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Richards’ Life is the big fat rock’n’roll book we’ve been waiting for

Juan Rodriguez

December, 2010

One of the most universally hailed books of the year, a page-turner as addictive as any drug, was written by a musician who, among other things, wrote the book on drug-taking.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards shot to the top of the bestseller lists with an autobiography, simply titled Life, that’s been described as utterly charming, eloquently told, richly entertaining, densely textured, hilarious, honest, piquant, warm, sweet, moving, reckless, scabrous, and, above all, surprising. The book is so different than the usual self-serving tell-alls, because while it gleefully delves into the rock’n’roll life in all its dizzying aspects, it also imparts a sense of humanity that’s miles away from showbiz glitz.

Of course it’s a huge surprise that the notorious Richards, now 67, ever got to tell his tales. For a decade, he topped the New Musical Express poll of musicians most likely to croak. His excesses have been previously well-documented, but when you hear them from the horse’s mouth – by turns unrepentant and self-deprecating – the devil is in the details. And the details, whether he’s sharing the chording secrets behind Jumping Jack Flash or his recipe of bangers and mash (!), are fascinating.

It’s a book that can be read by avid fans as well as those who have never heard a note from the Stones. Richards’ lust for life, albeit often somewhat perverse, shines through in this 547-page tome.

What makes the book so unique among music memoirs are the keen observations of other people, ranging from celebrities – poet Alan Ginsberg is an “old gasbag,” novelist and LSD maven Ken Kesey “has a lot to answer for” – to his many personal assistants, colourful characters who’ve bailed him out of many a jam. He comes across not as a rock star, but as a people person, warts and all.

That’s why reviewers of all stripes – including the most prestigious and “serious” critics in the business – went bananas over Life. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, hailed it in a lead review as “chipper” and “entertaining.” The book was the cover story of the New York Times Book Review, by rocker Liz Phair. That newspaper’s daily book reviewer Michiko Kakutani described it as “electrifying” and “galvanic,” adding: “Mr. Richards’ prose is like his guitar playing: intense, elemental, utterly distinctive and achingly, emotionally direct.” The normally skeptical Times columnist Maureen Dowd devoted an entire column to the tome, titled When a Pirate Is the Voice of Chivalry, for his attitude towards “chicks.”

It’s the big fat rock’n’roll book we’ve been waiting for, where the music emanates from, well, life (and not some publicist’s pipe dream).

Back in the day, I met “Keef” twice, the first time as a fan in April 1965 (when my best friend and I snuck into their Montreal hotel, as the Stones opened their third North American tour), the second occasion in 1977 in New York City (when Jagger and Richards were promoting their Live at the Mocambo album).

“Is this all real?” I asked him, awestruck, in ’65, as The Last Time was riding the charts and a couple of weeks before he concocted the classic riff for (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

“We haven’t worked this hard for nothing,” he replied, strumming a glistening mahogany-tinged guitar idly and sporting brand-new stovepipe jeans. The second time, he was 90 minutes late for the interview (he was apparently still on the “junk” then), but was incredibly loquacious, a guy who just loved talking about music. So when I read Life, it was like listening to a long monologue rife with musicality. Richards and his book are the real deal.

The man described as “the most elegantly wasted man on the planet” and “the Evel Knievel of illicit substances” started out as a Boy Scout and a choirboy singing soprano at Westminster Abbey for the Queen at age 12, and ended up as a family man who enjoys listening to Mozart and reading history books in his palatial library. Of his devotion to rhythm & blues, a youthful obsession (an escape from Britain’s postwar depression) that keeps him going today, he writes: “Benedictines had nothing on us. You were supposed to spend every waking hour studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.”

“I’m here to say something and to touch other people, sometimes in a cry of desperation: ‘Do you know this feeling?’ ” Reading his book is akin to inhabiting his inner feelings: exhilarating, with fascinatin’ rhythmic flow.

Yes, there’s a huge difference between Richards and the bluesmen and jazzers he emulates: He’s white, and rich. Yet his deep feeling for black culture – and the originality of his own archetypal riffs – gives him the right to claim that if he was a senior black musician, like Duke Ellington or Count Basie, no one would ask him why he hasn’t hung up his rhythm & blues shoes.

“Levitation is probably the closest analogy to what I feel … when I realize I’ve hit the right tempo and the band’s behind me. It’s like taking off in a Learjet. … People say: ‘Why don’t you give it up?’ I can’t retire till I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me.”

Still, his reputation has dogged him with the law – a heavy theme throughout – and in this regard Richards is unforgiving.

“I can’t untie the threads of how much I played up to the part that was written for me,” he admits. “I mean, the skull ring and the broken tooth and the kohl. Is it half and half? … It’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were.”

When in 2006 he received a get well letter from Prime Minister Tony Blair (after his fall of a tree in Fiji) – beginning: “Dear Keith, you’ve always been one of my heroes” – Richards modestly demurs: “England’s in the hands of somebody who I’m a hero of? It’s frightening.”

And, as his rich Life imparts, strangely endearing.



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