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Around forty years ago, Keith Richards was considered the next most likely rock'n'roll star to succumb to drugs. However the man has defied all the odds in staying alive, and continuing to do what he has been doing for almost half a century. In the process, he has earned the sometimes grudging, sometimes unqualified respect of those who would once never given him the time of day.
This memoir, or at least the opening paragraphs, begin(s) in 1975. It was one of many years when the Rolling Stones were touring America. What was so remarkable about it was that, in Keith's words, open season had just been declared on the most dangerous rock'n'roll band in the world, for inciting riots, gross behaviour, and even appearing on stage dressed in the Stars and Stripes. There is no greater crime against humanity or the common good...well, if you're an American. Ironically, turn to the back flap of the book and you will learn that the contrary old geezer now lives in Connecticut. Like it or not, Uncle Sam now has him as one of his citizens.
From that little prelude, we take a leisurely ride through almost seven decades of hell-raising in one form or another. The wartime baby, an only child born in Dartford, Kent, a former choirboy whose first, er, major gig was at Westminster Abbey - the Queen's Coronation - grew up fascinated by music, inspired by the blues and by the early records of Elvis Presley. His childhood memories on the south-east edge of post-war London then give way to the days of roughing it in a run-down flat during the freezing cold winter of 1962-63 as he and his friends, inspired by the R'n'B scene which was taking over from trad jazz, decided to form what would become one of the most durable groups of all time. He has plenty to say on their rebel stance, underlining the fact that the Stones originally regarded themselves as anti-pop, anti-ballroom, taking pride in being a genuine blues band and not enjoying the experience of being screamed at onstage by teenagers as if they were ersatz Beatles, or having to lip-synch to their records on TV. Still, the lure of the pound and the dollar was too strong. They wanted to sell records, so they had to play the showbiz game. Yet there were limits as to how far they would be tamed, as their notoriously boorish appearance on David Jacobs' normally genteel 'Juke Box Jury' on TV amply proved.
I was glad that he had plenty to say on the pivotal year of 1967, the year of the notorious drug busts and trials. He tells us that he used to believe in law and order, the British Empire and the incorruptibility of Scotland Yard. The massive corruption that was endemic in certain sections of the police, and which came to light at that time, soon changed his mind. As for press and TV crews arriving just before, not after, a knock on Brian Jones's door by the boys in blue with the arrest warrant, and the myths about Marianne Faithfull and the Mars Bar, that probably says it all. The Beatles, with their MBEs, were for a while the great untouchables, and the Stones were therefore turned into martyrs and folk heroes overnight. As I had anticipated, this was (for me at least) one of the most interesting sections of the book.
There is much about the subsequent drug offences that peppered his career up to the late 1970s, when the group's future looked in jeopardy, and about the women who came in and out of his life. But it is a long book, and he also devotes a good deal of space about the various personnel changes, from Brian Jones's increasing self-detachment, being asked to leave and subsequent death, to Mick Taylor's replacing him - the latter being a great guitarist, but never really fitting in with the rest of them as a personality (and, what Keith doesn't tell us, rightly resenting being denied a fair sum in royalties as some songs should have credited Taylor as joint writer but never did), from Ron Wood taking up the subsequent vacancy, to Bill Wyman's calling it a day many years later. He also discusses his and Mick Jagger's development as songwriters, from writing slushy, pretty ballads like 'As Tears Go By' for Marianne Faithfull, to the more cutting edge material which gave them some of their greatest hits.
Needless to say, there are no punches pulled about his love-hate relationship with Sir Mick. The latter is portrayed as a shameless opportunist, the one who hung out in New York discos and was behind their jumping shamelessly on the disco bandwagon with songs like 'Miss You' (admittedly their most successful single on both sides of the Atlantic for several years), the one who took advantage of Richards's preoccupation with the court cases as a result of his heroin possession to seize control of the group, and then decided a few years later that he would put his efforts at a solo career above his commitment to them. The impression is of two men like chalk and cheese who openly and fiercely disagree about much, and who might have to be forcibly separated if left together in the same room too long, yet despite that have turned it to their advantage in keeping the sparks flying and the group going as an institution. In short, they succeeded for many years after their rivals John Lennon and Paul McCartney could no longer work together.
