Although these are the two books I have most recently finished, it certainly wasn't the most natural decision to review them together. Occidental College Professor Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States makes the provocative, but still scholarly, case that the evolution of freedom in the United States has often been at odds with, rather than developing alongside, American democracy. While a more orthodox view would hold that American liberty, forged by the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution, and then nurtured in fits and starts by grassroots and legislative initiatives from abolition and women's suffrage to Progressivism and the New Deal to the labor and Civil Rights movements, Russell argues that these various collective movements have also attempted to erode the freedoms of those who have chosen (or been forced into) lifestyles that rejected the social and political integration advocated by them. Meanwhile, the other book is the long-awaited autobiography of the retirement-eligible guitarist for a seminal English rock and roll band whose lead singer is a knight and who were most recently the subjects of a slick documentary/concert film by Martin Scorcese, in which they are shown meeting and conversing with former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
However, if one needs it, the reminders are there throughout Life that one is reading about the life of a true hedonistic renegade, and one for whom outlaw American culture looms large. Richards and Mick Jagger first bonded over the love of American blues and rhythm and blues, and the Stones' early live shows and recordings were built around the work of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters, among others. Later came a remarkable string of original songs and albums, the death of founding member Brian Jones, Altamont, heroin addiction, multiple busts and razor-thin close legal calls. By the time I caught their live show in the Superdome in 1989, they were a well-oiled machine, but I believe it is instructive to recall that an earlier documentary of the band is the graphically controversial, still-unavailable-on-Netflix Cocksucker Blues, directed by Robert Frank. A Wikipedia search reveals that not only is it unavailable on dvd (outside of bootlegs, one of which was fortunately available on videotape at an outstandingly exhaustive video store in Portland when we lived there), but a court settlement between Frank and the Stones means that it can only be publicly screened only in the 86-year-old director's presence.
Born in Switzerland, Robert Frank published the photography book The Americans in 1959, with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. With its candid black-and-white snapshot-like portraits of parades and lunch counters and New Orleans streetcars, Frank gave photographic life to the paintings of Edward Hopper, resonating with the same indigenous bohemians embracing Kerouac, Dizzy Gillespie and William De Kooning. He also collaborated with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg on the film Pull My Daisy, in my estimation a too self-consciously zany period piece that has not aged very well and gives improvisation a bad name.
The point is that Frank was, like Keith Richards, an Old World outsider who created something bold and new out of what was considered by many the common detritus of American culture. But Thaddeus Russell makes a compelling case for the lives and actions of just such human detritus (slaves, drunkards, pirates, prostitutes, homosexuals, unwanted Irish and Italian and Jewish immigrants) as providing the propulsion for the forward movement of liberty throughout our history.
A case in point is the role of prostitutes and madams in the frontier West. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared that the frontier was the defining touchstone throughout American history, metaphorically and psychologically as much as geographically. Russell shows that the western frontier was also the place where the flouting of sexual taboos and women's liberation thrived hand in hand:
"...Mattie Silks,...had risen from the ranks of streetwalkers in Abilene, Texas and Dodge City, Kansas, to become a brothel owner by the age of nineteen. Soon after moving to Denver in 1876, she purchased a three-story mansion with twenty-seven rooms, then outfitted it with the finest furnishings available. Visitors to the Silks brothel were greeted by a symphony orchestra in the main parlor...After her retirement from the trade, she told a newspaper, 'I went into the sporting life for business reasons and for no other. It was a way for a woman in those days to make money, and I made it. I considered myself then and I do now—as a businesswoman.' Her employees, who were among the highest paid women in the United States, 'came to me for the same reasons that I hired them. Because there was money in it for all of us." (p. 106).
The above passage encapsulates an ongoing theme of Russell's, which is the power of desire, whether it be material, sensual, or consumerist, in not just the struggle for liberty as such, but the struggle to control the personal definition of liberty. Many are aware of the role of young immigrant women in the early twentieth-century labor struggles, but Russell points out that the enthusiasm of the young women for "vulgar dancing," cigarette smoking, and even dressing in an "improper" manner for their social class were a cause of concern for their social advocates, and at least one union of shirtwaist makers proposed a strict budget for members' clothes purchases.
