Nothing to drink / We just lost our shirts

LIFE, By Keith Richards with James Fox, Illustrated. 564 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $29.99.

I’ve just finished the first piece of non-work-related reading I’ve been able to read in months — the autobiography of rock-n-roll titan, Keith Richards, Life. What can I say about this work? What. To. Say. Well, for me it was a very quick read. Because it’s well-written, surprisingly solid, articulate and engaging, I found myself blazing through the book, even picking it up with just a few minutes here and there to spare because I was genuinely interested to learn what “Keef” had to say about his exploits, the Stones, his pals, music and technology, and countless other things. But it’s also too long. By around page 400 or so, I was ready for it to end. I reckon everyone will have certain things they’re waiting to learn about in Keef’s sixty-odd unbelievably unbelievable years. For me, I wanted to read about Ron Wood’s entry into the band and see how Richards would finesse the awkward and at times awful, music-wise, decades of the 80s and 90s for the Stones. There’s a good amount of narrative on Ronnie Wood. Not really what I expected, but interesting all the same. Richards portrays the 80s and 90s as far more sparkling than I would, and he glosses over albums from that period that I would have liked to read about, and which to my mind deserve more time, e.g., Tattoo You and Emotional Rescue.

Overall I liked Life, but by the end Richards’s bravado and self-descriptions as an outlaw were a bit aggravating and a bit unlikely, if not dubious. I admit, I enjoyed reading his tales of drug use (and abuse). But his obvious lack of humility and lack of generosity for folks in his past and present whom he thinks can’t “hang” with him — partying-wise, musically, loyalty-wise — throughout this book both grew old and made me wonder why, ultimately, he wrote all of this. He’s particularly hard on Mick. No surprise there. Greil Marcus’s review in the Times Literary Supplement captures Richards’s invective against Jagger nicely:

Yes, there is the publicized disdain for Mick Jagger. It comes to nothing. Often it seems forced, a hook of scandal or gossip to sell the book. When it feels true, it also curdles. One can get the sense that if Richards truly holds his lifetime partner in contempt, it’s because unlike Richards, or Brian Jones, Anita Pallenberg, Gram Parsons, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts, or so many more, Jagger never became a drug addict. He stepped back from the abyss; he never went all the way; he was always in control. He never reached for the absolute – as Marianne Faithfull recalls Richards saying, when she told him that she had finally quit heroin, “Ah, Marianne! But what about the Holy Grail?”

Marcus’s review of Life is generally pretty fair. He writes nicely about Richards’s musical discoveries that effectively made the sound of the Stones and created timeless numbers like “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Satisfaction,” “Before They Make Me Run,” and the rest. And I think he’s onto something in his review as far as the verbal abuse of Jagger is concerned. By the end of the book I was eager to read Mick’s take on Keef’s antics over the past half century. This morning I found this on Slate.com: “Please Allow Me To Correct a Few Things: Imagine if Mick Jagger responded to Keith Richards about his new autobiography.” Who knows if Jagger actually wrote this or not — it’s purportedly something Jagger wrote to former Stones’ bassist, Bill Wyman, who’s been the official archivist of the Stones for some time, but was “mistakenly” sent to the famous music critic of the same name, Bill Wyman.

Even if this was penned by music critic Wyman, and not Jagger, it is a spectacular read, especially after having read Richards’s book. But one needn’t read Life first to appreciate the sentiment that Jagger (if he in fact wrote it) relates in this rejoinder. Jagger comes off as so much more mature, generous, and self-aware than Richards’s portrayal of him in Life. I’m interested to hear what EMP’s readers think (whether you’ve read Life or not).

Having said all this, I would recommend Life to anyone who likes the Stones, Keith Richards, tales of sex and drugs (i.e., rock-n-roll), and autobiography. I’m not a bigger Rolling Stones fan now than I was before reading the book. But I do have a bigger appreciation for Keith Richards. He’s far more thoughtful and funny than I ever knew.

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One thought on “Nothing to drink / We just lost our shirts

  1. wildbillyscircusstory

    This is actually in my book queue, so I’m glad it is worthwhile. But my concern when I purchased the book, and which you confirm, is that it would be far too self-aggrandizing to stomach. It sounds from your review that Mr. Richards wants to be remembered as both the author or their artistry and the anchor of their authenticity. Without having read the book yet, it sounds like he’s pretty insecure and, well, petty.

    As you correctly point out, the Stones ceased to be important – in terms of studio output – in the early 1980’s, so its probably a good thing that those albums were glossed over. How did he approach the Beatles/Stones rivalry and Altamont? I’m sure there’s a fair amount in there about “Exile” which, in my opinion, is the most over-rated album in the Stones canon and possibly rock history (but that’s a post for another day). As for the prodigious drug use, I guess that stuff is kind of amusing to read about, albeit disturbing. I predict I will be ready for the book to end at roughly the same point you became ready to move on to other material. (Oh, and congrats on being able to read something non-work relatated – that must have felt like a vacation).

    Reply

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