Review: Keith Richards's Life

Stone spills all — eloquently
By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  November 9, 2010


The title says it all: Life isn't just an autobiography, it's Keith Richards's Guide to Good Living. In this hefty but breezy memoir, the skull-bedecked guitar hero spills the beans on nearly a half-century of music and mischief making with (and without) the Rolling Stones. He also imparts typically Richardsian (which is to say, earthy, honest, and wickedly funny) wisdom concerning such diverse subjects as the Boy Scouts (the young Richards was an enthusiastic and decorated member), knife fighting ("the whole point is never, ever use the blade. It is there to distract your opponent. While he stares at the gleaming steel, you kick his balls to kingdom come. . . ."), the correct way to prepare bangers and mash, and how to assemble a set of works when you can't get your hands on a hypodermic needle. The latter story involves a hatpin, a coffee spoon, and a trip to FAO Schwarz — MacGyver has nothing on Keef.

Yes, there's a loamy pile of dirt about Richards's fraught relationship with Mick Jagger, who is referred to in the book as "Brenda," "Her Majesty," "Madam," a mynah bird, and "the tiny todger." His account of a boyhood friendship torn asunder by fame resonates with the pain of abandonment. As Richards tells it, Jagger's head was turned by flattery and power to the point where he regarded his bandmates as "hirelings." Writes Richards, "Sometimes I miss my friend. Where the hell did he go?"

At least he maintains an abiding fraternal affection for Jagger. He has only eviscerating contempt for Brian Jones, calling him "a cold-blooded, vicious motherfucker" and "a kind of rotting attachment."

In a likably conversational tone (the book was written with White Mischief author James Fox, who interviewed key figures to check against Richards's memories), Richards delves into all the phases of the Stones' career, from amateurs drunk on the blues (a 1963 diary entry reads, "Thursday 3 . . . Very good set. 'Bo Diddley' received with very good applause. 612 people attended session. . . . Impressed some very big people. Received £2") to their long tenure as the corporation known as "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World," with all the crimes, misdemeanors, and rumors in between.

Anyone foolish enough to buy Richards's shambling-burnout image might be surprised to find a fully engaged observer under the smoke and cocaine mirrors. He writes the way he sings — naked, straight up, heart on sleeve. He offers sexy yet tender memories of the women in his life ("The first time I went to heaven was when I awoke with Ronnie [later Spector!] Bennett asleep with a smile on her face") and immensely articulate passages about the miseries of junkiedom and the price of fame. Of his baby son (with Anita Pallenberg) who died while he was on tour, he writes, "Leaving a newborn is something I can't forgive myself for. It's as if I deserted my post."

Given that he's the keeper of the Stones' musical integrity, it's no surprise that Richards's accessible, fascinating discourses on guitar playing, recording, and the debt the Stones owe to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Jimmy Reed are worth the price of admission. So, too, is his unwavering disdain for the British establishment that excoriated the Stones in the '60s. On Jagger's acceptance of a knighthood from "a system that tried to put us in jail for nothing," he snorts, "I won't be Lord Richards, I'll be fucking King Richard IV, with that IV pronounced eye-vee."

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