In a review like this, I can do little more but touch on some of the most interesting aspects. It's a very full book, and if you're a Stones fan you will certainly not be disappointed. Richards and Fox tell the story with irony, humour, admittedly regular expletives, and to the guitarist's credit a certain amount of self-deprecation. It was probably one of the most eagerly awaited music memoirs of the last few years, and I don't see anyone being shortchanged. Keith Richards may not be the easiest colleague to work with, but he has given us a pretty enthralling, extremely lively read.
[Revised version of review I originally published on ciao and Bookbag]
Rock n roll stars just aren't what they were. Nickelback wrote a song called "Rock Star" which focused on the clichéd lifestyle of wine, women and song. Written by a Canadian band who themselves live a rather clean and focused existence, it must have been inspired in no small way by the lifestyle of one man in particular - Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones.
In the 60s and 70s this man was the poster child for those who wanted to be not only a rock star but to live the rock star life. He was a target for the establishment not only here in the UK but the world over due to his known drug use yet he somehow managed to remain professional throughout. Not for Richards the slurring, drunken performances Amy Winehouse turns in. He had several very close shaves with the law but with the exception a night in Wormwood Scrubs, managed to evade jail. Perhaps even more miraculously is the fact he managed to survive almost constant drug use for over 40 years and lives a happy and contented life in the suburbs with his wife, children and grandchildren.
The famous adage about the sixties was if you could remember it, you weren't there but if ever a character from that era comes along and busts the myth, it's Keith Richards. He wasn't just there - he was a major part of it and while Mick Jagger remains the iconic front man of the Rolling Stones, there wouldn't have been no Rolling Stones without Richards too.
When I first read his memoirs were being published I was intrigued and several times I nearly bought the hardback but my tight fistedness always got the better of me. I am not lying however when I say I bought this in paperback the day it came out, such was my desire to read about the man I believe is the lynchpin of the Rolling Stones.
~~A Bit about Keef~~
Keith was born in Dartford in December 1943 to Doris and Bert Richards. He was an only child and he always had a bit of a rebellious streak. It became apparent that Keith and school were not a good mix at a fairly early stage.
Keith met Mick Jagger at primary school but their friendship didn't become particularly strong until they were teenagers and they bonded over rare American blues records. Keith had started to play the guitar in childhood, spurred on by his maternal grandfather Gus, who was a musician.
Once Mick and Keith had hooked up they decided to start a band which evolved over time into what would eventually become the Rolling Stones, who were launched onto an unsuspecting British public in 1963. In comparison to the Beatles, the Stones were portrayed as the "bad boys" in the press - although to be fair they didn't really need much in the way of encouragement to live the rock star life to the full.
Over the years Keith went from hash and acid to a full blown heroin addiction and by his own admission he didn't actually give up hard drugs altogether until five years ago. In between he shacked up with a fellow band member's girlfriend, got busted by the police for drug abuse several times, wrote some of the most iconic songs of the era, toured the world, beat heroin addiction and eventually married a super model.
"Life" is a co write with James Fox, a London based journalist Richards has been friends with for many years. This is an inspired choice as it becomes apparent quite early on that Richards had an excellent rapport with Fox from the prose contained within.
The book starts with a bust in Arkansas in the 1970s with Richards explaining how the Rolling Stones machine - which by this time was enormous - was able to call upon the help of the best lawyers to outwit a police force which was both redneck and cack handed. This works brilliantly as a scene setter - leaving the reader wondering how Richards went from former Dartford choir boy to this.
We find out over the next 600 pages in a book which meanders at a leisurely pace through Richards' life but is never dull - well certainly I never found it dull.
