Monday, May 14, 2018

Life by Keith Richards

Long-winded and surprisingly tiresome
I’ve been a fan of the Rolling Stones all my life, but I don’t feel any more affinity toward Keith Richards than the other members of the band. I read Life, his 2010 autobiography, because I wanted to learn more about the history of the Stones, not because I’m all that interested in his rebel persona. I feared the book might be a self-indulgent exercise in egomania, but after finally reading it, my biggest surprise was how unexpectedly boring it turned out to be.

With the help of ghost writer James Fox, Life is written in a conversational style intended to give the reader the feeling of an intimate chat with Keith. To some extent this strategy works, but the text is so loaded with colorful slang, gratuitous profanity, home-spun aphorisms, and pointless tangential asides that it takes Richards five times longer to tell a story than it really should. Reading the book is as frustrating as trying to pry pertinent information from a rambling drunk. Time crawled so slowly that I found myself impatiently checking the index to find out how long it would be before Brian Jones dies and we move on to Mick Taylor. When is Ron Wood finally going to show up? Shouldn’t he have married Patti Hansen already?

Readers who play guitar will appreciate that Richards goes into a significant discussion of his musical technique. While I don’t have much knowledge in that area, I can tell that he writes about the craft of music-making more articulately than, say, Bob Dylan’s ramblings in Chronicles. The problem with Life, however, is that Richards doesn’t talk about music enough. The people who will really love this book are those who do drugs—hard drugs—because that’s mostly what he focuses on. He went to such-and-such a party on this-or-that island; these are the people who were there; these are the substances they consumed; this is the aftermath; this is how he cleaned himself up; only to go back to doing more drugs. His drug busts and other legal troubles are also minutely examined. Richards gives detailed biographies of myriad members of his entourage, while the Stones remain shadowy characters on the periphery. Somewhere around page 450 he finally goes into detail about what exactly his beef is with Mick Jagger, and you think now were finally getting somewhere. When he then goes into a track-by-track diary of the making of Bridges to Babylon, one of the Stones worst albums, one can’t help but wonder why he didn’t give the same exhaustive treatment to great albums like Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, or Exile on Main St.

Many Stones fans probably see Richards as a fun guy to party with, but would you really want to be friends with this guy? He comes across as one of those people who would never in a million years admit that he is ever wrong about anything. With all the glee of a teenaged reprobate he brags about pulling knives and guns on people. There’s never any moment of self-reflective realization that his lifestyle of substance abuse is toxic to himself or those around him, like you find in Eric Clapton’s autobiography. Sure, Keith talks about the misery of going cold turkey, but in the end you get the feeling that he thinks it’s all just great fun. The way he talks about his family life, one would think that growing up with heroin addict parents is the best character-building childhood a kid could have. This book didn’t make me like Keith any better as a person, but on that score, it was pretty much what I expected. I have to admit that I did learn a thing or two about the Stones here and there, but not nearly as much as I had hoped. Overall, Life is a necessary document if you want to get the story of the Stones straight from the horse’s mouth, but reading it should not have been such a tiresome ordeal.
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