What Can a Poor Boy Do Except to Sing For a Rock and Roll Band...

What Can a Poor Boy Do Except to Sing For a Rock and Roll Band...
Reviewer: Drew A
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576 pages
May 03, 2011
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The long-awaited autobiography of the guitarist, songwriter, singer, and founding member of the Rolling Stones. Ladies and gentlemen: Keith Richards.

 From the moment it was released in 2010, Keith Richards' memoir Life has been hailed as one of the greatest rock musician autobiographies ever published. I first read the book shortly after it came out and wholeheartedly agreed with the popular appraisal, but I ended up reading it pretty quickly and so there were huge chunks of it that, looking back, I didn't think I fully appreciated. Part of what made the book so great was Keith's down-to-earth nature and the sheer joy and love of life and music he's so well known to have, both of which leaped off the pages. As one of my favorite guitarists in one of my favorite bands, it seemed like the type of book I would read more than once, so when I decided to finally review it for this site, a thorough re-reading of it definitely seemed to be in order (not to mention long overdue).

In Life, Keith, with the help of his longtime friend and ghost writer James Fox, takes us through the story of exactly that: his entire life, from the very beginning all the way to the present. Starting with his birth and post-War upbringing as an only child in the London suburb of Dartford, it's clear that he had a hell of a lot of affection for his parents Bert and Doris. He also has fond memories of his numerous aunts as well as perhaps the most significant member of his family, both personally and musically: his grandfather Gus. It was Gus who ignited Keith's interest in music and nurtured it through by playing piano for the young boy and his eventual encouragement of Keith to take up guitar. In particular, the song "Malaguena" was a favorite of Gus' and would hold significance for Keith throughout his life after he learned how to play it...the song's significance literally runs through the book right to the very end. Taking us through the various adventures of his childhood, we see Mick Jagger briefly come into Keith's life as a classmate in primary school before they part ways. Jagger was from a more affluent family and had class climbing aspirations while Keith came from a more working-class background and was always down to earth. In fact, this is something Keith points out early on in the book and returns to several times throughout the book: Keith enjoyed the spoils of the Stones' success but remained, at heart, a normal guy without airs, while Mick aspired to climb the social ladder and became the rock and roll embodiment of the culture they initially rebelled against. Eventually Keith (now a student at art college) and Mick (a student at London School of Economics) encountered each other again in their teens while waiting for a train. Mick had an armful of records that caught Keith's eye and so began their mutual love affair with the blues, rock n' roll, and R&B music coming out of America in the 1950s and early 1960s. Finding out that Mick sang and played with a ragtag band called Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys, Keith talked his way into the group and they began frequenting the numerous club nights on the nascent London blues and R&B scene. Eventually crossing paths with Ian Stewart and Brian Jones, they formed the nucleus of the band that became the Rollin' Stones. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, the latter of whom they had to court for a while before he accepted their offer, completed the classic line up. (It should be mentioned here that Keith persists in insisting that Kinks drummer Mick Avory was their drummer for their first ever gig, while Avory himself and all others involved insist he only played one rehearsal with them and never did a gig...the truth is most likely lost in the mists of time).

