Book Talk: Life

“I can’t untie the threads of how much I played up to the part that was written for me. I mean the skull ring and the broken tooth and the kohl. Is it half and half? I think in a way your persona, your image, as it used to be known, is like a ball and chain. People think I’m still a goddamn junkie. It’s thirty years since I gave up the dope! Image is like a long shadow. Even when the sun goes down, you can see it. I think some of it is that there is so much pressure to be that person that you become it, maybe, to a certain point that you can bear. It’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were.”


“Life” by Keith Richards (2010)


You just hate to leave something behind. My fellow thrifters and garage salers may know what I’m talking about. You see something out in the wild and you debate buying it. It may be something on the periphery of your interests but there it is and its cheap. But what if you spend the money, take it home and it just sits on your shelf? I will often feel obligated to read a book I’ve bought even if I have begun to think I will be hard pressed to finish it. Case in point is the book we’re looking at today.

I have long been a fan of the Rolling Stones and of Keith Richards in particular. Such a big book on his life, though? I ended up being glad I bought it, though, because it fit nicely into my reading schedule in the summer of 2022 when the Rolling Stones were celebrating their 60th anniversary. Not only do I like to read a large book in the summer but reading this one would coincide with the article I was preparing on the Stones greatest songs. Turns out it was an enjoyable read and added a dimension to the Richards persona.

Keith Richards wrote Life basically on his own; at any rate, there is no co-writer listed and this in itself is impressive. The tone of the book – Keef’s “voice” – is very casual and conversational and you can easily imagine that Richards writes just as he speaks. So there are many F bombs and honest discourse on drugs, sex and rock & roll but alternately you can hear in many passages a 70-year-old man trying to make sense of his life, his career, his relationships and trying to make sense of himself.

“I imagined everything. I never thought it would happen.”

Keith answers a fan asking “did you ever imagine?”

After an introductory chapter, Keef begins at the beginning. A child of the blitz, he was born and raised in Dartford Heath and he talks about revisiting old haunts in preparation for writing his book. He discusses his folks with whom he was close, describes his lower-class upbringing and states that being an only child sparked his imagination and therefore his creativity.

Those hoping for “the other side” of the gruff and wizened old ax-man will be satisfied with Keef’s tender description of his beloved Mum and of his old grandfather Gus who taught him to play the guitar. Richards also relates his time spent as a Boy Scout and has much praise for the organization saying it taught him things he has utilized throughout his life. Of interest to me and many readers will be his description of his discovery of rock & roll as Keith Richards has always been outspoken about his love for the pioneers and those who have influenced him.

“(Music) was very much like a drug. In fact a far bigger drug than smack. I could kick smack; I couldn’t kick music.”

In Life, very early the subject turns to black music. One of the most fascinating things for me about the Rolling Stones is the fact that they started out as a Chicago blues band and always maintained a close proximity to the music they loved in their youth. And anytime they have diverted from that, it has always been followed by a notable return to roots. Keith says he was heavily influenced by the stripped down, unadorned and honest sound of rhythm and blues.

“We went for a Chicago blues sound, as close as we could get it – two guitars, bass and drums and a piano – and sat around and listened to every Chess record ever made. Chicago blues hit us right between the eyes. And as long as we were all together, we could pretend to be black men. And we didn’t want to make money. We despised money, we despised cleanliness, we just wanted to be black motherf*&kers…that’s where the band was born.”

That’s where the Rolling Stones were born

“We didn’t think we were ever going to do anything much except turn other people on to Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed. We had no intention of being anything ourselves. The idea of making a record seemed to be totally out of the picture. We were unpaid promoters for Chicago blues.”

Most bands, at their outset, are aiming for the top. Not these blokes.

So, Keith Richards confirms that the band’s desire was to become the best R&B band in London and to simply play gigs. But this changed with the coming of manager Andrew Loog Oldham who initially followed the Beatles’ lead and cleaned the Stones up and dressed them in matching suits. But the lads bristled and soon became more themselves – sneering, menacing, dangerous. Still, teenagers adored them – which rankled the Stones; “we’re a mean blues band!”. Richards goes deep enough to note that the ascendancy of the Rolling Stones – the fact that the nascent generation took them to their bosom – created an “unbridgeable gap” and a threat to the established order, a threat that the authorities in Britain would attempt to subvert.

