One of the most awful Christmas traditions is the novelty song. Songs like “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”, the Chipmunks, or that atrocious version of “Jingle Bells” as performed by barking dogs are a blight on the Holidays and an insult to the Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes. But Chuck Berry’s jokey ode to Santa’s foul-weather friend Rudolph works. Yes it’s a novelty song, as was the original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (both songs were written by Johnny Marks), but even though the lyrics are filled with humor it’s not a joke. Also, Chuck Berry gave Marks’s tune one of his standard guitar riffs, blending a bit of “Johnny B. Goode” with the melody of “Little Queenie”, which means that it is as rock and roll as any song released in the past 60 years. There’s also a terrific version by Keith Richards, which he released as a one-off single in 1978. So this one’s a two-fer. The Chuck Berry version fits in beautifully with the best of Berry, and the Richards version ramps everything up and produces an absolutely glorious mess.
Who would have bet, thirty years ago, that Keith Richards would be around long enough to write his autobiography? This is the man who, for several years running, was consistently voted “Most Likely To Die” by culture mavens everywhere. At this point, he’s being voted “Most Likely To Outlive Cockroaches And Bacteria” by those same people. Say this for the man: he seems to be damn near indestructible.
Life is the story of the man, told from his point of view. From his youth scraping by in post-war England, when food was rationed and bombed out craters were playgrounds, straight up until his noggin-cracking fall against an unyielding palm tree that sent him for brain surgery, Keith Richards lived a wild life.
Whether the reader finds it refreshing or, frankly, sociopathic, Richards tells his tale with no sense of shame or regret. His life was decadent, immersed in rock and roll, drugs, and sex (in that order). But rather than wearing a politically correct hair shirt and throwing himself on the mercy of a public that wants their musical heroes fresh out of rehab, Richards shrugs. It’s his life, and he had a great time living it.
The book concentrates its energies on the 1960s and 1970s where the reader is introduced to the two great loves of Keith’s life. In the 1960s, that love is music; in the 1970s it becomes drugs. Life isn’t that neatly divided, though, and there’s considerable overlap. The best music of Keith’s life was written and recorded when he was a regular heroin user. But not long after 1972’s Exile On Main Street, the drugs began to take center stage. Keith was no longer a user. He was a junkie.
Richards does acknowledge that his true junkie years were when he lost the path, and that his life became about getting the next hit. Where the early Stones tours were marked with concerns about getting to the gig on time and what to play, the Stones tours in the 1970s were all about where to score heroin in each new city. Knowing that the police had their eye on him didn’t slow him down. Even when he was unable to get good drugs and had to resort to what he calls “MSS” (Mexican Shoe Scrapings), he steadfastly refused to believe that there was a problem.
But there was a problem and it’s clear to the reader, even if it’s not so clear to the writer. The early part of the book is filled with the stories of the early Stones, and Keith’s love of music is pressed on to every page. This is the first rock musician autobiography I’ve read where the author uses barrels of ink to talk about the musicians who influenced him, the thrill of creating music, the love of listening to music and sharing your thoughts with like-minded friends. Living together in a small flat, Richards, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones sat around listening to and dissecting Chicago blues, talking about it constantly. Even leaving the apartment to be with a woman was considered a betrayal to the first mistress: music.
Drugs were present early, but mainly confined to marijuana and pills. LSD reared its misshapen head in the mid-60s but despite dabbling Keith claims never to have been that much of an acidhead. Still, the hallucinogen played havoc with the band inspiring the worst album they did in the 1960s (Their Satanic Majesties Request) and driving self-appointed band leader Brian Jones over the edge.
Despite Keith’s blood brother allegiance to Ron Wood, the other Stones who get the most press in the book are Mick Jagger (of course), and Brian Jones. In interviews Keith has usually skirted around Jones, painting a picture of a man who was a screwup and who let the team down by putting drugs before the Stones. In Life, that portrait is fleshed out and it’s not a pretty picture. Jones is portrayed as a horror, a petty, vindictive, mean, girlfriend-beating narcissist who, despite loads of talent, was an albatross around the band’s neck as early as 1965. Keith describes his stealing of Jones’s girlfriend Anita Pallenberg not as a betrayal of his friend Brian, but as a rescue of a monster’s girlfriend. If the portrayal of Jones here is accurate (and I’m inclined to think it is), then Keith actually stands on pretty solid ground here.
Mick Jagger is the other main character in Keith’s life, and is the relationship that receives the most attention from the author. Keith and Mick were best friends for decades, sharing a bond that survived even their brief affairs with each other’s girlfriends (Mick had an affair with Anita Pallenberg while filming the movie Performance; Keith didn’t mind so much because he was having an affair with Marianne Faithfull at the same time). What eventually drove them apart were the drugs and what Keith’s addiction meant to the Stones.
Shortly after Exile, Keith’s addiction led to a more carefree attitude about the band. Decisions that had always been made together were now being left to Jagger alone, and Mick discovered that he liked the power. By the time Keith got off the smack, not too long after being arrested in Toronto, Jagger’s grip on the business side of the band was absolute. When Keith wanted back in to the decision making process, he was told that his services in that regard were no longer needed. It was now Jagger’s band. (Keith maintains that during the 1981 tour one of the large video screens introduced the band as “Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones” until Keith screamed bloody murder about it and Jagger backed down.) Jagger’s using the Stones contract negotiations to secure himself a solo contract was a mortal blow to their friendship and, to Keith, a far worse betrayal than merely bedding down Anita Pallenberg. Jagger was now cheating on the Stones, and that was an unforgivable sin to Keith.
While they managed to hold it together for a few more albums (Undercover and Dirty Work), Richards became even angrier when Jagger refused to tour with the Stones, opting instead to tour as a solo artist. It clearly still stings Richards to this day (he dismisses Jagger’s first album with the withering line “I’ve never listened to it all the way through. Who has?” Ouch. True, but ouch.) The relationship now is best described as love/hate. Keith still refers to Mick as “Brenda” or “Her Majesty” but makes it clear that nobody else better insult Mick or they’ll pay the consequences. They are distant brothers who get along fine when they are alone together, talking or writing music. But when business intervenes, Jagger is still the King and Keith still resents it.
The other Stones are peripheral players. Charlie Watts receives nothing but praise, Bill Wyman barely gets mentioned, Mick Taylor’s skill as a guitarist is highly praised but his abilities to blend in with the Stones are dismissed, and Ron Wood is seen as Ron Wood: likable, happy-go-lucky, usually drunk and/or high, although Richards does confirm the rumors that Wood was close to being fired during the 1981 tour because he was so wasted he could barely play.
It’s all here in Life. As the drugs take center stage the music gets pushed aside, and some albums (Between the Buttons, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tattoo You) don’t even rate a mention, but that’s the life of a drug addict: everything else that you love takes a back seat and becomes subordinate to the next high.
At over 500 pages, this is a lot of Keith to digest. Mixed in with the rock and roll and drugs are celebrity cameos (John Lennon makes a brief, but hilarious appearance hugging the bathroom floor at Keith’s house after a night of partying, Gram Parsons, Paul McCartney, John Phillips), groupies, marriage, children, grandchildren…there’s even Keith’s recipe for bangers ‘n’ mash which is the funniest recipe ever written.
I’m not sure how much of the book was actually written by Keith and how much by his co-writer James Fox, but it’s irrelevant. The voice is entirely Keith’s. I’ve seen and read enough interviews with the man to know that whatever Fox did he did using Keith’s style. And Keith is a great storyteller, which makes Life a quick, satisfying read and an in-depth look at the Rolling Stones from someone who was there at the beginning.