Happy 75th Keith. Excerpt from Rocks Off: “Coming Down Again.”

By on 12-18-2018 in Essays, Rocks Off Book

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Happy 75th to Keith Richards. Here is a bit about him via his ballad, “Coming Down Again,” from Goat’s Head Soup, excerpted from my book, Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones. It is missing some of the formatting and footnotes, so grab yourself a copy of the book.

Coming Down Again
Recorded:
November-December, 1972, Dynamic Sound Studios, Kingston, Jamaica
May 1973 Island Recording Studios, London
Releases:
LP Goats Head Soup August 1973

 

The Flipside of “Happy.”

If the band had been in a more literal mood, “Coming Down Again” would have been a more inspired and/or literal title for the record than Goats Head Soup, which was an idea that came from recording the album in Jamaica, goat being, as Mick pointed out by way of explanation “the national dish.” “Coming Down Again,” another Keith-sung number, is a bittersweet album track that few people aside from diehard fans recall, like a secret gem “hidden” in clear view, begging for rediscovery. Keith wonders, in bruised voice, “Where are all my friends? Coming down again.” But it reflected the prevailing attitude of the band at the time.

The Nellcôte summer was in the rear view, the party was over, the tour finished, and all the hangers-on had split. The baby boomer counterculture was left wandering in the desert of the mid-1970s, wondering what the hell has happened to it all? Looking back during the mid-1980s, Jagger told an interviewer: “To use a cliché, the sixties never really ended until later on in the seventies. I sort of remember the album Exile on Main Street being done in France and … after that going on tour and thinking, ‘It’s ’72. Fuck it. We’ve done it.’ We still tried after that, but I don’t think the results were ever that wonderful.”

The Stones followed up Exile with one of the most fabled rock ‘n’ roll tours of all time, recounted in all of its debauched detail in Robert Greenfield’s S.T.P.: A Journey Through America With The Rolling Stones, in his dispatches from the road for Rolling Stone, and in the Robert Frank film, Cocksucker Blues. While Mick was hanging out with an entourage of Truman Capote, Lee Radziwill, and other society-types for much of the American leg of tour, Keith had the likes of William Burroughs and filmmaker Kenneth Anger showing up. If the Stones were defining the very notion of decadent glamor, or recreating it for a new generation, then Mick was the glamor and Keith was the decadence. In the film, whenever there was a party scene in a hotel room, with Keys or Frank and groupies, it was Keith you’d see, not Mick.

The band was at its absolute zenith in the 1972 tour, never sounding as great before or since, with incendiary performances, especially in the well-oiled two-guitar engine that Keith and Mick Taylor had become. For proof, there is Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones, the concert doc that was released on DVD in 2010. Frank’s footage was initially intended to be folded into the concert portions filmed for Ladies and Gentlemen, but the Stones put the kibosh on that idea once they saw the raw footage of drug use, groupie fun, and general mayhem. The band sought to ban the film outright, but an arrangement was struck, with a court decision that allowed the film to be screened once a year as long as Frank himself was present.

“At the end of the 1972 tour I said, ‘I’ve just had enough,’” said Charlie. “…I just wanted out. I needed a break, and then I was okay again.” To another interviewer he said, “I got off the plane in ’72 and said No fucking more because I don’t actually like touring and I don’t like living out of suitcases. I hate being away from home. I always do tours thinking they’re the last one, and at the end of them I always leave the band.”

The recorded peak of the Rolling Stones is represented with either/or/all Let It Bleed/Sticky Fingers/Exile on Main Street. The tour completed, the next LP, Goats Head Soup, was the doomed follow-up to the brilliant run that had started with Beggar’s Banquet. And by all accounts, the band was at one of its lowest personal ebbs, certainly the lowest to that point. Drugs had started to take a grave toll, including on Jimmy Miller, who had produced the band’s greatest run of material, and engineer, Andy Johns, who had been responsible for most of the actual sonic and technical aspects of the previous three albums. Not coincidentally, this would be Miller’s last record with the Rolling Stones. Johns worked on one more, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll. Miller, said Keith, “went in a lion and came out a lamb. We wore him out completely … he ended up carving swastikas into the wooden console … It took him 3 months to carve a swastika. Meanwhile, Mick and I finished up Goats Head Soup.” Johns said, “They were no longer listening to poor old Jimmy.”

