Keith Richards's autobiography, Life, is quite a ride. I'm not, honestly, that familiar with the work of the Rolling Stones, nor with the rock 'n' roll scene in general. I enjoy hearing the band occasionally, when there's one of their more familiar tunes playing on the radio. But I am not a regular nor a particularly enthusiastic listener, and I would likely not even have picked up this book had it not been so widely praised.
I can see why. Despite its length, it does speed along through the years at a nifty pace, in a colorful, effortless romp of language that combines the musician's idiom with a kind of cocky, irreverential Brit-talk that you hear in a Monty Python episode. The narrative, I'm sure, is told orally by Richards and transcribed (by co-writer James Fox) with all its rough edges, non sequiturs and profanities intact -- all of which makes for refreshingly salt prose. It's fun to read.
I have been aware, of course, of the bad boy reputation of the Rolling Stones. Who hasn't, or those of us who have been and awake these past forty years and more? If it's hard not to like "Keef," it's also hard to know why. He does many dreadful, even despicable things. What to make, for example, of a man who is always on edge, ready for a fight -- whether verbal or physical -- and habitually armed with a knife or a gun? A man who consumes drugs with the abandon of a child let loose in a candy shop? Who never met a drug -- including heroin -- he didn't like? A man who takes his seven-year-old son on the road with him on a rock 'n' roll tour and uses the kid as a buffer between himself and the cops? Who delights in tempering a genuine tenderness and reticence with the women who love him with a loud and unabashed misogynism? Richards confronts us unapologetically with all the seamier aspects of his life, to the point where the reader -- I refer here to myself -- finds himself asking: Why am I reading this?
I thought about that. And I found several good answers to explain why I couldn't tear myself away.
The first is the kind of dreadful fascination that makes you want to watch the proverbial train wreck, whether in reality, or vicariously on a movie or a television screen. It's just so awful, you have to know how this disaster will turn out. You know already that our hero is going to survive, but how? What will it take to save him from himself?
Next is the complex character of this rock 'n' roller. It may seem strange to say this, but it strikes me that there is a child-like innocence to him, an (often naughty) boyish curiosity that is willing to climb any tree, take any risk, for the sheer joy of finding out what it is all about. It's the quality that makes women want to mother him.
He has other qualities, too, that endear him: his fierce dedication to his music is the most obvious. We read of his insatiable quest for mastery of the full potential of his instrument and a huge resource of knowledge about musical genres and styles and those who practice them, an adulation for the work of great pioneers. We watch his process as he composes songs, with and without collaboration. It's an unending and delicious love affair with the practice of his art.
We also come to like Richards for his genuine acts of kindness, a surprising sensitivity and tenderness, an unswerving loyalty, combined with an honesty that allows him to lay into lifelong buddies (like Mick Jagger) without, for the most part, seeming nasty. There's also a modesty about him that sees himself always as a part of something bigger than Keith Richards, be it a band (he's a great, if somewhat biased historian of the Rolling Stones) or family. It's a pleasure to get know his English mum and dad, his aunties and mates at the local pub.
There's another reason I kept reading, this one deeper and more personal: I was learning a lot about myself. Because Richards plunges without a moment's hesitation into the very place where I have always feared to tread -- the place of darkness, chaos, the unknown. There is a great tradition of artists of his kind, from Francois Villon in medieval France to Arthur Rimbaud and, more recently, William Burroughs (who gets a frequent mention in Life.) These are people who are willing to risk everything, including their lives, to discover something new. Against such artists -- often geniuses -- I measure my own creative timidity and, yes, envy their ability to shed the constraints of the socially acceptable and the controls that can provide useful formal boundaries, but also limit vision. Richards achieved notoriety, true, but also greatness, by embracing without restraint the demons of his inner nature.
These days, a man approaching a respectable age, he has been clean and (relatively) sober many years. He has been banging his head about severely -- requiring, most recently, serious brain surgery. He is a grandfather, hanging out in his Connecticut retreat and relishing visits from his children and grandchildren. His greatest joy in life seems to be his extensive library -- the site of one of his falls. The last picture in the album included in Life shows him lounging in this den, surrounded by heavily laden with books and record albums. A chalkboard reads, in child-like capitals, KEITH RICHARDS, MAIN OFFENDER.
Ah, well. This was, I promise you, a good read.