You are hereLife. By Keith Richards

Life. By Keith Richards

Two-thirds of the way through his sprawling autobiography, Keith Richards pauses for a rare moment of introspection. “Image is like a long shadow,” he offers. “It’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were.”
At this point in his narrative of rambling anecdotes, character sketches, musings on music, and bons mots, it seems as though the guitarist is ready to take stock, to probe why, for instance, the Stones’ last three decades have been a long and unfulfilling artistic coda to their first two.
Alas, stopping for any length — to gather moss, steam or thoughts — would be anathema to this Rolling Stone. And so, after reaching the self-serving conclusion that “the folks out there created this folk hero” (and thus cleverly denying responsibility for just about everything he’s done), he’s on the move again.
Keef’s restlessness makes him a compelling — if occasionally exasperating — character. In Life, he collects many of the wildly improbable tales of success, excess and obsession that have made him rock’s most revered rascal, but with one significant exception (and more on that later), the book stops short of offering the level of personal insight that could make it a stone-cold classic.
Richards takes us to Dartford, near London, where he grew up as an only child, one street over from “Posh Town” (home of Mick Jagger), coveting his grandfather’s guitar. At school, he was beaten up repeatedly, and just when we’re starting to feel sympathy for the li’l devil, he finds assistance in the form of a big kid who’s “a bit of an oaf” and becomes Richards’ “minder.” This pattern repeats itself throughout the book: Richards is persecuted for growing his hair, ingesting illicit substances, attracting other men’s women, or playing that rock ’n’ roll music, but gets by with a little help from his well-placed friends.
Yet the festering conflicts that drive Life’s most absorbing passages arise between Richards and those closest to him: his band mates, his girlfriends and, ultimately, himself. The Stones didn’t have a difficult rise to the top (their first single “wormed its way into the Top 20, and suddenly, in a matter of a week or so, we’d been transformed into pop stars”); only when they became international celebrities did the relationships between them start to get torn and frayed.
Richards paints a disturbingly fascinating picture of the late ’60s and early ’70s as a time when battle lines were drawn clearly between culture and counterculture, when the antagonism and oppression of the powers-that-be spurred those who defined themselves as “outlaws” to greater, and ultimately self-destructive, heights of hedonism. And while friends and bandmates (Brian Jones, Gram Parsons) succumbed, Richards became the ultimate rock ’n’ roll survivor. He persisted, despite accidents, arrests and addiction, through luck and a measure of control, both physical (taking care with the purity and dosage of his heroin fixes) and psychological.
He wouldn’t dwell on tragedies: On the night Gram Parsons ODs, he drives from Innsbruck to Munich on a quest to find “one of the most beautiful women in the world” to “soothe his soul”; on the night his two-month-old son dies, he plays a concert nonetheless. (“What am I going to do — sit there and mope and go bananas?”) For all of Richards’ bravado, moments like these add a terrible poignancy to his tale, as he seems always to be running away from his demons. At last, he kicks heroin, leaving his addicted partner, Anita Pallenberg, to her own devices.
Issues with women remain largely unresolved and glossed over — although Keef acknowledges the band’s early songs often had “what you might call anti-girl lyrics,” he offers the dubious excuse that “maybe some of the songs opened up their hearts a little, or their minds, to the idea of ‘we’re women, we’re strong.’ ” As well, his increasingly fraught relationship with Jagger drives him to contradictions: At one point, he claims, “I’m still his mate. But he makes it very difficult to be his friend,” and then many pages later, “Mick and I may not be friends — too much wear and tear for that — but we’re the closest of brothers.”
Perhaps this irresolution is the result of the book’s construction. Friend and journalist James Fox culled material from a number of long interviews, so there’s no sustained line of self-examination, no matter how candid (or sordid) the revelations. But the one deeply considered relationship in Life — and the best reason to read it — is that between Richards and his muse.
While all around him are losing their heads, he’s led onward by his devotion to the rock ’n’ roll that transformed him as a teenager in Dartford, that gave him a sense of purpose, that led him to blues, soul, country music, funk and Jamaican nyabinghi, and that continues to fuel him through numerous collaborations, as the Stones have been running in place.
His evocation of discovering open tuning on the guitar is contagious in its enthusiasm, and much more exciting than anything so “muso” should have the right to be. His descriptions of the legends he tracked down and played with, and the unknown musicians he discovered, are riveting, and best of all, the book shines new light on to a body of music that’s been so heavily scrutinized and analyzed, you’d think it was all played out.
Life won’t always give you what you want, but sometimes, you get what you didn’t even know you needed.
Reviewed by Mike Doherty

    006 skyscraper - Fly at a Smile-Price