Life

Weighing in at 547 pages, the autobiography of Keith Richards, the world's most worshipped rhythm guitarist, is called Life, a title that evokes a high school biology textbook more than the ultimate sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll tell-all. "Life" itself seems like something that just happened, as opposed to a destiny fulfilled. One might have thought some song titles would have been more to the point: Torn and Frayed? Shine a Light? Tumbling Dice? And those are just from Exile on Main Street. How about just Keef? And yet, after concluding this tome, I had to rethink my wishful alternatives, since the book does teach a kind of Life Science, or perhaps Life Lessons or Life Studies, although the aim is hardly pedagogical. "Don't try this at home, kids," is the subtext of the voluminous riffs on how to shoot smack (only the purest pharmaceutical grade, which ain't on the streets anymore), fall out of a tree (not, according to legend, reaching for a coconut but merely settling on a branch), or snort your dad's ashes (which he did, but as an afterthought, in a Big Lebowski moment).

 

What he does want to teach, though, is how to write songs, play guitar, and create grand, 3-minute operas for the voice, body, words, and diva persona of Mick Jagger, and this is a master class of the highest order. Each chapter begins with a David Copperfield-like synopsis, and whether or not our Keef becomes the hero of his own life, these pages will show. For half a century—with all the bitching and carping included in this book and familiar to those who have kept up with the squabbling parents who nevertheless hold it together—the Glimmer Twins still sparkle, still performing a tightly choreographed spectacle against the logic of age. Their 2006 Bigger Bang tour grossed over $588 million, the most lucrative rock & roll gig ever, even though it has been 30 years since Mick and Keith wrote a song that most people even know. Between 1965 and 1981, though, despite a few valleys (Goat's Head Soup, Black and Blue, Emotional Rescue) among the peaks (just about everything else), they were hard to beat. Even if they were less mellifluous than The Beatles or less poetic than Bob Dylan, no rock band this side of Muddy Waters explored with more splendor or seductive danger the power of three chords and the truth. Richards literally wrote the riff for "Satisfaction" in his sleep, and was only slightly more conscious for the rest of his finest musical foundations. His riffs, borrowing musical logic from Chuck Berry and open tunings from Bo Diddley, carry, in their most sublime moments, the weight of the world, and his book is equal parts demystification and mythification. How did this bloke from Dartford, Kent become a seemingly accidental genius?

 

He certainly couldn't have done it alone. His legacy is really fragments of songs, all knitted together by Sir Mick, who himself wouldn't have been worth his title—not even worth his shimmy—without Keith. We get the story of a guy who doesn't just want to randomly bang some birds and score a bump, but wants it to be soulful, even affectionate. If you get too sucked in, you could almost become a Keith apologist, glossing over the moment he pulled a knife on organist Billy Preston for playing too loud (unopened, but still!), and breaking the chivalric code by stealing model-actress-junkie Anita Pallenberg from founding Stones guitarist Brian Jones (although he goes to great lengths to portray Jones, 5 foot 6 and fey, as physically abusive to women and increasingly useless to The Stones). Anyway, to hear Keith tell it, Pallenberg ended up in the sack with Mick around the time he turned down a three-way proposition from Marlon Brando (which didn't stop Keith from naming his eldest son after him) and before he became an even more deeply hooked junkie than he had been, that last corroborated by Marlon Richards himself. Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday.

 

Whether or not you buy Keith's image of himself as a knight in shining armor (having, he says, shirts ruined by the tears of Bianca, Jerry, and other martyred babes of Mick), Life's most privileged moments find Keith becoming so enthralled with a three chord creation, he could stay up days and days (nine was the record) just hammering it out until he struck gold. "Jumping Jack Flash" was the turning point in Keith's use of open tunings, a guitar player's mysterious alchemy that can produce the deepest results. "Those crucial, wonderful riffs just came, I don't know where from," he writes, still giddy. "I'm blessed with them and can never get to the bottom of them." This is why we care about Keith, who kicked heroin three decades ago (perhaps after recording Tattoo You, the last good Stones album), and kicked coke and even booze more recently. Now, he has never looked more battered, but has never sounded more lucid. This is a fascinating book by a flawed man still settling his scores, but his pages on those riffs are a must for anyone who wants to dig into the mystery of "Street Fighting Man," "Brown Sugar," "Gimme Shelter," and those other songs that seem impervious to decay. They are as big as Life and still too large for Richards to fully comprehend: "It's like a recall of something and I don't even know where it came from!"


David Yaffe, a professor of English at Syracuse, is the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton). His next book, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, will be published by Yale University Press next May.

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