Thursday, March 20, 2014


Life, the autobiography of Rolling Stones' guitarist and rock icon Keith Richards, written with journalist James Fox, is the first celebrity memoir I've ever read. I'm an unreptentant, unabashed Keith Richards fan, and if you share that interest, you'll find this book very entertaining.

The book is most engrossing and revealing, not for the dirt and gossip, but for the man's mind and heart. Keith Richards once wanted to be a librarian; he was also a Boy Scout. He became a junkie because he was shy and uncomfortable with fame, and because he loathed the idea of being a pop star.

The birth and trajectory of the Rollings Stones from Keith's perspective is fascinating. Imagining this scrawny kid from a working-class British town hearing Elvis Presley sing "Heartbreak Hotel" for the first time - listening to Scotty Moore's guitar sound over and over and over, his horizons bursting open - is incredible. But what's most interesting are Keith's reflections on music history, on the collaborative process of music-making, on being a songwriter - on art and life and the interaction between the two. Of course there are the drugs, the name-dropping, the wild life, the music industry, the road, but more than any of that, Life is a musician's and an artist's memoirs. If you don't understand where Keith Richards came from musically - the musical stream he leapt into, and how he helped change and re-create it - you might be surprised at the depth of this book.

The best part of the book, for me, was the first third, when it's all about music - Keith's discovery of the music, how it transformed him, how he transformed it. By the book's final third, if you know your rock history, you'll realize that Life is distinctly The Story According to Keith. All history is coloured by the teller, of course, but there are facts and there are fabrications and there are rationalizations. Nothing was ever Keith's fault, and even if it might have been just a little bit his fault, it was all in service of the music, and that excuses anything. If Mick became a big bad meanie for talking about adult concerns, that couldn't possibly be the fault of his partner Keith, who was living an extended fantasy adolescence.

And it's more than a bit discomforting to read about Keith's young son, Marlon, on tour with the band, a seven-year-old pressed into service as his junkie father's keeper. So it might have been better than living with his crazy junkie mother - and we hear from Marlon, who tells us it's all grand - but still. Some things are not easy to rationalize.

This New York Times review of Life really captures the spirit of the book. Michiko Kakutani calls it "electrifying," and says:
Mr. Richards's prose is like his guitar playing: intense, elemental, utterly distinctive and achingly, emotionally direct.
Here's a passage from Life quoted in that review.
I can’t untie the threads of how much I played up to the part that was written for me. . . . I mean the skull ring and the broken tooth and the kohl. Is it half and half? I think in a way your persona, your image, as it used to be known, is like a ball and chain. People think I’m still a goddamn junkie. It’s 30 years since I gave up the dope! Image is like a long shadow. Even when the sun goes down, you can see it.
If you know your Stones history, you know that Canada and the fair city of Toronto play a supporting role, and you might enjoy the bits of local history, as I did. I'll close this review with a side of Keith Richards you might not know.
When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser.
This review was originally published in two parts, here and here, in wmtc.

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