Thursday Reviews: Life By Keith Richards


Keith Richards with James Fox

Keith Richards is certainly one of the most legendary figures in rock and roll. One half of the “Glimmer Twins” leading the Rolling Stones, Richards has become a larger-than-life figure in his playing, songwriting, and sheer hedonism. And he explains it all in Life, a surprisingly honest memoir from a rock star.

Richards grew up poor in Dartford, England, born in 1943. Early in the book, he tells tales of bombs falling in and around London, how one of the houses he lived in was destroyed in an air raid. His is also a familiar tale of many of the British Invasion’s musicians, whose earliest memories are of England having to rebuild after World War II.

It’s no surprise Richards gravitated toward music. His grandfather was a noted jazz musician, and Keith himself became something of a blues nerd in his late teens. When he and childhood friend Mick Jagger met up with Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones became inevitable. From there came the tale of how they lured in Charlie Watts to drum, of Andrew Loog Oldham’s flamboyant, sometimes gangster-like management of the Stones, and of their fights with the police in at least four countries. We get Richards’ take on Brian Jones’ death (He suggests it was a fight between a stoned Jones and a drunken workman fixing his house.), why Richards survived years of heroin addiction (Most people, he says, keep grabbing more and more junk and never try to get off the stuff), and the rift between himself and Jagger (whom, he says, suffers from LVS – Lead Vocalist Syndrome.)

In addition, there are loving tributes to his heroes like Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry, and Jimmy Reed. Richards admires them, and he loves Jagger like a brother, but he doesn’t spare them – or himself. Moreover, the book shines a light on how that unique sound of the Stones comes about. Richards confirms for me what I’ve always said, the bass player is much more important than most people think. While he says little about Bill Wyman, he does say that Darrell Jones amply fills Wyman’s shoes. And we now know how Richards gets that unusual sound out of the guitar best heard on “Start Me Up.” It’s the open tuning he one day learned all the early blues men used – five strings tuned to one open chord. But Richards doesn’t let the technical overwhelm the narrative. When he explains why he and Mick Taylor or Ronnie Wood or Wyman or Darrell Jones play the way they do, there’s a little background into where that came from.

I listened to this on audio. Johnny Depp and musician Joe Hurley read part of the book. Depp, when reading the periods of the late sixties and the 1970’s – when Richards and heroin had a good working relationship – sounds like Jack Sparrow on a three-day bender. Later parts simply sound like Keith Richards telling you his life story over a couple of pints. Richards himself reads the last chapters, which really brings the story home.

Now, to the subject of Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: They were co-conspirators in reinventing rock and roll. John and Paul zigged, turning it over to Mick and Keith to zag. They got you no matter which way you went.

And you can’t argue. This comes from one of the Glimmer Twins himself.