Friday, June 10, 2011

Keith Richards - Life

I know I'm about a billion years too late to review this book but as I just finished it yesterday I thought I'd write a little bit on it. My reaction to this book is more a reflection of my internal conflicts that anything Keith Richards has written. On the one hand I want my rock n' roll outlaws, the men and women who push the extremes of behaviour and are the living embodiment of the dangerous edge of society. On the other hand, when you read about their exploits, the reality of what that actually entails can be confronting.

On a certain level, I related to Keith, from his days living poor in Dartford but where the ambition and obsession with music gives way to abusive relationships, violence and drugs it can undermine the romance of the rock n' roll mystique. While it's thrilling to read about Keith's contribution to writing some of the best-known songs in rock, once his life degenerates into abusive relationships, violence and drugs, it’s far less interesting. But what binds the book together is Keith’s devotion to music and that lays the corner stone of this memoir. Unfortunately, his disregard for many and often violent or poor behaviour shows a petty thug taking the shine off the myth (many of which are purposely shattered here).

Much of Keith’s tenure during the Stones height was as a high functioning drug addict and as such I would question some of his assessments in the book. For example, he writes how angry he was that once he got clean, Mick Jagger didn’t want to relinquish control of the direction of the band. Anyone who has had any dealings with people addicted to heroin knows that they can be less than dependable so I think if Jagger had steered the band for 10-15 years while Keith roamed the world on dope, it wouldn’t be surprising that he was reluctant to cede control. Sure, this is pure speculation but it’d be interesting to hear Jagger’s side of the story. There’s a number of points where Richards is angry or defiant in the face of pretty reasonable reactions.

Much is made of the relationship between these two men and as Richards points out, they are brothers rather than friends. Brothers can fight, be mean and spiteful to one another but still have a bind of loyalty and love where friendships often cannot handle such things. This is a good thing as Keith says a lot of less than complimentary things about Mick here. For example, his assessment of the Jagger solo albums is both brutal and hilarious making Mick sound like a limelight hungry egotist. Having heard those records I’d say that he’s pretty spot on here. Richards doesn’t pull any punches and it pays not to get on his bad side. Bill Wyman is conspicuous by his absence and most references to him are derogatory or dismissive.

The most perverse thing about the book is the sheer decadence of their lifestyle. No doubt the Stones were screwed out of loyalties in their time but the level of wealth here is almost comprehensible. When things got bad, Richards would often flee to Tangiers, New York, France, Jamaica as if it were like driving twenty miles up the road. While hanging out with Burroughs, Ginsberg and other cultural icons isn’t enough, the amount of money being thrown around plays against Richards street urchin pirate persona. There is no doubt that Keith (and the band) were unfairly targeted by the police for what they represented more than their actual crimes but Richards certainly didn’t do himself any favours. No doubt the cops were well out of order but when you’re under such scrutiny does it pay to travel with unlicensed guns or have an ounce of dope in your hotel room? Time and time again, his money, expensive lawyers and connections save Richards and if I had such resources I’d use them too. I’m sure it’s much easier to be a reckless thug when you’ve got millions of dollars to bail you out.

Now, I read this book as a latecomer to the Rolling Stones. Sure I knew all the hits from when I was a kid but when I seriously started reading and listening to music in the 80’s, the majority of the mainstream press talked about the glory days of the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan and how they would never be surpassed. As a teenager I railed against this rampant nostalgia and actively didn’t listen to these artists for a number of years. As such, it’s only in the last ten years that I’ve paid any serious attention to the Stones. As such, I doubt my reaction to book is a wrapped up in thirty years of loving devotion to the band. Is it a good read? Definitely but while Richards loves his wife and kids and at times, comes across as a decent bloke, the ultimate reaction to this book is that it’s the story of a pretty sketchy character. I’m not sure if that was what he was going for but for what it’s worth, when Richards focuses on the music, that’s when the book really comes alive.



  1. ...and then there's keith, waiting for trial/Twenty five thousand bail/ if he goes down you won't hear his sound/ but his friends carry on anyway-
    OK, so I'm a Clash fanatic, but the truth is there- guys like Keith Richards go on about being hard, but guys like Wayne Kramer, who do live hard-knock lives go on about Art, then do the time.
    I'm unimpresed with the myth and the legend of the Stones. I think they were a hot rocknroll band, and that's it. not that they needed to be more, just...
    Let me put it this way- Keith has a loaded revolver to protect him from whom, exactly? Johnny Depp? Meanwhile, Dimebag just wanted to party, and got shot onstage.
    I've done my time, working in the entertainment biz. Lots and lots and lots of people pretending to be somebody they're not. I much prefer the guys working offstage, for the most part. Some real cool folks onstage, but they're few and far between. So, I'm not trying to pick on Keith, but his pocketbook relies upon his image- I once remember an aside he made about his smoking- he was complaining about how many cigarettes he had to smoke for a photo shoot. He blamed the journalists, but I'm thinking "Hey, why don't you just say screw it, I'm a rich man, take the shot of me enjoying a cup of herbal tea, while I lounge in a bathrobe, because that's much more my reality, and I don't need the extra sales the shot of me in a halo of smoke, eyeliner and scarves will bring in"

  2. I have no doubt that Keith has done some bad things but I think you've articulated everything I was thinking about the book right there - it really is herbal tea and bullshit.