If there is one consistent message in Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, it’s “Don’t do heroin.” For a man of such accomplishment, such wild stories, a mega-star who rubbed shoulders with the greats of his generation, it’s fascinating to see what topics get play in this 547-page book. His dysfunctional relationship with actress Anita Pallenberg, his many grievances with Mick Jagger, his love of old-time black music- these all get healthy coverage, but especially once we hit the 70s, it’s all heroin, all the time.
For fans looking for a glorified behind the music, there are moments- Richards writing “Angie” in his bed after the worst heroin cold turkey purge of his life, writing “Ruby Tuesday” about his first spurned love. More often, however, Richards is uninterested in dwelling on any particular song or lyric. “A song never means just one thing,” he writes. We do learn that most Jagger-Richards tunes involve Keith coming up with a riff and a chorus line, with Mick filling in the lyrics, or Mick coming in with lyrics and a tune, and Keith filling out the rhythm. Their partnership is far more symbiotic that Lennon-McCartney, who were at their best working together, but were capable of going it alone as well. I do wish Richards had spent more time on Let It Bleed, my favorite Stones album, and at least a passing moment on “Paint It Black”, “Loving Cup” and other classics. Interestingly, as we get into the 90s and ‘naughts, Richards does dig deeper into certain songs, which could either be because they’re in his more recent memory, or because he has to labor harder to explain why those songs are great, even good.
The Jagger broadsides are fascinating, because you feel them coming for hundreds of pages. While effusive in his praise for Jagger’s musical instincts and abilities, Richards takes a number of one-sentence digs at Jagger early in the book over his self-absorbed personality. When he finally lets loose during the chapter on the 1980s, it’s like a dam bursting. Richards clearly never got over Jagger’s behavior during the half-decade that the Stones were broken up, during which Jagger famously called the other members of the Stones “a millstone around my neck.” Clearly frustrated with his bandmates’ drug use and inability to deliver top music, Jagger sold them out and tried to make it on his own. Richards seems to take great delight in the utter failure of that endeavor, but in a sense, they are both right. Jagger is right that the Stones had nothing left in the tank during the 1980s (or much in the way of songwriting subsequently), and Richards was right that Jagger simply didn’t have the musical chops to make great music without the band. Richards, who launched his own side project, the XPensive Winos, is probably right to claim the moral high ground by writing his own music and experimenting with reggae, not “playing shows with two chicks prancing and singing ‘Tumbling Dice’”, and he does seem more comfortable with ‘life after the Stones’ than Jagger. That said, they got back together in ’89 and launched what was essentially a 20-year stadium tour for a reason.
As much as Keith strikes you as a modest dude who would just as well be left alone, he would prefer to be left alone in the multiple houses he purchases all over the world, with his supermodel girlfriend or wife, mountain of drugs, army of lawyers getting him out of trouble, bevy of expensive doctors saving his life, and posse of musicians and celebrities who come over for the party. Richards’ claims he needs rock n’ roll in his life, which is true. But more particularly, he needs rock ‘n roll superstar money, lots of it.
And he HATES the police, with good reason. The Stones seem to be in disbelief when the British authorities begin cracking down on them, sending teams to surveil them constantly and raid their homes. “We’re just minstrels, troubadours!” Richards exclaims. The discomfort of living in England eventually became too much to bear, but in time the authorities would catch up with Richards wherever he went- France, Canada, the U.S. Anyone can sympathize with Keith’s desire to be left alone, but never once does he acknowledge the illegality of his behavior, or really engage us in whether it should be legal. In any case, his opinions on police officers make me think the great SNL skit where Mike Myers plays Mick and Mick plays Keith is woefully misguided; Keith would never defend “the boys in blue.” He retained his animosity towards the British government into the 1990s, criticizing Mick Jagger for being knighted, claiming he had too easily forgotten the persecution they suffered.
It would have been interesting to hear some perspective, perhaps some more honesty, on what it’s like to be one of the biggest bands of all time long after your peak has past. With the exception of the Sex Pistols, who Richards loathes (“that’s not music, that’s just spitting on people”), he claims to welcome good bands to the scene. Yet we hear very little of any band formed after 1968. What about all the bands like U2, Nirvana and Radiohead who eventually filled the void left by the Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Who (neither of whom are discussed at all, despite their stature as rivals to the Stones in the 70s)? And Richards gives a startling answer to a question I’ve always wanted to ask him, “How do you get motivated to play “Satisfaction” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on stage for the 1,000th time?” Richards explains that “it’s different every time”, though it certainly doesn’t seem that way from the fan’s perspective.
The heroin. Oh, the heroin. If this book is a great advertisement for the rock star lifestyle, all of the good stuff drops by the wayside when heroin enters the picture. The feeling of neediness, the cold turkey phases, the shady drug dealers, the vast expenses- it all seems awful. The junkie tales get more play than anything else in this autobiography, which shows what an impact it had on Keith. In the 1960s, when weed, booze and acid colored the celeb-studded tour parties, life seemed pretty grand. The 70s, in contrast, involved a lot of death, arrests, guns, and awful people. It’s no coincidence that even Hunter S. Thompson does not get into that shit. By the time the 80s come around, Keith has kids, exes, legal problems, and he’s pushing 40 still trying to figure out where adulthood begins. It works out fine- he marries a sweet-sounding supermodel, raises a normal family, quits the dope- but there’s a point where everyone gets too old for the party. Though partying for nine days straight still goes down as a hell of a feat.
If you’re a Stones fan, this book is a must-read. Like most memoirs, it strives to clear up misconceptions, with varying degrees of clarity and convincing. Guitarists will get more out of his lectures on chord progressions that I did, though he helpfully advises non-musicians to skip certain passages. People who just want to hear a good story- my god, Chapter 1 is about as blistering an intro to any autobiography imaginable. Keith is funny, he strives for a personal connection to the reader, and it’s hard not to come away liking him an awful lot. He’s immature, sexist, and really stupid at times, but he also has moments of reflection, humility and tenderness. And after all, like he says, he’s just a guitar player.