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Memoirs of Rolling Stone guitar hero

Book Review: Life by Keith Richards

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.

About Jack Goodstein

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