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Book Review: Life by Keith Richards

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When Keith Richards decides to write the story of his life you have to expect you’re either going to get down and dirty sex, drugs and rock and roll or some innocuous sanitized version of life in the fast lane. But this is Keith Richards, and you’ve got to figure that if even half of his reputation is true, you’re going to get the inside scoop. You’re going to get the real story: Altamont, the brain surgery, the Canadian drug bust, the Jagger feud, you’re going to get it all. And you do. From the very beginning, when he describes a 1975 arrest in Fordyce, Arkansas, Richards and his co-writer, James Fox give what appears to be a warts and all account of the life and times of the rollingest of stones. What you don’t expect, is that the story of the Richards’ life and times may not make for the most exciting read. I know I’m in the minority in this, but in all honesty, for this reader the book was often tedious going. Stones fans can stop reading right now, you sure as hell aren’t going to agree with much of what’s coming.

I’ll give Richards credit: this is not one of those look at the dumb things I’ve done and learn a lesson from it books. It isn’t one of those I was lost and now I’m saved confessions. There are no apologies. He lived hard, but he worked at his craft with a passion. He knew what he wanted from his music and he made sure to get it. He is at his best when he talks about his music—about trying to figure out a guitar lick, about the unique sound he got using five string open tuning, about getting to play with the heroes of his youth, about discovering that he could write songs. He is serious about music. He has an aesthetic point of view unfortunately it is a point of view that may not always be easily articulated for the reader. It is almost a kind of mystical awareness which clearly controls everything he does.

There is a sound a band needs to strive for. You know it when you hear it; you know when it’s missing. It comes from musicians working together, feeling what each is doing, knowing where they are going. It is an emotional connection: you either have it or you don’t. The limited chord structure of rock music is an advantage not a drawback. It is the less is more paradox. Writing songs is less an intellectual process than it is a tossing about of bits and pieces to see what seems to come together. He likes to talk about the writer William Burroughs’ cut and paste process. Although that is not quite the way he describes his song writing collaboration with Mick Jagger, their process seems almost equally haphazard. Indeed, one has to wonder if they were really as unstructured as Richards makes it seem. In general his aesthetic is a modern version of Romantic subjectivism.

There is passion when he writes about his music, not so much when he writes about other things. His descriptions of his relationships with women are fairly anemic. He is as happy cuddling, he says, as he is having sex. He is usually the chased rather than the chaser. Groupies are like mothers taking care of the band members, making sure they eat and have clean clothes (if you say so). There are, of course, stories of his relationships with Ronnie Spector, Uschi Obermaier,Lil Wergilis, and especially the mothers of his children, Anita Pallenberg and his wife Patti Hansen. But other than an anodyne anecdote here and there, there isn’t really all that much in the way of titillating gossip

On the other hand there are more than enough stories about drugs and alcohol. The trouble is that after awhile they all begin to sound alike. We had smack hidden here and we got stopped by the cops. We were afraid they’d find it. They didn’t find it. They did find it. We got away with it. We made a connection here. I went cold turkey. We made a connection there. I went back on. Cold turkey isn’t so bad. Cold turkey is terrible. Everything gets jumbled together and after awhile loses its impact. Of course, at one point he does say that it was drugs that kept him alert and ready to work, and also he managed to get along so well on them because he only used the finest quality stuff. As far as insights into the culture of drugs and its effects on creativity, I’m not sure there is much here beyond the obvious.

His offhand remarks about some of the other celebrities he’s come into contact with can at times be bitchy. Marlon Brando tries to seduce Anita. Allen Ginsberg is an “old gas bag pontificating on everything.” Jean-Luc Godard looked like a French bank clerk. George C. Scott crashes into his white fence driving at ninety under the influence. On the other hand he rarely has a bad thing to say about musicians he works with and admires, at least as far as their playing goes. The one exception would be Mick. He has a lot to say about Jagger and “Lead Vocalist Syndrome.” He has much to say about Jagger’s need to control things. He has a lot to say about Jagger’s pursuit of a solo career. In the end, however, they are like brothers. One moment they’re at each other’s throats, the next they kiss and make up.

All in all, I was disappointed. I didn’t always find his narrative coherent. His prose style, which others have praised, I found off putting. Too often it seemed as though he were simply speaking out phrases for someone to copy down, much as he describes himself doing when writing songs. He seems as uninterested in conventional language as he is in conventional living. At times, especially at the beginning, he uses slang terms without bothering to define them. He favors unique figures of speech that defy easy comprehension. When he talks about music, it is sometimes a bit technical for the non-musician, sometimes so impressionistic as to mean little. The book could use a little shaping and editing. The in medias res beginning is effective, but the end just seems to peter out. Fewer repetitious digressions would be nice, at almost five hundred and fifty pages Life feels long.

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About Jack Goodstein

  • SRQguy

    I liked the book…I loved Keith before the book….I love him just a little less after. The bitchiness and slagging of Jagger was over the top

  • Keith is as good a book writer as he is a song writer…the book is an honest piece of work from one of the last great rock heroes. Go Keef!

  • robyn

    thank you. i agree with you. i am listening to the audio. it started with the introduction by keith. boffo. then johnny depp, i think. monotonous, literally. then some other guy came in to narrate. more animated but his accent is totally different from the other two. i’m not the biggest stones fan, and i wasn’t really looking for the “dirt.” i’ve read both barbara walters and michael caine’s autobiographies and thoroughly enjoyed them. this one . . . i can’t get no satisfaction. sorry. i couldn’t resist. 🙂

  • Rob

    I enjoyed the book but I think there were a couple of errors. Marlon speaks of the Stones playing with Led Zepplin at the ’76 Knebworth concert -didn’t happen. Also, when Keith rehabed after Canada, it was in Paoli, Pa. at the farmhouse of Shorty Yeaworth, a cinematographer known for working on the original “The Blob”. Keith could then commute to Sigma Sound in Philly to help mix Some Girls. Not sure why the book says Cherry Hill, NJ.

    • Mahi Tuna

      he only stayed at paoli for a couple weeks, then moved to cherry hill were he spent months living and continued treatment as part of the rehab aggreement

  • ep

    I loved your review of “Life.” I’ve written one for a local newspaper….after my 4th attempt, it’s acceptable to me. Yours is superb.

  • bearcat

    reviewr is obviously jealous he’s not lived the life

  • Katylady

    Heh heh, so then he goes and wins the Norman Maillor award…presented by Bill Clinton. “How’s that you bunch of hacks?” Well done Keef! P.S. Keef spoke very well and honestly of many people in Life, such as John Belushi, Bob Dylan (I love the man) and Etta James. Keith does go back and forth a bit, but I think he does an amazing job of transporting you back in time and showing the connection of how the Stone’s style was influenced/changed and lasted this long.

  • David Stuart Ryan

    What has surprised me so far – only halfway through Life – is just how accurate and right on are his recollections, if you are looking for a true recreation of the 60s where it all began then this is it.

    Me? I remember rumours of a hot band in Richmond where they were swinging from the rafters.

    Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Marianne came to my 20th birthday party, but with some 200 people there it was difficult to know,
    not when you were talking to the local police inspector explaining it was just a little crowded.

    And the girl up the road, she really dug the music out of the Mississippi blues bars, that was a revelation that stunned us all.