Musical autobiographies—apart from those by, say, Berlioz and Stravinsky, Art Pepper and Anita O’Day, which are genuinely enlightening—have always struck me as being about as helpful as interviews given by athletes after a game. Very little is said in a coherent fashion about an activity that has little to do with language. Being a rock star, however, is much more than the music: it’s the look, the attitude, the degree of untouchability one assumes. So I came to Keith Richards’s book (for which Little, Brown reportedly paid over seven million dollars) with heightened interest—this is Keith Richards, after all, not just a rock icon but the walking embodiment of a slow shrug and an extended middle finger—and, thanks to his choice of editor, with some very high hopes. James Fox is an old Etonian (i.e. nothing like Keith) who wrote White Mischief, a much-praised work of nonfiction dealing with the 1941 murder of the Earl of Erroll in the debauched British colony in Kenya known as the Happy Valley. At first it seemed an odd match (though the two men have known each other for years), but for the fact that the Rolling Stones are yet another colony of people who have been thrown into close proximity for so long that something had to give. If there’s been a murder, we haven’t heard about it yet. Oh wait: Brian Jones.
Back in the day—my day, anyway—the big question was “Beatles or Stones?” as though one could only like one or the other. If you were in any way indecisive about this vital question, then you were probably a secret Freddie and the Dreamers fan, which required more pity and disdain than sympathy. This choice could be further refined: John or Paul? It was a trick question, because more than a few opted for George. No one ever chose Ringo. The separate identities of the Beatles were part of their charm; the way they worked together was their magic. Ever hear anyone say, “I’m a huge Bill Wyman fan”? The Stones are a unit, and even with personnel changes the core sound of the group remains the same. While the clean and identically-dressed lads from Liverpool smiled and politely bowed after every tune, on stage the Stones looked shifty and unemployed, as though bracing for a fight or preparing to slink off to some gin-mill near the docks before sifting through the rubbish bins to find clothes for their next gig. They did not shake their hair, as Paul and Ringo did. They didn’t need to: sympathy for the devil can be bought in other ways. I remember riding one night in 1967 down a lonely southern Indiana highway, shotgun in a friend’s car, and “Under My Thumb” came on the radio. The night, the sound of Brian Jones’s marimba, the lyrics, the whole dread Dick-and-Perry vibe of the Midwest laid out for endless miles on either side of us—they all added up to something much more real than, say, “Please, Please Me.” It gave me goosebumps, and the Beatles never did that.
Let it not be forgotten, though, that from the start the Beatles were also considered dangerous, not so much because of their music (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” could hardly be called subversive), as for the effect they had on people’s daughters. Teary-eyed thirteen-year-olds came home brimming with premature lust for the bass player with the cute smile, and, boom, the American household was turned upside down. But the Stones, well, they seemed to discard all the stages in between, such as dating and holding hands on the front porch. Perhaps it’s best summed up by a janitor cleaning up after one of their concerts in the north of England whom Keith quotes: “Very good show. Not a dry seat in the house.”
Life begins with a story of what might well have blossomed into a major drug bust in Fordyce, Arkansas, turning into farce before quickly moving back in time to the gray eastern suburbs of London, where both Keith and Mick grew up and met early on. No cynic, Keith looks back on his childhood both with genuine nostalgia and a clear-eyed understanding of his place, undersized and picked on, in the bleak, unforgiving world of postwar England. His maternal grandfather, Gus, especially, was a major influence on him. He not only gave Keith his first cigarette and a taste for adventure, but also introduced the boy to music. At a time when the English were at their most reticent—“The talk was all around things, codes and euphemisms; somethings couldn’t be said or even alluded to”—it was in song lyrics that emotions could, Richards learned early on, be freely expressed. “If you can’t say it, sing it.” And for a shy boy—and man, as will be seen, especially around women—this seemed the only solution.
At the same time he discovered rock and roll via Radio Luxembourg—the same way all the musicians of his generation fell upon it—he became keen on scouting, or, as he likes to view it, “survival training,” which would come in handy later on when fleeing from the cops or needing to hide his stash. But of course what he was most drawn to then was the blues. It’s said that when the Stones came to visit the headquarters of Chess Records they found the great Muddy Waters up a ladder painting a ceiling. It’s to the band’s credit that on their tours they would feature their idols and give them two great reasons to go on living: a vast audience and a guaranteed gig. “We were unpaid promoters for Chicago blues,” Richards writes, because no one else in England was doing it at the time.
