‘Life’: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stone

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.

Book: Life

Author: Keith Richards

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication date: 2010-10

Format: Hardcover

Length: 564 pages

Price: $29.99

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/r/ross-life-bookcvr1.jpgKeith 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!”

A Shepherd’s Pie on the Warmer

More recently, some have ghoulishly proposed to study Keith as a science project for clues to his survival when others have gone under. They probably needn’t bother; his survival against the odds was partly a case of a remarkable physical constitution — a gift of the genes as much as the gods — and his own innate sense of the distinctions between enough and too much:

It’s not only the high quality of drugs I had that I attribute my survival to. I was very meticulous about how much I took. I’d never put more in to get a little higher.

It’s the greed involved that never really affected me. People think once they’ve got this high, if they take some more they’re going to get a little higher. There’s no such thing. Especially with cocaine …

Tragedy is an equal opportunity employer. For Keith, one of his worst personal moments occurred on tour, in June 1976, with the news by telephone that Tara, his son with actress Anita Pallenberg had died suddenly of sudden infant death syndrome. The public persona of Keith as licentious, devil-may-care rake has to reckon with the father’s agony, a deep grief that’s almost palpable in these pages. “Everything’s supposed to go in its natural order”, he writes in part. “But seeing a baby off is another thing. It never lets you rest”.

This is Keith not so much unplugged as unvarnished, a man recounting his life’s experiences with the same raw emotion that went into living them, on his terms, right or wrong. Usually right and wrong.

Keith dispels a number of hoary rumors and old misconceptions. The early state of his teeth — once the stuff of rock legend — had less to do with excess and more to do with enduring the infancy of part of postwar Britain’s early universal health care:

I should have a badge for surviving the early National Service dentists. The appointments were I think two a year — they had school inspections — and my mum had to drag me screaming to them… The dentist was an ex-Army bloke. My teeth got ruined by it. I developed a fear of going to the dentist with, by the mid-’70s, visible consequences — a mouthful of blackened teeth.

A steel wheel in one of rock’s juggernauts, Keith offers fresh perspective on rock’s obsession with spectacle and scale, something that had its origins with the Stones and which continues (recent case in point: U2’s mammoth 360º Tour). What led to the megatours that preoccupied the Stones’ persona between 1989 (with the Steel Wheels outing) and 2006 (year of A Bigger Bang)? For Keith, it’s really not all about the Benjamins:

It was basically public demand that expanded them to this size. People say, why do you keep doing this? How much money do you need? …

Touring was the only way to survive. Record royalties barely paid overheads; you couldn’t tour behind a record like the old days. Megatours were, in the end, the bread and butter of keeping this machinery running. We couldn’t have done it on a smaller scale and been sure to do more than break even.

The rock legend we’ve come to think of as a mercurial, fire-breathing satyr turns out to be endearingly domestic. Keith reveals a deep love of books and libraries; he’s got one at his home in Connecticut, capacious and crowded floor to ceiling with volumes. He’s been known to go on family outings in a “battle-hardened Winnebago”, roaring off (wife Patti Hansen’s family in tow) to look for America. He’s thoughtful enough to include a recipe for bangers and mash that’s as definitely funny as it is probably delicious.

Still, though, being rock royalty has its perks. He recounts the fallout from an incident on tour in which the security detail had eaten one of Keith’s favorites — shepherd’s pie, delivered backstage — without so much as alerting the boss:

It’s now famous, my rule on the road. Nobody touches the shepherd’s pie until I’ve been in there… It’s written into the contract. If you come into Keith Richards’ room and he’s got a shepherd’s pie on the warmer… the only one who can bust the crust is me.

As it must, Keith’s autobiography reflects a man of his generation, sometimes for better or worse. Honesty has its contradictions, its sudden rough edges. It’s more than a little unsettling, for example, when one of your heroes describes gays as “poofters” and “faggots”. But you buy the ticket, you take the ride. This is Keith not so much unplugged as unvarnished, a man recounting his life’s experiences with the same raw emotion that went into living them, on his terms, right or wrong. Usually right and wrong.

Implicit in his story of the Rolling Stones, Keith makes it hard not to see him as the band’s spiritual embodiment, the essence of its endurance. And who else really fits that bill? Jones (who died in 1969) and Stewart (he in 1985) didn’t live long enough. Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor (who quit in 1975) didn’t stay in the band long enough. Wyman quit almost 20 years ago. Ron Wood (who replaced Taylor) was a late arrival; even the legendary Watts, by light-years the group’s best drummer, wasn’t the group’s first. Jagger, a charter Stone and ever the social climber — that’s Sir Mick to you — has long been beguiled by celebrity according to high society.

He’s too much of a gentleman and a team player to ever do so, but it’s Keith — the bluesman, the scrapper, the pirate, the hardscrabble soul survivor — who could lay rightful claim, ladies and gentlemen, to being the Rolling Stone. His experiences are distilled in a volume of depth and a rich narrative throughline — the kind of willfully meandering, frequently hilarious, deeply ruminative, emotionally honest work that deserves to be called an autobiography.

“I played with Muddy Waters six months before he died, and the cat was just as vital as he was in his youth,” Keith told Rolling Stone magazine’s Anthony DeCurtis in 1988. “And he did it until the day he died. To me, that is the important thing. I mean, what am I gonna do now, go for job retraining and learn to be a welder? I’ll do this until I drop. I’m committed to it and that’s it.”

It’s that kind of commitment that’s endeared “Keef” to generations of fans, a commitment reflected in a work of candor and self-awareness, with all apologies to no one, making excuses for no one — himself, least of all.

Life is rock history with the bark on, and the bite. Because Keith Richards has deeply, fiercely lived the book he’s written, he’s written a book that lives on.