Keith Richards's 'Life': An unexpectedly clear look at years as a Rolling Stone
By Keith Richards
Little, Brown. 564 pp. $29.99
Mick Jagger has always looked -- will always look -- like Mick Jagger. But try to connect the glum schoolboy-guitarist of early '60s black-and-white pics with the Keith Richards of today. A heap of living and occasional bouts of near-dying have gone into that flayed, weathered, kohl-eyed visage, whose topography suggests a moonscape irrigated with Jack Daniel's. After half a century on the road, Richards has the face he deserves -- but not, it appears, the brain. Against all pharmaceutical odds, he has held on to a substantial portion of his own history and has turned it into the most scabrously honest and essential rock memoir in a long time.
Then again, where's the competition? The gods of rock-and-roll tend to falter on the printed page. (Even Bob Dylan disappoints.) Maybe that's what comes from being a frontman: Gazing night after night into fame's corona blinds you to everything else. It's the guys prowling around behind you, the Harrisons and the Townshends, who take the fullest measure. How else to explain why Richards's "Life" is almost as densely packed as his life? Seemingly everything is here: the shabby origins in an East London suburb ("Everyone from Dartford is a thief. It runs in the blood"); the brief career as, yes, a boy soprano; the first guitar at 15; the astonishingly rapid rise to fame; the groupies and birds and dealers and sidemen; the booms, the busts, the loves lost and won; the hard-won and faintly miraculous old age.
In some cases, Richards's memories are supplemented by others; on every page, they are shaped by co-writer James Fox. But the voice that emerges is unmistakably the dark lord's: growly and profane and black with comedy. And, for all that, surprisingly charming, particularly in limning the Rolling Stones' origins, which can be traced, mundanely enough, to a fateful encounter in a train station.
Here is how the young Keith described it at the time in a letter to his aunt: "You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles but one mornin' on Dartford Stn. (that's so I don't have to write a long word like station) I was holding one of Chuck's records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs y'know came up to me. He's got every record Chuck Berry ever made and all his mates have too. . . . Anyways the guy on the station, he is called Mick Jagger . . . the greatest R&B singer this side of the Atlantic and I don't mean maybe."
Still teenagers, Mick and Keith were soon recruiting other musicians to their cause -- a guitarist named Brian Jones, a drummer named Charlie Watts -- and spending every hour of every day listening to American blues players, trying to divine the music's secret language. They borrowed their band's name from a Muddy Waters tune, nabbed their first regular gig at a joint called the Crawdaddy Club, and within six weeks they were famous.
Take that, Lennon and McCartney! Small wonder that the Stones were marketed from the very start as "the anti-Beatles," the boys you must never let your daughters marry (and who will, on occasion, resemble your daughters). And through a combination of provocative behavior and equally provocative songs like "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Paint It Black," they got themselves promoted to "most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world," a reputation sealed by the violent 1969 concert at California's Altamont Speedway.
Infamy like this doesn't seem to have bothered Richards too much. And if he's less enthused by fame, he's never shied away from its perks. As a pop star, everything was vouchsafed to him: other people's clothes; other people's women; a battery of lawyers to bail him out every time he was arrested; a posse of enablers, leaving him free to do what he did best, which was to make music and get high. He undertook getting high with particular gusto: first weed and hash, then coke ("pure, pure Merck") and, for a ruinous decade, heroin. Even by rock standards, his consumption levels were Olympian. For a decade, he topped a magazine's list of "rock stars most likely to die."
And yet here he is, defiantly alive, and defiant in every other respect, too, his language just as politically incorrect, his judgments every bit as summary. The late Brian Jones: a whiner. Hugh Hefner: "What a nut." Bianca Jagger: "If she'd had a sense of humor, I'd have married her!" John Lennon: "a silly sod" who never left Richards's house "except horizontally." As for Anita Pallenberg, the model/actress/addict who bore three of Richards's children, family-newspaper decorum prevents me from repeating the author's opinions (even the nice ones).
By far the most complex and threshed-out relationship is the one between those two kids at the Dartford train station. They found early on that they were perfectly matched as songwriters -- Richards provided the riffs and chords, Jagger the lyrics -- but ill-matched as people. "Do you know Mick Jagger?" Richards snarls. "Yeah, which one? He's a nice bunch of guys." "Life" is larded with anecdotes of Jagger's egotism and vanity, not to mention aspersions against his manhood, and the hostility piles so high you may be pulled up short when Richards at last writes, with something of a defeated sigh, "I love the man dearly; I'm still his mate."
The word "mate" is well chosen, for this is a portrait of a marriage: an impossible union impossible to dissolve. Nearly 50 years on, Jagger and Richards are still (in a fashion) together, still (in a small way) making music. And it's one of the book's triumphs that it never completely loses sight of that music. Richards offers revealing looks into the genesis of individual songs (the breakup that inspired "Ruby Tuesday," for instance) and the complex open tuning that gave records like "Start Me Up" and "Honky Tonk Women" a reverb like no other. By book's end, one thing at least is clear: The work has mattered as much to Richards as the life; at some level, his work has been his life. "I could kick smack," he writes. "I couldn't kick music. One note leads to another, and you never know quite what's going to come next, and you don't want to."
Bayard is a novelist who lives in Washington.