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Life Paperback – May 3, 2011
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"What kind of celebrity autobiography is his Life? A remarkable one."―Jim Fusilli, The Wall Street Journal
About the Author
James Fox was born in Washington, D.C., in 1945 and has known Keith Richards since the early 1970's when he was a journalist for the Sunday Times in London. His books include the international bestseller White Mischief. He lives in London with his wife and sons.
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What consumed most of Keith Richards’ life was drugs. Oh Lord, do we read about drugs. It’s truly a miracle this man is still alive. Although he claims he’s been clean since the 80s, there’s plenty of dirt and disturbance from the Keith Richards’ annals to fill an encyclopedia set. A few of the stories are a bit interesting, but they get old in a hurry. When he talks for more than two pages about one of his drug dealer’s German upbringing but then talks less than a half of a page on the making of an album such as “Sticky Fingers”, you may see where some, like myself, come away disappointed. On a related note, perhaps he was too stoned to remember the making of many of the classic albums?
For those who are somewhat familiar with the individual, you know that his whole existence of late seems to be tongue in cheek. Every interview you see with him has him mumbling and giggling throughout. He’s comprehensible during his rants, and can be somewhat entertaining, and that’s the general atmosphere throughout this book. You definitely feel like ‘Keef’ is telling you his life story. For that, you need to give him credit. I’ve always been a believer, though, that when you’re a celebrity writing an autobiography (who else would write an autobiography??), you should write mainly on the comings and goings of yourself in the spotlight, since this is what your fans are the most familiar. A little bit of your upbringing and influence is o.k., but stick to the interesting stuff please.
It also doesn’t help that he comes across as an unrepentant former junkie. If you’re a parent and you want to keep your children away from drugs, you should not use this man as an example. It’s a bit bothersome, for example, when Keith recalls a car crash where he was stoned and fell asleep at the wheel. Since none of the seven people in the car (fortunately) are killed, he looks back at the episode and slags the whole thing off with the attitude of “Hey – I’m a good driver. I just made a mistake. So get off my case.” You can’t help but feel as though one minor twist somewhere around, say, 1971 could easily have killed the man, and history would remember him very differently (see ‘Brian Jones’).
Still, I’m glad I read the book, and he does a very good job accomplishing what he set out to do. There were parts when I would get to his umpteenth drug binge where I would just scan the pages, but there really is enough here to keep you interested. Just be warned – there’s more in this book on his recipe for a Shepherd's Pie than there is about his second solo album (Nothing at all. Why??) So as long as you’re cool with expectations not being too high, you’re probably o.k. to pick this one up.
As one half of the driving force behind the Rolling Stones -- the second most celebrated band in Rock and Roll history, clocking in behind only the Beatles -- Keef is true Rock and roll Royalty. And the view behind the veil into the man's astonishing life and times is incredibly fascinating.
Also, unlike many rock autobiographies, which have clearly been polished by the subject's co-author to generic shine, this book is positively drenched in Keef's voice.
But that said, it's faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar too long!
Much of the material covering his early days could have been pared down to a few key moments that foreshadowed his eventual career in music. Additionally, the details about him traipsing around the world and what his life melded into in later years could also have left out.
With so much blather to content with, it took me over two years to finish the book because I absolutely had to take breaks along the way.
But if you're a fan of the Stones or Rock in general, it's definitely a worthwhile read.
Just be prepared to skim, because there's plenty of fat that could have (and should have IMHO) been excised in the editing process.
I have always loved the Rolling Stones and I could not put this book down. As for Keith, a little understanding those who put up with his antics would not go astray.
Top international reviews
The whole thing is a wonderful read: entertaining, funny, poignant and honest. A fantastic memoir!
While reading the book I started making a list of other things to research, such as musicians I'd never heard of, books I'd never read and people I'd never heard of. I found myself stopping every now and again to research something I'd never heard of, and I really enjoyed it.
This book isn't just for Stones/Keith Richards fans - it's a musical education.
Some reviewers on this site are disgruntled because Keith doesn’t ooze love for his band members: Bill Wyman and Ronnie Wood barely get a mention; and a measure of disdain is reserved for Brian Jones, although his relationship with Mick Jagger is put under closer scrutiny, leaving Charlie Watts the recipient of his fulsome praise. There’s nothing intrinsically “wrong” with this: how many of us, writing these reviews, play in a rock band or can begin to understand the dynamics of a rock band that had been together, at the time the book was published, for 40-odd years?
Putting aside the prodigious amounts of drugs that he’s ingested, Keith has some other habits that are tediously rock ‘n’ roll. He’s almost always late, and he has this childish “thing” about shepherd’s pie. If one is delivered to his dressing room, heaven help the person who fancies a piece and break the crust. If this happens, the show’s put on hold until another shepherd’s pie is made and delivered. Of course, Keith doesn’t eat any of it: he just wants to demonstrate who’s boss, who gets to cut the crust.