Fox alternates between sections where it seems he is quoting Richards almost verbatim from interrviews to sections which are more traditional prose. These interview sections are rather easy to spot - Richards uses a lot of colloquiasms in his speech and there are some who won't like his rather non politically correct way of referring to women at times. It didn't particularly bother me because for all he describes whatever woman he is in a relationship with as "the old lady" or groupies as "bitches" he comes across as actually a very decent bloke who has a lot of respect for the opposite sex. If you read these terms and don't take the context into account, you may well be offended however.
I am so glad Fox has allowed Richards' voice to be heard - it's something that really adds to the honesty of this book - and I believe that's important because the one thing that really struck me almost as soon as I started reading "Life" was the fact this isn't a book designed to make Keith Richards come across as some kind of god. Instead the reader is introduced to a warts and all book and it's refreshing candour and honesty puts the reader on side from the off.
Where there are gaps in Richards' memory Fox covers this with memories from friends or family members. Some letters and notebook entries which have survived over the years also flesh out the story - and yes, I must admit I was amazed at Richards keeping a notebook!
Richards' memories of his youth and family in Dartford are colourful and enjoyable. His memories of listening to Radio Luxembourg in bed will strike a chord with many of his generation as his love of Elvis and rock n roll emerges. What becomes apparent from these memories quickly is Richards' unconditional love of music - and his lifelong curiosity with it.
There are sections where he talks in depth about the recording process, about different styles of guitar playing and about the music genres he loves and what he loves about them. If you are reading this book to learn about the drug busts and how Keith stole Anita Pallenberg away from Brian Jones you might find these sections boring. If, like me, you love music, you will be riveted because Richards' love of music is, quite frankly, contagious.
He also doesn't attempt any fake humility which is so prevalent in so many autobiographies - he doesn't have to do this because the book just accepts his life has been exceptional and most likely encapsulates the term "living the dream" for so many people. He also doesn't apologise for the way he has lived his life and reserves many barbed comments for the establishment in the UK - especially in the section regarding the infamous bust at his Redlands home in 1967 but also directs venom in the direction of the Canadian authorities and several local American police departments.
When you read "Life" at times you do have to wonder how on earth did this prodigious drug taker survive? Richards' own take on this is the fact he could afford the best drugs - not for him street heroin which had been cut several times over with cheaper substitutes to maximise profits. And it was also the fact he took the good stuff that actually enabled him to be a functioning addict - along with the fact he was smart enough to know he only needed a certain amount to get him through the day. As a result he was always able to perform with the band, was always able to create songs - but he left the organisational stuff to the rest of the band. He perfectly epitomises the term "elegantly wasted".
This, however, put Mick Jagger in the driving seat within the Rolling Stones, something Richards didn't appreciate until he finally kicked heroin for good. The book does discuss Jagger periodically and it becomes apparent early on that a relationship that was built on childhood friendship and emerged into a song writing partnership immortalised as the Glimmer Twins became fractious towards the end of the 1960s.
Jagger seems to have resented Richards working with or becoming friends with anyone else. Richards was a very close friend and associate of Gram Parsons, and he recalls Jagger's open animosity towards Parsons. I remember reading Marianne Faithfull's autobiography several years ago and although she was Mick's girlfriend for several years, she placed a great deal of emphasis in her book on the one time she slept with Keith. Richards doesn't put anything like as much importance on this event in his book but he does mention it in the same breath where he surmises that Jagger was physically involved with Anita Pallenberg as they filmed "Performance".
Richards' isn't openly hostile about Jagger but nor does he sugar coat his feelings about him, and his thoughts on Jagger's knighthood go a little further than just rolling his eyes. Keith Richards would never accept such an honour - but then again Keith Richards isn't, in essence, a middle class lad who never really left the establishment as Jagger is.
Richards is quite open when speaking of his love and respect for Charlie Watts however - and his relief at Watts' remission from cancer is palpable. He speaks fondly of Ronnie Wood too - but also candidly about Ronnie's drug taking and addictions, with a rare expression of mild disapproval over Wood freebasing crack cocaine. He openly admits that Bill Wyman was by and large a mystery to him - the quiet man in every way. He also recalls vividly the breakdown in his - and Jagger's - relationship with Brian Jones.
