Not mad, not bad and only slightly dangerous to know

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Life by Keith Richards. A book review.

Whether you’re a Rolling Stones fan or just interested in celebrity memoirs, Keith Richards’ Life delivers. But Richards’ loyalty and humility strike a deeper chord than the expected tale of rock ‘n roll bacchanalia. That he deeply loves music, especially the blues, (his descriptions of his craft and the creation of the Stones’ body of work are among the most interesting reading in the book) doesn’t hurt, either.  And he’s a good story teller. Life is rich with recollections of how Richards’ singular code of honor armed him for some memorable battles. This code reverberates throughout his narrative, and is perhaps why his book ends, and remains, on a sustained note.

Some reviewers accuse Richards of selfishness. I would argue that he’s more a hard-nosed, hard-driven realist. Admirably, he brings other voices in to tell pieces of his story, and they’re not all flattering. Richards is introspective, a quality truly selfish people rarely possess.  Perhaps only those closest to him could attest to his true nature, but Life’s tone seems pretty unretouched about who he is and how he came to be that way.

Richards grew up an only child in working-class post-WWII England. His mother’s response to whining was basically “That’s life.”  His father Bert was a battle-scarred veteran who was intent on work, and after work, tennis. He gave his son no quarter but it’s clear Richards respected him. Although they were estranged for many years following his parents’ divorce, Richards reached out to his father, then took him under his wing until Bert’s death. Richards’ mother Doris (who was a little bit of a rolling stone herself), and her family—especially her father Gus–influenced him musically. He was always in touch with his mother and stayed by her bedside when she was dying. A hallmark of the book is that Richards tries to tend to his close relationships. Music may be his life force but he often notes that people, and loyalty to those people, keep him grounded.

One of the first insights into Richards’ personal code comes to light when he explains why he joined the Boy Scouts. He says, “I wanted to know how to survive, and I’d read all of Baden-Powell’s [Robert Baden-Powell, the Scout Movement’s founder] books…I wanted to know how to find out where I am; I wanted to know how to cook something underground. For some reason I needed survival skills and I thought it was important to learn.” Throughout the book he gives examples of his competence in skills clearly influenced by Scouting, from knot-tying to marksmanship–though often admittedly in sketchy circumstances.

He applied himself to Boy Scouts with the same single-mindedness he learned Chuck Berry’s riffs. He accumulated badges. He was promoted to patrol leader quickly and enjoyed working with other Scouts. These experiences help illustrate what drew, and bound, Richards to the Rolling Stones: Camaraderie in the field and keeping a group of men cohesive under fire (even, one might add, when that fire was initiated by Richards himself).

Somewhat paradoxically, Richards is also woman’s man, and not the cynical belt-notcher you might expect from a rock legend. He grew up loving and being loved by his mother’s six sisters. He wrote affectionate, funny letters to them after he was on his own. He admires courage and toughness in women as well as in men. You either get on with him or you don’t. But if you show integrity, kindness, guts or any combination of the three, he’s a loyal friend. One example of his loyalty is the standing of his long-time manager Jane Rose. She stuck by him during his conclusive battle to kick his years-long heroin habit. Richards never forgot. When Jagger later fired Rose, Richards immediately rehired her. He admires her tenacity, puts her annoying qualities in perspective and brooks no disloyalty to her.

This firing/hiring episode sheds light on the Richards/Jagger relationship. Journalist Bill Wyman (not the Stone’s bassist of the same name) penned an ersatz response from Mick Jagger to Life. Wyman’s rejoinder seems mean-spirited. Maybe he feels the same way about Richards’ jabs at Jagger.  Or perhaps Richards’ matter-of-factness doesn’t meet Wyman’s expectations of self-recrimination. I noted that Richards actually delivers as many compliments to Jagger as he does knocks. He doesn’t avow his punches as gospel–they’re proffered as his own insight into a long and complicated relationship between two complex alpha males. What keeps Richards intellectually honest throughout the book is that he pulls few punches on himself.

But this Bad Boy, it seems to me, is not without calculation. Intentionally or not—and he’s too intelligent for unintentional–he’s done a fine job of burnishing the Stones’ legacy. Often Richards’ jabs seem more tongue-in-cheek than serious. And that he could be quite the pill needs no embellishment. However, for all he’s been through he’s pretty consistent about owning up to his mistakes and trying to forgive old grievances. A good example is the hand-written note (reproduced in the book) he faxed to Chuck Berry after their rocky relationship during Richards’ stint as musical director on a film about Berry.

Don’t read Life if politically incorrect and foul language offend you. It’s rough. It’s also articulate, direct and witty. The book’s insight into one man’s code throughout the pitched battle of his life is perhaps just a more titanic version of Everyman’s struggle with his own demons. Some reviewers comment that Richards escaped scot–free from a life of misadventure. Life is certainly an object lesson in the destructive rot of decadence, which many of his contemporaries didn’t survive. But Richards tries to do better and he tries to be fair, which is ultimately all anyone can do. If you’re interested in the musical underpinnings of the Rolling Stones, one guitarist’s life’s work in creating his brand of rock n’ roll, the insights of someone who achieved fame, or even just a picaresque tale, you’ll love Life.

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a book review by Cary O’Keeffe

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