Upon hearing that Keith Richards was writing a biography, my first thought was, “Wow, how can he even remember what happened, given his proclivity for illicit drug use and all-around hell raising?” Now, having finished the book, I am even more amazed at the vividness of his recollections. Everything is there that you would expect, including the requisite sex, drugs and rock and roll. But it’s the unexpected things in Life that enrich the reader’s experience and provide a genuine sense of historical context about how the The Rolling Stones thrived in the midst of such a socially volatile time.
Every man dreams of being in Keith Richards’ shoes at one point or another. After all, this man is the archetypal rock star: living a life of excess, denying himself no pleasure, and keeping the world perpetually at his fingertips. In recent years, Richards has become a pop culture caricature — a Hollywood pirate, an old dude who should have croaked years ago, the crazy guy who snorted his father’s ashes. There’s a degree of truth to all of those characterizations, but if Life is any indication, the man is much more than that.
First and foremost, Richards is a blues musician, and a large portion of his autobiography is dedicated to the history of the genre. He grew up idolizing the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed, and it’s fascinating to see how, as the guitarist for The Rolling Stones, he comes full circle and evolves into a master in his own right.
But before The Rollings Stones were THE ROLLING STONES, they were just Keith, Mick and Brian, a nameless trio of struggling musicians. Richards tells the story of how, upon booking their first gig, they named themselves:
Brian, after figuring how much it would cost, called up Jazz News, which was a kind of “who’s playing where” rag and said, “We’ve got a gig at…” “What do you call yourselves?” We stared at one another. “It?” Then “Thing?” This call is costing. Muddy Waters to the rescue! First track on The Best of Muddy Waters is “Rollin’ Stone.” The cover is on the floor. Desperate, Brian, Mick and I take the dive. “The Rolling Stones.” Phew!! That saved sixpence.
And thus The Rolling Stones were born.
Things really get interesting once the Stones start to find success and the rock and roll lifestyle comes into play. There are tales of orgies, globetrotting, various busts and near-death experiences which make for a fascinating read but, should all probably be taken with a grain of salt. Richards’ writing about drug addiction and crazy nights can be a bit over the top at times, and nobody can really be sure about the validity of these stories. He is keenly aware of the mythology that surrounds his escapades and willingly supplies his fans with the over-the-top anecdotes they crave.
It isn’t all rock and roll fun, though. Despite his seemingly laissez-faire attitude, the disturbing nature of Richards’ drug addiction inevitably becomes apparent. Despite his attempt at sugarcoating it, the story of him doing heroin on the road with his 7-year-old son in tow doesn’t sound like rock and roll to me; Child Services has broken down doors for much less.
There is a certain level of entitlement that you start to recognize in his writing, and even though Richards loves to paint himself as the good guy through the majority of the book, he doesn’t do a very good job concealing his gigantic ego. This usually takes the form of barbs lobbed at his band mates, who I’m sure will be less than pleased upon reading them.
Nonetheless, the stories are entertaining and fascinating. Richards tells one story about an epic, acid-fueled, 3-day road trip with John Lennon that culminates in one of the many drug busts where Richards miraculously gets off scot-free. I mean, where else are you going to get gems like that one? And there are many, many more like that to keep you enthralled.
Despite all the debauchery, you do get rare glimpses of who Richards truly is. I found his take on friendship to be very well stated and poetic: “Friendship is a diminishing of distance between people. That’s what friendship is and to me it’s one of the most important things in the world.” You can tell he really adores the people in his life and is compassionate toward them, despite misgivings and betrayals.
At its core, Life is a story about just that — a group of friends who are living in extraordinary circumstances. Over time, the money, power, and greed has created distance between them, but in the end, their shared love of music always brings them back together. It’s the marrow of the Stones, and the marrow in all of us — a shared love of something that trumps everything else and holds us together in times of turmoil.
Coming in at over 500 pages, Life is a page burner that, by its end, only feels like the tip of the iceberg. It puts you in the shoes of an outlaw, musician, songwriter, addict, father, and many more things. Richards states in it that, “For many years I slept, on average, twice a week. This means I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes.” If that’s true, by my calculations Life is missing a thousand pages. If Keith wants to write them, I will gladly be first in line to read them.