For business, legal, and taxation reasons, the Stones ended up recording in Kingston, Jamaica, at the relatively primitive outpost, Dynamic Sound Studios, pictured in the Jimmy Cliff 1972 film The Harder They Come. They had to consider this venue primarily because they could not be in England or America, and now they could add France to the list, as arrest warrants were hanging over the heads of Keith and Anita for drug offenses. Anita had gotten clean from heroin for her second pregnancy, the one which produced their daughter, Dandelion. But once the baby came, she picked up where she had left off. Now they were living near Montreaux, Switzerland, one of the last places that would allow them residence. If the Stones had considered living on the French Riviera an exile, Jamaica must have seemed like asylum. Mick, who was now very much involved with the band’s business matters, would visit Keith from time to time to discuss the financial details. “Mick picked up the slack, I picked up the smack,” admits Keith.

Dynamic Studios was a bare-bones eight-track studio with small rooms and amplifiers bolted to the floor. It was fortified behind gates with an armed guard in violent Kingston. Johns had gone down to advance the place, and requested some changes and additional equipment as part of a deal for the Stones booking the place. “The recording room was great,” he said. “Had a nice sound to it. The control room needed some changes…. The speakers — there was one way down the end of the wall, about 10 feet away from you and another one that was a little way off to the right of your head. So there was no way you could work that way. So I asked them to change one or two things…. Of course, by the time we got there, they hadn’t done anything. Jamaican time!”

The band and crew were all holed up at the Terra Mansion, a hotel which had been the Blackwell estate in Jamaica. They found out that the concern for security shown at the studio was not out of proportion with the real threats of violence, having heard stories of guys getting into fights with machetes in the studio. And the Stones family had to deal with their own instance of brutality. According to Johns, about a month and a half into the recording Bill and Astrid’s room was broken into by a knife-wielding intruder. “Oh man, that was awful,” said Johns. “Poor old Bill and Astrid…. It was a really violent place, Kingston. And some guy just came in through the sliding glass doors, made Bill get under the bed, raped Astrid. He’s got this whacking great knife that he’s got up to Astrid’s neck. Bill has to hear all this… It’s just awful. And then he took money.

“She told me what had happened. She was more worried about poor old Bill than she was about herself…. So I put on a pair of pants, jumped over the back wall and went running after this — I had presumed this guy would have gone down the back alley, you know. And I had a knife with me, or a broken beer bottle or something, and cut my feet to ribbons. There was all this broken glass in the street. And he’d gone completely the other direction.

“But Keith — or someone — did an interview with a local newspaper about why didn’t Bill do anything? and all that, which was really fucking mean. I know that there was an article in a Jamaican paper about Bill and about how he hadn’t done anything. And Keith was saying, yeah, fucking right. He didn’t do shit. Now Keith probably would have done something. But then Astrid’s head would have been cut off.”

For having been recorded in an unusually violent atmosphere and a rough place — the place where Toots and the Maytalls had recorded the raw “Funky Kingston” — “Coming Down Again” is a gorgeously rich musical tableau, with Keith’s voice supported with a soft low harmony from Mick throughout the refrains. The vocals are intimately close in the mix. On the digital remaster from 2009, you can hear Keith’s off-mike noises, lip smacks and all. At the top of the track, you can hear him growl something like, “Well…”

On “Shine a Light,” Mick had sung, “And your late night friends will leave you in the cold gray dawn.” Now Keith, who wrote this one himself, answers, affirms Mick’s alarm, waking up as if in a daze. The music has the sound of sober cold gray dawn itself. “Coming Down Again” could certainly be read beyond a mere drug come-down, but the drug haze is at the very center. Indeed, the music itself is a hazy cascade of wah-wah and Leslie-speaker guitars, atmospheric vocals, a sad sax solo from Keys, a prominent melodic bass from Mick Taylor. Charlie once again demonstrating his jazz finesse, sliding in and out of the arrangement. Primary to the song, though, is the motif-master, Nicky Hopkins’ piano, which starts the song with one of his loveliest vamps. He continues to provide the form of the song throughout the arrangement. The guitars hang and flutter around it like a tattered cape on a scarecrow skeleton.

