Both Keith Richards and Rodney Crowell have spent a lifetime in music, and both can look back on performing and recording legacies that have served to touch the imaginations of numerous fans. It’s true that Crowell has never achieved the fame of Richards and the Rolling Stones, but art is measured in reach as much as it is depth, and here Crowell has the edge. Both men know firsthand something of the devastation wrought by alcohol and drugs, and both can look back on relationships that were thrown away selfishly and of others that brought sweet rumors of grace.
I read both books because I respect both men as musicians. I like the music of Crowell far more than that of Richards, but recognize that both men have honed their craft over many decades of dedicated practice, touring, and recording. Their styles are different, of course, very different, but both are part of the cultural world in which I grew up and still live. Both men are still active, making music and thus helping to both shape and reflect the culture in which I live and seek to understand.
Yet, the books are very different. Keith Richard’s Life is massive and detailed, full of gossip and facts, reflections and anecdotes. Rodney Crowell’s Chinaberry Sidewalks is more modest, a childhood memoir of a home in a poor Texas community with an alcoholic, violent father and an unstable mother given to Pentecostal fervor. But there is a deeper and more vital difference as well. Richard’s reflections reek of self-satisfied self-centeredness, and seldom is grief or regret expressed over the excesses in which he indulged. Crowell’s story, in contrast, is imbued with a quiet honesty tinged with forgiveness, the thoughtfulness of a man who tells his story, warts and all, but does not think that all is fine simply because it is his story.
I did not carefully read every word of Life, but scanned some sections because I was weary of the tone. When I finished Chinaberry Sidewalks, on the other hand, I purchased tickets to go see Crowell in concert—it was a wonderful evening. Recently Crowell has been collaborating with poet Mary Karr (I recommend the CD Kin, with Karr’s lyrics and Crowell’s music and performance), after being in Emmy Lou Harris’ band since 1975.
One thing is certain: blatant excess does not necessarily mean an artist can not achieve excellence, and unless Richards has sources of which I am unaware, his memory is both remarkable and far better than mine. Those with a special interest in the Rolling Stones and their very long career at the top of the charts in popular music will want to read Life. Richards reflects on numerous concerts and recording sessions in the book in incredible detail.
Listening to people’s stories is important if we want to hear something that gets past the surface details. Crowell uses the details of his childhood to tell a deeper story, while Richards amazes us with gossipy trivia in what seems to me to be primarily an ongoing exercise in self-aggrandizement. If you doubt that an artists’ deepest convictions and values—the world and life view that resides in their heart of hearts—shapes their music and their posture in life, read these two books, and then listen to some of Richards’ and Crowell’s music.
Life by Keith Richards with James Fox (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company; 2010) 547 pages + index.
Chinaberry Sidewalks: a memoir by Rodney Crowell (New York, NY: Alfred Knopf; 2011) 259 pages.