Keith Richards with James Fox
Little, Brown, October 2010. 576 pp.
The autobiography of Keith Richards—founding guitarist of the Rolling Stones, through the late 1960s and the 1970s at once a notorious and celebrated heroin addict and one of the most dynamic and least recognized songwriters of his time, today a long-married, deeply satisfied man, troubled, in his account, only by Mick Jagger’s disinclination to take the band on the road more than every half-decade or so—has received almost uniformly ecstatic reviews. At least for this reader there was something queer about the raves: the more a reviewer quoted, the less interesting the book seemed to be. Always, it seemed, blah blah blah quotes popped up in the notices. “I also felt I was doing it not to be a ‘pop star,’” as Richards says of why he took up heroin. “There was something I didn’t really like about that end of what I was doing, blah blah blah.”
Such verbiage is seemingly presented as the absolute height of coolness for the coolest person on the planet—with the hope, perhaps, that as one quotes such words, some of the coolness might rub off. But do the people writing these reviews know what they’re talking about? Trumpeting ‘Blah blah blah’ from a man who for more than forty years has been the best interview in pop music? The wittiest raconteur, the most thoughtful witness and trenchant analyst, someone for whom language is a joy in itself?
Richards on the Rolling Stones on their first days, in London in 1962: “We wanted to sell records for Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. We were missionaries, disciples, Jesuits. We thought, ‘If we can turn people on to that, then that’s enough’ … There was no thought of attaining rock ’n’ roll stardom—you had already made the decision to blow that out because if you wanted that then you would have to go through the ballroom route and some promoter, some agent, and you might be given a name like Vince Eager: ‘As long as you do as we say, you’ll look bloody tall—because Moe is not gonna stand for any fucking nonsense my boy, I’m telling you. This is Lou, this is me bruvver Johnny, don’t arsk ’is name, ’e’s the enforcer”—but these words are from the American writer Stanley Booth’s 1995 Keith, not Life.
For all of its tales of narrow escapes and derring-do, of fortunes made and squandered, glamorous women, hit records, historic tours, honor paid to and scores settled with the living and the dead, Life is a dispiriting and finally tedious book. For that matter, unlike Chuck Berry’s Autobiography or Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One, Life is not a book, if a book is something more than pages bound between covers (as Richards says convincingly at the end, “I’m not here just to make records and money. I’m here to say something and touch other people, sometimes in a cry of desperation: ‘Do you know this feeling?’”). Life is an amalgam of tape-recorded transcripts, interviews with fellow-travelers from Richards’s son, Marlon Richards, to his wife, Patti Hansen, to the late record producer James Dickinson to the saxophonist Bobby Keys and many more, sometimes for a paragraph or two, sometimes for pages, and interpolations from the British journalist James Fox—credited as “with.” The result is preening, plodding, with the grating overuse of the same adjectives and phrases and flat-footed transitions (“The X-Pensive Winos left trails of smoke in the popular culture with their hot licks”—not only is it impossible to imagine Keith Richards writing such a line, it’s impossible to imagine anyone writing it). There’s no sense of a writer seeking the right word, the right tone, the way to shape a story and make it stick, except when Richards is writing about music: what songs are, how they’re written, how they come to life, what they’re for—and these sections, the beating heart of the book and the reason to read it, do feel written, not talked. That feeling of reaching for the true way to say what one has to say is so palpable and visceral in the Berry and Dylan books that the writing takes on its own dramatic charge; here there is page upon page of getting from one place to another, often with the help of someone who remembers what Richards doesn’t, even though he insists “I haven’t forgotten any of it,” that he is nearly impossible to anaesthetize, and almost never sleeps: “Suddenly, in a matter of weeks, we’d been transformed into pop stars. This is very difficult with a bunch of guys that are really like ‘get outta here,’ you know, ‘fuck off’ … ‘One day I was feeling so ragged getting to the gig, and these brothers were so together, and shit, they were working the same schedule as we were. So I said to one of these guys … There was that feeling that trouble was coming, which it did later, with all the riots, street fighting and all of that.”
He’s a good driver, too, except when he falls asleep at the wheel (“I mean, nobody’s perfect, right?”). Drugs may be a burden, but there are, so to speak, royal addicts and commoners: “I have to impress on anyone who reads this,” Richards says repeatedly, the words varying only slightly, “that this was the finest, finest cocaine and the purest, purest heroin, this was no crap off the street.” Everything’s an adventure: “Pure cocaine. Are you going for it or not? Then jump in the car and drive … I had sketchy reports we stayed overnight in Bearsville with the Band, probably with Levon Helm. I don’t know if there was any aim in going there. Did we want to go and see somebody? I don’t think Bob Dylan was living there at the time. We made it back to Dobbs Ferry eventually. I have a weird feeling Billy Preston was there, but he didn’t come on the drive.”
