Keith Richards — Life

Whether or not you will be captivated by Rolling Stones guitarist and all-around bon vivant Keith Richards’ new autobiography all the way to the end of its 547 pages swings on a couple of factors.

Number one: How much do you still like and care about the Rolling Stones?

Number two: How much you can stomach reading about the sordid intricacies of heroin addiction?

If those two caveats check out, then this book has a lot to offer in the way of insightful musings on the emergence, “maturation,” and decline of rock ’n’ roll, as well as dispatches from the gutter as harrowing as anything William S. Burroughs phlegmatically coughed up in junk-sick reverie.

Occasional partner-in-crime Tom Waits puts it best towards the end of the book when he describes Richards as “a frying pan made from one piece of metal. He can heat it up really high and it won’t crack, it just changes color.” Spiritually changing his color from pasty postwar English white to the richer tones of the blues artists he and his friends immortalized became an obsession early on, and one that somehow, against all odds, he managed to pull off.

Richards recalls fondly of being accepted on the “other side of the tracks” much more openly than in the “Whites Only” areas of the still-segregated American South. Richards writes in his journal about coming to the United States for the first time, “Finally I’m in my element! An incredible band is wailing … so does the sweat and the ribs cooking out back. The only thing that makes me stand out is that I’m white! Wonderfully, no one notices this aberration. I am accepted. I’m made to feel so warm. I am in heaven!

This ability to fit in wherever he finds himself belies a truthfully warm and open heart on the part of a young Keith Richards. You never get the sense that this English kid is culture slumming, he has done his homework, paid his dues, and remains respectful and—as an outsider in an uptight society still struggling to shrug off the ’50s—simpatico. At least until the drugs kick in.

Later in the narrative, Richards bemoans the way that the other half of his musical partnership has become too enamored with controlling all aspects of the now multi-million dollar business interest called the Rolling Stones. This is after spending most of the ’70s in a narcotic fog, forcing his band mates to practice, record, and exist on “Keith time.” He doesn’t seem to realize that he has passive-aggressively set the agenda for years by placing himself outside of the “normal” constrains of time, laws (local, Federal, and international), sleep, etc.

What saves this tale from being just another tale of debauched rock royalty (not that there’s anything wrong with those) is Richards’ voice. Life is written very much in Keef’s voice, along with reeling asides, obscure English slang, and most of all, heart. As much as they squabble and moan about each other, the Rolling Stones have been tempered by a half-century of dealing with each other’s shit. Richards explains, “Mick and I may not be friends—too much wear and tear for that—but we’re the closest of brothers, and that can’t be severed. … Best friends are best friends. But brothers fight. … At the same time, nobody else can say anything against Mick that I can hear. I’ll slit their throat.” Judging from his track record, and the sticker in his boot, he may end up doing just that.

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