weeks; and, in the end, we left a body or two behind us. We did these things, good and bad, together; we were friends.

The second important thing is Keith’s talent. We took it for granted, in a way, as he says. We felt it was our duty to get together and write a song, one good song each day we worked. He is kind to say I could take what he gave me and run with it. But he is the one who gave me the actual song to write the lyrics to. He wrote a dozen Top 10 hits in five years, and, after the band added Mick Taylor and essentially grew up, he wrote most of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. Again: What were you doing at 25? It’s interesting to me how no previous song we’d recorded would have a respectable place on those albums; and any song on them would have seem out of place even on Aftermath or Between the Buttons. Keith’s lurch forward was amazing. As a pure rock (not folk or pop) songwriter, I think he is not just without peer. I think he is unrivaled in depth and growth, from “As Tears Go By” to “Satisfaction” to “Jumping Jack Flash” to, I don’t know, “Gimme Shelter. ” “Monkey Man.” “Street Fighting Man.” The primal feel of the chording. The musicality of the intros and breaks. The innovation of the recording—cruder, no doubt, but I will argue far more emotionally powerful than the Beatles’. The winding, intermixed guitars he almost desperately loved. Without him, what would I have been? Peter Noone? It is hard to use a word like integrity about a band as compromised, as self-bloodied, as we were. But for some years, unlike any other group, the Beatles included, we declared war on that silly, hypocritical, repressive, and arbitrary society in which we lived. The only ammunition we had were Keith’s songs. The lyrics, I confess now, may have been in their defiance just épater la bourgeoisie and in their poesy derivatively Zimmerman-esque. Even when they weren’t, no one would have paid attention if the chords weren’t arresting, irrefutable. The songs spoke primarily through their music, not their words. Keith’s doting fans nattering on about the ultimate avatar of rock ’n’ roll authenticity irritate me, it’s true; but he may to this day be underappreciated.

So those two things I think, are important. Our bond; his talent. We blink at that point, and go 40 years forward, and he has written a book that says, essentially, that I have a small dick. That I am a bad friend. That I am unknowable.

The reviewers, who idolize Keith, don’t ask why this is all in here. We have rarely spoken of such things publicly, and tangentially even then. We don’t talk about it in private, either, and, no, he hasn’t been in my dressing room in 20 years. I thought we both learned that there is no point in sharing anything at all with the press, save a few tidbits for the upbeat The Stones are back in top rocking form! article that accompanies each of our tours. I think Keith never appreciated the tedious hours I had to spend with Jann Wenner to accomplish that.

But I know why it is all here.

In the book we get the stories.

Oh, the stories. The rock, the girls. The car wrecks, the arrests. You read them on the printed page, delivered in what, I must admit, is a pretty fair written representation of Keith’s slightly tangential, drawling, effeminate delivery, resting charmingly just this side of the incomprehensible.

I was generally made familiar with the stories in a different context. They were generally related by an assistant or a lawyer, tour manager or a publicist, poking their head into a room. Keith’s disappeared. Keith’s asleep backstage and can’t be roused for the show. No one will wake him because he keeps a loaded gun under his pillow and grabs it and points when riled. Keith fell asleep in the studio again. No, Keith isn’t mixing the album. He flew off to Jamaica, and, no, we don’t know when he will be back. Keith’s asleep. Keith’s asleep. Keith’s asleep.

The scamp. Those are but one tier, and a fairly innocuous one, of the many times I was vouchsafed news of my partner. The next tier is more colorful. Keith (or his favorite sax player/drug runner/drug buddy/hanger-on) has slugged a photographer/destroyed a hotel room/gotten into a fistfight with the locals/fallen into a coma. Oh, yes, and the police are here. (Because police are whom you want backstage at a rock concert or at a recording studio.)

Or: The bandmate Keith personally vouched for is freebasing again. This last was of some interest to me, because it meant that I got to sing at a stadium backed by not one but two guitarists falling over onstage. Keith likes to talk a lot about his getting clean from heroin. It is not correspondingly apprehended that he replaced the heroin comprehensively with liquor. Given a choice I select the slurring alcoholic over the comatose junkie as a lifelong professional partner, and I say this with some knowledge of the two alternatives. But neither is strictly desirable.

