Life by Keith Richards (with James Fox)

life_by_keith_richardsGhost writer James Fox has admitted that it was a tough gig to get Keith Richards to stay still and focused long enough to tell his life story. Organising his rambling and random memories into a coherent narrative must have been a mammoth task.

There’s a fair bit of padding in these 500+  pages but Fox has done a pretty good job in showing what makes Richards tick and helping to explain how he has managed to survive the junkie lifestyle of scoring, tripping and going through “more cold turkeys than there are freezers”.

There are a few lapses such when Luc Godard is clunkily introduced as “the great French cinematic innovator” but there’s no mistaking Keef as the author of the vitriolic put down of  Brian Jones as a “rotting attachment”. Similarly, only Richards could have described his guitar technique as “a mangling and a dangling and a tangling thing”.

Richards puts his survival down to the fact that he is good at reading his own body and for following a principle of only using the finest cocaine and purest heroine, refusing what he calls “Mexican shoe scrapings”.

While, ultimately he’s unambiguous in stating that  “the life of a junkie is not recommended to anyone”, the chances of him being used in a ‘just say no’ anti-drugs campaign is remote.

Richards divides people between those who are good to ‘hang’ with and those who are not . Of the Stones, only Ronnie Wood seems to qualify as a ‘hanger’ unless you count his best friend American saxophonist, Bobby Keys, who has played many times with the band.

Charlie Watts comes across as the coolest Stone, not a close friend but a solid guy and an exceptional musician. Bobby Keys says it well:  “the whole heart and soul of this band is Keith and Charlie. I mean, that’s apparent to anybody who’s breathing or has a musical bone in his body.”

One of the best anecdotes is the story of how Watts floored Jagger after taking exception to ol’ rubber lips regally making a request for “my drummer”.

Jagger is presented as a duplicitous control freak suffering from what Keef refers to as LVS (lead vocalist syndrome) . This partly means that he “doesn’t want to have any friends except him” and the Glimmer Twins are presented as close brothers rather than bosom buddies.

It is acknowledged that Jagger is an astute business man, but in doing the deals he makes sure his own interests are looked after first and foremost. At the same time, Keef can’t really argue that he was in any state of mind to do the wheeler-dealing or to suck up to the sponsors; a fact that he admits with the one-liner “Mick picked up the slack, I picked up the smack”.

The glamorous, but ultimately fairly pathetic figure of Anita Pallenburg looms large in Keef’s story as his long time partner and mother of two of his children.  She put a gap between him and Brian Jones and subsequently between him and Jagger (“mainly on Mick’s part not mine. And probably forever”).

Though Richards talks of his women in demeaning terms of ‘bitches’ or ‘the old lady’, by the side of Bill Wyman and Mick Jagger he’s a positive gentleman. He claims “I have never put the make on a girl in my life. I just don’t know how to do it. My instincts are always to leave it to the woman” and adds  “I’ve never been able to go to bed with a woman just for sex”. Both these statements should be taken with a pinch of salt, especially since his pursuit of  the big love of his life (Patti Hansen) doesn’t sound like he was exactly waiting bashfully for her to make the first move.

As for the Stones’ music , Richards says that the Stones were “unpaid promoters for Chicago blues” in the 1960s and that their image as the bad boys of rock was a deliberate move to prove that they were  “no fucking ersatz Beatles”.

He argues convincingly that they filled a vital vacuum at the time and is probably right to say that their biggest contribution has been that they “turned American people back on to their own music”.  However, the suggestion that their more recent output remains cutting edge strikes me as  delusional.

Richards is apparently as rabid a consumer of music as he was of crack but apart from name-checking his early 1950/60s influences the only more up-to-date music he enthuses about is Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty and the reggae crowd he fell in with in Jamaica.

It is my contention that the Stones have been flogging a very lucrative, but very dead, horse for the best part of the last three decades. They have been churning out a watered down version of  ‘classic’ blues-rock sound than attempting anything new.

Richards all but admits this when he refers to the backbone of the Stones catalogue as the period 1968-73 with the albums Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street and Goats Head Soup. (In this regard it’s good that he gives praise to the largely unsung contribution of Mick Taylor in helping to make “some of the most brilliant stuff the Stones ever did”).

Richards’ lazy dismissal of Punk Rock (“they’re not playing anything, they’re just spitting on people”) only confirms how out of touch he was/is with the spirit of 1976/77.  We learn that Some Girls (1978)  was a conscious attempt to out-punk the punks. They wish.

In terms of musical heroes amongst his peers, Gram Parsons and John Lennon are singled out as the “two who had an attitude to music that was the same as mine”. By this he means that they share a pure commitment to music making irrespective of fame or fortune, Richards says “I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me” .

As for his public persona, he admits playing up to the folk-hero image admitting that  “it’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were”. While he denies stories like having a full blood transfusion in Switzerland he does admit to snorting his father’s ashes, a story reiterated in a CBS interview.

Playlist of early influences (and Keef’s words):

Muddy Waters – Rolling Stone
Little Richard – Long Tall Sally (“The first record I bought”)
Elvis Presley – Heartbreak Hotel  (“stripped down, burnt, no bullshit, no violins and ladies’ choruses or schmaltz, totally different”)
Howlin’ Wolf – Smokestack Lightning (“seminal sounds)
Sanford Clark – Son of a Gun  (“heavy duty country singer”)
Chuck Berry – Reelin’ and rockin’ (“I didn’t know he was black for two years after I first heard his music”)
Robert Johnson – everything (“Like an orchestra all by himself”)
Jìmmy Reed – Baby What You Want Me To Do (“A fascinating study in restraint”)
The Ronettes – Be My Baby (“One of the greatest songs ever recorded”)

Related Links:

Keith Richards and Me – interview with ghost writer James Fox (The Daily Beast.Com)
When a Pirate Is the Voice of Chivalry – NY Times review by Maureen Dowd.