Keith Richards' "Life" – It's the Song, Not the Singer

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Keith Richards

Mr. Richards shows his sensitive side in "Life."

Keith Richards, my hero. The songs, the guitars, the money, the girls, the cars, houses in the islands, pharmaceutical-quality drugs in death-defying quantities. Throughout, he keeps writing great songs. He lives a seemingly simple life, with simple chord sequences played better than anyone. To paraphrase Julia Child, his ability to keep them interesting yet simple is his massive contribution to the genius of the Rolling Stones.

Mr. Richards is a great, charismatic guy with a lot of cool opinions.  His integrity about the Stones, especially with regard to solo albums, is a key lesson in showmanship. With such a successful, privileged life, why the need to set the record straight?  Maybe it’s just to have a record, whether it’s crooked, slanted, biased or warped. We all know, however, that a little imperfection never spoiled a good Stones album especially, and anyone who loves the band will like this story, except for the bitterness Mr. Richards has toward Sir Mick.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the devil, but at the same time, I already thought of him as being as good as Jagger or Lennon and McCartney (his other creative benchmark). Both he and John Lennon are the non-Sirs, what does that tell you?

His realism about addiction and how it affected his family life is one of the book’s strong points.  I was also impressed with his discussions on the process of creating the Stones music at the beginning, their influences and how they practiced together. As Richards and the band transition from squalor to global superstardom, his beautiful and sensitive descriptions of his musical influences and collaborators, from Ian Stewart, Muddy Waters, Charlie Watts and the rest (except his amp, he hated Bill Wyman!) become rundowns of the resumes of the Stones’ powerful lawyers, retained as protection from drug busts.  Considering the book opens in an Arkansas bust and that his low point with Jagger is during the Toronto entanglement, it shows his lack of focus on the band’s music in those periods, and why the glimmer is rubbing off like an old iron on through the 90s and 00s.

Keith Richards and Wingless Angels

Keith with the Wingless Angels (Steer Town, Jamaica, 1998)

Until his estranged father Bert reenters the scene, the lawyers take on the mentor role held by Muddy and the first round of musicians/managers in the 60s. Richards speaks about these super attorneys in detail – but not the arenas, record stores, radio station, guitar shops or any of the magical detritus of music except very marginally. He’s detailed but relatively brief. You would think he could write a thousand page book just about guitar (I hope he does that next), but shout outs to lawyers seem important. If not for them, he might have written this book sooner!

His return to the roots during the Stones’ 80s freeze with Chuck Berry and others was a path of least resistance at a tough time. Kudos to Jane Rose for keeping him together and her dedication to a great artist. Mr. Richards showed a lot of vulnerability in the efficiently titled book, with stories about scoring and struggling with domesticity throughout.  The gestation period where Richards’ experiences become songwriting, recording and the public release of music is an interesting process that repeats throughout Life, in various luxurious/trashed locations, and usually with excellent results.

Selected quotes:

“Let’s make this a forget-it.”
“Anita, sexy fucking bitch.”
Says he always complained that John Lennon’s guitar strap was too short (“no wonder you don’t swing”).
“New Orleans is the most different city in America.”
“When dogs and I are alone, I talk endlessly. They’re great listeners. I would probably die for one.”

He credited his dad Bert with the line about scratching your ass vs. blowing it to smithereens to John Belushi, but has also said it about Kurt Cobain previously. His mom Doris is one of the stars of the story too. She mistook his guitar for the radio when he was a kid and that was it!

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