Reviewed by Jeff Baker
Keith Richards, 19 years old and a good kid at heart, wrote a letter to his Aunt Patty in 1962. After joking about the English weather -- "I wonder which day summer falls on this year?" -- he describes meeting Mick Jagger on a train station:
"You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles but one mornin' on Dartford Stn... I was holding one of Chuck's records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs. y'know came up to me. He's got every Chuck Berry record ever made and all his mates have too...
"Anyways the guy on the station, he is called Mick Jagger and all the chicks and the boys meet every Saturday morning...Besides that Mick is the greatest R & B singer this side of the Atlantic and I don't mean maybe. I play guitar (electric) Chuck style we got us a bass player and drummer and rhythm-guitar and we practice 2 or 3 nights a week. SWINGIN'."
There it is. The Rolling Stones are born. Popular culture always has pivot points, right-place right-time events when change happens so absolutely that it's difficult to remember what was happening moments ago. What was in the air before Richards found out Jagger had Berry's "Rockin' at the Hops" and "The Best of Muddy Waters" under his arm? Whatever it was, it's never been the same since Richards started playing "guitar (electric) Chuck style" and found some other guys who were as talented and obsessed as he was. They formed a band and changed the world, and even if "rock and roll ain't nothing but jazz with a hard backbeat," as Richards writes in his hugely entertaining memoir Life, that's more than enough.
There's been a run of brilliant musician memoirs lately, starting with Bob Dylan's Chronicles and continuing with Patti Smith's Just Kids and Rosanne Cash's Composed. Those books, to one degree or another, took an episodic approach, eschewing chronology in favor of vignettes and epiphanies that showed rather than told. Richards tries to have it both ways in Life, outlining the whole story and zooming in on the parts that matter most to him. He almost pulls it off, but there's too much life in his Life for even a 564-page memoir. One milestone after another slides past as the old rebel tells stories and talks happily about how he tunes his guitar.
Which is the best part, and the whole point. Before anything else -- the outlaw swagger, the skull ring, the heroin addiction, the crazy pirate image, the jokes about how only cockroaches and Keith Richards will survive a nuclear armageddon -- he is a musical genius who wrote timeless songs and came up with a new way to play the guitar. "I'm the riff master," he says. No kidding.
In the grip of a crushing drug habit and under insanely stressful conditions, his experiments with open tunings led to a creative breakthrough. He removed a string on his guitar and started playing chords on open tunings -- when a guitar is pre-tuned to a major chord -- instead of using the open tuning to play slide, the way the blues masters he idolized usually did it. Out came "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Brown Sugar" and "Tumbling Dice" and "Honky Tonk Women," music that defines rock 'n' roll. Richards is eloquent on how and why he writes songs and modest about his influence, but Waddy Wachtel, a guitarist in his side band and one of many other voices in Life, explains that "growing up and playing guitar, you're learning Stones songs to play in bars, but you know something's wrong, you're not playing them right, there's something missing." It's the open tuning, and Richards, generous musician that he is, will show you how to play it.
If he's not so generous without a guitar in his hand, it's because he doesn't care nearly as much about anything else. Addicts are selfish by nature, and Richards, while nowhere near as aloof as the famously haughty Jagger, is combative and cold-blooded in the way he discards people he's outgrown. He spends almost no time on Bill Wyman, who played bass next to him for almost 40 years, and doesn't have much to say about either the mysterious death of Brian Jones, once the leader of the Stones, or the band's most famous concert, the violent catharsis at the Altamont Speedway in California. Jones "was at that point in his life where there wasn't any," Richards writes with an icy dismissiveness that's shocking even from such a hardened survivor. At Altamont, "if it hadn't been for the murder, we'd have thought it a very smooth gig ...."
What matters to Richards isn't what happened when the Stones were stupid enough to let the Hell's Angels provide security at Altamont but what happened a few days earlier, at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. The Stones, "oiled up and running hot" from their 1969 tour, cut "Brown Sugar," "Wild Horses" and "You Gotta Move" in three days. A few years later, Richards almost died in an ambulance on the way to a clinic in Switzerland, then came out of heroin withdrawal and wrote "Angie" as soon as he stopped climbing the walls.
"What is it that makes you want to write songs?" Richards writes. "In a way you want to stretch yourself into people's hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you're playing."
Richards is a reader who favors Patrick O'Brian, George MacDonald Fraser and European history. He's always been articulate and candid in interviews, but it's still a happy surprise (and a credit to his co-writer, favors James Fox) that his book is so thoughtful. The only parts that don't ring true are the rationalizations for all those wasted years on drugs. Richards doesn't apologize and owns up to everything he did and everyone he hurt while holding on to his right to do whatever he wanted. It isn't that simple. He writes that Ken Kesey's got a lot to answer for" in leading people toward drugs. So do you, Keith.
Much has been made in the British press about all the nasty things Richards writes about Jagger, but it didn't feel that way to me. Richards is full of praise for his musical soul mate and only turns on Jagger after Jagger lets fame go to his head and starts leaving the band behind. Richards' assessment of Jagger's solo career is all the more withering because it's accurate. Jagger cheapened what's special about the Stones by putting out lousy music and accepting a knighthood. Richards is always about the music, still the riff master even in his 60s, when he's falling out of palm trees onto his head or goofing around with Johnny Depp in a theme-park pirate movie.
If you don't believe it, listen to "Wingless Angels," the amazing album he made with Jamaican musicians, or some of the late stuff from the Stones, like "How Can I Stop" or "Thru and Thru." It's the last track on "Voodoo Lounge" and it hit like a body shot when it appeared at the end of an episode of The Sopranos. I think it's Richards' best vocal, strong and confident and world-weary.
"You know this heart is constant," he sings. "I'm your lover, baby, thru and thru."
Books mentioned in this post