Richards describes his relationship with Anita Pallenberg and how he essentially "stole" her from Brian Jones with brutal honesty. He recalls walking from his flat in St John's Wood, through Hyde Park, to Brian and Anita's place off the Gloucester Road. You can almost feel his own excitement and happiness as this relationship blossomed - and his relationship with Jones fractured forever. This period is of particular interest as through his relationship with Pallenberg and as the Stones became superstars, Richards mixed with some fascinating company.
Richards and Pallenberg had three children together, with youngest son Tara dying of a cot death at just three months old. Richards clearly is still affected by this loss 35 years on and this section is deeply moving. His eldest son Marlon spent a lot of time on the road with Richards and recalls his chaotic childhood in the book. Daughter Dandelion, who quite rightly rebelled against the name and instead goes by the name Angela, ended up being raised in Dartford by Richards' mother Doris as Richards and Pallenberg descended into full blown heroin addiction.
I like how Richards doesn't make excuses for his behaviour then - but nor does he apologise for it. Reading the book you realise if he's got any apologies to make he'll make them to the people concerned and leave the public hand wringing to others. He candidly records the break up of his relationship with Pallenberg and later on tenderly recalls the start of his relationship with Patti Hansen, the woman he married in 1983. His genuine love for Hansen is apparent almost from the first hint of her in the book and it's rather touching - which I must admit I found pleasantly surprising.
In 2006 Richards hit his head after falling from a tree in Fiji. He recalls this and the subsequent treatment he required once it became apparent he had blood clots in his brain. He is incredibly appreciative of the surgeon who operated on him in New Zealand but also puts to bed the myth he fell from a palm tree at great height when instead he was only ever about seven feet off the ground. Still - it has to be said - there's something incredibly cool about someone his age chilling out on the branch of a tree.
What becomes apparent throughout the book is Richards' inherent Britishness. For all the terms stolen from American parlance - such as referring to other musicians as "cats" and the toilet as "the john" - and his time spent at home in Connecticut - his voice always comes across loud and clear as an Englishman, right down to his recipe for bangers and mash. And this leads me to my one criticism of the book - the fact that although it's written by two Englishmen, it's in American English with Americanised spellings. I am starting to see this more and more in books and it's becoming something I find increasingly annoying and can only conclude it's done as a cost cutting measure.
This is a tiny criticism - and not one that I can in all fairness direct at Richards or Fox as it's a publishing issue.
This is quite possibly one of the best autobiographies I have ever read thanks to the likeability of the subject - and his ability to transcend the fact he was top of the list featuring people presumed most likely to die for ten years straight - but most importantly due to the honesty in the writing.
Keith Richards is someone who has led an extraordinary life and unlike so many people who think because they have appeared on a reality TV show or had one hit single they have somehow earned the right to a book deal, Richards actually has a real story to tell with some incredible achievements along with some quite spectacular highs and lows in his career.
He also puts to bed many of the myths surrounding him, including the story he had his blood changed in a Swiss clinic, and of course the long held belief that Marianne Faithfull was up to no good with a Mars bar during the Redlands bust.
What he doesn't hide is his genuine love of music and his almost sponge like ability to learn about it - something he still doing at an age when most people are drawing their old age pension. While he still loves his beloved blues, his knowledge of many genres is impressive. He speaks with incredible and genuine warmth about those who have inspired him throughout his career and it's this sincerity which doesn't even make you think he's dropping names. But then again - he's Keith Richards - there's not many musicians with a bigger name than that.
"Keef" as he has affectionately been nicknamed has always been my favourite Stone first of all because he was the best looking but then because I honestly believe he's one of the best guitarists ever. His looks may well have faded but unlike so many rockers he's embraced his lines and just carried on playing. Give me Keef's gnarled and lived in face over Steve Tyler or Brett Michaels' surgically enhanced features any day.
