Keith Richards

Virgin Records America 790973-2

There is no freedom without constraint, no innocence without guilt; paradise exists only as paradise lost. If we lived in paradise, there would be no need to define these things: in paradise, freedom and innocence are the status quo. In music, syncopation–the lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz–can’t exist without the beat, for how else can you stress the offbeat?

The typical Keith Richards song begins with the riff, with the rhythm guitarist playing alone. At one point, years ago, it was an unusual place for that instrument. The rhythm guitar by definition took a subordinate role, supporting the others in the rhythm section; but with Richards the rhythm steps out and dominates. The riff is jagged, unusual, but at the same time ordered and repetitive. It hovers, sometimes, in emptiness; only Richards seems aware of the tempo and–on some extreme occasions–the time signature of the upcoming song. Yet once the other instruments join in, the riff locks into the drumbeat as if it were made for it. Indeed, it has been–and it scrapes and rubs against that basic beat in the syncopation that is the one essential element of rock ‘n’ roll.

In “Brown Sugar,” the opening riff is a simple, one-chord, Morse-code pattern: long, short-long, short-long. In the most complicated and most satisfying example, the opening riff for “Street Fighting Man” wonderfully evokes the creation of order out of chaos. Richards’s guitar is at first elusive and unfocused, and drummer Charlie Watts enters the song stressing the fourth beat instead of the third. (A song stressing the fourth beat sounds chaotic, nihilistic–it’s headed directly for the precipice, like Lou Reed’s “Leave Me Alone.”) Then when Watts finally falls onto the third beat, the fragments of the song come together and it lunges forward in the manner typical of the Rolling Stones but never so forcible as here.

The miracle of these songs–and of Richards as a rock songwriter-is that his guitar style relies on syncopation just as the music does, while it recognizes that syncopation can’t exist without a steady beat. The typical Richards song creates its own parameters, with its rugged, reeling chord pattern, then strains against those parameters–as if they were the life we had created for ourselves but were no longer satisfied with. It’s no coincidence that one of the best songs on his solo album is called “Struggle,” for practically every song he has ever played on–every song he ever poured something of himself into–has in some way depicted that battle between the guitar and the song that confines it, that struggle for freedom within the constraints we accept for ourselves.

Rock develops out of that struggle. The doo-wop and jazz and country blues of the 40s develop into rock ‘n’ roll when they get speeded up, when the instruments start piling on the off-stresses, and of course when the singers start emoting, using more unpredictable rhythms. Even here, the singers take their cue from the surrounding instruments, playing with the stresses of the beat: note Elvis’s hiccuping (later picked up by Buddy Holly) and the startling way he enters the final verse early in “Mystery Train.” Note Chuck Berry’s fuzzy, urgent guitar on his first rock single, “Maybellene,” the way it gives his music that typically 50s-style hop with its solid landing on the offbeat: while the drums are stressing the third beat of the measure. Berry is stressing the second and fourth, so that the music bubbles like one of those corn-poppers children push around.

That trend toward more complicated syncopation, that struggle depicted by a single instrument, gets its finest reading from Richards. Since the early 70s, there hasn’t been a rock guitar part written that hasn’t been heavily influenced by him. He leads the relatively simple and innocent rock ‘n’ roll of Berry and the 50s not only toward the hard rock and metal of the 70s and 80s–that much is obvious–but toward the current hyper-syncopated rhythms of hip hop and of syntho-dance bands like New Order, music that piles on the offstresses but that keeps itself moving forward by amplifying that basic third beat.

Yet Richards is not rock’s greatest guitarist because of his influence or his excesses but because of his reserve–his awareness of limitations. His heirs have all relied on syncopation, but none ever had the solid grasp of it Richards has. The punks, Johnny Thunders and Steve Jones, tended toward chaos; their songs, especially in performance, tended to reel out of control. Mick Jones of the Clash and Sean/John O’Neill of the Undertones and That Petrol Emotion both eventually moved on to more “ambitious” emotions and political statements. Gang of Four’s Jon King was, for a time, Richards’s clearest and most contemporary heir, but his guitar playing, like the band’s music, tended to be dogmatic rather than emotional, theoretical rather than funky. King worked for syncopation and he found it, but it was not a natural process. It was like someone looking up in a musical dictionary what “rhythm” and “syncopation” meant, then trying to re-create them in performance without ever having heard any actual music. Richards’s style is looser but not as erratic; it rocks the body, not the mind. Keith Richards, like Lester Young before him, swings.