Keith does a wonderful job of describing the Stones' career from their humble, hardscrabble beginnings (including the pigsty flat he shared with Brian and later on, Mick, at Edith Grove) to meeting the Beatles and becoming part of the burgeoning London rock scene. The huge revelation was when Lennon and McCartney gave them a song, "I Wanna Be Your Man," which became the Stones' breakthrough single and inspired Mick and Keith (via manager Andrew Oldham) to begin writing their own songs. As Keith tells it, he's not so much the creator as he is the vessel for the music to come out of the ether. It's clear throughout the entire book that he absolutely loves music, all music...country, jazz, classical, rock, blues, folk, it's all part of the magic of sound and something that is as essential to his life (and mine, too, honestly) as water, air, and food.  For him, the greatest joys in life are writing songs, recording music, and playing onstage. However, he's very open and honest about all aspects of his life as he tells his story through the tumultuous 1960s, detailing the problems the band had with Brian Jones which in particular are interesting to read again since I've just recently read a thoroughly researched account of this period from someone on Brian's side. He discusses how his long-term relationship with Brian's ex-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg began and how Brian ended up becoming so much dead weight that he was booted from the band, eventually dying in July 1969. The Mick Taylor years of 1969-1974, which produced the band's best run of albums, are mentioned as such by Keith although it's interesting to hear him describe how Taylor never fit in as a personality with the band. Despite all of this, his sudden departure from the band in 1974 on the eve of new recording sessions and an upcoming tour left the Stones in the lurch. Eventually they recruited Ronnie Wood in 1975 and embarked upon what is, for me, the least interesting and most unfulfilling era of their career, at least musically. However, Keith's life was no less interesting from 1975 onward...if anything, as he sank further down into heroin addiction and an increasingly chaotic relationship with Anita that now involved their two small children, it gets more fascinating. Making no bones of his heroin addition and how awful it was from his perspective, it's gratifying to read how Keith finally broke up with both Anita and "the junk," as he called it, in order to save himself. It's equally funny to read of how frustrated he gets at people who still think he's a wild-man junkie even though he's been clean and sober for over thirty years!

Bringing us up to the present day, including such high-profile incidents such as his falling off a tree limb in 2006 which required serious brain surgery to save his life, getting his "blood changed" in Switzerland, the "snorting" of his father's ashes (read the book for the true stories), and others, Keith never fails to make you smile and laugh out loud as you read passage after passage. It's nice to see that he's found love and contentment in his personal life, being married to his soul mate Patti Hansen since 1983 and adding two more daughters to his brood, but Keith never manages to sound content to drift into old age. Indeed, he states many times that music is what he does and who he is and that the only way he'll ever stop is "when I croak." He puts to bed many of the myths that have sprung up over the years about him while also revealing several new things that none but the most hardcore fans would ever have suspected, if even known. Years spent in a nomadic existence as a tax exile from the UK, living in Jamaica and forming a ragtag band (Wingless Angels) that he's recorded albums with, his various side- and tribute- projects, the various animals he's rescued and adopted, his love of bangers & mash and shepherd's pie (complete with recipes!)...nothing is off limits. Of everything, though, the most fascinating thread running throughout the entire book is his lifelong friendship with Mick. In fact, as Keith describes it, they're no longer friends; rather, they're brothers and despite their ups and downs, they'll always be there for each other. He laments the fact that he doesn't really know Mick anymore and hasn't since the mid-1970s and that they have two entirely different approaches to life, fame, and music. Clearly there's still something there as they continue to work with each other into their sixth decade together. (And for the record, the famous line about Mick's "tiny todger" that caused such an uproar when this book first came out...read it in its proper context and it's little more than just the way all guys rib each other, although it's no less hilarious!). Yes, he takes several swipes at Mick, Bill Wyman, and Mick Taylor, but it's clear that he still has a lot of affection for them all (well, maybe not so much for Bill...).

I'm really glad I read Life again because it's only reaffirmed my opinion that Keith is one of the funniest, earthiest, coolest, and most talented musicians of our era who also happens to embody what being a "rock star" is all about. Reading this book is like sitting in the darkened corner of a pub with Keith and a couple of pints as he chain smokes cigarettes and tells you story after story. It may sound strange but after reading this book, you almost feel like you know Keef and that he's your pal. It's the mixture of honesty, candor, perspective, and humor that makes Life such an engaging read and one of the rare memoirs that's worth multiple revisits. It's certainly essential for any true Rolling Stones fan (although I'd have a hard time believing all Stones fans haven't already read this), any fan of 1960s rock, or really, any music fan in general. Just be prepared to have a hard time putting it down and to laugh out lout...a LOT.

(for more great content please visit my site, The Rock and Roll Chemist, at www.rnrchemist.blogspot.com and follow me on Twitter @rocknrollchem)