Life by Keith Richards
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main Street is my favorite by any artist, ever. I listen to at least some of the album every week, without fail, like it’s some sort of twisted security blanket. I’ve even considered writing a piece-by-piece breakdown of the “lost tracks” from Exile that were released this past summer, but I figured that was something only a Stones nerd like myself would be interested in & might cost me readers, so I restrained myself. So, Keith’s memoirs were, of course, something that I was going to devour with abandon, regardless of the content.
In light of this information you still might ask, how does a rock star’s memoir make it into my top ten list? Is Life only here because of my personal affinity for the band and the man or is it genuinely one of the ten best books I read in 2010? What kind of “literary” blog is this? James Patterson, Keith Richards, c’mon.
To that I say, bollocks.
Keith was the forerunner, the trailblazer, the first man into space for a whole generation – a series of generations. He was the antidote to Beatlemania. The giant middle finger in the face of the musical establishment. (Any establishment, really.) His band has been cranking out hit records and blistering riffs longer than anyone else – and he has done so with a decade-long heroin habit in his rearview mirror. Better yet, he remembers a whole hell of a lot of what he’s done and has proven remarkably adept at bringing those tales of jamming, smoking, drinking, snorting, rocking, and grooving to the printed page. It turns out that Life is also well-written, insightful, coherent, witty, and eloquent. Considering the source, I mean, who knew?
Before the publication, there was a good deal of press coverage (mostly in the UK) about what Keith had to say in Life about Mick. The nature of their relationship is no secret – they are not exactly BFFs, but not sworn enemies either. If you’re looking for pages and pages of tell-all, forget it – he is rather candid (and perhaps a little hurt) when he does discuss their partnership but it never comes off as catty or petty. It somehow feels genuine enough that you never feel like you’ve wandered into a lovers’ quarrel, as some critics would have you believe. He equates their relationship to that of brothers, rather than friends – “I mean, shit, if you work with a guy for forty-odd years, it’s not all going to be plain sailing, is it? You’ve got to go through the bullshit; it’s like a marriage.”
One of my favorite bits – which gives you a good idea of what the rest of the book is like – is from Keith’s recollections from the infamous 1972 tour in support of Exile – Truman Capote was a friend of Mick’s and was accompanying the band on a leg of the tour:
…Truman was just Truby. He was on assignment from some high-paying magazine, so he was ostensibly working. Truby said something bitchy and whiny backstage – he was being an old fart, actually complaining about the noise. It was just some snide, queenie remark and sometimes I don’t give a damn, other times it just gets up my nose. This happened after a show and I was already on cloud nine. Motherfucker needed a lesson. I mean, this snooty New York attitude. You’re in Dallas. It got a little raucous. I remember, back at the hotel, kicking Truman’s door. I’d splattered it with ketchup I’d picked up off a trolley. Come out, you old queen. What are you doing round here? You want cold blood? You’re on the road now, Truby! Come and say it out here in the corridor. Taken out of context, it sounds like I’m some sort of Johnny Rotten, but I must have been provoked.
There’s a certain degree of stream-of-consciousness to Keith’s writing, as you can see – as if he’s talking into a dictation machine, laughing, smoking his cigarette, sipping his drink. A swaggering storyteller with a captive audience. Running between all the tales of court appearances, hotel trashings, and drug-fueled brushes with death, however, is the true lifeblood that flows in his veins and that which has kept him going all this time. (It’s even apparent in the Capote excerpt if you look hard enough.) Despite his faults, his bad behavior, his inability to deal with pain & loss, his rampant drug use, making music has been the glue that has kept the man together for the last five decades. It turns out, Life is all about the music, man.