Arts/Literature

That's life: Life by Keith Richards

By Patrick Vecchio

At the start of the second chapter of his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones writes, “For many years I slept, on average, twice a week. That means that I have been conscious for three lifetimes.”

That means three lives’ worth of Richards’ memories from the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, right? Well, kind of. It seems Richards spent one of those extra lives as a heroin addict and most of another one feuding with Stones front man Mick Jagger. He spares no ink on those topics, so Life actually works about to about a life and a half. Having said that, it still lends itself to being read in big chunks. Fans of classic rock will devour it.

The book begins by establishing a main theme: It’s always been the Stones vs. the Establishment (read: police), and the Stones make a fool of The Man every time. In the opening chapter, Richards writes about being foolish enough to stop at a roadside diner in Arkansas on Independence Day weekend in 1975, when the Stones were touring. He and the guitarist Ronnie Wood

“… went into the john. You know, just start me up. We got high. We didn’t fancy the clientele out there, and so we hung in the john, laughing and carrying on. We sat there for forty minutes. And you don’t do that down there.”

Their behavior led to the diner staff calling the police, who stop the rockers’ car as soon as it pulls out of the diner parking lot,

“… and there they are with shotguns in our faces. I had a denim cap with all these pockets in it that were filled with dope. Everything was filled with dope. In the car doors themselves, all you had to do was pop the panels, and there were plastic bags full of coke and grass, peyote and mescaline. On my God, how are we going to get out of this?”

In this episode, and every other “busted!” episode throughout the book, the Stones (read: Richards) beat the bust, thanks to powerful, well-connected lawyers who know people who know people. Richards also contends that after police nabbed the band, they didn’t know what to do next because they were afraid of being seen as heavy-handed. During other brush-ups with the law, he relies on his I’m-a-rock-and-roller, smack-is-part-of-my-life, I’m-not-hurting-anyone defense.  Richards and the band are the ultimate rebels, flaunting the laws and making up their own rules as they go along. It makes for humorous reading now because we all know how the story turned out: Everybody lived (well, almost everybody), no one went to prison, and Keith turned into a Pirate of the Caribbean. It makes for humorous reading because Richards thinks it all was funny and writes it that way. He’ll have you laughing out loud when he describes how he and an associate are trying to flush drugs down a toilet and spilling pills all over the bathroom floor in a madcap attempt to get rid of evidence against them.

Richards’ humor, though, wanes fairly early on, save for wisecracks that go off like firecrackers throughout the book. Life becomes less funny because of almost interminable stories of his go-rounds with heroin: either by himself, or with his former wife-in-all-but-a-legal sense Anita Pallenberg, or with musicians like John Lennon: “But the thing was with John—for all his vaunted bravado—he couldn’t really keep up.” Richards continues, “John would inevitably end up in my john, hugging the porcelain. And there’d be Yoko in the background, ‘He really shouldn’t do this,’ and I’d go, ‘I know, but I didn’t force him!’” Lennon, he says, never left his house “except horizontally. Or definitely propped up.”

There’s only so much humor that can be extracted from addiction, though, and after awhile, Richards’ bragging about using heroin to take the edge off of life so he could function better, or boasting about using drugs to stay up and work once for nine days without sleep, gets tiresome—as do his descriptions of trying to go cold turkey to clean up, only to relapse, and then go cold turkey again, and then relapse again, etc. We get it, Keith. You were a junkie. Move on.

Drugs, of course, contributed to the demise of Brian Jones, one of the original members of the Rolling Stones. You’d think Jones’ death—apparently by drowning in his swimming pool shortly after Jagger and Richards expelled him from the band—might elicit more of a reaction from Richards than a page and a half, but that’s all there is. And much of that space covers a conspiracy theory about Jones actually being murdered as opposed to drowning accidentally. Still, even at this point, Richards refers to his former band mate as a “whining son of a bitch.” Not much sympathy for the devil.

Richards’ account of his feud with Jagger peaks in Life when he complains, “The immediate problem was that Mick had developed an overriding desire to control everything” in the ‘80s. Well, it’s not as if Mick could have leaned on a perpetually nodded-out Richards for help. Richards misses that point; he misses the point that Jagger’s business acumen led to untold riches for the band members; he misses the point that it was simply unreasonable to expect Jagger to share control with him, given his habit of relapsing into addiction; he misses the point that with his bloodstream almost being a liquid pharmacy, maybe he wasn’t thinking lucidly for vast stretches of time. Who else was going to take control?

Richards’ indignation reaches its zenith when he discusses Jagger’s venture at a solo career. Quick: In the mid-to-late ‘80s, how many solo LP’s did Jagger release? What were their names? That’s right: Jagger’s career as a solo artist is an obscure footnote, even to those of us who were around at the time. But instead of taking a long-term view of it and recognizing its insignificance, Richards lets it worry at him like a festering sore—and he misses the clear contradiction that results when he talks about what a great project his solo band—The X-Pensive Winos—was. Apparently, Richards feels the Winos tipped the solo stars’ scales his way. Quick: How many albums did the Winos put out? Exactly. Clearly, though, the self-styled “Glimmer Twins” weren’t always at odds—and to his credit, Richards repeatedly acknowledges Jagger is a prodigious songwriter and a front man who can entertain like no other.