As Keith himself says, why is such a fuss made about the Stones still gigging at their age (now in their 70s) when most of the well-known black musicians, e.g. Muddy Waters and B. B. King did it and no-one said boo?
The last five lines of the book (when he talks about his mother, Doris, giving him his first review) bring the story of Keith’s hectic, extraordinary life to a delightful end.
Rock on, Keith!
The book is packed with references to his many acquaintances - most of whom not many people will ever have heard of. This was a turn off for me, as were some of his extraordinary experiences, which I suspect came with a large pinch of salt!
From the gutter to the world stage bouncing back to the gutter a few times. He talks about his influences, shares some of his guitar techniques and tricks, in band fighting.
This is a GREAT book. Of the kind that you look forward to getting everything else out of the way, so that you can IMMERSE yourself properly in it.
Let me state upfront that I am no Stones fan. It's my mom's generation and not a whole lot to do with me, other than the fact that they probably influenced a large chunk of the bands in my CD collection.
What gripped me about this book was simply THE ADVENTURE. The adventure in real terms of what it's like to be a millionaire from your early twenties, but also, more importantly, the adventure INTO MUSIC.
Keef is a music nut. He delves, he researches, he notes. He knows what he is talking about, and to hear him speak about his passion is fantastic. The way he describes his wonderment at creating sounds via unorthodox guitar tunings and experimentation, the manner in which he will talk knowledgeably about obscure blues musicians...it makes you simultaneously want to retune your guitar, as well as go looking for CDs of the ancient black musos that drag themselves round the hinterlands of the US.
I'm sure many people will pick up this book, because they think they're going to get a Motley Crue 'DIRT'-style romp. In fact, this has more depth. Yes, the Crue's tome was a masterpiece of nihilism and grotesquery, but this is way more spiritual. It's also a superb social document of the post-war music culture of the UK.
Keith's joie de vivre is an excellent tonic in these current times, and as a result, LIFE is ultimately more rewarding than many rock biogs.
From the usual anarchic rock n roll shenanigans, to the sheer excitement of the creative process, the reader is transported into the presence of somebody enthusiastic and insightful about what he does. Beautiful.
In all of rock 'n' roll writing there are some towering peaks that stand out from a morass of mediocrity: the Gillmans' Alias David Bowie; Peter Guralnick's two volume life of Elvis Presley, Greil Marcus' Mystery Train; pretty much anything by Lester Bangs: all, note, written by professional journalists and, more or less, all from the outside. I can't think of a notable rock autobiography: let's face it, most rock musicians don't have the wit, let alone the resolution, to do it, and those that do (the Dylans, Pages, Waits of the world) have not had the inclination. I suppose they figure, not unreasonably, that what they have to say they've already said.
As a result, even those of the greatest rock biographies have tended to be remote affairs, presenting an external face of their subject, already recognisable to the listening public, and rendering through the prism of a fellow listener. (Bangs perhaps is the exception). But a listener cares more about how the end product sounds than the mechanical process by which it is arrived at: For those of us who've toiled over the years as players and wanted the inside perspective, there's been little to go on: a guitarist's tuning and chord voicings; the licks; the visceral details of how songs were ever devised in the first place are hard to describe remotely. The soul of pop perfection is elusive as a rainbow; hard for an untouched mortal to describe let alone analyse: its genius is its simplicity: under heavyweight intellectual scrutiny the lightness of perfection burns off into space. Messrs Jagger and Richards have few living equals as composers and performers of the perfect rock song.
And what was it like to *be* hooked on smack: to what lengths did you go? What was cold turkey like from the inside?
Traditional reportage stays a respectful distance from these questions. But these things are fascinating: they're the DNA of this great cultural artefact, and many (perhaps even most) of the listeners will, at one time or other, have had a go, and got nowhere.
For those people - people like me: enthusiastic bedroom rockers of decades' standing - this book is like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Keith - a prophet of the new religion - tells it all. And, by gum, it opens your eyes to the brilliance of the Rolling Stones.
Sure: excruciating details about Chuck Berry's riffs (and the depravity of mainline heroin addiction) aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if you've shelled out for Keith Richards' biography in the first place, odds are they will be. But the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards songwriting technique: that they consciously sounded out the right vowels and consonants before fitting words to them - that's fascinating: it explains so well the quality of their material.
Now if this were merely a dry and technical anorak's guide to playing rock 'n' roll, that would be enough for me. But it isn't: it's witty, enlightening, and most of all thoroughly Keef: credit to Richards' co-writer who has managed to resist any tinkering with Richards' unique and affable voice: you sense his role was more of a collater, a prompt and a content organiser: if the individual sentences didn't fall directly from Richards' lips then, in the vernacular, I'm a banana.