And, yes, they do fall over onstage. (Or asleep on a chair in the studio.) I laugh at it now and blame no one but myself. Why, Keith gave me his “personal guarantee” Woody would not be freebasing on tour.

And yet I was surprised when it happened. I take the point that professionalism, one’s word, rock ’n’ roll merriment … these are fungible things in our world. It is a fair charge that I have become less tolerant in these matters over the decades. In our organization, inside this rather unusual floating circus we call home, I am forced into the role of martinet, the one who gets blamed for silly arbitrary rules. (Like, for a show in front of 60,000 people for which we are being paid some $6 or $7 million for a few hours’ work, I like to suggest to everyone that we start on time, and that we each have in place a personal plan, in whatever way suits us best, to stay conscious for the duration of the show.)

So I will take that point. All of the forgoing was just … a little outré behavior on tour. Let’s go to the next tier—again, of matters one is informed of with some regularity, this not over months, not years, but entire decades. Keith’s been arrested with a mason jar full of heroin and a shopping bag full of other drugs and drug paraphernalia and is charged with drug trafficking. That was his baggage for a weekend in Toronto. It is hard to play a show with a catatonic guitarist, harder still when he is in jail for 10 years. I won’t even get into the fact that this came right when I had every record label in the world fighting to sign us, and in an instant my negotiating power was vaporized. Here’s a baroque bulletin from the archives: Anita’s 17-year-old boyfriend has accidentally shot himself, in Keith’s house—Keith’s bedroom—with a gun Keith left lying around. Young Marlon, then perhaps 10, saw Anita, covered in blood, coming down the stairs distraught, and God knows it could have been Marlon playing with the gun. Or: Keith’s driven his car off the road (again) with Marlon inside (again). In his book Keith stands back, amazed at the things that just … happen to him. He is frequently the victim of faulty wiring in the hotels in which we bivouac; a surprising number of times this phenomenon has caused fires. Ritz-Carltons are not built the way they use to be, I guess. Redlands burned down a couple of times as well, as did a house he was renting in Laurel Canyon. It’s a wonder Marlon survived his childhood. A third child Keith disposed of by sending her off to his mum back in Dartford I to raise. The second? That was another son, who was left with his paranoid, unstable, heroin-addict mother and didn’t make it past infancy. Keith says he blames himself, and on that at least I think we can agree.

It is said of me that I act above the rest of the band and prefer the company of society swells. Would you rather have had a conversation with Warren Beatty, Andy Warhol, and Ahmet Ertegun … or Keith, his drug mule Tony, and the other surly nonverbal members of his merry junkie entourage? Keith actually seems not to understand why I would want my dressing room as far away as possible from that of someone who travels with a loaded gun. And for heaven’s sake. No sooner did Keith kick heroin than Charlie took it up. In the book Keith blames me for not touring during the 1980s. I was quoted, unfortunately, saying words to the effect of “the Rolling Stones are a millstone around my neck.” This hurt Keith’s feelings. He thinks it was a canard flung from a fleeting position of advantage in my solo career, the failing of which he delights in. He’s not appreciating the cause and effect. Can you imagine going on tour with an alcoholic, a junkie, and a crackhead? Millstone wasn’t even the word. I spent much of the 1980s looking for a new career, and it didn’t work. If I had it to do over again I would only try harder.

When I came back I resolved to do at least something well. Which brings us to money. We did not entirely mismanage our career in the 1960s, save for the calamity of signing with Allen Klein, who, with fatal strokes of our pens, obtained the rights and total control of our work throughout the 1960s. It was my responsibility. Keith downplays this, but the fact is we signed the thief’s papers. It was all done legally. Klein was a Moriarity, truly; he didn’t wait to sign us to steal. The signing was the theft, a product of a scheme so encompassing that in the end, he paid us a pittance and walked off with our songs. This is by far the single most important nonmusical event in our history, and yet it is rarely remarked on. I was not 30 and had lost us a historic treasure.

