Life, Keith Richards, Little, Brown and Co., 576 pages
By Daniel J. Flynn | August 15, 2011
Slipped my tongue in someone else’s pie
Tasting better every time
He turned green and tried to make me cry
Being hungry it ain’t no crime.
—“Coming Down Again”
IF KEITH RICHARDS’S autobiography Life were a novel, the climax would arrive early with the long come down to follow.
Having at the behest of Decca Records ditched pianist Ian Stewart— “the Rolling Stones is his band,” Richards maintains—group founder Brian Jones experienced what he had dished out to Stewart and then some. Once the Rolling Stones transitioned from a cover band to songwriter-driven pop act, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and company cruelly ridiculed the suddenly dispensable bluesman Jones and ultimately fired him. Whether for truth’s sake or as rationalization for famously stealing Anita Pallenberg from Jones, Richards plays up his band mate’s fondness for intergender fistfights, constant intoxication, and conscription of girlfriends for orgies.
“It’s said that I stole her,” Richards notes of his courtship of Pallenberg. “But my take on it is that I rescued her. Actually, in a way, I rescued him. Both of them. They were both on a very destructive course.” Alas, neither Jones, who turned green at the bottom of his swimming pool in 1969, nor Pallenberg—presumably tasting better every time as Richards’s junkie common-law wife— found salvation in the guitarist’s mission of mercy. He, too, was on a very destructive course.
If Mick Jagger had a rescue mission in mind when he also bedded the German supermodel after she became Richards’s paramour, he never dared couch the affair in such self-serving terms. Richards wants readers to know that although that betrayal drove a permanent wedge between him and his lead singer, the hard feelings, strangely, came from Jagger. But more than four decades on and less than a few sentences later, Richards maintains that Pallenberg had “no fun with the tiny todger” and boasts about his own adventure with Marianne Faithful. “I was knocking Marianne, man,” he says of Jagger’s girlfriend. “While you’re missing it, I’m kissing it.”
What once shined or flickered within the Glimmer Twins’ friendship has long since been extinguished. Richards labels Mick Jagger as Bill Wyman with a veneer of class, mocking him for keeping ledger-style records of his sexual exploits. The Jagger that emerges here is a control freak whose observation of James Brown putting the reins on free-spirited musicians inspired his dictatorial designs over the Stones. (Just as Axl Rose later found inspiration by watching Jagger.) Richards even claims that Jagger partly enjoyed the guitarist’s heroin addiction for the power shift it accomplished within the Stones. Richards doesn’t consider that the drug chaos within the band may have prompted Jagger’s desire to control the few variables that he could.
Richards confesses that he hasn’t been inside his former friend’s dressing room in 20 years. He faults the singer for having delusions of success outside the Stones, then projects upon Jagger the sin he exhibits toward him: “Mick doesn’t want me to have any friends except him.” The feeling seems mutual.
The poison pen makes the reader love the book, if not its subject. Richards is petty, colorful, cranky, aloof, narcissistic, and salacious—which makes for lively reading. Life is undoubtedly Richards’s honest perspective, but the haze of drugs, fame, and time undoubtedly obscures much truth. As with the Stones’ catalogue for most of the last three decades, Richards could have put anything into his book and the public would have bought it. But Life is more “Sticky Fingers” than “Dirty Work.” Instead of phoning it in, Richards opens old wounds and bruises the egos that make him money. The reader is grateful. But the writer? Surely this is unwise. What does it profit a guitarist to climb the bestseller charts but jeopardize his touring juggernaut?
A law-of-the-jungle vibe permeates the book—as, one suspects, it permeated his band. The folkways of tribe Rolling Stone include suspicion of contacts beyond the village, the pack constantly knocking down the alpha male, and a survival-of-the-fittest callousness that leaves a trail of broken band mates, producers, girlfriends, fans, and children. Much of the book reads as a justification for appalling conduct toward other human beings. That’s rock ’n’ roll, we are supposed to think, and he is Keith Richards. But consequences hit rock stars, too.
The no-honor-among thieves ethics perpetually comes back to bite its adherents. The impetus to hire manager Allen Klein stemmed from his philosophy that contracts are not worth the paper they are printed upon; predictably, he stayed true to that vision by separating the Stones from much of their early catalogue. After making much of his working-class, socialist lineage, Richards details how he became a tax exile on the French Riviera once Great Britain’s socialist government dared come for its cut. Richards boasts of his prodigious drug intake upon the occasion of legendary busts at his Redlads estate, near an Arkansas truck stop, and in Toronto, only to lash out at the police for setting him up. He simultaneously plays the persecuted martyr and the mischievous outlaw forever getting away with it. Pick one or the other.
