Book Review: Life
Not to be confused with the movie of the same title, Life is the 2010 autobiography of guitarist and Rolling Stones co-founder Keith Richards. Finally catching up my reviews to some reasonable proximity to the subject book’s publication date, cf. here and here, I started reading Life about five weeks ago as an enjoyable distraction from the legal matters that had been commanding my time. How surprised was I, then, to read the opening lines of Richards’ book: “Chapter One/ In which I am pulled over by police officers in Arkansas during our 1975 US tour and a standoff ensues.” Keith Richards, Life 3 (Little, Brown and Company 2010). Rock star hijinks and clashes with authority I expected; starting off with a primer on Fourth Amendment search and seizure law I did not. The beneficiary of some small-town politics, Richards escaped that particular encounter with the authorities and returned his readers to tales of his early days in England. A friend (and real writer) reviewed Life for JH Weekly. Just as Richards, in the book, often had his friends interject where they might happen to recall an event with more clarity than he or their voice otherwise would be a welcome contribution, I here will defer to a professional and offer my own reaction afterwards.
After a nuclear holocaust, nothing will be left alive except cockroaches and Keith Richards. In his wildly popular autobiography, Richards seems moved to demonstrate his own amazement at the length of his mortal sojourn, and he offers testimony in defense (the man’s spent much time in litigation) of his remarkable resilience. There’s a romance in his recounting of “fate-cheating close shaves” and the years when “we were just trying to stay alive and stay one step ahead of the law.”
Life confirms, amends and elaborates upon nearly 50 years of Keef mythology with stories of being manhandled by maniacal fans; of the ending of an era at Altamont; of bedding Brian Jones’s lady (and Mick’s lady); of the familial rivalry between he and Mick and of his repeated cold-turkeys and returns to smack. (He does admit to being an addict.) The narrative proves entertaining and, at turns, gut-wrenching and heart-breaking, comical and juvenile, sagacious and glad. Pleasantly biased, Richards’s voice resonates on the page, both engaging and disarming his reader with his tremendous self-awareness, his active relationship with his public image and his own intense sense of confidence. He’s honest, but there’s a pathos involved in the telling: “I was never really interested very much in my look, so to speak, although I might be a liar here.”
The book is enriched by Richards’s inclusion of excerpts of his journal from the early days of the Rolling Stones, as well as interviews of friends, collaborators and family, sharpening the points and defining the lines of the narrative. There’s a tragic beauty and Dickensian quality to his son Marlon’s recollections of time spent in Long Island. Saxophonist Bobby Keys adds delicious flavor. And I took great pleasure in Richards’s recounting the days of his boyhood in Dartford in the 40s: remembering his parents riding their tandem bicycle, taking walks with his grandfather Gus and playing his first guitar.
Amidst the book’s picaresque tone, plunderers will find it’s true bounty: Richards’s relationship with music and music-makers. There’s an education to be had as he guides readers through his musical development. He displays his ardor for Chicago Blues, Tin Pan Alley, Howlin’ Wolf and so many others (including Jackson Browne). He chronicles his technique development and his collaborations, remarking that “nothing came from itself” and in the biz “mostly there are no secrets.” Richards recounts the birth of albums and songs, from inspiration and writing, to tinkering and rehearsing, to recording and producing, to touring and performing. Rolling Stones fans will surely celebrate this intimate look at songs that have already won their hearts. – Julia Hysell
“Book Reviews,” JH Weekly (Jan. 5, 2011).
The whole entourage had exploded in terms of numbers, of roadies and technicians, and of hangers-on and groupies. For the first time, we traveled in our own hired plane, with the lapping tongue painted on. We had become a pirate nation, moving on a huge scale under our own flag, with lawyers, clowns, attendants.
Richards, supra, at 326 (discussing the beginning of the 1972 tour). Upon starting Life, I expected I would be impatient to get into “the action,” but I found myself enjoying Richards’ thorough recollections of his childhood in 1940s England and his caring telling of his family history. Perhaps unsurprising to those familiar with his later lifestyle, these early days comprise some of Richards’ most vivid stories here.