In the 1970s, we worked very hard, and with Some Girls we eventually sold a lot of records, but in reality you couldn’t make much money back then, even touring. In the early 1970s we might play for a period of, say, two months, 10,000- and 20,000-seat halls at $6 or $10 a ticket. Back then, we were lucky to take half the gross home. You do the math. Then take out expenses and manager and lawyer fees … and split the remainder five ways. Nor did we live frugally. It got better over the decade, and Keith and I had the songwriting, of course, but compare us with Paul or Elton during the 1970s (who outsold us by many times, for starters, and among other things did not split their income with anyone) and our fame was entirely inconsistent with our back accounts.

In 1981, I put us in stadiums and charged a more reasonable tariff and might have made us more money that summer than we’d earned in our entire career up to that point. And I’ve done it several times since—each time, I mean, to be precise, literally earning close to as much as we had the previous 30 or 40 years in total, including those previous tours. The Bigger Bang outing grossed more than $588 million—more than a million dollars a day for 18 months—and we pocketed the lion’s share of it. If the promoters didn’t like it they could raise price of the nachos, or the parking. And I’m not even mentioning the sponsorships, the ticket fees, the merchandise …

I sound, now, like the accountant who earns my bandmates’ jeers. But I don’t remember Keith complaining about these sums, or, incidentally, that it took me 20 years to remember to give Ronnie a full share, just as we both pretended not to hear when Mick Taylor, or Ronnie, asked for credit for songs they’d written.

Does Keith really sigh for the good old days on tour? Shabby theaters, shitty sound? Wound-up kids standing for hours in the hot summer sun in dreadful mid-American cities waiting for a chance to race recklessly for general-admission seats? Us enduring a day of hassle and travel to take home perhaps $3,500 each? I remember Keith asleep or not showing up until hours after the scheduled start time. Our feral fans running, fighting, throwing rocks at police. Today, the shows start promptly, there are video screens for the folks in the back, and we offer $1,000-a-seat ducats for the fat cats.

Here’s the thing: I’m a rock star. What is the measure of my success if not the biggest rock and roll tour of all time?

I know what you’re thinking. It’s what Keith thinks, too. 

What about the music. Isn’t it all, in the end, about the music?

I must note that the Stones rarely get a bad review, no matter how poor our albums. (Jann again, and so many wannabe Janns; how is it that we somehow manage, again and again, to record our “best album since Some Girls“?)

But let me ask you to imagine yourself, as I was, unimaginably, partnered with the writer of “Satisfaction,” “Paint It Black,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” etc. And then imagine that your partner, seemingly overnight, lost some essential part of his talents.

Not, as is commonly supposed, sometime perhaps in the 1980s, when the Rolling Stones’ decline in creativity was on obvious display, but earlier. A lot earlier. Like, say, 1972 at the latest.

Those who like Exile on Main St. like its denseness, its mystery, its swampy commitment. Accidentally and amid no little chaos, we conjured up something dirty, impenetrable, and, in parts, compelling. But I think its murk promises depths that aren’t there. There are decent but no major songs on Exile. Let’s go back an album, to Sticky Fingers. I wrote “Brown Sugar.” Mick Taylor wrote “Sway” and most of “Moonlight Mile,” and made “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” his own. Keith and I together did most of the rest, like “Wild Horses,” but, in the end, he didn’t write most of the thing’s best songs.

From there, there’s Exile. Some nice tracks— “Rocks Off,” “Happy”—but there is no “Gimme Shelter” or “Let It Bleed.” Chords that once threatened society in some significant now way rarely radiated outward.

