To write about music is a difficult thing,” says Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, 72, calling in from his Connecticut home. “It’s like writing about painting: ‘Well, I took the brush, then I mixed up a little green and blue.’ To actually put another art form into words is difficult.”
Jonathan Lethem knows all about it. Music has been a constant theme for the award-winning novelist: life in a garage band in You Don’t Know Me Yet; the power of punk and soul in The Fortress of Solitude; Talking Heads Fear of Music for the 33 1/3 series; how the Stones song “Shattered” holds the secret code of the universe in Chronic City. Phoning from Maine, the 52-year-old Lethem — whose latest novel, The Gambler’s Anatomy (Doubleday), is out in October — talked music and writing with Richards, who helped launch the current rock-memoir mania with 2010’s best-selling Life.
Jonathan Lethem: I’m envious. You wrote a good book — a great book — your first time out. It has a terrific conversational style.
Keith Richards: The book was a collaboration with James Fox, an old friend of mine, and a lot of it was just us talking. He would bring up subjects that might stir the memory. He knew that if he got me going on one subject, something that I’d forgotten about would suddenly return. You know, one trigger hits another. And it took two or three years. We didn’t rush this thing.
Lethem: It’s an underrated trick for a writer: getting other people to help trigger your memories. For The Fortress of Solitude, I relied on conversations with my brother and other kids who had all gone through the same scene, growing up a street kid and a public-school kid in New York in the ’70s. Because there’s no way I was going to remember everything.
Richards: Exactly, and it’s a matter of homing in. Although I must say, by the time the book was finished, I felt like I had lived the whole damn life twice. And once was enough! It was a lot more draining than I thought, dredging up all that flotsam and jetsam.
Lethem: With that process, did you get edited heavily? Was there a lot of push and pull?
Richards: Oh yes, the famous blue pencil! A lot of it was legal, but some of it was just that I didn’t want to offend somebody, or annoy anybody personally, if it didn’t matter to the story. We actually blue-penciled a lot about the London police force at the time. I was hoping there might have been a statute of limitations, but we couldn’t take the chance. That would be a very interesting book.
Lethem: People tend to group your book with Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Vol. 1. Did you read those?
Richards: I loved Bob’s book, but Patti’s I haven’t read. She’s a great writer, though; a poet at heart. As far as those types of books, I loved Andrew Oldham’s Stoned and, of course, Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues. But when you think of rock’n’roll memoirs, how great can they be? Half the guys are out of it most of the time, and they can’t write anyway.
Lethem: Have you ever read a novel that got the rock’n’roll world right?
Richards: The short, sweet answer is no. People that write those rock’n’roll novels, they haven’t actually been onstage and done it. They may have been, like, second roadie for a while and got to hang around, but they always seem peripheral.
Lethem: Well, fame itself is a terribly difficult subject in fiction. For a book or a film to make up a famous character and have you believe that their art is real, or their experience is real, is almost impossible. I was really touched by the section in your book where you’re trying to transition from playing little clubs to the great leap, where a switch is flipped and the girls are screaming and suddenly you’re not a band anymore, you’re something else — a phenomenon.
Richards: The thing that you realized is that, suddenly, you might as well be The Beatles — a show wouldn’t last for longer than 10 minutes before it was broken up, either by the cops or the audience. It was a totally weird world to be in.
Lethem: I like the thought that there might be a counterfactual history to write — the story of a band that began like yours, but stayed in clubs. Perhaps if you had never met Andrew Loog Oldham.
Richards: It’s a different kind of ambition: to be the greatest, coolest blues band in London. And that was our horizon. Sometimes I think I might have been happier just doing that. Although I guess it would be hard to keep doing it in London after 50 years.
Lethem: As I’m sure I’ve made obvious in my books, I’m a “wannabe.” If I could play music, I would do it, and one of the best things in Life was the stuff about your guitar tunings.
Richards: It was amazing, the response I got from all of that, because I thought it would be really boring. “Well, you tune the fifth string down to there” — as if I’m writing about how to make a screw or something. So I was amazed by the response I got from musicians and guitar players.
Lethem: I think people wanted to make your sound come out of their guitar, and they didn’t know how. They would look at the chords in the chord books, but they wouldn’t get the right sound.
Richards: It’s supposed to be a mystery. The important thing is that you don’t have to be a musician to love music. It’s the listener that it all revolves around. I mean, somebody has got to beat a drum, and somebody has got to hum a tune, but it warms the heart what the songs mean to people.
Lethem: Sure, that connection is everything. The only thing. I’ll never forget a moment at a bookshop in Milwaukee, nearly 20 years ago. There was a 13-year-old kid cradling one of my earlier books that had meant something to her. That’s all I want: to mean to some teenage reader what the books I loved as a teenager meant to me.
Richards: Then you’ve got the feeling.
?Lethem: Yeah, and that’s when a book becomes a private communion. When you locate a voice, find a riff, hear the beat of something that moves behind it — some urgency, some mystery. Where you can read it again and still not know exactly how it works.
Richards: A musician’s life is always slightly mysterious, and ultimately fascinating. It’s like a pirate; there’s a mystique to it. But when you’re actually grinding it out, it’s pretty hard.
Lethem: I suppose what I still idealize about being in a band is the comradeship. I think that’s the true subject of your book; it’s really a book about friendship. A book about having mates, which a writer doesn’t really have.
Richards: It’s essential, the bonding. You’ve got to go out there and do it together, day in and day out. And then go through all of the other crap the guys go through having to do with chicks. But there is a very strong sense of unity between band members, especially bands that hang around as long as this one.
Lethem: Whereas writers don’t have anyone to talk to. When you bump into other writers it’s awkward. You don’t know whether they’re friend or foe.
Richards: That’s your problem, not mine!