He’s been so much of our pop-cultural oxygen for so long, so basic to the swagger we brandish on our own best days, his quips and observations such a foundational part of the modern world right now that when you heard Keith Richards had written a book, maybe for just a moment you thought, “You mean he hasn’t written one already?”
Close to 50 years after the humble birth of his band, the Rolling Stones, the profane, sentimental, profligate, visionary rock buccaneer archetype the world knows by first name alone has finally committed his Life to print, a bildungsroman that’s as much a biography of a band’s life as an autobiography of his own.
There have been previous Stones books, heaven knows, two of them written by Bill Wyman, for 28 years the Stones’ rock-solid bass player. Wyman (who joined the band after its inception), however, caught the train after it left the station; Keith was present at the Stones’ creation. That experience gives us the clearest portrait of the genesis of the band we now recognize was as culturally indispensable as it was seemingly incorrigible.
Keith tells us on the inside cover: “This is the Life. Believe it or not I haven’t forgotten any of it.” Forewarned is forearmed: What follows in the 564 pages of this massive work is rock history according to one of its maverick geologists. And true to his word, he hasn’t forgotten anything. His friend, the journalist and author James Fox, helps him sort things out.
For Keith, going from the point A of his life to point B, C, D, etc., is not to take one direct chronological narrative sprint. He takes us on a scenic route, one often defined by circling back to the roadhouses and diversions only he remembers. This autobiography is crowded with roadside attractions: revisitations, rest stops, asides from friends, relatives and co-conspirators … then soon enough, back on the main road. It’s to be expected from one of our culture’s more extravagant examples of someone literally growing up in public.
His was literally a life during World War II. He was born 18 December 1943, in Dartford, a suburb of London, to father Bert, the strapping, imposing figure whose love and approval Keith sought all his life; and Doris, whose maternal devotion could alternate with stunning cruelty. Keith describes a childhood with a Dickensian flavor, one of bullies and privation in a London typified by “horse shit and coal smoke”. Facing an unpromising future in an England grappling with a sour postwar economy, and coping with his own restless spirit, Keith rebelled, finally expelled from school and later taking up at Sidcup Art College. “The society and everything I was growing up in was just too small for me”, he recalls.
The wide-open atmosphere of Sidcup opened the door to his creative nature. Keith was a sponge for music, especially the emerging rhythm and blues sound leaking in from the States. “I didn’t know Chuck Berry was black for two years after I heard his music”, he writes. “...The only faces I knew were Elvis, Buddy Holly and Fats Domino. It was hardly important. It was the sound that was important”.
We can chart the specific beginnings of the Stones courtesy of a letter Keith wrote to his aunt in April 1962:
You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles but one mornin’ on Dartford Stn… I was holding one of Chuck’s records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs y’know came up to me. He’s got every record Chuck Berry ever made and all his mates have too…
Anyway the guy on the station he is called Mick Jagger… Mick is the greatest R&B singer this side of the Atlantic and I don’t mean maybe. I play guitar (electric) Chuck style we got us a bass player and drummer and rhythm-guitar and we practice 2 or 3 nights a week. SWINGIN.’
The two were soon joined by Brian Jones, the Stones’ brilliant but erratic lead guitarist; and Ian Stewart, the affable pianist whose grasp of blues and knowledge of the club scene was invaluable in the early days.
It all came together on 12 July 1962, an otherwise underwhelming day in world history. That date marked the first time there were two manned spacecrafts in space. A resolution for President Kennedy’s proposed investment tax credit for business was adopted in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was Oscar Hammerstein II’s 67th birthday. And at the Marquee Club, 90 Wardour Street in London, the future announced itself when Keith, Jagger, Jones, Stewart, bass player Dick Taylor and drummer Mick Avory played in public for the first time. The Rolling Stones were born.
After a few other personnel shuffles, Wyman and the much-sought-after jazz drummer Charlie Watts joined in 1963, cementing the original five-man lineup of the band that led the second wave of the British Invasion. The strategy, in those first heady days of Beatlemania, was brilliantly simple: “The thing is not to try and regurgitate the Beatles. So we’re going to have to be the anti-Beatles”.
The relationship between Keith and Jagger forms the subliminal weave of this book; between the Stones’ first recording in 1964 and their most recent studio album, A Bigger Bang, in 2005, their highs and lows were something like a marriage. At its best it yielded some of rock’s most indelible songs (“Satisfaction”, built on a riff Keith literally dreamed up one night, has been widely held up as the best rock song ever written) and enduring records (Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Exile on Main Street, Some Girls, Tattoo You and Steel Wheels among their very best).
At its worst, the two descended into open warfare. Like in March 1987, when Jagger, promoting a second solo album, announced plans to tour without the Stones:
I really believed that Mick wouldn’t dare tour without the Stones… It was a death sentence, pending appeal … So I let him have it, mostly in the press. An opening shot was, if he doesn’t want to go out with the Stones and then goes out with Schmuck and Ball’s band instead, I’ll slit his fuckin’ throat.
Undaunted, Keith used the time to build his own band, the X-Pensive Winos, a band starring players Keith had long admired or trusted, and a supporting cast that included saxophone great Maceo Parker, the legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson and NRBQ bass player Joey Spampinato.
The Jagger-Keith divorce didn’t last. Thanks to “some shuttle diplomacy”, the two belligerents ended hostilities in Barbados in early 1989. In the 20 years after, the relationship has matured and evolved, but it’s never been that endangered again. “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”, Keith writes. ” …How else, after almost fifty years, could we be contemplating — at the time of writing this — going out on the road again together?”
Keith owns up to a sometimes volcanic temper (described as “the red mist”) and that peripheral legend: avid consumption of various chemical objects of his affection, and their seductive qualities. He was addicted to heroin for a decade, finally shedding the monkey in 1979, though cocaine and alcohol were more enduring companions for a time (he’s since given up both). He dutifully admits to those times when, daysleeper tendencies reinforced by “dope fog”, his full arousal came with the wake-up call of nothing less than “Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones!”