The next few years were difficult. I don’t want to say Keith wrote no songs. He did. But successively, in each album, the process became more difficult, as both his capacity for the job declined along with the quality of what he did write. He mocks the disco songs—”Hot Stuff,” “Miss You,” “Emotional Rescue.” But what would the commercial impact of those albums have been without those immediate hits? We were being outsold by everyone from Supertramp to the Doobie Brothers as it was. At the same time I had to come up with tracks and weasel promising material out of our cohort and not give up songwriting credit, which I accomplished in all but one or two cases.

The resulting albums are, with perhaps the exception of Some Girls, flaccid and unconvincing. The aforementioned disco hits. A little lyrical naughtiness (“Starfucker,” “Some Girls”). The earnest ballad in which the incorrigible Stones display some unexpected touches of maturity (“Memory Motel,” “Waiting on a Friend”). Lots and lots of undistinguished filler, clavinet playing by Billy Preston, Motown covers …  And for some of the good stuff Keith wasn’t even there. For It’s Only Rock and Roll I did the title single with Woody and Bowie. Taylor and I constructed the splendid “Time Waits for No One,” a fantasia, alluring to this day, for percussion, piano, and guitar. (I don’t think Keith has ever let us play it live.) (“Sway,” either.)

I will testify that Keith was intermittently sentient during some part of the recording of Some Girls. Yes we were fully Manhattanized at this point, because I live here and that’s what I found interesting. The geographic location of Keith’s talent, being nowhere, wasn’t available for evocation.

By the time of Tattoo You I was exhausted. Entirely drained of ideas. I told Chris Kimsey to ransack the archives. “Start Me Up” was a very old song, with some 20, 30, 40 takes as a reggae … and one with a real rock guitar. It turned out to be our last real hit, and the arc of our career would look a lot different if we hadn’t found it. With it, we could plausibly least claim to be hitmakers in the 1980s. “Waiting on a Friend,” that symbol of our new-found maturity, was, if memory serves, from a centuries-old session with me and Mick Taylor. About our work from the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, the less said the better. Can you sing a single chorus from Dirty Work? Name a single track? We certainly don’t play songs from those records in concert if we can help it.

I go into such detail to describe the arc of our decline accurately but also note this sad corollary: Keith brought something out of me, way back when. Through Exile, I felt I had to rise to his songs. When he checked out creatively, I lost something important. While there is some spark, I guess, in “Some Girls” or “Shattered” or whatever, however contrived, I know most of the other songs sucked. In the 1980s and ‘90s it got worse. I could conjure up only the most banal cliché or the most pretentious polysyllabic nonsense. Compare “Sympathy for the Devil” with “Heartbreaker.” One Godard made a film about. The other is a TV movie. I literally wrote a song called “She’s So Cold” and then, a few years later, one called “She Was Hot.”

Now, Keith went through the same thing. I think this is why Keith lost himself with heroin and now drinks: to stave off the pressure to match himself and dull the knowledge that he can’t any more (and, back then, couldn’t). It’s trite, maybe, but there’s a reason a guy spends a decade in a haze, and the three decades since in a stupor. Keith’s rancor is almost entirely based on the fact that it was not, in the end, easy to keep the appearances of what in the public mind is the Rolling Stones, and the process wasn’t always pretty. But I did it, and, among other things, to this day it is hardly in the public mind that Keith Richards hasn’t written a significant rock ’n’ roll song in nearly 35 years.

For that I get Keith’s book.

Why did he write it? Or, rather, having decided to write it all down, why did he devote so much of it to carping about me?

Well, he’s not talking about me, really. He’s just trying to get my attention, I think, in the end. The remaining part of the rancor comes from the fact that he knows he lost me, many years ago. It’s funny—Keith doesn’t write good rock songs much any more, but what he does do, every four or five years, is craft a beautiful little ballad. Since Tattoo You Keith’s written and sung a couple of tracks per album. (We had a huge fight about his putting three on Bridges to Babylon; I didn’t like it, but didn’t have anything else to offer, even with three years since the previous album. Why one of the songs I did write is now co-credited to k.d. lang is a matter to be discussed on some other day.) Generally, one of these is a throwaway, and the other … is something gorgeous. Put them all together along with songs he wrote solo and sang from the early years—”You Got the Silver,” “Happy,” and so forth, all the way up to “Thru & Thru” and “All About You”—and you have a CD of no little power and emotion. (I’ve done it.)

