Life
nolead ends nolead begins By Keith Richards,

with James Fox

Little, Brown. 564 pp. $29.99

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Dan DeLuca


Keith Richards is the beloved heart and soul of the group of British rapscallions who have laid legitimate claim to being the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world for longer than any competitor.

The 67-year-old guitarist is the epitome of skull-ring senior-citizen cool, the guitar-weaving conduit through which the immortal riffs to "Satisfaction" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" were handed down from on high.

The former choir boy and Boy Scout from Dartford, England, also owns a reputation for hard-drinking, heroin-shooting substance abuse of epic proportions. A goblin-like death cheater who has outlived the rock-star casualties of the 1960s by four decades, he's the only rock luminary, other than Ozzy Osbourne, of whom a report of snorting a mix of his own late father's ashes and cocaine would elicit an unsurprised reaction of "Right, that sounds like something Keith would do."

As such, Richards would seem to be the case in point for which the bumper sticker quip, "If you remember the '60s, you weren't there" was invented. Given that he would seem to have ingested more recollection-ruining chemicals than anyone on the planet, and Richards' own admission that "memory is fiction," how good could anyone reasonably expect Life, the Rolling Stones guitarist's autobiography, to be?

Not nearly as good - nor as compelling, endearing, insightful, action-packed, graceful, generous-spirited, unflinching, and funny - as it turns out to be.

To say that Life is packed with incident would a gross understatement.

It starts with the colorful tale of Richards and Ron Wood getting busted at the 4-Dice Restaurant in Fordyce, Ark., in 1975, an ill-advised stop on the road from Memphis to Dallas. Richards miraculously emerged with only a $162.50 parking ticket and a misdemeanor, despite leaving behind a Chevrolet Impala in whose door panels were hidden never-found stashes of cocaine, marijuana, peyote, and mescaline. (In 2006, guitar- playing politically ambitious Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee granted Richards a pardon.)

Life, which was cowritten, most impressively, with former London Times journalist and longtime Richards friend James Fox, ends with the death of Richards' mother, Doris. It was Doris who first exposed him to Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong records, and her son serenaded her with "Malagueña" (one of the first songs taught to Richards as a boy by his grandfather Gus) as he kept a vigil for her while she lay dying of cancer in 2007. It was the least he could do for the woman who, back in 1962, had her cabbie paramour, Bill, pick up the dirty laundry from the London flat where Richards, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones were too busy obsessively learning the blues to get the washing done.

("Benedictines had nothing on us," Richards writes of that time of heavy woodshedding. "You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig.")

Life distinguishes itself as a singularly entertaining and intelligent kind of music book. With the help, undoubtedly, of Fox in unearthing decades-old memory-jarring diaries and letters, it works as a lively you-are-there account of one man living through a socially and culturally transformative time.

Along with the girlfriends and the groupies (who are treated with warmth and affection by a-lover-not-a-fighter, "Stupid Girl" and "Under My Thumb," notwithstanding), there is, of course, all the good and bad that's said about Jagger, from "I'll slit his throat" to "We're the closest of brothers."

Richards sings Jagger's praises as a harmonica player, astutely observing that it's "the one place where you don't hear any calculation," and he credits Jagger with handling the Stones' business when Richards was in no shape to ("Mick picked up the slack, I picked up the smack") before later accusing him of turning into a swollen-headed control freak.

Life is also a secret-sharing story about a kid from sensory-deprived post-World War II England who fell hard for American music and found his life changed by the pursuit of making music that would move him as much as he was once and still moved by "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Sweet Little Sixteen."

Along with the superb evocation of growing up in an age of food rationing, when there was no money for treats to satisfy young Keith's sweet tooth ("I've always had trouble scoring," he quips), some of the best stuff in Life is about the joy of playing music in a band, which, he points out, there is no way of doing "properly."

The luminaries who turn up in life are good company, to be sure, from Little Richard, Al Green, and the late Solomon Burke (musical preachers of whom he writes, "Preaching is tax free. Very little to do with God. A lot to do with money") to country-rock trailblazer Gram Parsons. "He had better coke than the Mafia, did Gram. Southern boy, very warm, very steady under the drugs, calm. He had a troubled background, a lot of Spanish moss and Garden of Good and Evil."

Of why he doesn't retire, Richards writes:

"Levitation is probably the closest analogy to what I feel . . . when I realize I've hit the right tempo and the band's behind me. It's like taking off in a Learjet. . . . People say, 'Why don't you give it up?' I can't retire till I croak. I don't think they quite understand what I get out of this. I'm not doing it just for the money or for you. I'm doing it for me."

Amid all this, there is, improbably, a local Philadelphia angle. In 1977, it turns out, after he was arrested in Toronto in possession of 22 grams of heroin, he was granted a medical visa to receive treatment for addiction in the United States, which involved a "black-box cure" involving electric vibrations and Jack Daniel's, which Richards describes as "a diversion."

The treatment took place in a three-week period in a rented house in Philadelphia, Richards writes, and afterward, federal authorities limited his movements for several weeks to within 25 miles of Philadelphia. He spent the time living with then-paramour Anita Pallenberg in Cherry Hill.

Jagger apparently would often visit there to argue over the song selection on the 1977 album Love You Live. They could have subtitled it The Rolling Stones: The South Jersey Weeks.

I could go on and on with the anecdotes and incidents from Life, but space doesn't allow. Suffice it to say that if you're reading it in a room with somebody else who cares about rock-and-roll, you'll want to read something out loud every page and a half or so. I can't remember ever enjoying a music memoir as much.

But then, my memory's probably not as good as Keef's.

Contact Inquirer music critic
Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628
Read his blog, "In the Mix,"
/inthemix/.