"Life" confirms his status as the ultimate rock n roll survivor but also opens up his world with a candour you cannot help but admire. If you only read one biography on a rock star then it should be "Life" - it's got a subject who has done it all and isn't sorry and says so in a captivating and entertaining way. He may have taken his time getting round to writing this but boy, it was worth it.
Living in an age obsessed with celebrity we seem to be awash with (auto)biographies from people whose only claim to fame is the fact that they are famous and who realistically struggle to fill an average size book with anything of any real worth. Devoid of real life experiences and lacking any insight into character these mercifully thin tomes are often painful to read and always destined for the bargain bin.
Fortunately this is not one of those books, coming in at a hefty 547 pages plus index this biography still gives the impression that it's only scratched the surface of what has been by anyone's standards a life lived to the full. And while this could have been simply a stringing together of anecdotes and an exercise in name-dropping it's actually more of a journey as we follow Keith from his humble beginnings in Dartford through to becoming, arguably, one of the world's greatest rock stars.
The writing style is informal (expect some swearing - not excessive) and reflects the way that Richards talks and relates to life - don't expect politically correct terms when he's referring to women or his drug experiences to be glossed over. But likewise don't expect a misogynistic view or tales glorifying drug taking - this is the story of a life told in straightforward terms by someone who's tackled life straight on. Occasionally he brings in others to recount stories or tales and this works as a good device to avoid an eternal repetition of "I did this", "I did that".
And what a life it's been. For one man to have fitted so much into his 67 (and counting) years is incredible, as Keith himself says "For many years I slept, on average, twice a week. This means that I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes." And who am I to doubt his calculations? It would seem to be the only way he could have done everything he has and still be going strong.
This biography, and Keith's life, can in reality be seen as a number of contiguous, complimenting and conflicting love stories - Keith and Doris, Keith and Music, Keith and Mick, Keith and his Women, Keith and Drugs.
KEITH AND DORIS
Doris is Keith's mum and instilled into him a love of music from an early age, playing tracks by Ella Fitzgerald, Big Bill Broonzy and the like - "My ears would have gone there anyway, but my mum trained them to go to the black side of town without her even knowing it".
Throughout the book she's there in the background, washing clothes for the Rolling Stones whilst demonstrating washing machines, bringing up his daughter Angela for 20 years, making sure Keith and the X-Pensive Winos actually do some work in the recording studio, right up to the final pages of the book where she lays dying but can still comment on Keith's guitar playing.
KEITH AND MUSIC
What I really learnt from this book was how much Keith loves his music both in his head and in his heart. Whether he's letting the songs come to him through the ether or taking a technical approach to guitar playing in order to understand how sounds interact, it's obvious that he just 'gets' music.
Keith - "It's totally subconscious, unconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room.............That's a song. It just flows in."
I remember in the 70s my dad had a copy of Rolled Gold (a Decca cash cow 'Best of') and the sleeve notes referred to the Stones' 'strangely tuned guitars' - it's only now that I've read this book that I understand what they were talking about. In his quest for the perfect sound Keith was introduced to 'open tuning' and subsequently has played on guitars with only five strings. This is written in such an interesting and loving way that even I (as a non-muso) sort of understand the principle!
KEITH AND MICK
Mick is like the brother that Keith never had. The papers picked up on their deteriorating relationship (and the size of Mick's todger) in reviews of this book but the reality is much more than that. They need each other to develop the music that ultimately works best for them both. Life gets in the way of the relationship in the form of women, Keith's use of drugs, Mick's subsequent control of the Stones and developing 'Lead Vocalist Syndrome' but beneath it all Keith recognises that they need each other like brothers. Like brothers they love each other, but that doesn't mean that they always have to like each other.
Keith (on Jagger wanting to be more like Bowie) - "Why would you want to be anyone else if you're Mick Jagger? Is being the greatest entertainer in show business not enough?..........It's fascinating. I can't figure it out"
KEITH AND WOMEN
This book isn't a 'kiss and tell'. There is mention of groupies but it would be fair to say that if Keith was given the choice of sex, drugs or rock 'n' roll he would take them in reverse order every time. The two big love affairs are with Anita Pallenberg and Patti Hansen both of which are revealed in some detail here.