These songs are more honest than his book. In “The Worst,” he says something about “I’m the worst kind of guy/ For you to be around.” That’s a song that might ring true for many people. It makes me think about how Keith lost me only after I lost him. In an older song, he explains a worldview I find a bit disturbing, and I would like to point out that since from most peoples’ perspective I have flirted the edge of total decadence my entire life I can make that observation with some authority:

Slipped my tongue in someone else’s pie
Tasted better every time
She turned green and tried to make me cry
Being hungry
Ain’t no crime

Again, the honesty is bracing. I think Keith puts just about any of his manifold urges on a par with hunger, and I think we can agree the world would be a dangerous place if that was the norm. It explains many, many of his actions over the years. In the book he tells the story of going to meet Patti Hansen’s parents for the first time—drunk, holding an open bottle of Jack, and with one of his fucktard friends in tow. You can imagine how the evening ended. I’m sure Keith thinks it’s OK. (“Being nervous ain’t no crime.”) (“Oh, shut up, Keith,” I think.) With that perspective—and the added benefit of being rich and famous and having most of his deplorable actions do nothing but burnish his image—Keith’s way in the world has been, in a certain way and ignoring, for the moment, the people who died, a blessed one.

I certainly bless it. I stood by him and propped him up and didn’t fire his ass for many, many years. It would have ended the Stones, of course, so maybe I was being selfish. In a way, even comatose he had a marquee name; as my meal ticket, you might say, it suited me to let him doze. I took the reins until, when he finally woke up, he found that he had no place in the management. He’s angry about that, too. Yes, let’s let Keith Richards have a hand in overseeing an operation that generates $1 million a day in revenue. I don’t know what else I could have done. Later, one grows older and becomes more informed about such things, and I saw I was supposed to have held an elaborate ceremony called an “intervention.” Society could have effectively halted the upheavals of the 1960s simply by requiring all of us to “intervene” with one another. In any event, considering half our circle was on heroin and the rest were coke fiends, I think it wouldn’t have been efficacious in our circumstances.

He talks about me, too, in his solo songs, less subtly: “I’m so sick and tired/ Of hanging around/ Jerks like you.” People ask me why I let him put these on the album. I think: Oh, why not? It’s a great song, and he can sing it, and he can write the book, too. He’s trying to get my attention. To connect. To have it be how it once was. At our age, I think there’s no basis for it. Keith celebrates his own unchanging character, and I have had quite enough of that.

But, still, when I think of Keith, I think sometimes of how someone different from the book comes out through these songs. Once in a great while he detaches and looks down at his corporeal self. “I think I lost my touch,” he sings on one of them; “It’s just another song and it’s slippin’ away.” Rock and roll is strange. When a song is beautiful—those spare guitars rumbling and chiming, by turns—the words mean so much more, and there, for a moment, I believe him, and feel for him.

Or I think about “How Can I Stop” which may end up being Keith’s last great song.

“How can I stop … once I start?” he murmurs, over and over again. “How can I stop once I start?”

It’s about rock ’n’ roll, of course, and playing guitar, and his tenure, and mine, in our unusual coalition. It’s also about heroin and everything else he can’t stop ingesting. But again it’s about Keith himself, who once started never did stop—through the fame, the songs, the concerts and the women and the drugs; and the violence and senselessness, the addictions and the deaths, the ruined lives, the petty and large-scale cruelties. At the end Keith got Wayne Shorter to do a sax solo that is itself almost an out-of-body experience, perhaps the loveliest moment on one of our records. It goes on and on over the last two minutes of a very long track, and the end is almost a … an exaltation, perhaps? I am lost there. It’s something I’m not sure I ever saw evidenced in real life, and something that isn’t in his book. It’s the sound—or at least the closest thing Keith Richards will ever admit to it—of a conscience. Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us  on Twitter.