The Stones’s journey from the earliest days until now is a matter of scope and expense. As Keith says, “How did it get so big when we’re not doing anything much different than what we did in 1963 in the Crawdaddy Club?” In the Sixties, rock acts played clubs, not (save for the Beatles) stadiums. I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix, a few nights after his triumph at the Monterey Pop Festival, playing a small Greenwich Village club with maybe a hundred of us in the audience. But audiences have grown—and for the Stones they grew quickly, as their club dates in England regularly sold out and larger venues had to be booked—and the show these days must be grander, flashier, brighter. What would have once cost thousands of dollars to mount now runs into the several millions. Bands as big as the Stones no longer have a few trusted roadies humping speaker boxes, but a full security staff, backup musicians and singers, guitar and sound technicians, a construction crew for the set, drivers for the fleet of trucks, catering personnel, and the various hangers-on and family members who sometimes travel with them.
It’s obvious that Keith would much prefer playing those small clubs once again, as for him it’s always about the music, not the spectacle, which is strictly for the audience who have to see first-hand what they’re overpaying for (and then get charged all over again when they buy a tour t-shirt for forty-five bucks). Although Stones lead guitarists have come and gone (Brian Jones, then the inscrutable Mick Taylor, then Ronnie Wood—is he still there?), it’s Richards’s guitar sound that defines the group. Just as an O.R. nurse knows exactly what syringe or scalpel to hand the surgeon during an operation, his guitar tech, Pierre de Beauport, always delivers the right instrument at the right time, whether it’s Micawber or Dwight, Malcolm or Tweedie—each has a name and personality, a distinctive set of tonal qualities.
Putting together a great rock band is like assembling a constellation out of stardust: it has to assume a sound so definable that, just as Orion is known from its three stars in a row, it would be instantly recognizable from just a few overheard notes. In the case of the Rolling Stones, those few notes are usually played by Keith Richards: think of the slinky opening of “Gimme Shelter” or the smacky introductory chords of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Lead guitarists may enjoy all the glory, but a great rhythm guitarist can define a band’s sonic identity. The fact that Keith can still nail it every time attests to how much he still practices, even until he falls asleep, guitar in hand, much as Coltrane would, the mouthpiece of his horn between his lips. It’s how “Satisfaction” came to be written. Late at night he turned on his cassette recorder, fell asleep, woke up playing the now-famous opening riff on his acoustic, only to be followed by “forty minutes of me snoring.”
The great charm of this compellingly readable book is its author’s lack of illusion as to who he is or how he’s been perceived. There are events recounted here other memoirists might have conveniently left out: good women betrayed, best friends backstabbed, the sheer sleaze of a messy rock-and-roll life. He doesn’t apologize for using lots and lots of drugs, for being a little too quick with a knife or for sleeping with a loaded pistol under his pillow—after all, it goes along with the job, just as booze, groupies and dissipation tend to move in tandem with a rock group. And anyway, as Keith wrote elsewhere, he didn’t have a drug problem, he had a police problem. His feelings towards his parents, wife and children, his ironclad sense of loyalty (hence his intermittent hostility towards the often-unreliable Mick, known to Keith as “Brenda” or “Your Majesty”), really shine through in this candid and reflective work of autobiography. Life hits all the anticipated marks—the girlfriends (Ronnie Spector, Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, and the nameless string of women who came in and out of his life before what seems a blissful and lasting marriage to Patti Hansen), the drugs (name it, he’s done it)—but it’s Keith as a musician who comes to the fore here. He’s deeply serious about his music, about the blues, about studying how he might achieve a certain sound by trading out a six-string guitar for an open-tuned five-string model. Drugs, now history, were almost always a matter of maintenance more than euphoria. While he complains that others, mere mortals the lot of them, had to sleep and catch a meal here and there, he could go for days on a bag of smack, spending endless hours on the mechanics of putting an album together. “I suppose heroin made me concentrate on something or finish something more than I would normally.”
Ten years after Britain’s New Musical Express elected Keith Richards as number one on its list of the top ten rock stars most likely to die, to his disappointment he dropped back to number nine. Then they dropped him altogether. Almost thirty years on I bet he’s outlived all the others.