There just might be a God after all, because without divine intervention Keith Richards would not still be alive to have written his autobiography.
Now 67, residing peaceably as a country gentleman in Connecticut after nearly half a century swirling in the gale force winds of a truly international drugs-sex-and-rock-‘n’-roll music career, Richards turns out to be a vastly entertaining chronicler of his own life and legacy, helped along masterfully by “as told to” coauthor James Fox, who deftly captures the gravelly Richards voice, honest as the day is long and laced with authentic Britishisms that help to colorize a surprisingly tight and crisp narrative. Entitled Life, the Richards opus is essentially plotted out chronologically, which should work just fine for those many music fans who may have paid more attention to Richards’ contemporaries—Lennon, McCartney, Jagger—and probably overlooked the particulars of the Rolling Stones’ musical mastermind’s beginnings.
Growing up in suburban London as the only child of working-class parents, young Keith wasn’t apparently much good academically, but he ended up—lucky for him—in art school, that refuge for English schoolboys with vaguely creative leanings that might ultimately rescue them from a life in the trades or, worse, the military. If music ever saved an immortal soul, it was Richards’. He was good at drawing, apparently, but a career in commercial art would be rejected so long as Keith kept improving on the guitar, which he definitely did.
He knew Mick Jagger when both were but boys, then they later hooked up again hardly out of their teens on the local music scene. Unlike the Beatles, who spent some very scruffy years learning their craft in lowdown Hamburg nightclubs, the early Stones, while definitely scrambling for gigs and attention, were already at the center of things in London. The band’s cultish immersion in American black R&B artistry eventually yielded for them a dedicated big-city following, while manager Andrew Loog Oldham became their version of Brian Epstein, finally embracing their bad-boy looks and demeanor and marketing them effectively as a kind of anti-Fab Four. Worldwide stardom and acclaim were theirs, and the band in various forms has lasted, remarkably, up to the present day.
Even in nearly 600 pages—and sometimes drawing on rare letters and diary entries—Richards can’t cover all the details, but he’s quite good with the essence. To wit: Endless and raucous touring, peripatetic recording dates, drug-taking and related arrests, a longtime relationship with the charismatic wastrel Anita Pallenberg, fatherhood (five kids, one a victim of crib death), the premature passing of fellow artists and friends such as Brian Jones and Gram Parsons, an overview on the band’s financial workings under the exploitative guidance of the sharkish Allen Klein, plus once-over-lightly cameos of the many musicians, roadies, engineers, producers, journalists, photographers, hangers-ons, and celebrity types who helped comprise The World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band’s entourage through the decades.
The warmest words are reserved for an elite few, among them, the late Ian Stewart, a fabulous R&B pianist and thoughtful musician who helped the band cut its early records and stayed a staunch friend and musical supporter until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1985. Also assessed cogently are the many sides of Jagger, the author mincing no words about the famous frontman’s uncanny talents as a lyricist, his ego, his occasionally abrasive ways and his rather possessive tendencies toward his writing partner.
On the purely musical side, Richards offers fascinating tidbits on his playing style, developed initially via his studious copping of licks from Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed records and later enhanced by his exploration of various open tunings, which brought his expression and writing to surprising new levels.
Intentionally or no, Richards finds humor in his raw material. On Jagger’s solo album She’s the Boss: “It’s like Mein Kampf. Everybody had a copy, but nobody listened to it.” On heroin: “Junk really is a great leveler in many ways.” On groupies: “You could look upon them more like the Red Cross.”
The real miracle of Richards is his survival through serious encounters with hard drugs, especially as he watched many friends and colleagues succumb to their ravages. His reflections on substance abuse seem serious-minded as far as it goes, but the fact is that he partied like a monster and simply happened to be one of the lucky ones.
Later chapters find Richards rather tempered by concerns such as recipes for a favorite dish or two, family pets, a daughter’s wedding and other items on the domestic agenda. That situation guarantees a certain amount of laconic audience interest as the book winds down, but until then,Life is probably one of the best pop music books ever assembled. It’s informative, entertaining, crafted with style—and there’s something reassuring about knowing that its likable author has lived to tell the tale.