Projecting forward a few decades and across an ocean, the Rolling Stones and other British Invasion bands represented a vehicle for ecstatic release for the generation born in the immediate aftermath of World War II, which decimated the British economy and infrastructure in a way unimaginable to Americans. And while the Beatles at least maintained a proper sense of public decorum at the beginning, with their matching suits and charming personalities and cinematic hijinks, the Stones were shrewdly positioned as ruffians who threatened the very British Empire that the Beatles had famously been made Members of (complete with John Lennon's gentle jibe to the wealthier members of the audience to rattle their jewelry instead of applauding).
One of the most fascinating of Russell's historical discussions is that of the American intersections of race and ethnicity, from the transition from slavery for African-Americans to the assimilation of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants into the white American mainstream. The stererotype of Blacks as lazy and averse to physical labor, while paradoxically seemingly tireless when it comes to other physical activities (music, dancing, sports, sexual activity), was repeatedly applied to the above immigrant groups (it's still almost surreal to think of Jewish New York as the center of college basketball in the 1940's), until such time as they were able to quell those passions which eminent scientists had previously ascribed to innate physical characteristics, and take their place among the civilized Anglo and Germanic "races." Meanwhile, from Reconstruction forward through the Civil Rights Movement, "responsible" Black leaders and their White counterparts, many of them Christian ministers, strove to instill "respectable" values in their followers.
Keith Richards draws a remarkable portrait of the Stones' first American tour, in the summer of 1964 (still before the breakout of "Satisfaction," arguably the first truly iconic original Stones song penned by Jagger and Richards). Politically, Lyndon Johnson was headed to a historic electoral trouncing of Barry Goldwater, paving the way for the historical federal civil rights legislation of the next year. Still a year removed from Malcolm X's assassination and the Gulf of Tonkin deception and Resolution, but the Berkeley Free Speech Movement is thriving and many young blacks are embracing the militancy of Malcolm and the nascent Black Power movement. But none of these are mentioned in Life. Instead, "The first thing I did was visit Colony Records and buy every Lenny Bruce album I could find," (p. 149). Bruce was, of course, a classic American renegade (unfortunately unmentioned by Russell, who skips over the comedy revolution of Bruce, Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl and others), a profound artist whose satirical content, inspired vulgarity and drug-fueled lifestyle made him a reluctantly political free-speech hero and dovetailed nicely with some of Richards' later travails.
Keith's American experience, meanwhile, is anchored by Black music: "Motown was our food, on the road and off. Listening to car radios through a thousand miles to get to the next gig. That was the beauty of America. We used to dream of it before we got there," (p. 150). Not the ecstatic language of Jack Kerouac, but still very much in the spirit of the Beats and their contemporaries (including Lenny Bruce) in cultural, rather than distinctly political, revolution. The Stones were introduced to marijuana on this tour, sparred with Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin and numerous jealous, crew-cut boyfriends at concerts across the South and Midwest, and Keith picked up his first gun at a truck stop. An American renegade is born.
Rock and roll and rhythm and blues are, of course, musics that are experienced viscerally and physically, an insight that Mick Jagger probably realizes as well as anyone on the planet. But I think the connection between the physical and the political is still vastly misunderstood and underestimated. Early twentieth-century anarchist agitator Emma Goldman famously said she wanted no part of a revolution she couldn't dance to, and the French revolt in May of 1968 that almost brought down the De Gaulle government (which inspired the Stones' "Street Fighting Man") had its genesis in conflicts at a suburban Parisian university over co-ed dorms, but many still insist on drawing a clear line between the cultural and political revolutions of the 1960's. But Thaddeuss Russell does a lot to obliterate that line, never more convincingly than when discussing Stonewall and Gay Liberation.
While early gay rights groups like the Mattachine Society insisted on respectable forms of protest and conventional lifestyles from those representing them publicly, gay bars in major cities were almost exclusively operated by the Mafia, in a classic case of renegade quid pro quo. While the motivation was typically financial, there were exceptions, Russell cites several examples of mobsters ("Fat Tony" Lauria, "Big Bobby," Vito Genovese's lesbian wife Anna Petillo Vernotico) whose interest was more personal, as well. The Stonewall's manager was an ex-con "known for his fondness for black and Latino men, which contributed to the Stonewall's reputation as the most racially diverse bar—gay or straight—in New York City," (p. 235).