He insists the Stones weren’t to blame for the peace-and-love decade’s violent coda at Altamont. “With a show that size sometimes the body count is four or five people trampled or suffocated,” Richards holds. “Look at the Who, playing a totally legit gig, and eleven people died.” Police, not heretofore welcome figures in the Keith Richards narrative, were “very thin on the ground.” And murdered concertgoer Robert Meredith was “as nuts as the rest.” The Hells Angels come up for criticism, too, but the wisdom of employing the bikers as security and paying them in booze escapes discussion. “Well, what can you do?”
This attitude wears thin during passages describing the death of Richards’s and Pallenberg’s infant son, Tara. “Never knew the son of a bitch, or barely,” Richards recalls. “I changed his nappy twice, I think.” Willing neither to cancel a concert upon receipt of the sad news nor to inquire into the circumstances of the death with the child’s troubled mother, an aloof Richards confesses, “I don’t know where the little bugger is buried, if he’s buried at all.” Periodic car crashes, weaponry lying about, house fires, and a carousel of unbalanced visitors made Richards’s milieu an unwelcoming one for children. “It was very difficult to be one of the Rolling Stones and take care of your kids at the same time.”
But the circus life overflows with comedy as well as tragedy. There are adventures along the way. Richards unwittingly drives getaway for a robbery. He escapes the clutches of a girl mob (“this savagery of unleashed emotions”). He spots Robert Stigwood on a spiral staircase and lets loose flying knees (“can’t use a boot on a winding staircase”) on the promoter for stiffing his band. He cures himself of Hepatitis C (“I’m a rare case”). He pulls a knife on Billy Preston for playing his organ too loud. He stays up for nine days (“eventually, you hit the deck”).
Amidst stories of drug benders and cold-turkey sobriety, Richards gives a glimpse inside the other recreational pursuit for which he is famous. That iconic Stones guitar sound, Richards reveals, derived from the likes of Don Everly, Ry Cooder, and hillbilly banjoists. Richards removed the bottom string and played his axe as a five-stringed instrument. It was “as if your piano was turned upside down and the black notes were white and the white notes were black.” The new sound, developed in the late ’60s, defined not only songs such as “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up” but the band that played them. Ultimately, such discoveries as open-G tuning made rock ’n’ roll more addictive than heroin. “I could kick smack,” Richards notes. “I couldn’t kick music.”
Richards occasionally plays legend-killer to himself. He didn’t practice the black arts with Anita Pallenberg. He didn’t beat heroin by changing his blood. He never mixed his father’s ashes with a line of coke. He didn’t fall out of a Fijian coconut tree and need brain surgery. Though caught up in his own mythology, the man does try to separate himself from the myth.
The name-dropping is effortless, as even his cronies have become famous thanks to their association with him. He details a mid-’60s romance with the seraphic Ronnie Spector, destined for even worse taste in men. “What do you do when you hear a record like ‘Be My Baby’ and suddenly you are?” His blunt style finds Playboy founder Hugh Hefner a “pimp” and Canadian first lady Margaret Trudeau a “groupie.” And even Richards couldn’t save Bobby Keys from Jagger’s wrath after the Texas saxophonist spent a concert in a bathtub of Dom Perignon rather than on stage. That escapade ensured that Keys owed instead of earned money for the tour. Richards’s lackey didn’t make it back into the Stones’ touring band until his patron sneaked him back onstage after a decade-long exile.
Another friend who allegedly provoked Jagger’s jealousy was Gram Parsons, the alt-country godfather whose path crossing with Richards’s was “like a reunion with a long lost brother.” Richards says of his drug-buddy drug casualty, “He changed the face of country music and he wasn’t around long enough to find out.” Meanwhile Richards trashes the father of rock ’n’ roll as a cheapskate who cheated musicians out of songwriting credits and toured with inferior, poorly-paid musicians: “Chuck Berry was a big disappointment.” Guitar heroes shouldn’t meet their guitar heroes.
Life suggests to us guitar zeroes that we may wish to avoid close encounters with our idols, too. Meeting Keith Richards on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” or “Happy” leaves the listener in a mood to venerate. Meeting him in his captivating autobiography is a big disappointment.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left.