Talk Is Cheap is the most concentrated gathering of primal Richards guitar riffs in the Stones’ canon. For that reason alone, it stands out as one of the best albums of the year. Yet the opinion sometimes heard–that this is a good Rolling Stones record because Richards has been freed from his role with the Stones–is misguided.

The album’s surprises are Richards’s remarkably consistent talents as a singer and songwriter. He’s in good voice, and the songs usually move gracefully from one to the next with just the right amount of variation. There are some brief descents into genre parody on the first side–the Berry-esque “Could Have Stood You Up” and the Al Green cop “Make No Mistake”–that Richards does not make sufficiently his own. But mostly he relies on his strengths–his guitar playing and his simple, raspy, straightforward voice–to carry the album. And they do. What’s missing is that extra level, that enlargement of the songs through manipulation of their musical and verbal meanings, what Henry James called “multiplicity.” In other words, what’s missing is Mick Jagger.

Richards lacks not only Jagger’s verbal facility but his ability to harness that talent to the music. To take an example from Stones antiquity, look at “The Last Time” and “Satisfaction,” the Stones’ first two classic repeating-riff songs. Divorced from their content, of the two “The Last Time” is clearly the more interesting musically. (One can easily imagine a guitarist in King Sunny Ade’s band wondering what all the commotion over “Satisfaction” is about.) Its guitar riff is more varied, its emotion more elusive. For that reason it makes a less effective single, for singles cut to the core of a single emotion; they address one feeling and they’re over. “The Last Time” is somewhat more complicated. But even though “Satisfaction” is a simple piece of music–the guitar’s rise and fall is almost lackadaisical–Jagger uses that simplicity to make a simple statement with universal, enduring applications.

On Talk is Cheap, Richards relies on lyrical concepts Jagger has run thin to flesh out his music. “Struggle” and “Whip It Up” both recall other Stones works. Of course, that both songs remain somehow vital is telling. The amazing thing about “Struggle,” for example, is that Richards dares to sing the line “It’s a struggle to make ends meet”–a line even Jagger would never have touched–and gets away with it. I find myself looking forward to this bit of playacting each time I put the album on, each time I hear it on the radio.

The one place that Richards rises above these basic, almost threadbare applications of old Stones concerns is in the Jagger put-down “You Don’t Move Me.” The Caribbean drumbeat that opens the song and the wails (taken from “Sympathy for the Devil”) are clearly in-jokes directed at Jagger, and they’re probably all the more satisfying for Richards because we don’t get them. Richards enters with double-tracked electric and acoustic guitars that spit and sputter all over the drums. Here his voice takes on an extra edge, and the song moves through an eloquent, spiteful, biting, almost five-minute attack on Jagger before it expires in a softly panting acoustic guitar and the final lyrics, “It’s no longer funny, it’s bigger than money.” Unlike the reference to cash in “Struggle,” this one is entirely real and affecting; it’s the one chilling moment on the album.

Elsewhere, however, Richards is more interested in demonstrating the natural fecundity of his guitar, its various and wide-ranging moods, as in the soft, understated “Rockawhile.” He has said in recent interviews that he is looking for a sturdier, more enduring approach toward his music, something approaching the lifelong devotion of Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker to the blues. He wants to take the great statement of adolescent ennui, “Satisfaction,” and keep applying it to his own life on into his dotage, just as Waters kept “Mannish Boy” fresh throughout his career.

This requires a simple mastery over the music that Richards no doubt attained long ago, a mastery he will no doubt continue to display. The problem is that simple attributes, no matter how well mastered, remain simple. As Greil Marcus wrote about John Lee Hooker’s albums: “All I’ve heard are good, because all I’ve heard feature his crawling, kingsnake guitar, his pounding foot, his stoic, doomy rage.” Talk Is Cheap is a wonderful record because it features Richards’s voice, which so wonderfully expresses his experiences, and his guitar, which so wonderfully expresses his endurance. How could any Keith Richards record possibly be better? How could any Keith Richards record ever be worse?