On June 28, 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall defied the police during a raid that was as much a Mafia shakedown operation as a vice squad action, according to Russell. But the highlight of the confrontation, and "one of the great renegade moments in American history," according to Russell, was a Radio City Music Hall-style kick line in the face of N.Y.P.D. riot cops. The participants pretty much got their asses kicked. They most likely didn't know that they were kick-starting the Gay Liberation movement and that their lives would never be the same again. But some of them may have known, in some deep, subterranean, subconscious way. Sometimes you just have to go all renegade on them.
That was an interesting choice to select books of two vastly different subjects, albeit with similar themes, for one review. It seems to me that a stronger focus on the defiance of authority, that loosely connects these two books would have made the review a bit more intelligible. As it is, the reader is moving back and forth from the subject of a person who has led a nomadic existence to the subject of groups within a fixed territory. I suppose there are ways to make smoother transitions between these disparate levels of analysis, but none come to mind. Apparently, they didn't occur to the reviewer either.
Although I haven't read the 'renegade history of the usa' book, I'm quite familiar with 20th century labor history in the usa, and have a passing knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and the modern Women's Liberation movement. I did read Mr. Richards' autobiography shortly after it was available. And so, I find it perplexing that two paragraphs were devoted to Robert Frank, who is a minor character, at most, in Mr. Richards' autobiography. Using him to link the two books is more than a little tenuous. It has also been stated by subjects in Mr. Frank's cult docu-pic of the STP '72 that many of the scenes were staged for the sole purpose of giving the filmmaker some footage of 'decadent behavior' because hours and hours of film showing them rehearsing, playing concerts, eating, traveling, doing some drugs, and sleeping didn't provide the proper footage for an avant garde cinematic artiste.
While the theme of defying authority gives a sort of superstructure to Richards' autobiography, the content deals with the personal experiences and memories of his exceptional life. One that is quite unique and for some of us, inspirational. Probably the strongest part of the review is the excerpt about the madame whose business acumen afforded her a life of liberty and comfort. The achievement of one's liberty in spite of moralistic obstacles and antagonistic entrenched interests resonates quite well with the early period of the Rolling Stones, and so, of Mr. Richards. Perhaps some of the other main characters in the 'renegade history' would would make notable comparisons to Mr. Richards, but as the reviewer states, the book is 'a renegade history of the usa,' and not 'renegades in usa history.' The difference between the two is much greater than the sematics would imply.
The point being that Mr. Richards appears to have succeeded at what he hoped to achieve, probably even much more than he ever imagined. One perceptive idea the reviewer mentioned in the introduction is that movements tend to have an internal negation that ultimately compromises the original ideals. If the citation of Mr. Richards meeting the Clintons on the set of the Scorcese film is meant to show that his 'renegade' lifestyle has been compromised, it seems to be a pretty weak example. If such was the reveiewer's intention, it hardly provides adequate support for the suggestion that, like many other renegades of social movements, Mr. Richards has become compromised by his own success. It simply shows that he doesn't give a fuck how people imagine him, nor the labels they attach to him. Besides, if you noticed in the bonus footage of the Shina a Light DVD, while Mr. Jagger is conversing with the Clintons ('talking heroin with the president, it's a problem sir, but it can be beat'), Mr. Richards is sitting alone on a chair about 10 meters away from them and playing guitar.
To sum it up, I see the history of Mr. Richards as one of independence and integrity, while the history of the usa, renegade or otherwise, is one largely of shame and failure. Perhaps the reviewer's intention was to show the contrasts between Mr. Richards' history and that of failed or duplicitous renegades in usa history by citing the appeasers within the Civil Rights Movement, Progressive movements in the usa that challenged the status quo have invariably met with brutal violence, and if not that, then they've been subject to heavy surveillance or infiltration by the government to subvert their programs. While I uisually find teleological arguments to be antithetical to sound reasoning, it seems that a country built on land stolen from the original inhabitants and its incipient economy based on slave labor could hardly have a felicitous outcome. One need only see the beatific smile on Mr. Richards' face as he strums his guitar alone at the close Of Mr. Scorcese's film to realize that the idea of him as a 'renegade' probably never crosses his mind. It's just the deracination of an old image that holds little relevance for the man today, yet continues to provide a subject for writers under deadlines with little time for research.
How can I find out the bio of the author Mike Parker?