I’ve never been a big fan of the Rolling Stones. I like them but don’t love them. My favorite Stones songs are “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Mother’s Little Helper.” I also like “Tumbling Dice” but most of Exile on Main Street is too muddy and too raw for my tastes.
Despite my ambivalence toward the band, however, Life by Keith Richards was among the most interesting autobiographies I’ve ever read. Because the 547-page book is a very detailed narrative, you can tell that Richards was truly involved with its creation. It’s not just the work of his collaborator, James Fox.
You have to be amazed by the Stones’ great guitarist for his candidness about his wild, hedonistic lifestyle. He makes no excuses for his exploits, never sugarcoats them, and he is equally blunt about his family and his former and current bandmates. At the same time, he possesses a soft spot for many of the people who have passed through his life. It’s easy to believe he’s being brutally honest about everything even though, as with most memoirs, there are detractors such as Mick Jagger’s former squeeze, Marianne Faithful.
The Glimmer Twin covers all aspects of his life. He discusses his parents (who he refers to as Doris and Bert), including his feelings about his mother’s longtime affair, the fact that his father was a good guy who lacked ambition, and his closeness to his maternal grandfather. Richards tells us how he met Jagger, Brian Jones, and the rest of the original Stones. He talked about Ian Stewart, the band’s founder, who was later fired by manager Andrew Loog Oldham before they became stars simply because he didn’t fit into a carefully cultivated public image. Stewart is one of Richards’ soft spots, so is Charlie Watts, the famous quintet’s drummer, and there is also a lot of room in his heart for saxophonist Bobby Keys and the late Gram Parsons.
Unlike a lot of scandalous “tell all” books, Richards doesn’t just dish out the dirt. He expounds about how the blues influenced his music and how music influenced his life. He spends considerable time explaining how he became one of the pioneers of five-string open tuning for the guitar, how Oldham singled out Jagger and Richards as the band’s composers and essentially forced them to be the men who would carry the load. One of his most interesting and astonishing musical stories is about how there are no electric guitars on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man.” Both songs feature heavily distorted acoustic guitars that are made to sound like electrics.
We learn of Richards’ long heroin addiction, the very seedy details describing how he injected drugs, the effect they had on his sanity, his physical health, and the many close calls that potentially could have cost him his freedom and put him behind bars for many years. Lurid details of syringes, the great pains he and his hooked friends would take to score their next high, and the excruciating pain of crashing back into sobriety as the high dissipates, are vividly detailed by one who lived the lifestyle daily. The agony of going cold turkey to get off the junk forever is also portrayed as another necessary evil that serves as a final punishment. Fortunately, Richards got off the deadly hard stuff in 1978 yet he continued to use cocaine well into the new century and only stopped because he needed brain surgery after falling out of a tree.
The former addict is proud that Rolling Stone magazine listed him No. 1 every year for almost a decade as the rock star most likely to OD. Richards felt the joke was on them by annually defying the publication’s predictions. When he finally dropped to No. 9 on the list he was definitely disappointed.
Regarding the guys in the band, we read how Richards and Jagger had a very close friendship for almost 25 years before the latter contracted a case of the dreaded disease the author calls LVS. If not caught in the early stages the disease is almost always fatal to rock bands. In his world LVS stands for “Lead Vocalist Syndrome,” the affliction that makes lead singers believe they are more important than the rest of the band. Fortunately, the controversial frontman was cured before the Stones’ heart stopped beating.
Then there is the tale of how Jones turned into a complete “asshole” during 1969, his last year with the group. Drugs, and his huge rock star ego, fueled his firing two weeks before he drowned in his swimming pool. For almost two years he had been missing concerts and recording sessions and the band got sick of covering for him.
We also learn of Richards’ relationships with Watts, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, and Ron Wood.
Richards fathered two children and had a long affair with actress/model/junkie Anita Pallenberg, who had previously dated Jones. After sobering up, he left Pallenberg and has now married to Patti Hansen for some 30 years. Together they had two more daughters.
The book’s coarse language and its casual writing style suggest that Richards was speaking into a tape recorder and his words were then transferred into print in lieu of sitting down at a keyboard and typing out a manuscript. If so, the informal atmosphere suits the personality of the author quite well. Frequently, Richards injects short essays written by family members and friends into his story because they may have a better understanding of specific incidents than he does.
There should be no surprise to anyone who reads this book that Richards traveled in a totally self-centered world of debauchery. He still genuinely loves those close to him even if his lifestyle caused him to either neglect them or hinder their well being. (Read about his first two children with Pallenberg for proof.) Richards knows he is lucky to have survived it all and he is totally lucid — not a burnout like Ozzy Osbourne.
He has some regrets, but not many, and to this day, in addition to his family, he still cherishes his life, his music, and the Rolling Stones.