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Wanna Be a Rock Star?
Life: Keith Richards - Keith Richards
Member Name: rosebud2001
Life: Keith Richards - Keith Richards
Advantages: Tells the story of someone who has lived a full, eventful and truly interesting life
Disadvantages: None - apart from the Americanised English!
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.
Summary: The ultimate rock star autobiography - an absolute must read