The author also takes time to go into the weeds about the bedrock of the Rolling Stones’ style of music and of his own guitar playing. Keef says that his friendship and collaboration with Gram Parsons turned him on to open 5-string tuning, something Keith says was transformative. While non-musicians may not be able to fully comprehend the import of this, it becomes clear that Keith Richards is first and foremost a musician, an innovative and influential guitarist. To the untrained eye, it looks as though Keith has been going through the rock star motions the last thirty years or so. It will be interesting to the reader to listen to Keith on this topic and to learn that he is an astute student of his instrument and of what role it has always played in his band. Additionally, during discussion of the recording of Exile on Main St., Richards shares his method of songwriting and relates much about the process and how a Stones song is created. This stuff will be gold to readers who are also musicians.

“In the arrogance of youth, the idea of being a rock star or a pop star was taking a step down from being a bluesman and playing the clubs. For us to have to dip our feet into commercialism, in 1962 or ’63, was for a small while distasteful. The Rolling Stones, when they started, the limits of their ambition was just to be the best f*cking band in London…but once the world beckoned, it didn’t take long for the scales to fall from the eyes. It’s not that easy being famous; you don’t want to be. But at the same time you’ve got to be in order to do what you’re doing. And you realize you’ve already made the deal…you are now set on a path that is not your aesthetically ideal path. Stupid teenage idealisms… You’ve already made the f*cking deal. And now you have to follow it…you are now on the road.”

This speaks volumes

Fans of the band will also revel in Keith’s discussion of his bandmate and friend, Mick Jagger. Remember that this most fascinating collaboration has lasted almost 60 years; what, the reader may be asking going in, is the real story of these two? If you can suspend your perhaps unrealistic desire for these two to be skintight blood brothers all these years later, you won’t be disappointed by what you learn in Life. Fascinating to learn how these two met – Mick owned Chuck Berry records!

“Mick and I were very tight friends and we’d been through a lot. But there is a weird possessiveness about him. Mick doesn’t want me to have any friends except him…maybe he thinks he’s trying to protect me”.

Keith says eventually his friends would come to him saying that they didn’t think Mick liked them and this is something Richards can’t explain. One thing he will say though is that it is likely that, though the two of them have basically always been “in charge”, when Richards was absent in body and mind due to addiction, Mick felt obliged to take control himself. Even at times Keith was lucid, Mick would push him aside. Things came to a head in the 1980’s when Keith says Jagger succumbed to “LVS”; “lead vocalist syndrome”. Keith details this era of “Mick Jagger and them” and Mick cutting side deals for solo records without telling anyone.

“I used to love to hang with Mick, but I haven’t gone to his dressing room in, I think, twenty years. Sometimes I miss my friend. Where the hell did he go? I know when the sh*t hits the fan, I can guarantee he’ll be there for me…that’s beyond any contention.”

Richards wraps the whole thing with Jagger by saying that they are not friends – “too much wear and tear for that” – but they are brothers. “Nobody else can say anything against Mick that I can hear. I’ll slit their throat”. They both enjoyed their solo careers though Keef may have been more realistic about his. He knows that both men are Rolling Stones and that is what the people want. Savvy observation.

Those looking for Keith’s takes on his other bandmates will not be disappointed. Richards confirms what I have often heard that the Rolling Stones formed for the most part around pianist Ian Stewart. Keef says “I’m still working for him” and that without Stewart’s knowledge and organization the band would be nowhere. Drummer Charlie Watts was paid a hefty salary to lure him into the group; so much so that the rest of boys went hungry to make sure Watts was paid. Charlie was the “essence” and Richards adds he “has always been the bed I lie on musically”.

