Life by Keith Richards

“It was 1975, a time of brutality and confrontation. Open season had been declared since our last tour, the tour of ’72, known as the STP. The State Department had noted riots (true), civil disobedience (also true), illicit sex (whatever that is), and violence across the United States. All the fault of us, mere minstrels. We had been inciting the youth to rebellion, we were corrupting America, and they had ruled never to let us travel in the United States again. It had become, in the time of Nixon, a serious political matter. He had personally deployed his dogs and dirty tricks against John Lennon, who he thought might cost him an election. We, in turn, they told our lawyer officially, were the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world.”

I am definitely not the intended audience for this book. I like the Rolling Stones, certainly, and I knew their music before I could identify the band (I have a distinct memory of my dad singing “Paint It Black” to me when I was much too young to have any idea who the Rolling Stones were), but I wouldn’t describe myself as a hardcore fan. My generation knows the Stones as a group of awesome, elderly rockers who simply refuse to pack it in and retire. Keith Richards himself came onto my radar very late – in fact, and here I will preemptively duck from the objects that are about to be thrown at me by anyone born before 1980 – I think the first time I heard about Keith Richards was when I learned that he was the person Johnny Depp had based Jack Sparrow on.

So obviously, this book was not written for me and I probably had no business reading it in the first place. However, driven by curiosity and armed with a superficial knowledge of the Stones and an earnest love of Almost Famous, I plunged in. I mean, how can you resist an opening like the one I quoted above?

In a purely technical sense, this book is very badly written. The narrative wanders from one subject to another, events aren’t kept in chronological order, and Richards uses fragment sentences like they’re going out of style. But the thing is, it works. I got the sense that the writing process for this book was just Keith Richards free-associating into a recorder for several hours, and the resulting tapes were written down verbatim. Richards’ voice comes through clearly in every word, and it’s a great experience. Reading the book is like listening to your foul-mouthed, slightly confused grandfather tell you stories – they don’t always make sense, and sometimes you have no idea what he’s saying, but your grandfather happens to be the most awesome person alive, so you’re going to shut up and pay attention to everything he says.

The book is full of dirt on the Rolling Stones, the tours, and lots of helpful advice about buying drugs and then concealing them on your person. Random bits are tossed in, like Richards’ recipe for bangers and mash (“I only just found out from this lady on TV that you have to put bangers in a cold pan”) and instructions on winning a knife fight (“The big rules of knife fighting are (a) do not try it at home, and (b) the whole point is never, ever use the blade. It is there to distract your opponent. While he stares at the gleaming steel, you kick his balls to kingdom come – he’s all yours. Just a tip!”). He also lets other people tell stories, too – every now and then he’ll break off and include a few paragraphs written by someone else (like his manager, his son, and once Kate Moss) describing their perspective on whatever Richards is talking about.

But the best part, the very best, is when Richards is talking about music. He might be crazy, he might be a recovering junkie, he might be sexist (oh, we’ll get there), but this man loves music. He loves playing music, listening to music, and talking about music. While I was reading this I started wishing that I knew how to play the guitar, because the detail he goes into about chords and playing techniques is incredible and went right over my head. Reading about how Keith Richards feels about music is what makes this book worth reading – when he stops talking about Mick drama and drugs and chicks, and just focuses on the music.

Here’s him talking about the first time he heard “Heartbreak Hotel”:

“Then – ‘Since my baby left me’ – it was just the sound. It was the last trigger. That was the first rock and roll I heard. It was a totally different way of delivering a song, a totally different sound, stripped down, burnt, no bullshit, no violins and ladies’ choruses and schmaltz, totally different. It was bare, right to the roots that you had a feeling were there but hadn’t yet heard. I’ve got to take my hat off to Elvis for that. The silence is your canvas, that’s your frame, that’s what you work on; don’t try to deafen it out. That’s what ‘Hearbreak Hotel’ did to me. It was the first time I’d heard something so stark.”

In fact, the only time this book isn’t awesome reading is when Keith Richards talks about women, and worse, attempts to address the misogyny in rock and roll.

“…many of the songs we wrote around this time had what you might call anti-girl lyrics – anti-girl titles too. ‘Stupid Girl,’ ‘Under My Thumb,’ ‘Out of Time,’ ‘That Girl Belongs to Yesterday’…Maybe we were winding them up. And maybe some of the songs opened their hearts a little, or their minds, to the idea of we’re women, we’re strong. But I think the Beatles and the Stones particularly did release chicks from the fact of ‘I’m just a little chick.'”

Okay, Grandpa Keith, that’s very nice, but you need to sit down now. Have a caramel square and shut up for a minute.

Keith Richards, I learned from this book, only likes women when they do everything for him. All the women who get described favorably in this book have one thing in common: they would follow the Rolling Stones around and literally take care of them. Richards’ first love, a girl named Haleema, is well-regarded because she and her friends would come to the apartment where the Stones lived and clean the place up and cook for them. Keith’s favorite past chicks, including his current wife, are the ones who cooked breakfast for him. Richards wants women to take care of him (Mommy issues ahoy!), but does not appreciate having to do the same for them. Here he is discussing Mick Jagger’s many infidelities and having to deal with the stupid whores who came crying to poor Keith about it:

“They end up crying on my shoulder because they’ve found out that he has once again philandered. What am I gonna do? Well, it’s a long ride to the airport, honey; let me think about it. The tears that have been on this shoulder, from Jerry Hall, from Bianca, from Marianne, Chrissie Shrimpton…They’re ruined so many shirts of mine. And they ask me what to do! How the hell do I know? I don’t fuck him!”

Grandpa Keith, I said sit down. Do you need another caramel square?

Women aren’t very present in this book, but that’s expected: this is about rock and roll, and the love of music, and the rise (and continued rise) of a truly great group that revolutionized music. Some of it doesn’t make any sense, some of it is ugly and sad, but all of it is incredible, and ultimately worth the read.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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