One of the main things I was looking for was Richards’ memories of Gram Parsons, the influential American musician known as “the father of country rock.” Although Parsons died just before his twenty-seventh birthday (when Richards was only twenty-nine), the two became close friends while Parsons was alive. Outside of Bobby Keys and the mothers of Richards’ children, Anita Pallenberg and Patti Hansen, Parsons may be the most mentioned non-Stone in Richards’ tale. The two met in the summer of 1968, and four years later, Parsons’ country rock influence would surface in the Stones’ greatest work, Exile on Main St. Of their first meeting, Richards writes:
When I fell in with Gram Parsons in the summer of 1968, I struck a seam of music that I’m still developing, which widened the range of everything I was playing and writing. It also began an instant friendship that already seemed ancient the first time we sat down and talked. It was like a reunion with a long-lost brother for me, I suppose, never having had one. Gram was very, very special and I still miss him.
Id. at 247. The two shared a passion for music and, unfortunately for Parsons, a deep appreciation of heroin. It was Keys who told Richards of Parsons’ sudden and untimely death.
Much of Life is spent relating stories about Richards and his friends, like Keys, Parsons, and myriad others. The book is not heavy on music per se, although there is a detailed guitar lecture about one-third of the way in, and the reader won’t depart without knowing Richards’ musical influences and idols, mostly black American blues musicians he mentions often. Graciously, Richards relates details of actual, identified album recording sessions (unlike Bob Dylan’s foggy Chronicles, Volume I) and even opens windows into the writing of various songs. He appropriately spends much time on the recording of Exile on Main St., while the Stones were tax exiles in France, and the reader can compare the dynamics of the Jagger/Richards songwriting duo starting from their first tune, written while the band’s first manager had locked them in a kitchen.
For a life spent getting by with his friends– and now related in such a fashion– the reader learns little about the other band members. Richards’ fellow Stones are surprisingly one-dimensional and scarce throughout the book. Brian Jones gets the most attention in the early going, and the reader learns about Ian Stewart’s pivotal early role (Richards credits the slightly older piano player with founding the band) and ongoing participation with the group, but the elusive Charlie Watts is, save for a couple brief episodes, disappointingly elusive in these pages, and Mick Taylor (Jones’ replacement) and Bill Wyman barely cast pale shadows on the scene.
Even Mick Jagger receives bare lip service; while peppering conservative praise through his periodic references to Jagger, Richards otherwise consistently presents his “soul brother” / “Glimmer Twin” in a negative light, and one suspects wounds remain too fresh today for him to write openly even about their younger days together. (Interestingly, it was another man named Bill Wyman who would attempt to lend flesh to the bare bones provided Jagger’s presence Richards’ Life with a fictional imagination of Jagger’s private reaction to the book.)
Overcoming the legalistic hurdle on page one, I enjoyed Life and found it a fun look into an often-imagined world. While I would have liked more on the early days of Keith and Mick, the persona of Charlie Watts, and the emergent collaborations portrayed in 1968’s The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (featuring Taj Mahal, The Who, Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithful, and The Dirty Mac), I learned more about Ian Stewart, Brian Jones, the X-Pensive Winos (the guitarist’s well-stocked solo band), and Richards’ time in Jamaica. For me, it was the right book at the right time; it was well-paced and made me want to listen to music.
The Flying Burrito Brothers – “Wild Horses,” Burrito Deluxe (1970)[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1778958/22%20Wild%20Horses.mp3]
Keith Richards – “Connection,” Live at the Hollywood Palladium (1988)
The Rolling Stones – “Happy,” Exile on Main St. (1972)
Toots & the Maytals (feat. Keith Richards) – “Careless Ethiopians,” True Love (2004)
The Rolling Stones – “Salt of the Earth,” The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968)