Besides writing at some length about how he and Jagger co-wrote so many songs, Richards provides us other insights into what it’s like to be a Rolling Stone. Stories about how the band was founded, its influences, and its travels around England, Europe, and America paint a picture of rock stardom that is far less glamorous than we might expect. The picture shows us a band working, constantly working, only able to snatch the odd day off here or there, especially in the early days. It shows us the strains that touring can have on relationships, on wives and children, as well as on band members and their associates.

For music aficionados, Richards provides insight on how he gets his unique sounds out of his guitar. He talks about playing with Jones; with Jones’ replacement, Mick Taylor; and with Taylor’s replacement, Ronnie Woods. Clearly, Richards thinks Taylor was the best of the three, but he doesn’t speculate much about why Taylor abruptly left the band. Perhaps the musician who gets the most respect is the Stones’ dapper drummer, Charlie Watts. Richards pays Watts homage in the book, and it’s due him, actually, because Watts so often was overshadowed by drummers like John Bonham, Peter (Ginger) Baker, Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell. Watts is sneaky good and a worthy target of Richards’ praise—but it would have been interesting to hear what Richards had to say about those other drummers, or about all the great musicians he’s seen and heard over the decades. There’s barely any of that. And there’s barely a mention of the Stones’ longtime bassist, Bill Wyman. Curious.

Richards is to Jagger as Lennon was to Paul McCarthy, and late in the book, Richards writes a few paragraphs about abruptly meeting Sir Paul (whom he barely knew) on a beach in the Caribbean:

”We were really pleased to see each other. We fell straight in, talking about the past, talking about songwriting. We talked about such strangely simple things as the difference between the Beatles and the Stones and that the Beatles were a vocal band because they could all sing the lead vocal and we were more of a musicians’ band—we only had one front man.”

At times—when Richards is talking to McCartney, for instance, Life seems ready to settle into a relaxed groove. The most obvious opportunity is the description of his courtship of and love for his now-wife Patti Hansen. But Richards’ ego always re-emerges—for example, when he writes about women. His attitude toward them is lamentable. I know: It was the ‘60s. Sexual mores were changing. Beautiful women swarmed around rock musicians; rock musicians appreciated their company. Sometimes they really appreciated their company. Richards was as appreciative as any. But all these years later, is it so unreasonable to expect him to look back and use words other than “bitches”? Sure, hail hail rock ‘n’ roll rebel and all that. But Keef, you’re a grown man now. Why hasn’t your language grown up too? Why aren’t you enough of a gentleman now to eliminate the name of a woman who is doing naughty things to you in the back of a car?

In the end, the excesses of Life flaw it. The book still is fun to read, but not as much fun as it should have been. Granted, rock ‘n’ roll is largely about excess, but Keef gives us excess in the wrong places. Richards carps about Jagger’s ego but fails to reel in his own. Something less self-centered or with broader views on a wider range of subjects might have struck a truer chord. Richards sometimes gives other voices the chance to speak—his son Marlon among them—but what we find in this book is largely Richards worrying about making sure he can get drugs and clean needles in the next city on the tour, and bitching about Jagger.

Richards reportedly changed the title of his book from My Life late in the process. If he’d kept the title, it would have been more honest. Stones fans (this writer among them) still would have read it. But at least going into the book, we would have had a better idea of how much of a Keef-fest it is.

4 replies »

  1. Two things: Is the use of drugs by someone who is neither financially dependent upon society for support nor committing crimes, something with which the “law” (police, judges, legislators, etc.) ought to concern itself? If the old saying, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” is more than just a cliche, perhaps criminalizing drug use isn’t the best way to handle the problems addictive drugs (in which I include alcohol and tobacco, both legal but potentially deadly) can produce.

    Certainly, a great deal of public time, money, and effort has not produced a reduction of the problem under current policy, either for Mr. Richards, or for the less over-achieving members of our society. Our prisons are jam-packed, our court dockets are sludgy, and the situation isn’t being alleviated by our legal “take” on it. From time to time, someone recommends treatment as a more useful response, but this is generally shouted down.

    I’m not saying I approve of “drug use,” because I think that it is destructive to the people involved, and, often, those around them. However, there are other behaviors which are also inimical, and we don’t criminalize them. I don’t think criminalization is a useful response, and I also think that in the case of the Rolling Stones, a disproportionate efffort was put into “making an example” of them.

    And next, to “flaunt” means to display ostentatiously. To “flout” means to defy. I think the latter was the word of choice, rather than the former, in the context given.

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