“It’s very hard to explain all that excessive partying. You didn’t say, OK, we’re going to have a party tonight. It just happened. It was a search for oblivion, I suppose, though not intentionally. Being in a band, you are cooped up a lot, and the more famous you get the more of a prison you find yourself in.”

Richards laments the fact that Brian Jones was effected by fame like no one he has ever seen. The whole thing went to his head and Richards says that Jones drifted from the group’s origins and became engulfed in the hippie culture thinking he was a sort of philosopher. He also expresses some guilt at the way he and Mick treated Brian and also at the fact that Keef had lured Brian’s girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, away from him. He goes on to discuss his relationship with Anita, who bore him a child, and her descent into “smack” addiction, paranoia and destructive behaviour.

“You realize where you’ve sunk to. Just getting yourself into that position leaves a sense of self-loathing that takes a while to rub off…you realize you’ve put yourself in the hands of a dealer, and that’s disgusting. That’s where the self-loathing comes in.”

Keith is now able to analyze his time as a junkie.

Keith Richards spends much time discussing his drug use. He does admit that smack was good for recording but he would always kick to go on the road. Drugs, of course, lead to problems with the law. He makes a good case for being singled out and persecuted and for becoming a “focal point of a nervous establishment”. He dishes on the “corrupt” Redlands bust and it seems clear – from Richards’ side, at least – that police in the UK were constantly surveilling Keith and trying to arrest him and get him into court. Interesting that he says that it would have been easy to get them off his back if he were to just kick his deadly habit but first, he says, he was determined to really beat them and not let them win.

Keith arrives for court in TO with press agent Paul Wasserman. October 24, 1978.

As it is the city of my birth, I was particularly interested to learn that Keith’s infamous drug bust in Toronto looms large in his life. It gets him clean, allows him to nest for a time in New York, provides him psychiatric help and brings him into contact with the woman who is still his manager. Considering the involvement of Margaret Trudeau, the wife of the then-Prime Minister, the Mounties wanted to simply wriggle out of the trial. Eventually, the verdict was guilty but the judge – Keef declares him “Solomon-like” – said he would not “incarcerate (Keith) for addiction and wealth” and instead ordered the Stones to play a concert for the blind. This also allows Richards to mention an ardent fan of the band, a blind girl who somehow managed to follow the group around the country. It’s clear that Toronto plays a large part in the Keith Richards story – not to mention the shepherd’s pie incident later that may have happened at the very show I attended.

Other nuggets: Keith shares a cherished relationship he had with Ronnie Spector, says producer Jimmy Miller ushered in a “second wind” for the band, he says Altamont was flower power gone wrong and calls Allen Klein a thief saying “he mades us and screwed us at the same time” and gives a good description of the band’s time as tax exiles. He says that groupies were there as friends and nurses more than as lovers and that he had to threaten Billy Preston with the blade Keith often carried. He shares the surprising fact that he has never been able to make the first move on a woman and describes in pleasant detail meeting his current wife, Patti. He says Ronnie Wood was glue when he joined the band and describes Wood’s struggles with drugs but it was nice to hear that Keef took Ron with him when he reunited with his estranged father. I had some things about Chuck Berry confirmed for me. Richards unearths some interesting facts about Chuck’s songwriting and the partner who was never credited. Summing up, Keef says “I don’t knock people much…but I’ve got to say that Chuck Berry was a big disappointment”; this is what he says, mind you, about one of his biggest idols.

“I can’t retire until I croak. There’s carping about us being old men. But I’m not here just to make records and money. I’m here to say something and to touch other people, sometimes in a cry of desperation: ‘Do you know this feeling?’.”

As Keith Richards sums up his book and his life, the reader sees that he is a proper bloke. He discusses his life as a senior citizen mentioning regular things like his gentleman’s life reading and making bangers and mash – and having Paul McCartney wander up the beach to hang out. Like many of us regular folk, he has looked back fondly on family and has lamented some mistakes. Life is fun and honest and seems to suggest that Keith Richards is not the casualty you often see depicted in the press. Find your copy in the wild or head to AbeBooks.

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