If the measure of a good autobiography is the extent to which the writing reflects the progression of the life under inspection, then Keith Richard’s Life is an exceptional piece of work. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a stunning read all the way through, but only that it reveals the true nature of its subject, blemishes and all.
It’s a brilliant move on the part of Keith Richards and his co-author James Fox to begin the book recounting a narrow brush with American law enforcement during the Rolling Stones 1975 tour of the United States. The conversational tone set here continues throughout over the five hundred pages, the raffishly likable picture the British guitarist paints of himself overshadowed at times by a sense of wonder that he has survived his travails, such as this botched drug bust, as long as he has.
It’d be improper to call Keith candid to a fault here because, as in referencing his relationship with Stones vocalist Mick Jagger, Richards keeps his observations generally curt and limited to their working relationship (or lack thereof in latter years). This man isn’t out to impugn anyone’s character in this book, except perhaps the authority figures, particularly law enforcement, with whom he’s always had a contentious relationship.
The real revelations of Life, such as they are, come in the description of the Rolling Stones formation in their early days as blues purists and the almost accidental means by which they, with the encouragement of Andrew Oldham, came to be not only the antithesis of The Beatles (and their innocent charm), but a rock band set on success in the broadest terms possible. Richards sounds almost apologetic in his rationalizations for following the lead of their fledgling manager/producer.
But that aforementioned sense of wonder comes into play again when Keith Richards is recounting the sensation of the Stones first tours and the hysteria that grew up around them, especially in the United States. The near-obsessive devotion to his muse that the author comes back to regularly during the course of this book never comes into question even when describing the abbreviated performances that took place during this period of his group’s career: perhaps that’s because this man’s most lucid thoughts—apart from the genuinely touching comments on his personal definition of friendship that recur so often—are those describing the creative process and the experience of performing before an audience.
The fairly fast pace of Keith Richards’ account of his life from childhood to adolescence and into The Rolling Stones dissipates as he hits the later years of the 70’s when his propensity for drugs led to the very state of addiction he sound so convincingly opposed to and capable of transcending earlier in the book. The colorful panoply of people and places descends into a cold monotonous existence during which Life bogs down. The level of fascination, not surprisingly, elevates as Richards emerges from his isolation, personally and artistically. It’s fortunate indeed that he comments on some of the photos included in the book: the images don’t fully convey the sense of ennui or adventure.
Richards spits fire in print describing his reemergence into the machinations of the band he helped found and the conflicts that arose in that process as he butted heads with Jagger. The man who overcame severe physical tribulations to confront emotional challenges almost as extreme in fact sounds almost like a role model of maturity as he’s able to forge a redefined relationship with his oldest friend and partner. Accordingly, such passages lend credibility to the rest of Keith’s story as the book falters to a halt in a series of anecdotal episodes, the most consequential of which is that series of events, some of which are absolutely but surely intentionally comedic, by which he met and married his present wife model/actress Patti Hansen (to whom the book is dedicated).
The final chapters Life thus consist of the authors setting the record straight on matters ranging from Richard’s near fatal skull injury to the now equally famous story of his snorting his father’s ashes. The blithe approach he brings to his explanations don’t exactly call the truths of the matters into question but only reflect—again– his latent disbelief that his fame gives birth to such misguided celebrity and/or notoriety.
If it sounds ludicrous to hear stories of Keith Richards’ compulsions in the kitchen, then when you get a copy of Life, turn right to the pages where he provides his recipe for bangers and mash. This man’s lust for life is as evident here as it is in his quotations from his latter-day song lyrics, the combination of which paints a portrait of a human being whose pleasure in living remains in the process of increasing, even as he concludes this book with a touching farewell to the mother he remained so devoted.