Last week, as I set Keith Richards‘ memoir, Life, cowritten by novelist and friend James Fox, on my nightstand each night after an hour’s worth of reading I couldn’t help but reflect on the back-cover photograph of a gleefully shambolic Keef, in a pose very similar to the one atop this post. “It must be nice to see yourself in this way,” I thought, “and think, Yeah, that’s the shot for the back cover of my memoir!”
This is probably why I can’t stand having my picture taken. I’m nowhere near as comfortable in my skin as Keef is in his. His comfort with himself also comes out in the writing of this book, which is laid back, down to earth, sometimes rambling, a bit self-satisfied, and surprisingly sweet. Who would have thought Keef was so into cuddling? There’s a brief bit in which he discusses all the women of Mick Jagger who inevitably end up crying on his shoulder. He tops it off with something to the effect of, “No one thinks of me as ‘Uncle Keith,’ but that’s a side of me.”
You know how in classic interviews through the years Keef could drop a spade here and a pouff there and seem utterly innocent and charming in dropping these slurs? That remarkable tone runs throughout Life. There’s no difference between his detailing his don’t-try-this-at-home, kids-but-if-must… advice on maintaining a heroin habit and his recipe for bangers and mash. His eye-of-the-storm account of the life of the most outrageous of Rolling Stones is both admirable and, occasionally tedious. How many tales of lovable-but-out-of-control Bobby Keys can one Stones fan take? So many of these passages remind me of William Burroughs‘ similarly fascinating autobiographical novel Junkie, in which the underlying message is CONTROL, as in the ability to keep one’s shit together. (The most tediously Burroughsian sections of the book involve his supposed expertise in handling knives, “shooters” [as he calls guns], machetes, and other weaponry. Give me a break!)
I kept wishing for instances in which Keef would lose it a bit, in which he would reveal more than he was expecting. He barely brings his band mates to light, occasionally telling us about a particular character flaw or strength but rarely if ever actually showing us who these people are and what makes them tick. The same goes for his platitudes on his longest-running mate, junkie extraordinaire Anita Pallenberg. Who is this woman? What did she actually bring to this guy’s life other than the ability to feel that he had his shit way more together than she did? At times like these I thought to myself, Who needs Keith Richards to do some Dr. Phil rap? Or maybe it’s some kind of British reserve that I can’t get through? Who needs Keith Richards to describe Charlie Watts in ways befitting David Niven on Laurence Olivier?
One of the few times that Richards tells me something I’m not expected to know is when he relates the friendly ribbing he and his Stones mates used to give The Beatles for wearing their guitars too high. They tell John, Paul, and George that they’d be able to play better if they’d wear their guitars lower. That paragraph was a funny, unexpected anecdote that refused to play into all the Spanish Tony/Gram Parsons nonsense. Keef, by the way, was way more in control of his shit than those two not to mention, we’re told a couple of times, John Lennon himself, who we’re told never left Keef’s place in a vertical position. Heh heh…
I wish there was more on the creation of the music. I wish there was more than a couple of pages on the breakthroughs he discovered in the playing of blues guitarists and other contemporaries in the early ’60s. By the time the band moves past the half-hearted Their Satanic Majesties Request Keef frequently gives little more than mumbled references to “guitar weaving” and other forms of musical alchemy, with that spades and pouffs sense of wonderment and mild dismissal.
There’s much to recommend this book and Keef’s take on his life, but I wish it accomplished what so few Stones histories have ever done, that is, create a sense of the creative magic of the band and the band members. For a band that’s made such powerful, lively music, tales surrounding the band are ultimately depressing or, if one finds it romantic, debauched. I shouldn’t hold out hope, but I think of all the crystal-clear creative moments that make up the Beatles’ legacy and wish someone would capture a fraction of the magic that make up the creative legacy of the Stones.
Having as much $$$ as Mr. Richards does, can aid one’s ability to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Money, ease of lifestyle, booze, years of drugs…i’d be relaxed for a photo shoot too.
I’ve been photographed by a professional three times (wedding, band shoot, with my 6 week old son) and each time the photographer was able to capture something that is not found in “point-and-shoot at a party” or “in front of The Alamo” pics. and these are $1200 shoots, not the pricey Mick Rock / Annie Leibovitz stuff……
I think the art of photography can not be overlooked. A good photographer also creates an atmosphere (again often a bottle of whiskey and some good tunes) as part of their art.
Plus Keith has been photographed a billon times (and once by me in the 2nd row at a Stones show) trust me, you can take a pretty horrible picture of him as well…..just need ONE good one to go on the back cover of your memoirs.
It does help to be inherently cool like Keith though………
KingEd, thanks for this review. I am sure sooner or later I will read this book, but I’m in no big hurry based on the other reviews I have read and the interviews I have read/heard with Keith (such as the lengthy one he did with Terry Gross on NPR). It sounds like a lot of the same old same old to me: a whole lot more Keef self-mythologizing than I have time for, generally. And, geez, I can’t wait to read again how he woke up one morning and wrote a song that was called Scrambled Eggs for a long time…er, I mean, he dreamed the riff to Satisfaction, or whatever. Heh, heh, heh, great story, man, do tell it again. And ok, man, we know you were the Heart ‘n’ Soul of the Stones and that anything good the band has done was your idea and all the bad things the band has done can be blamed on Mick. We get it. I do look forward to reading the chapter on that lost masterpiece Dirty Work…
It is remarkable to me, as I look at the Holy Trinity of Rock, how there are a wealth of good (as well as plenty of lousy) books on Dylan, quite a few good (as well as plenty of lousy) books on the Beatles, but hardly any good books on the Stones. The only one that has ever really grabbed me is Stanley Booth’s True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, which is quite good. Then there are Robert Greenfield’s which are ok. Does anything else rise to that level, even? Someone clue me in if I am missing the Great Stones Book, or even a decent one.
Funny article on slate.com. a “response” from Mick
I won a copy of that book here, and I’m looking forward to reading it – but I’m ensconced in a 1000 tome of technical insanity. So, eventually…
But in the meantime, it’s Mr. Paul Super Apple!
I hope you like the book, cher.
Wow. Great article. It’s fanfic, but it’s pretty dang cool.
One thing the writer is dead on about is “How Can I Stop?”. A real masterpiece.
This is great. Has Wyman always had this take on the Stones? He sounds like he’d fit in with me, KingEd, and E. Pluribus Gergely when he writes this part:
Wyman is such a douche…
I just finished it last night — a great read. One project he worked on that I didn’t know about was John Phillips’ lost 70s album with the Stones — just listened to it on MOG — Pay, Pack & Follow.
Very, very Stonesy vibe if you like what they were dong 72-77 or so.
I posted a song (Oh Virginia) here:
2000 Man did something on that album some time ago: https://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/index.php/here-s-zulu-warrior/
I’ll have to check out the song you posted, funoka.
Liz Phair is reviewing the book in the Sunday NY Times Book Review. That should be highly illuminating.