Keith Richards' autobiography 'Life': The Shelf Life Book Club

keith-richards-lifeA couple of years back, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keith Richards not long after he had signed what was rumored to be a $7m deal to pen his memoirs. The Rolling Stones guitarist was in fine form as he recalled working on the film Sympathy for the Devil with Gallic auteur with Jean-Luc Godard in the mid-’60s (“I think he went mad. He’s a Frenchman. We can’t help them”), ruminated on the Hollywood career and musical talent of his friend Bruce Willis (“Terrible movies. But a great [harmonica] player”) and lambasted the then recently published memoirs of his fellow Stone Ron Wood (“Terrible! I don’t know what reduced him to that”). When talk turned to his own in-the-works autobiography, Richards explained that he would occasionally send notebooks to his co-writer, White Mischief author James Fox, and that Fox in return would “send me more stuff about my past than I care to know.”

While Fox may well have done much of the heavy lifting research-wise on Life, the book is as much a Keith Richards, ahem, “joint” as “(I Can’t Get No Satisfaction) Satisfaction” or “Jumping Jack Flash.” Of course, the guitarist had a creative co-conspirator on those projects as well, and much of the publicity which surrounded the publication of Life concentrated on his deriding of Mick Jagger. This is pretty much the least interesting aspect of the book, particularly as Richards has spent a goodly portion of the past three decades making mock of the Stones lead singer while talking to interviewees. (When I asked Keith if he had gone to Mick for any acting advice prior to his cameo in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the guitarist replied that Jagger was “the last person I’d ask in the world. Are you kidding me?”) In any case, Richards spends as much time praising Jagger as he does criticizing him. The guitarist reserves his real venom for late director Donald Cammell, who had once been involved with actress Anita Pallenberg, prior to Richards taking up with her in the ’60s. Cammell, who committed suicide in 1996, also co-directed the Jagger-starring 1968 gangster Performance during which the singer engaged in an affair with Pallenberg. “Cammell wanted to f—me up,” writes Richards. “Clearly he took a delight in the idea that he was screwing things up between us. Mick and Anita playing a couple… I met Cammell later in LA, and I said, you know, I can’t think of anybody, Donald, that’s ever got any joy out of yourself. There’s nowhere else for you to go, there’s nobody. The best thing you can do is take the gentleman’s way out. And this was at least two or three years before he finally topped himself.”

Jagger and Cammell are not the only folk to provoke the Richardsian rage. When Keith comes to consider the mysterious death-by-drowning of Stones founder Brian Jones, he notes that Jones was so “obnoxious” he wouldn’t be surprised if foul play was involved. But despite all this, Life is really driven by not by Richards’ hates but by his loves. And what an engagingly idiosyncratic, and often unexpected, collection they turn out to be. Yes, Keith has a soft spot for drugs — though he claims that his heroin addict days are long behind him and that he had to give up cocaine following his 2006 brain surgery.  However, he is also fanatically fond of dogs (“I would probably die for one”), books about British naval history (“The Nelson era and World War II  are near the top of my list”) and the traditional British dish of bangers and mash, the guitarist’s recipe for which is included. (The secret, apparently is to start cooking the sausages in a cold pan: “No preheating. Preheating agitates them, that’s why they’re called bangers.”) He also writes with huge passion about music and devotes several pages to his love for open guitar tunings, a subject that he manages to make much more interesting than you might imagine. On a more personal level — although one suspects matters don’t get much personal to Keith than the subject of music — he reflects heartbreakingly on the many treasured people he has lost along the way, from his young son Tara to country-rock legend Gram Parsons.

If the result is short on gossip column-friendly revelations, it is engagingly long on a sense of joie de vivre, a lust for life that must partly derive from the fact that Richards has dodged so many bullets, both metaphorical and, as he recalls in Life, literal.

So much for my opinion. What did you think of Life?

Comments (12 total) Add your comment
  • legallyblonde

    I am almost finished with the book–my husband (the world’s biggest Stones fan) is driving me nuts so he can read it.
    Anyway, I love this book. What a storyteller…..I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in years….seriously.
    Don’t go Kindle on this one–the photos are great.

  • jj

    The stories about the music are fascinating. How each song evolved…..how Keith gradually discovered everything a guitar can do. How he made some of the unique sounds. So many of the hits were “acoustic”, not electric! There’s a story behind Gimme Shelter, Jumping Jack Flash, etc.
    He does give so much credit to Mick. So interesting to find out how the two of them worked each song they wrote, and what was going on in the world when each song was created. Great stories that you can’t put away until the book is done.

  • alisson

    What are you talking about? Satisfaction” or “Jumping Jack Flash or any other Stones song it’s 50% Jagger. A guitar riff doesn’t make the song, the vocal melody, delivery, the attitude and of course the lyric are not less important. To compare Mick Jagger to ghost writer – you probably overreaded Keith Richards’s book.

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  • Pat

    @ Alisson –overreaded? lol

    and what is wrong with suggesting that Mick Jagger was a “creative co-conspirator”?

  • frank wright

    This really needed an editor . He glosses over a lot , but does remember to kick Brian Jones ‘s corpse. .

  • Maddy

    I’m LOVING it!I’ve been a Stones fan since 1964. Keith amazes me–he’s so very smart, funny and a good person.

  • Dana

    I thought the book was great. Yes, he tends to jump quickly from one topic to a totally different one but that wasn’t a big deal. I thought the personal stories from his son were especially insightful. I also loved the stories about how the songs were written. The book did make me wonder: When will Charlie Watts write his autobiography? That’s a story I want to read!

  • Maritza

    Great reivew, Paul. I’ll put it on my audiobook list. Currently listening to the unabridged version of “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War,” by Karl Marlantes, with narration by Bronson Pinchot.

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