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Keith Richards And Stephen Sondheim Share A Moment

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Keef: What he shares with Sondheim
Reading the memoirs, back to back, of Keith Richards and Stephen Sondheim produces the cultural bends you might expect.

Sondheim's Finishing the Hat is a meticulous study of lyric writing -- and it's not intended to be full-fledged memoir -- while Richards' Life is a freewheeling stew of anecdotes meant to be read in the guitarist's wheezy, tobacco'd-chuckling semi-coherent voice.

Both are terrific. Neither has anything to do with each other.

Except for one key passage.

Both writers talk about creating songs. Sondheim's book is full of reprints of his notebooks, where seemingly dozens of attempted rhymes are tried out as he writes a verse. Richards' book is eloquent when it comes to the chords and riffs of writing a rock song, but lyrics are left to the wayside.

Richards writes rock songs -- taking lyrical ideas from a snippet of conversation, from a feeling of longing in his heart, from trying to express general feelings of love or hate or ecstasy or blues.

Sondheim, famously, has never written a lyric that expresses his own feelings -- he is always writing what a specific character in a specific situation, set up by the playwright, would express in song.

Neither one is "better" or more culturally important or valuable than the other -- they are writing two utterly different types of art.

But in one passage in Keef's book, he hooks up completely with Sondheim.

Sondheim's book is called Finishing the Hat from a song in Sunday in the Park with George, where the painter Georges Seurat sings of the creative joy of, well, creating.

Richards says the exact same thing, in his own way.

 

Sondheim's Seurat sings, after his girlfriend leaves because he's obsessed with painting (a picture that obviously includes a hat)

And when the woman that you wanted goes, You can say to yourself, "Well, I give what I give." But the women who won't wait for you knows That, however you live, There's a part of you always standing by, Mapping out the sky, Finishing a hat. Starting on a hat. Finishing a hat. Look, I made a hat Where there never was a hat

The song pretty clearly deals with interpersonal relationships, but it also ends with the sheer joy that comes with creating something -- a song, a novel, a hat -- that never existed before.

Keith comes to the same conclusion, when he talks of writing "Happy." While he's mostly concerned with how fast the song came together -- so fast that the rest of the Stones weren't there for the recording -- he still has the same epiphany.

One sublime example of a song winging in from the ether is "Happy." We did that in an afternoon, in only four hours, cut and done. At noon it had never existed. At four o'clock it was on tape.

Ah.

Look, Keef says, I made a hat (in four hours). Where there never was a hat.


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