There are many fine moments. There is Richards’s recreation of an early breakup, which is touching and painful, with a smile in the memory (“I stalked her … I even walked to where she was living with him in Chelsea, almost to Fulham, and stood outside … And I could see her in there with him, ‘silhouettes on the shade.’” There are those times on stage when what is happening seems at once unreal (“‘Is that noise just coming from him there, and me?’” and more real than life itself (“There’s a certain moment when you realize that you’ve actually just left the planet for a bit and that nobody can touch you … You know you’ve been somewhere most people will never get”). There are Richards’s langorous, deliciously half-awake pages on his affair with Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes (“What do you do when you hear a record like ‘Be My Baby’ and suddenly you are?”). There is perhaps the only really funny junkie story ever to find its way into print, where Richards relates how, when staying at the Plaza Hotel in New York and needing syringes, he’d simply go across the street to the toy emporium F.A.O. Schwarz: “I’ll have three teddy bears, I’ll have that remote-control car, oh, and give me two doctor and nurse kits!”
Finally, though, it becomes difficult to fight off the coldness over all those dumped and left behind: Richards’s own father, rejected after Richards’s mother leaves him; founding Rolling Stone Ian Stewart; Brian Jones (“The ups and downs with the guy are one thing, but when his time’s over, release the doves, or in this case the sackfuls of white butterflies”); original manager Andrew Loog Oldham; the producers Glyn Johns and Jimmy Miller and so many more falling to heroin while Richards stayed on his feet. With one child dead in her crib and another shunted off to Richards’s mother because her own mother, Anita Pallenberg, was an even more hopeless junkie than Richards, son Marlon, traveling with Richards, may have suffered, “but by now, Marlon understands; it was the times, and the circumstances”—not anyone in particular. Again and again and again a hotel room catches fire, sometimes just after one of Richards’s houses burns—don’t you just hate it when that happens?—and it’s always a mouse eating through the insulation or faulty wiring.
By the time Life bumps to its end with home movies—cooking, recipes, domestic routines, family travel—and Richards needs a Dominican retreat to get away from his Jamaican retreat, the reader can be forgiven for forgetting, or not caring, just how many houses Richards actually has. Yes, there is the publicized disdain for Mick Jagger. It comes to nothing. Often it seems forced, a hook of scandal or anyway gossip to sell the book. When it feels true, it also curdles. One can get the feeling that if Richards truly holds his lifetime partner in contempt, it’s because unlike Richards, or Brian Jones, Anita Pallenberg, Gram Parsons, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts, or so many more, Jagger never became a drug addict. He stepped back from the abyss; he never went all the way; he was always in control. He never reached for the absolute—in Faithfull, Marianne Faithfull recalls Richards saying, when she told him that she had finally quit heroin, “Ah, Marianne! But what about the Holy Grail?”
That leaves the twenty or thirty pages on music, especially on songwriting, which may have no parallel in their quiet dedication and lucidity—in their tenor of plain-speech revelation and a craftsman’s sense of never-ending discovery. “What matters,” Richards writes, “is what hits the ear … it’s always a matter of experiment and playing around. Hey, this is a nice mike, but if we put it a little closer to the amp, and then take a smaller amp instead of the big one and shove the mike right in front of it, cover the mike with a towel, let’s see what we get. What you’re looking for is where the sounds just melt into one another and you’ve got the beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through … What you’re looking for is power and force, without volume—an inner power.” He explains the mystery of a technique he learned from the guitarist Ry Cooder, and, though he doesn’t say so, understood in ways Cooder never has and never will: “The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes—the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart … Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and topnotes with sound … And if you’re working with the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you’re not playing. It’s there. It defies logic. And it’s just lying there saying, ‘Fuck me.’”
All of which, and more, in shining detail, leads up to Richards creation, or discovery, of the rock ’n’ roll song that, from Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” to Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy,” from Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” the form was asking for all along. “I wrote ‘Gimme Shelter’ on a stormy day,” Richards writes, and even with the Bulwer-Litton cloud floating over the words, they can send a chill through your skin. “I was sitting there,” he says a few pages later, speaking of the art dealer and heroin addict Robert Fraser, “just looking out of Robert’s window and looking at all these people with their umbrellas being blown out of their grasp and running like hell. And the idea came to me. You get lucky sometimes. It was a shitty day. I had nothing better to do … I wasn’t thinking about, oh my God, there’s my old lady shooting a movie in a bath with Mick Jagger. My thought was storms on other people’s minds, not mine.”
Here, the whole world seems to lie at the writer’s feet, for him to do with as he wishes, as he can, and in this case, he did everything. The many words Richards devotes to this moment still offer only the barest glimpse into the act—into a piece of music that today sounds as implacable and as dangerous as it did when it first appeared, in the fall of 1969, to shut the door to one era and open the door to the next. It is a tale told all too coolly, too coolly to be altogether believable, in most of Richards’s book, and told here with such conviction and presence of mind that, as you read, these pages suck in all those that surround them, and for the moment let them disappear.
Greil Marcus is the author most recently of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, Writings 1968-2010, published last year by PublicAffairs, and the editor, with Werner Sollors, of A New Literary History of America, published by Harvard in 2009. He teaches in the Writing Program at the New School in New York, and lives in Oakland. An earlier version of this essay appeared in timesonline.co.uk.
Image: Keith Richards © Henry Diltz. Courtesy of the photographer. Prints may be purchased through Morrison Hotel Gallery. http://bit.ly/e7BiGG