Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: Life, by Keith Richards and James Fox (2010)

When I heard that Keith Richards had (co-)written a book about his life, I didn't take it very seriously. After all, Richards is almost as famous for his years of drug addiction as for his phenomenal musical career as lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones. How much could he even remember, much less explain?

But I was wrong. Keith Richards's memory is excellent. This is a great book. And an important one for anyone interested in the question of how to make art. Richards is legitimately one of the giants of popular culture in the 20th century -- I cannot think of any pop artist with Richards's fame who has written an autobiography even close to this one in terms of quality or honesty. This is no hazily-written memoir designed merely to make a few quick bucks. It is a serious, thoughtful look at one of the most fascinating lives in recent pop culture.

Richards grew up very poor in the East End of London during the 1940's and 1950's. He did all right in school, but was presumably headed for some type of blue-collar life when he and Mick Jagger got together with Brian Jones to start a band. At first, their goal was merely to become the best blues band in England, and they spent months trying to figure out how to play like their heroes from Mississippi. But Jagger and Richards turned out to be one of the greatest songwriting teams of all time. For almost 20 years, hit after hit flowed from their pens, and their band -- the Rolling Stones -- became one of the biggest, most successful, and most controversial musical acts of all time. For almost 50 years, Keith Richards has been one of the most famous people in the world.

In Life, Richards (with the help of James Fox, who did a wonderful job) tells this amazing story. In telling it, Richards and Fox made many wise decisions. First, they focus on the years from 1960 to 1980, when the Stones were in their prime. While they don't ignore the last 30 years of Richards's life, they also don't try to pretend that he was as productive or interesting after he turned 40 as he was beforehand.

Second, they don't hesitate to address the aspects of Richards's life that his fans are most curious about. You want to know how it feels to be a heroin addict? He tells you. You want to know what he hates about Jagger? He tells you that. You want to know if he feels guilty over kicking Brian Jones out of the band Jones helped to start? (Jones died of a drug overdose soon afterward.) He tells you (he doesn't, by the way). You want to know how he feels about that guy getting killed at the Altamont concert in 1969? He tells you.

In fact, the book gave me a lot of new insight into questions I had often wondered about as a pop music fan. What's it really like when teenage girls chase you down the street? How do you learn to play the guitar so quickly, anyway? How do you write songs? How do you put together a band? What's the difference between playing concerts in small halls and big stadiums? How do you divide up the money? Richards loves everything about music, and also has very strong views on every aspect of how a band should work. I found his discussion of these topics to be the most interesting part of the book.

It's all done quite well, and the book buzzes along at a very pleasant pace. Richards has not lost the ability to read an audience and tell them what they want to hear, and he maintains a charming and raffish tone throughout. The book opens with a wonderful story about how he avoided going to jail for drug possession in Arkansas in the 1970's. It's a very funny story, involving high-powered lawyers, small-town judges, and some very rich British guys who are a very long way from home. And it does a good job of setting the tone for the rest of the book.

But as the book went on, I began to wonder if it weren't all just a bit too smooth. I "read" most of this book by listening to it on tape, which gave me a lot more time to think about what was happening. I noticed that every so often, you could see something darker behind the funny stories, the glamorous lifestyles, and even the serious discussions of drug use. For example, Richards tells in great detail about his own drug problems, as well as his (apparently successful) struggles to eventually free himself from his addictions. But along the way, you'll notice that lots of other people who took drugs with Richards -- such as Brian Jones and Gram Parsons -- ended up dead, while others had their lives shattered in ways far more serious than anything Richards faced. And you'll notice other, darker anecdotes that Richards tells in passing -- about how to fight with a knife, or smuggle drugs, or use money and influence to manipulate the legal process. And then there are stories about how the roadies were terrified to wake him up when the Stones were on tour, or how he didn't speak to his dad for several decades, or how he went berserk on tour when someone else ate the shepards pie he had ordered.

Despite these glimmers of darkness, the book never loses its tone -- it remains funny, thoughtful, and charming, all the way to the end. The old entertainer can still keep an audience, and it's refreshing to read an autobiography by someone who so thoroughly enjoyed his own life. We leave Richards in his Connecticut mansion (he has other houses in Jamaica and England), where he spends a huge amount of time reading books about naval history, just like lots of other old guys. It's a very happy ending.

But thinking about it afterward, my mind kept coming back to all of the pain he caused other people, and all the bodies and hearts that were broken either by his actions or his examples. And yet there he sits in Connecticut, with a vast fortune, great fame, and a loving wife (who used to be a model). Thinking about Richards's ability to live so well, despite doing so many bad things, I kept thinking about a theme that ran through so many old Stones songs. And I could almost hear him saying -- in his raffish, charming way -- "Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed my name."

Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in pop music.


  1. What is it really like when teenage girls chase one down the street?

    1. Very cool, but somewhat terrifying. He had some great stories about the elaborate schemes that the Stones would devise in order to escape from their own concerts.

    2. I think this would completely stink.

    3. I'll bet he has zero interest in the buffets at the Kentucky State Parks lodge dining rooms.

    4. There's a good chance he's eaten at one of them. He likes the South, and he loves to drive down back roads. That's how he ended up getting arrested in some rural town in Arkansas back in the 1970's. It wouldn't surprise me if he drove from Cincinnati to Nashville at some point, and stopped at a Kentucky State Parks lodge dining room.

      He did all sorts of stuff. At one point in the early 1970's, he lived with this woman in Australia for about a week while her husband was out of town. He helped take care of her baby, cleaned up around the house, and generally did the whole domestic thing for a week or so -- and then went back to life on the road. He pointed out that somewhere in Australia there's a grown man whose diaper was changed by Keith Richards, but who probably doesn't know it.