His time with Anita starts with him 'stealing' her from Brian Jones, we then follow their adventures with drugs and each other until their life together begins its decent into a private hell - the death of their son, Anita's drug problems, the death of her boyfriend playing Russian roulette.
With Patti the route is reversed somewhat with the difficulties that had to be overcome with her family - would you want a Rolling Stone to marry your daughter? - before their relationship blossomed into the family life that continues to this day.
KEITH AND DRUGS
This book doesn't shy away from tackling Keith relationship with drugs, indeed it begins with a drugs bust in the 70s, but it doesn't overtly glamorise drugs either. For all the descriptions of staying up for days on end, the insights that drugs give and the fellowship of the druggy, there are also accounts of friends dying, getting away from deals gone wrong and the nightmare of going cold turkey (more than once).
This book recognises the influence that drugs have had on Keith and his life but it records them as fact, something that you would expect in a biography (and on the off chance that any Disney executives are reading this - just because of all the drug references in this book are you really going to drop Keith from the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Grow up and grow some.)
This book is recommended to anyone who has even a passing interest in music. Whether you like the Rolling Stones or not is immaterial, this is a book about life, love, mistakes, relationships and, ultimately, contentment.
If there's one man in the entire world who might be expected not to remember the sixties despite - or because of - having been there, it's Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. Similarly the seventies. And the other decades since. As he himself says: "the ultimate party, if it's any good, you can't remember it."
All of which makes Life, his recently published autobiography, a remarkable feat of memory. It's also a remarkable feat of narrative, as - with the acknowledged assistance of a 'co-writer' - he keeps the reader turning more than five hundred pages of reminiscences couched in racy, colloquial, expletive-splattered style. One's appetite for anecdotes of the rock star life might easily become sated by the seemingly endless succession of gigs, girls, drugs busts and band bust-ups, recording sessions and tours, fights and feuds, but somehow it does not. Attention is held by the author's unfailing candour, sharpness of observation and turn of phrase, and by the sense that he really does care more about his music than about the concomitant stardom and lifestyle. For anyone with more than a passing interest in popular music (as opposed to 'pop' music, any involvement in which Richards would vehemently deny) this book is essential reading.
* Start me up *
Rather cunningly, the story doesn't begin at the beginning, but cuts straight to an episode in Arkansas during the band's 1975 American tour when Richards was arrested with fellow-guitarist Ronnie Wood in a car full of illegal substances, only to escape without charge. This is, I'm sure, to give a flavour of what is to follow before reverting to a more conventional chronological framework. Otherwise, the passages describing his family background and childhood might have seemed as drab as the backstreets of estuarial Dartford on which Richards grew up.
Predictably, the story first comes alive when a shared taste in Rhythm and Blues brings him together with fellow-Dartfordian Mick Jagger and propels them onto the fringes of the London music scene where they fall in with like-minded Brian Jones. Based on a "truly disgusting" flat in nether Chelsea the trio played for pennies in whatever shady venue would have them while a band of compatible taste and talent coagulated (Richards' own word) around them. As for dedication to the music, one learns variously that "it was a mania. Benedictines had nothing on us" and that "the Blues are not learned in a monastery". This is not the only point on which message seems a little mixed; there is a similar mismatch between their rejection of traditional Blues purism to embrace a more populist style and their disdain for the merely 'pop'. The lines along which the boundaries are drawn seem arbitrary, even self-serving, but maybe the music that resulted is justification enough for that.
