THE GOSPEL OF MANHOOD: KEITH RICHARDS, HEMINGWAY, & FINDING THE GOOD

Open tuning, and the male prize:
never trust someone who ain’t a Stones fan.

 

BY
DAVID MASCIOTRA

 

One
of the most underrated Rolling Stones songs is the late-‘80s classic “Mixed
Emotions”. The hard driving beat compliments Jagger’s growling vocal until he
lifts into near falsetto for a deceptively sweet sounding chorus. Horns fight
with guitars for center stage near the end for an epic culmination that sounds
like mixed emotions and captures the epic beauty of the lyrical sentiment:
“Button your lips baby/ Button your coat/ Let’s go out dancing/ Let’s rock ‘n’
roll/ You’re not the only one with mixed emotions/ You’re not the only ship
adrift on this ocean/ You’re not the only one that’s feeling lonesome/ You’re
not the only one with mixed emotions.”

 

You
could dance to the song, you can press your foot on the gas pedal with the
power of the song, and you can make love, blending fantasies into reality, with
the song rising like smoke from the speaker into the room. All of that is
important because the song communicates the importance of the lifestyle virtue
of selective thinking – selective thinking that selects the thoughts that will
empower the feeling of the moment. Mixed emotions are common, but the feeling
that drives you into pleasure building and memory making action is the right
one. Dwelling on uncertainty or the discouragement of the overly active, overly
worrisome intellect leads down a dead end fast. As Jagger warns, “Get off the
fence now/ It’s creasing your butt”.

 

“Mixed
Emotions” is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs from the greatest rock ‘n’
roll band. In addition to its showcase of musical mastery, it also gives clear
insight into the internal philosophy of The Rolling Stones. For years I’ve said
that I don’t trust people who don’t like The Rolling Stones. Their music is not
only fun, sexy, and absolutely life affirming – see the great and sexy Jill
Scott’s explanation of why the Stones is her go to band for dancing if you need
further evidence beyond the band’s expansive and excellent catalogue – it is
also representative of an approach to life that empowers individuals to live as
collective rogues – following their own sense of direction and coming together
to claim territory for reciprocal pleasure in moments of soulful solidarity.
Even when the Stones are living on their own, they are never doing it alone: You gotta roll me / Call me the tumbling dice.

 

In
Norman Mailer’s seminal essay, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the
Hipster”, he writes about a man who believed that “in a bad world there is no
love nor mercy nor charity nor justice unless a man can keep his courage.” The
philosophy of courage elevates “the adventurer” to the highest place of
prominence, and the adventurer is a man who lives according to the “categorical
imperative that what makes him feel good becomes, therefore, The Good.”

 

Mailer
is referring to the philosophy of the man who spawned a species of writers and adventurers,
restylized English prose, and established a spiritual check-in for millions of
men: The father of them all. “Papa Bear” Ernest Hemingway.

 

The
men of Hemingway’s stories move with the master of their souls whether they are
falling in love or killing in war. The reason that Hemingway’s prose is so
stripped bare and simple is that it is overwhelmingly difficult to explain the
categorical imperative of feeling good becoming The Good, especially when
delineating a narrative that emotionally shifts from moment to moment.

 

There
are few writers who still possess the intuitive sense of ethics and masculine
virtue and vice that Hemingway boiled in his voodoo kitchen. In fact, there are
few men left who can weave the spell.

 

Keith
Richards, without any doubt, is one of the few remaining voodoo warriors
following the code of the adventurer. It is little surprise then that his
memoir, Life, reads very much like a Hemingway novel. The prose is good,
but needless to say, it doesn’t come anywhere near Hemingway quality. The
structure of Life, however, is precisely the structure of every great
Hemingway story. Richards, like Hemingway and Mailer, understands at the
deepest level – that which is often unspoken and always difficult to articulate
– the male prize and plight of moving according to an internal compass,
deciding based on unexplainable intuition, and living by a sensation that
provides check and balance over behavior, creates a code of ethics, and defines
spirituality and sensuality. Hemingway was armed with minimalist prose.
Richards has open tuning.

 

In
Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and The Sea , the old man, Santiago,
goes deep into the ocean to capture his coveted marlin – a fish so large and
strong that he earns the name “brother”, bestowed on him by the old man who is
equally astonished and impressed by the fish’s dignity, fight, and tenacity.
After three days of pain, struggle, and exhaustion, the old man finally lays
his harpoon into the beast of the water and claims him as his own, toasting
himself in triumph and praising the fish for his resilience. He ventured too
far, however, and sharks, attracted by the trail of blood the marlin leaves
from the boat, begin to swarm the old man in the sea. He is able to kill off
five sharks, but not before they devour the marlin’s carcass. He only has an 18
feet long skeleton with him when he makes it back to the shore. He falls asleep
dreaming of the sights of his youth – lions on the beach in Africa.

 

Joseph
Waldmeir, a literary critic, said that The Old Man and The Sea “elevated
Hemingway’s philosophy of Manhood to the level of religion”. Waldmeir was right
to call Hemingway’s philosophy of manhood a religion, but it is also a gospel –
a pronouncement of good news for men willing to live according to their courage
when they venture far out into uncharted waters. The reward may not always be
material. Santiago
lost the fish, but he gained the memory to accompany his dreams of lions on the
African beach. He is slaying monsters, living with a wild energy, and testing
himself with loyal application to the internal sensation compelling him to
drift onward and move forward.

 

Keith
Richards has the material and existential rewards of slaying musical giants,
running as far as possible into the direction of creative conquest, and
allowing his own wild energy to colorize and characterize his life story.

