What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. As great as it [Robert Johnson] is, this is not one stroke of genius. This cat was listening to somebody and it’s his variation on the theme. And so you realize that everybody’s connected here. This is not just that he’s fantastic and the rest are crap; they’re all interconnected. And the further you went back into music and time, and with the blues you go back to the ’20s because you’re basically going through recorded music, you think thank God for recording. It’s the best thing that’s happened to us since writing.
Keith Richards, Life 94-95
I think it’s important to note that prior to this observation, Richards describes how he and Jagger sorted music by the good/crap formula. This retrospective observation is not the point of view of a young man: old men seldom celebrate evanescence, while the young sing “get it while you can.” Tradition matters a lot more when you find yourself to be a part of it, rather than an interloper introduced into a history already in progress. What strikes me most though, is his comparison of recording with writing and the incredibly short history of recorded music. It’s actually much newer than photographic recording technologies.
I’ve been on a kick of reading autobiographies by musicians. Last week it was Andy Summer’s One Train Later and this week it’s Keith Richards. I’ve been enjoying them for a variety of reasons, but it strikes me how much I agree with the appraisal (loosely paraphrased from any of them) that “music is the best.” But, what I have difficulty buying into is that being a good musician gives you license (or commands) you to become a hedonistic ass with no real responsibilities in your intercourse with other people. What about being a good cabinet maker or mechanic? Why don’t they have killer parties and entourages of groupies? If music is, as these players suggest, a craft requiring practice and dedication what makes it different and more noble of crafts involving utilitarian rather than artistic ends? The art/craft divide here seems to be at its widest, where social capital creates/reinforces deviant and antisocial behavior. It is paradoxical that music can be a glue bonding social groups together, while its craftsmen break down traditions to get these privileges. It seems unlikely that young musicians think of themselves as producing “variations on a theme.” Instead, they long for uncharted territory. Summers, in particular, was adamant about that. The tension between these perspectives is delicious: in reinventing ourselves, we conserve the past in perverse ways.
I think it’s part of recording pieces of ourselves; as we appropriate multiple sources to invent ourselves, it’s only natural that the past is enfolded. Richards was adamant about the motivation:
I’ll do anything to make a record. It was really narcissistic in a way. We just wanted to hear what we sounded like. We wanted the playback. The payback didn’t come into it, but the playback we really wanted. In a way, in those days, being able to get into the studio and get an acetate back sort of legitimized you. “You’re a commissioned officer” instead of being one of the ranks. Playing live was the most important thing in the world, but making records stamped it. Signed, sealed, and delivered. (126)
The next phrase of his final triplet (unstated, of course) is “I’m yours.” across time, past death even, if you leave behind a record, you belong to the future.