Life is a memoir written by one of contemporary music’s great iconic figures, Keith Richards. It’s nearly 500 pages of extraordinary, crystalline recall crafted into a haunting, polyphonal narrative of many voices: while Richards’ voice is clear, crisp, and dominant, he occasionally lets others tell some of the story – his son, Marlon (named for Brando, yes); his long-time girlfriend and mother of three of his children, Anita Pallenberg; the ice Madonna of the Stones’ pieta, Marianne Faithfull; even that once-elfin model Kate Moss. But, even with the deft assistance of James Fox, a long-time “mate,” Life is a sustained solo. Actually, the memoir, like the life itself, is a high-wire act, an extended, sometimes blinding flash of performance art.
Life is a vivid chronicle of a working-class boy from Dartford, an industrial suburb of London, who would become lead guitarist and songwriter for one of the most successful bands ever. Devoted to music from an early age – he even slept with his first guitar beside him, this Dartford lad pursued his calling obsessively. As a schoolboy he met his future: Mick Jagger. From the 1960s on, they became the nucleus of the Rolling Stones; Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Ron Wood would be the more or less permanent other members of the group and rock ‘n roll history unfolded: in 1964, the year of the so-called “British Invasion” of the States, the Stones launched decades of wild music making laced with over-the-top behavior. And this now 68-year old rocker, who gave the world the likes of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Beggars’ Banquet,” “Sticky Fingers,” and “Exile on Main Street,” rocks on.
Life has its predictable – and perhaps ultimately repetitive and numbing elements – yes, there can be too many stories of women (“bitches,” “whores,” “chicks,” and “cunts”), though Richards would have us understand that he never merely consumed women, it had to be something more to motivate him. . . (right); and of drugs and police chases (the latter, in his own words, described as “busts and stray bullets and cars flying off the road’). The accounts of activity in both realms are often comic, at least superficially; but particularly beneath the latter lay a serious problem that landed him in jail (briefly and frequently) and in rehab (a half dozen extended stays before he kicked the habit for good). Keith Richards is a lucky bastard to be alive today.
Several unexpected elements make Life more than your run-of-the-mill aging druggie-rocker tell-all. First, Richards comes across as a serious musician, nearly as obsessed as Flaubert with getting the line (of music, that is) perfect. When he meditates a bit on his calling, he describes songwriting as an attempt “to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts.” Second, Richards’ deep and abiding sense of a base-line loyalty to his mates, observed almost without exception (yes, he did take Anita Pallenberg from his pal Brian Jones; and Marianne Faithfull from Mick) but these are rare and perhaps provoked episodes in the life. That Keith and Mick are no longer so close troubles Richards greatly. This former Boy Scout absorbed a life-long lesson in loyalty from Baden Powell’s boys. Third, and I think the most striking aspect of Life is Richards’ devotion to his family – it is no accident that the memoir virtually begins with an anecdote about his mother and literally ends with a crisp, if slyly comic, account of her death; for Keith Richards it is a mark of distinction to be a self-acknowledged “Mum’s Boy.” That devotion extends to Anita and their children as well as to his wife, Patti, and their two daughters.
Life is a valuable, irreplaceable, first-hand account of over fifty years of rock ‘n roll history, filled with insights about music making and music makers and told by one great high octane artist who emerges from these pages as endearing, if not lovable.