 

In
Life there are plenty of stories about Keith’s trouble with the law,
abuse of drugs, and dangerous confrontations with police officers, angry
hecklers who thought he was making Satan’s soundtrack, and overly zealous fans.

 

There
is also, however, a continual theme of conviction without compromise. He played
his music despite threats from law enforcement in the early days. Later, he
would continue to write songs, even in rehab. He self-medicated with an
assortment of drugs in a style that maximized his musical devotion. His
commitment to music paid off in a variety of obvious and visible ways –
millions of dollars, beautiful women, artistic prestige. It also, however,
continued to give him the feeling he describes on stage as nothing less than
“magic”. When “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – a song Keith wrote inspired by his
grandfather’s tough ability to move through unlimited horrors – kicks in, he
writes about how nothing in the world is better than the groove that Mick
Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, Daryl Jones, he and the rest of the band
feel. It is a feeling that never goes away – a beautiful and triumphant moment
of collective creativity – even though, he claims, he plays the song a little
differently every time. These are the dreams that Keith goes to sleep with
every night.

 

Through
the highs and lows – the glories and deaths – Keith delineates a set of values
that falls neatly into Hemingway’s gospel of manhood.

 

The
reciprocal pleasure of embracing the moment with a woman of like mind is
important. Keith writes that good women have saved his life more times than he
can count, and rather than viewing them as notches in his belt or trophies for
his mantle, they are friends. He remembers asking one why she was with him when
she knew he was in town for only one night. She said, “I like you”. Keith
writes, “Sometimes it is better to be liked than to be loved.” Don’t betray the
moment and don’t betray the memory of the one who helped you make the moment.

 

Keith
also writes that he believes, “There is nothing more important than friendship
and comradeship”. He promises that, despite all of his disagreements with and
criticisms of Mick Jagger – they are brothers and he’ll kill anyone who says a
bad word about Mick in his presence. Don’t betray your comrades if you want to
call yourself a man. Don’t betray your friends if you want to call yourself a
decent human being.

 

It’s
only rock ‘n’ roll and it’s all rock ‘n’ roll to Keith.

 

He
began playing guitar because he wanted to sound like Elvis, Chuck Berry, and
the bluesmen making music on the hard streets of Chicago. He claims, with
credibility, that the experimentation of The Rolling Stones, which had
enjoyable and dreadful results, was primarily due to Mick’s influence, and that
he never lost sight of the “only rock ‘n’ roll” philosophy of The Rolling
Stones.

 

Rock
‘n’ roll is the soundtrack for empowering the exuberance of the instant and for
providing a backbeat to the adventurer’s search for The Good. The Good may come
in the arms of a woman, it may come in the company of friends, or it may come
on the sea in a battle with an 18 feet marlin and five sharks. When it does
arrive, however, you have no choice but to follow it down to its magnificent or
disastrous endpoint.

An
unbuyable integrity results from such a lifestyle.

 

When
I asked my friend Kev Wright, the lead guitarist, backup vocalist, and
co-songwriter of The Righteous Hillbillies, how Keith Richards has influenced
him as a man, he said, “What’s carried me through the course of my life as a musician
has been my love and respect for Keith’s undaunted, unyielding, and unending
refusal to ‘reinvent’ himself.”

 

Kev
added that, “In every instance of my musical endeavors from songwriting to
performing, I continue to ask myself first and foremost, ‘what would Keith
do?'”

 

Masculinity
has few cultural champions left. The gender description is degenerated by the
overly sensitive, hairless, exfoliated metrosexual who plucks his eyebrows,
texts his wife to let her know he is “on his way” at 9:00pm, and publicly
admits to enjoying cuddling for cuddling, while it is ruined by stereotypically
chauvinist rappers and frat boys who casually refer to all women as bitches and
think their very existence entitles them to ownership of the entire universe.
Keith Richards, Santiago, and Hemingway, despite all the balking of feminists,
represent the sane, healthy, and empowering middle.

 

The
religion of man is a religion because its demand to live according to The Good
and follow an internal compass of sensation is a faith based position. Kev
couldn’t explain how he knows what Keith would do any more than Santiago
could explain why he stayed in the water for three days for a single fish. In
both cases they are talking about the right thing to do, but the rightness of
the action is different from the correctness of an action in that it is
untestable, unexplainable, and improvable.

 

Kev
Wright’s favorite Rolling Stones album is the classic 1971 release, Sticky
Fingers
. The sixth song on the album is the unbridled scorcher, “Bitch”.

 

The
song begins with one of Keith’s meanest riffs over a driving beat and Mick is
growling again: I’m feeling so tired/ I can’t understand it/ Just had a
fortnight’s sleep.

 

He
also feels “hungry”, “drunk, juiced up, and sloppy.”

 

Then
something happens. Jagger compares himself to Pavlov’s dog and says that his
heart beats louder than a bass drum when the object of his desires comes
around. Such strong sentiment – a paralytic feeling that won’t go away – must
be love simply because “it’s a bitch”. The guitars weave together as they
jointly solo with increasing ferocity; notes are bending, breaking, and coming
from everywhere. Then the horns enter the fold giving a muscular punch to the
lethal assault. The song’s beastly tendencies are dominant, and they are
devouring the listener. The band is holding nothing back, and they’ve released
everything, destroying all inhibitions.

 

Jagger
is back in full growl. Keith is tearing on the guitar behind him. No longer
tired and no longer hungry, they declare with the confidence of the devil: “I
feel alright.”

 

***

 

David
Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political
Vision of Bruce Springsteen
(Continuum Books). He is a columnist with PopMatters and a regular contributor to Relevant . He is 26 years old and lives
in Indiana. (For more information visit: www.davidmasciotra.com)

 

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