The interesting content of a life such as Richards' is inevitably going to tail off as his modus operandi stabilised: the latter half or a rock star's life is simply never going to be as epochal as the first: and so it proves here; by the time the heroin is finally kicked and the only frisson is regular handbags with Mick (Richards is unfailingly amusing on his account of "Brenda"), Keith Richards more or less settles down. But it is still a warm story of a man in his dotage, with his family about, and his own recipe for Bangers and Mash thrown in for good measure (thanks Keith!)
Authentic, funny, enlightening, entertaining, deadpan. Put this one in the same league as Lester Bangs. High praise.
* Not being greedy
KR points out that the danger in taking drugs is not so much in the drug itself as in the taker's inability to restrict himself to small doses.
* Nothing comes out of itself
“We realized that the guys we were playing, like Muddy Waters, had also grown up with Robert Johnson and had translated it into a band format. In other words, it was a progression.... What I found out about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. As great as it is, this is not one stroke of genius. This cat was listening to somebody and it's his variation on the theme. And so you suddenly realize that everybody's connected here.”
What KR writes thus itself sounds like a variation on the Buddha's theme of dependent arising (Sanskrit: pratītya-samutpāda), particularly as explained by Nāgārjuna.
* Being nothing but a conduit
Less space than you would have thought is given over to hedonistic pursuit of pleasure. KR devotes much more space to describing his slavish pursuit of the song that writes itself, and of music that makes itself, so that the writer or player is nothing but a conduit.
* Heaven and hell are the same place
Hell is the honeymoon hotel where romantic dreams are dashed. Heaven is the field of poppies after the shelling has stopped. KR in his own words puts it like this:
“I take the view that God, in his infinite wisdom, didn't bother to spring for two joints—heaven and hell. They're the same place, but heaven is when you get everything you want and you meet Mummy and Daddy and your best friends... Hell is the same place—no fire and brimstone—but they just all pass by and don't see you.”
Surprises galore await in Keith Richards' autobiography `Life' in which the Rolling Stones' riff machine gives us the inside (ahem) dope on one of the most remarkable sagas in rocklore. Most of the legendary plot points are all present and correct - the Redlands drugs bust, Mars Bar mythology, hurricane Palenberg, the death of Brian Jones, the horror of Altamont and tax exile on mainstreet - or the Villefranche-sur-mer to be precise.
Perhaps, inevitably, he adds little to what we (think we) know about those land mark events as so much had been said about them already. (And continues to be said - Pop will eat itself right?)
The real jewel in the crown is his account of how he and thousands of other young British kids discovered and devoured rhythm & blues, resulting in a street level revolution which begat the `British blues boom'.
The result, according to the history books, is that the British bands that emerged from this phenomenon turned white America on to black music, who had hitherto been virtually oblivious to it due to segregation. But before we get too smug, his account of how blues purists were horrified to find that visiting black American artists had `gone electric' pretty much sums up the inverse racism of those supposedly against it. Artists such as Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker were sophisticated, street-wise urbanites. When they appeared on our stages not in dungarees, chewing straw and carrying battered old acoustics mumbling "Yes'm boss", but in sharp suits and playing Fenders and Gibsons, it caused all manner of hostility.
It's also interesting to note that he, like so many of his counterculture contemporaries, all embraced the dream of cosy surburbia. Richards, like Lennon, Clapton, Page et al all wound up married with children and living in the stockbroker belt: the ideal of the previous generation to which they were all supposedly in rebellion against.
With a reputation that can do nothing but precede him `Keef' can afford to be blasé about his many brushes with death when so many in his orbit have gone to their great reward. He acknowledges that his persona is largely a fantasy of the public and he's always been up for giving them what they want - and a fine job he's done of it too. Many have tried and failed to achieve this death defying high wire act, which makes the kernel of his book a users guide to surviving stardom; but as the man says, `Don't try this at home.'
I was a teenager in the 60's, so grew up with the Stones, and The Beatles, although at school we were expected to show allegiance to one or the other - heaven forbid you could enjoy both! My parents (and I suspect thousands, if not millions of the then "older generation") labelled rock stars as "ignorant, uneducated yobs" unable to string an intelligible sentence together. Keith Richards proves them all wrong. He writes with a warmth and eloquence, which is at times hilarious and surprisingly moving. The style of writing gave me the feeling he was sitting right there, in my comfy armchair, just chatting away - wonderfully warm and witty. The opening chapter relating a drive across Arkansas in a car filled with drugs, and the subsequent court appearance, sets the tone for the book. He covers everything from his addictions, the often uneasy relationship with Brian Jones, whose death is mentioned very briefly, to his stormy friendship with Jagger. He is generous in his praise and admiration of other musicians, but comes across as quite a modest man where his own talents are concerned. Even though he does recognise the fact that he has written some of the greatest rock n' roll riffs of all time, he says he is still learning his craft. It's remarkable that, having ingested the vast amount of booze and drugs, he is still with us and functioning at full tilt - long may it continue.
"Life" is a rambunctious ride through the life of a fascinating man; I loved the book, and have a greater liking and respect for the seemingly indestructible Keith Richards since reading it.