Oh, what a ‘Life’!

bookcover image of Life, by Keith RichardsLast fall, I remember hearing and reading several interviews with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who had just published his autobiography, Life, written with James Fox. It was fascinating to hear him speak in matter-of-fact terms about all of the extraordinary things that have happened in his life — as well as a few that only happened in the minds of fans and the media.

Richards’ written Life doesn’t quite live up to his actual life, though both are filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, not necessarily in that order. Lots of rock and roll, a bit of sex, and lots and lots of heroin. All sorts of other drugs, too, from uppers to downers to LSD, but mostly heroin — smack to its friends (Life includes an anecdote that may explain how that particular nickname came to be). It’s frankly amazing that a man who took heroin virtually every day for more than a decade (except for his occasional attempts to quit ‘cold turkey’), remembers much of anything at all about the remarkable things that happened to him as a result of being in one of the world’s most famous rock bands of all time. But Life is chock-full of anecdotes about gigs played, songs written, guitar riffs discovered, groupies laid, and arrests both dodged and endured, all told in an amiable style that conjures up a group of friends sitting around trading tall tales.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1972

Mick Jagger (left) and Keith Richards in 1972. (Photo via Wikipedia)

As might be expected from a fellow whose life played out one gig at a time all over the world, the narrative bounces around a bit, making no serious attempt to a tell a coherent, chronological account once the teenage Richards meets fellow teen Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones begin to take shape. Richards is surprisingly candid about the foibles of his bandmates, past and present, displaying a surprising (to me, anyway) amount of venom toward Brian Jones, one of the original Stones who ended up dead in a swimming pool before the 1960s were over. And Richards makes no secret of the clashes he has had with his fellow Glimmer Twin, Jagger, who seems to have been unprepared to give up any of his control over the band’s business decisions once Richards sobered up and again took an interest in something more than who was supplying the smack at the next tour stop. At the same time, Richards is generous in his praise of Jagger, in particular his natural showmanship as the band’s front man and his value as a songwriting partner. As Richards says in Life, “I love the man dearly; I’m still his mate. But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.”

Richards recounts his many run-ins with law enforcement with a sort of resigned indignation that chooses to emphasize the ways in which various police forces “had it out for him”, basically following him around waiting for him to make a mistake that they could bust him for. He seems not to recognize that it was his own behavior buying and using illegal drugs that led to the arrests, which is odd because he otherwise tells the tale of his rampant drug use quite matter-of-factly, with no excuses or justifications. In the end, he chooses to quit heroin (in 1978, after being arrested in Toronto) for practical and not health reasons:

I’m facing three charges: trafficking, possession and importing. I’m going to be doing some hard fucking time. I’d better get ready. Which is one of the reasons I finally cleaned up. I didn’t want to cold turkey in jail.  … Also, attached to the junk as I was, I was putting myself slowly into a position where it would be impossible to move around the world and work.

Toward the end of Life, Richards talks about the side project he started in 1987, the X-Pensive Winos (tellingly, he did it in spiteful retaliation to Jagger’s going off on a solo project; I think Richards would otherwise have been happy to confine his musical output to the Stones for the rest of his life). As I read this segment of the book, I realized I had never listened to any of Richards’ non-Stones music; I have a built-in prejudice against vanity projects that never measure up to the original. Still, for the sake of learning more about Richards, I fired up Spotify and checked out a “best of’ compilation that was released in 2010, Vintage Vinos. I was stunned to realize despite my reservations that I loved it — it’s got the same kind of bluesy rock vibe that is so appealing to me about the early Stones’ material. It’s well worth checking out.

In the end, Keith Richards’ Life is entertaining enough, and a valuable insight into how some of the Rolling Stones’ greatest records were made, but it inevitably pales in comparison both with the actual life lived by Richards and the mythical tales that have been so often told about him: having his blood changed in Switzerland, snorting his dead father’s ashes along with “a line of bump” (cocaine). It certainly wasn’t one of those starstruck autobiographies that leave you saying, “Celebrities! They’re just like us,” that’s for sure.

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