This would be the penultimate album to prominently feature Hopkins. The Stones had decided his schedule as a solo artist and session musician was incompatible with theirs after It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll. Additionally, Billy Preston’s involvement with the Stones was dovetailing with Hopkins’ (they toured together on the 1973 tours, with Billy mostly playing organ and Nicky piano), and the band — Mick, most likely — believed Preston’s African-American gospel upbringing, as well as his solo career as an R&B hitmaker, lent the Rolling Stones “act” a bit more authentic soul, particularly in live performances; Preston was a showman, and Mick often played off of Billy’s energy in concert. “Billy produced a different sound for us,” writes Keith. “…it was like playing with someone who was going to put his own stamp on everything. He was used to being a star in his own right.” However, upon reflection, Keith said in 1983 that the mid-1970s Stones were in danger of “studio musicians and sidemen taking over the band. The real problem with those albums was the band was led astray by brilliant players like Billy Preston. We’d start off a typical Stones track and Billy would start playing something so fuckin’ good musically that we’d get sidetracked and end up with a compromised track. That made the difference.”

While Nicky remained friendly and continued to work with the individual members, he was hurt by the end of the relationship with the Stones. They could be cold in their dealings with musicians. The 1973 tour for Goats Head was also the last for over a decade for Bobby Keys. But that was more directly his own undoing. He had sunk deep into junk, saying of the time, “I wasn’t a musician, I was a junkie.” He felt that he had gotten so bad, after an incident where he crashed a car into a canal in Holland, nearly killing his wife and himself, that he had to leave during the tour. When he got back to England, he felt Keith would be the person to call. “Keys, nobody quits the Rolling Stones. Nobody.” He did not play with them again until 1989, and even then, Keith had to sneak him back in and Mick did not say a word to Bobby the whole tour. To this day, Mick has few words to say to Bobby.

It’s curious to read reviews and reactions to the albums, from critics and the band itself, over the years, from the immediate time of release, into later reassessments. Exile, in particular, went from being panned to lauded within a year of its release. Bud Scoppa, reviewing Goats Head Soup in 1973 for Rolling Stone, neatly makes this very point with his opening paragraphs:

History has proven it unwise to jump to conclusions about Rolling Stones albums. At first Sticky Fingers seemed merely a statement of doper hipness on which the Stones (in Greil Marcus’ elegant phrase) “rattled drugs as if they were maracas.” But drugs wound up serving a figurative as well as a literal purpose and the album became broader and more ambiguous with each repeated listening.

At first, Exile on Main Street seemed a terrible disappointment, with its murky, mindless mixes and concentration on the trivial. Over time, it emerged as a masterful study in poetic vulgarity. And if neither of the albums had eventually grown on me thematically, the music would have finally won me over anyway.

Now Goats Head Soup stands as the antithesis of Exile — the Stones never worry about contradicting themselves — and it is a wise move, for it would have been suicidal to Exile’s conceits any further. Compared to the piling on of one raunchy number on top of another, Soup is a romantic work, with an unmistakable thread of life-affirming pragmatisms running through it. It is set apart not only from Exile, but every past Stones’ LP, by its emphasis on the ballad.

Scoppa offers us the consensus view of the time. His colleague, Lenny Kaye (who later was a founding member of the Patti Smith Group, and became a sought-after record producer), had given Exile a mostly negative review in Rolling Stone, but once fans had time to live with it and make sense of the record, it grew and continued to grow in appreciation and gain adherents. Conversely, Goats Head Soup was more or less embraced by the critics, judging by the old reviews. But since then, it has often been unfairly slagged and held up as representative of the slide into formula and mediocrity the band were taking — the drugginess, the sense of entitlement as rock aristocracy.

Drugs had become a more frequent topic with each album — directly and metaphorically. At least the catalog of albums cumulatively left one with that impression, right through Keith’s note of defiance on “Before They Make Me Run” on Some Girls in 1978. “It was getting pretty hairy in Jamaica,” said Johns. “Keith was way into it and by now I was and so was Jimmy Miller. And Mick used to do some every now and again. He would call me up and say ‘Why don’t you come to my room and bring something with you.’ He’d do it, like, Tuesdays and Fridays. I never really got into it with Mick Taylor. I think that was later. He was probably sampling it.

“But I remember Jimmy did this historic run to LA to cop for us, ‘cause we’d run out of it and Keith and I were jonesing madly. And I recall Keith calling me from the bar and saying ‘Come on down to the bar, Andy, we can drink our way through this.’ And I went down to the bar, had a Bloody Mary and immediately threw up on the floor. And looking back on it, Keith had obviously gotten something from somewhere and wanted someone to hang out with, and he didn’t offer me anything.

