Book Review: Life by Keith Richards

When I was growing up I listened to the Rolling Stones sometimes on popular radio stations, and I liked some of their songs but was never particularly attracted to the group itself as a fan.  I was more into the Beatles, later Creedence Clearwater Revival and, in my psychedelic drug days, the Grateful Dead.  The Stones, though doubtlessly talented musicians, came across as too dark and raunchy for my tastes.  Later, as I saw them continue touring in middle age and then as gray-haired old men, I wondered what was up with them, how they had managed to keep it together for so long.

This book tells what was up.

It’s a very entertaining read.  Keith Richards is intelligent and erudite beyond all expectation.  He had a ghost writer, or at least an assistant, true, but his personality shines through clearly.  It’s a complex yet affable personality, wild, unorthodox, rebellious, prone to outbursts of violence, faithful to friends and family.  Yet one thing comes across more than anything else:  his sincere and heartfelt love of music.  It is this that gives the book its quality and depth more than anything else.

Yes, it goes into all the sordid details:  the parties replete with booze and drugs, the loose sex with groupies and other girlfriends, the animosity between Keith and Mick, the squalid desperate decrepit years as a heroin junkie.  As I read about all these crazy debaucheries I was reminded of the band of outlaws in “Blood Meridian” By Cormac McCarthy:  they hunted Indian scalps through Mexico and the southwestern US; they were savage and violent and went through incredible hardships; yet when they finally got a hold of a little money they would blow it all on a drunken spree, go absolutely nuts and get in fights and break things until they would be driven out of or turn on the very towns that had rewarded them.  So it was with the Stones, especially in the 70s.  They had achieved fame and riches but on their tours would indulge in heaps of drugs and damage hotels until they were blacklisted from the best ones; in addition, narcotics agents were continually on their trail.  Keith Richards went from one drug bust and trial to another, each time escaping by the skin of his teeth with the aid of high-positioned friends and the best lawyers money could buy.

But all of this would be nothing more than an extended People Magazine article, sensational tabloid rubbish, except for one thing:  Keith Richards sincerely loves his music.  When he writes about music, whether it is discovering new chords or new techniques of playing, or meeting and jamming with other musicians he admires, or writing songs and putting together albums – then this book rises above the tabloid and becomes a great literary experience.  It is clear that KR loves his music as much as I love my writing, and that is saying a lot.  It defines him as a person; it defines his life.  It is all about the music, in the end.  That’s what I found myself admiring about him, despite his sordid past.  He is an artist, and gives first place to his art.  He must have music; there is no alternative.

Don’t get me wrong.  The rest of the book is a worthwhile read too.  As I said, Richards is highly intelligent and it is much better written than a tabloid magazine article.  In fact, it is fascinating.  He holds nothing back; he gets down and dirty with the details.  But when all is said and done it is his art that has made him what he is.  That’s why the Stones continue to tour when most folks have retired – in fact, when most rock musicians are already dead and gone.  They love the music, and can’t think of a life without it.  He says he’ll keep playing and writing songs until he croaks; he can’t imagine doing anything else.  Having read this I will listen to the Stones with greater interest and appreciation.

Another aspect of the book that I appreciate is how it defines an era.  It’s a big book, and most of it describes the period during the 60s and 70s when the Stones evolved their own style and achieved a meteoric rise to success which was only surpassed by the Beatles.  I am fascinated by the 60s and 70s and read any good books I can get my hands on of that period of modern history.  I became caught up in a good part of it myself, becoming involved in psychedelic drugs and hippydom first during my abortive year at Santa Clara University and later during my travels up and down the West Coast.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book, whether you are into the Rolling Stones or not, as great entertainment, engrossing modern history, and the fascinating story of one of the greatest rock and roll guitarists of all time.

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