* Satisfaction *
"Our first aim as the Rolling Stones was to be the best rhythm and blues band in London, with regular gigs every week. But the main aim was somehow to get to make records." And get to make records they did, once the well-connected Andrew Loog Oldham took an interest in the band. Even then though, Richards attributes Oldham's clinching of a deal for them with the Decca label to the fact that Decca had missed a chance to sign the Beatles and the big-wigs there couldn't run the risk of being seen to make the same mistake twice. The management's initial intention to make them like the Beatles (at that time all matching suits and neat haircuts) fell at the first hurdle of their refusal to comply. "We're not going to be the Fab Four, all wearing the same shit. Everybody's too cute and they all wear uniforms and it's all showbiz." Their intention was to preserve their authenticity, but the timing was accidentally inspired, hitting a moment in the mood of youth when to be seen as rude and rebellious suddenly became an advantage.
In no time their records were charting and they were touring, any difficulties they might have had musically adapting to bigger venues being drowned out by shrieking audiences of hysterical girls. "One night somewhere up north... I remember walking back out onto the stage after the show, and they'd cleaned up all the underwear and everything, and there was one old janitor and he said: 'Very good show. Not a dry seat in the house.'" Richards hides neither his satisfaction in suddenly becoming the object of such adulation nor his ambivalence about it: "...you took that for granted every night. That was the gig. It could have been anybody, quite honestly. They didn't give a shit that I was trying to be a blues player."
* Can you hear the music? *
Many of the stories Richards recounts will be already familiar to fans, since they have been covered before by other sources, but their depiction here is no less lively for that. As with the drugs bust at Richards' house in Sussex where Marianne Faithful was found clad in a fur rug ("more dressed than she'd been all day") but no Mars Bar. Similarly, when Richards and Jagger were locked by Oldham in a kitchen to encourage them to compose an original song - before then they'd been drawing on existing material: "We spent the whole night in that goddamn kitchen, and I mean, we're the Rolling Stones, like the blues kings, and we've got some food, piss out of the window or down the sink, it's no big deal. And I said, 'if we want to get out of here, Mick, we better come up with something.'" A half-hearted beginning for such a fecund partnership. And so on through the American tour that culminated in mayhem at Altamont Speedway, hitching up with Anita Pallenberg on a jaunt to Morocco, the ditching and subsequent death of Brian Jones, decamping to France to escape penal taxation and the making of Exile on Main Street in the cellar of Richards' rented villa on the Cote d'Azur.
What will be less familiar are the insights Richards offers into the musical process, both composing and playing, and his interaction with other musicians, both inside and outside the band. His collaborations were never limited to the other members of the Stones, and some passages read like a musical who's who of the era, though it is good to see Richards include many obscure names for whom he has a regard as well as famous ones. But again there is a friction, in this case between the refreshingly down-to-earth (e.g. "that's one of the great things about songwriting; it's not an intellectual experience") and the pretentious (e.g. "sometimes I think songwriting is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack"). In fairness, though, the pretentious bits are few and far between.
* You got the silver *
"My idea has never been to make money. Originally it was, do we make enough to pay for the guitar strings? And later on, do we make enough to put on the kind of show we want to put on?" Nevertheless, the rewards of stardom clearly had their uses, as when Richards was "poncing around in my Bentley," in Sussex, stumbles across a house he likes, ascertains that the owner is willing to sell and comes back with the asking price in cash later that day to do the deal. Naturally, this is just one among a succession of desirable residences around the world.
Money was also evidently useful in paying for lawyers to help extricate him from a number of scrapes with the law, though in some instances fame and connections seem to have been more helpful still. Not to mention the bone-headed vindictiveness of the authorities. The Canadian Mounties blew their case against him by insisting on charging him with trafficking as well as possession, while at his first trial in Britain "the judge managed to turn me into some folk hero overnight. I've been playing up to it ever since." Nevertheless, in case a bone-headed judge is insufficient: "I need a jury that's at least half full of rock-and-roll guitar players to have anybody know what the fuck I'm talking about." This smacks of the interpretation of Magna Carta in 1066 And All That: 'that the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.'
