Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Dec. 10, 2010
Lifeby Keith Richards, with James Fox
Little, Brown and Company, 564 pp., $29.99
Born Dec. 18, 1943, Keith Richards remains your classic high-end Sagittarius. Over the course of 13 chapters that time will ultimately prove the Dead Sea Scrolls of rock & roll, astrology may be the only germane topic the Rolling Stones' heart and soul fails to address. That and all of 1974 – birth year of It's Only Rock 'n' Roll. Bob Dylan's Chronicles achieved literature; never forget whose name young Robert Zimmerman copped. Keith Richards' Life pulls off a feat equal to his song "Gimme Shelter" ("It was just a terrible fucking day and it was storming out there"). The guitarist is quite exacting about the group's material through Goats Head Soup: "I would say on a general scale, I would come up with the song and the basic idea, and Mick would do all the hard work of filling it in and making it interesting. I would come up with, 'I can't get no satisfaction .... I can't get no satisfaction .... I tried and I tried and I tried.'" That Mick Jagger at his very finest has never been recognized as a lyricist on par with Dylan is something the singer can take up in his own memoirs. This Life comes by an only child who survived the World War II blitz and early runthood with an attitude ("Get Off of My Cloud"), romanticism ("Ruby Tuesday"), and snarling self-preservation ("Street Fighting Man," "Midnight Rambler," "Rip This Joint"), though always imbued with genuine vulnerability ("Angie"). Richards wrote and sang "Happy" for God's sake. That voice herein parallels the life force punch-lined in an episode about discovering a dead tramp in a machine gun post "pillbox" as a boy: "We ran like the fucking Nile." The Fender bender tosses off lines like that as easy as open-E-tuned throttlers ("We never forget a good hook"), but the true grit lies in defining moments such as his mother Doris literally bringing him to his knees by telling him "the Man" was coming to take him away for throwing rotten tomatoes ("No, Mum, please ..."). Insert lump in throat. Richards' innate truth-saying hammers out all the myths and barbarism, from deals with the devil (naturally) to Swiss blood transfusions (sorry), but this Life beats a uniquely epic, one-of-a-kind, whale of a tale, not some music history corrective. Yin and yang rule the Glimmer Twins' house of love and warfare ("Surprise, Surprise" to quote one of Richards' early song gems), but the principle of "give the drummer some" begins at Charlie Watts. The author's bond with John Lennon and brotherhood in Bobby Keys (born within hours of his boss) runs deeper than drug buddies, but then as he concedes, it ain't called "heroin(e)" for kicks. The sordid arc of Richards' decadelong enslavement to the embalming opiate ranges from James Bond-like escapes in the south of France to his lawyer using White House connections to spring Richards from his infamous '77 heroin bust in Toronto. Moroccan abduction/abandonment, Russian roulette fatality, Jamaican angels and thieves, Fiji brain hemorrhaging – no musician of this global stature has ever penned such a Life. Sagittarians can't be governed, but Richards is their sovereign, his bohemian, nonconformism bent with a brilliant, almost engineer-type mind, steel jacketed in a shy, sensitive personality nevertheless inclined to lead from behind the sign's metaphoric quiver of arrows. Milton, Beethoven, William Blake, Mark Twain, Gen. George Custer, Joseph Conrad, Toulouse-Lautrec, Winston Churchill, Boris Karloff, Franco, Harpo Marx, Ira Gershwin, Lucky Luciano, Walt Disney, Maria Callas, Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix, Pablo Escobar, Nick Barbaro (also born Dec. 18) – know the type, understand Life. If it were an album you'd play it ad infinitum.