“And then I figured Jimmy probably left something in his hotel room. And I said to Keith, ‘You know I bet there’s something stashed in Jimmy’s bathroom.’ ‘Well, let’s go find out.’ So Keith had me crawl through the window of Jimmy’s bathroom and I open the medicine cabinet and there’s an electric razor there, and I look inside of that and sure enough, there are two grams of smack. And I’m very pleased with myself and I go, ‘Keith, look, I got these.’ And he immediately takes both of them and goes, ‘Great, ‘that’ll do.’ And I go, ‘Wait a second, ho ho! One for you one for me.’ ‘Oh, well, hmm [mumbles an approximation of Keith].’ He was just going to walk off with the whole thing, the bastard!”

The arrests, hearings, and visa problems were a constant background noise and distraction to the band, and obviously well-publicized. By the time they rolled into the mid-1970s, Keith was being equated with junkiedom, and not as much guitar playing or songwriting, the poster boy for bad behavior. But it was no longer an image of outlaw cool. Young punks smelled blood when they pounced on their former hero, who by the Toronto bust in 1977 just seemed like a pathetic, weak version of his former self.

Yet even before it got to that, Lester Bangs offered his dissenting view on Goats Head Soup for Creem: “There is a sadness about the Stones now, because they amount to such an enormous ‘So what?’ The sadness comes when you measure not just one album, but the whole sense they’re putting across now against what they once meant…”

“I said not long ago that I wouldn’t have written it without heroin,” says Keith about “Coming Down Again.” “I don’t know if it was about dope. It was just a mournful song — and you look for that melancholy in yourself.” He goes on to discuss the belief from some listeners that the song was about him stealing Anita, which Keith dismisses as “water under the fucking bridge.” But it is difficult not to read that into a song which contains the brilliant lines, “Stuck my tongue in someone else’s pie/Tasting better every time/He turned green and tried to make me cry/Being hungry, it ain’t no crime.” The sex and pain; the humor and sadness; the cleverness, and the heartfelt — all wrapped up in an eloquent verse, delivered in a brutally expressive vocal take. Keith’s voice somehow managed to sound strong in spots, but weary overall, like a long, defeated sigh.

While there is little dispute that the band had peaked in 1971-’72, that peak was so extraordinary and sustained that it eventually had to come to an end. Rather than a precipitous drop-off in quality, though, Goats Head is an easy come down. What makes the record so beloved by certain fans are the ballads and Van Morrison-esque impressionistic lyrics in songs like “Winter,” “100 Years Ago,” “Angie,” and Keith’s lament, “Coming Down Again.” The moody tone of the album set forth with these liquid, gauzy ballads are only slightly offset by the token raunchiness of “Starfucker” (a.k.a. “Star Star”), the violence-sick “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” the halloween-cartoonish funk of “Dancing with Mr. D.,” and so on. Yes, these are all good songs, but the best of Goats Head is heard in the ballads. The rockers feel a bit rote and unconvincing.

“And by then I’d worked a lot in the country field, especially with Gram Parsons,” explains Keith, “and that high lonesome melancholy has a certain pull on the heartstrings.” Though an early version of the ”Coming Down Again” seems to have been attempted in the November-December 1972 sessions, the album version was likely recorded in May 1973. In the interim. Keith’s good friend and inspiration, Gram Parsons, overdosed and died a sad death in a cheap motel out near Joshua Tree. Parsons is thought of as a country-rock singer-songwriter. But with his solo albums GP and Grievous Angel, he had been showcasing his songs that were in this Stonesy/Van Morrison-like ballad realm. In fact, the doleful “New Soft Shoe” or “Brass Buttons” could be direct musical influences on “Coming Down Again.”

“This was a terrible period for casualties,” adds Keith. Marianne Faithfull has called Brian’s death a “slow-motion bomb. It had a devastating effect on all of us…. Anita went through hell from survivor’s guilt plain and simple. She developed grisly compulsions…. Keith’s way of reacting to Brian’s death was to become Brian. He became the very image of the falling down, stoned junkie hovering perpetually on the edge of death.” There was indeed something quite sad about the Stones in 1973, a palpable sorrow and acknowledgement. And that emotion fills the ruminative “Coming Down Again” with a yearning regret, and momentary sobriety, a pause before the next hit.


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