* Brown sugar *
Of course, drugs play a prominent role in Richards' story. The full list reads like a pharmaceutical catalogue, but his mainstay became an injected cocktail of heroin and cocaine known as a 'speedball'. Regular heroin intake naturally incurred addiction, which, after several abortive attempts - graphically described - he finally overcame as long ago as 1978. Cocaine continued into the current century, until an accident (falling out of a tree in Fiji) necessitated brain surgery and circumscribed his hectic habits generally. The wonder is that they - and he - lasted so long. Way back in 1973 he had topped the New Musical Express list of the top ten rock stars most likely to die. "That was the only chart on which I was Number One for 10 years in a row. I was kind of proud of that position. I was really disappointed when I went down. Oh my God, it's over."
Richards attributes his longevity against the odds to his having the money and connections to obtain chemically pure drugs rather than the adulterated versions for sale on the street. Unlike many reformed addicts, he has no regrets. About this, as about his other excesses, his approach is not confessional, still less contrite. Nor, I think, is he justifying himself. Conceivably he's boasting, though if so very subtly. Mostly, he seems to be simply telling it as it was, uninterested in whether others approve or disapprove. This helps to make Life the compelling read it is.
* Sparks will fly *
[Being famous] "was very difficult to handle, and I could handle it better on smack. Mick chose flattery, which is very like junk - a departure from reality." There are many fallings-out described in Life - reading between the lines one rather senses that Richards may not be the easiest of characters to get along with - but the most significant was with Mick Jagger, his earliest collaborator and the other creative force within the band. Relations between the two have apparently been on a hostile footing since the late 1970s, a hostility that Richards blames on Jagger for allegedly seeking to control everything, for seeking self-glorification, for seeking a solo career. Possibly Jagger might retort that someone needed to control things, given Richards' drug-fuelled state of mind.
Remarkably, despite all this they've managed to work together, both performing and writing songs for decades since, though most of their best work predates the row. Richards characterises their interaction as being that of brothers, who don't have to like each other to have a relationship. But their respect for each other evidently reached a nadir when Jagger accepted the respectability of a knighthood, much to Richards' disgust: "The Mick that I grew up with, here's a guy who'd say shove all your little honors up your arse." By contrast, Richards still perceives himself as an outlaw, a pirate, upholding the original spirit of the band. At the end of the book, there are no fewer than 141 acknowledgements: "My thanks to the following for their help with Life, then and now..." Mick Jagger's name is not among them.
* Jigsaw puzzle *
Life is very skilfully constructed, which may be the main contribution of the co-author, James Fox. The 'voice' is unmistakably that of Richards himself, as I hope the quotations above will illustrate: forthright, irreverent, sometimes witty and curiously charming despite his combativeness and occasional callousness. The language is conversational, spiced not only with swear-words but with slang from many milieux and periods; some contemporary, some (like 'chicks' or 'old lady' for girl-friend) sounding very old-fashioned even to an old man - not much younger than Richards himself - like me. The book reads as if spoken and I imagine (we are not told) that Richards mostly dictated it, leaving Fox to edit and arrange. If so, he did a brilliant job. The pieces are put together to ensure not only easy readability, but easy comprehension of a complicated, multi-charactered narrative. The pace neither slackens nor tires the reader as it hurries onwards. The pauses for reflection - insofar as Richards bothers to pause for reflection - are perfectly timed.
* You can't always get what you want *
Life, by Keith Richards 'with James Fox' is published in the UK by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. Cover price for the hardback (564pp) is £20, though it can be found new for as little as £8 on the net. There is a paperback edition due out in May priced at £7.99.
* It's all over now *
If you're interested in rock music, you should read this book; you'll find it both engrossing and worthwhile. It gives a blow-by-blow account of arguably the genre's most significant band, whichever of its many meanings you ascribe to the word 'blow'. Richards' style and subject-matter are not for those of delicate sensibilities, but those of delicate sensibilities are unlikely to be among those interested in any case.
Life is, though, just personal and musical history, not history of any other kind. Richards doesn't pretend to be a philosopher, and has little to say about the wider social trends and issues of the era. After all is said and done, Life is only rock'n roll. But I like it.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2011