The following is an article from the November 11, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. This issue is available now on newstands, as well online in Rolling Stone’s digital archive. Click here to subscribe.
In 1994, when I was 26 years old, I was sent, by this magazine, on the road with the Rolling Stones. The band was promoting Voodoo Lounge, the second album it had released since “the break,” the unofficial split that came in 1987, when Mick Jagger announced his decision to skip a Stones tour and instead go on tour to support his solo album. I spent the first weeks of that assignment in Toronto, where the band was piecing together a set list, picking songs. There were long nights, nasty asides, great music and, now and then, moments of transcendence.
Over time, I began to catch glimpses of the constant tension between Jagger and Keith Richards. Before a show in South Carolina, I watched Richards, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, smirk as Jagger went through vocal scales in a nearby trailer. “What can he do there that we can’t do here?” asked Richards, dropping to do five quick one-arm push-ups, the tip of his cigarette burning a kind of signature into the carpet.
But it wasn’t until after my story, when I got an angry phone call from Jagger’s assistant, that I came to really understand the steel behind the Stones. “You’ve misnamed this article, haven’t you?” he snapped at me. “You have called it ‘On the road with the Rolling Stones,’ but that’s not right. You should have called it ‘I love Keith Richards and want to have his baby.’”
There it was, laid out for me, the essence of the Stones. It’s not just the music, Chicago blues run through the blender, that ignites the band. It’s the play of styles, the push and pull of magnetic forces, the frontman grooving before the riff machine. That’s why there will always be more demand for Mick and Keith together than there will ever be for Mick or Keith apart.
And yet, never once, in the entire course of that summer, did I see the men stand together, talk or laugh together. Onstage, in arenas where fans had come to see the spectacle of a friendship as much as they’d come to hear the music, they were in separate orbits. Richards interacted with the band, shouted to the bass player or drummer, while Jagger danced in the ether, in a system of his own.
When I questioned Jagger about the rift, he smiled and changed the subject. I asked Richards the same questions: What happened? How can you still work together? He laughed in that deep way of pirates and lifelong smokers. “When you break a bone,” he told me, “you take time, let it heal, then be careful never to break that same bone in the same place again.”
With his new book, Life by Keith Richards (with James Fox), the guitarist has broken that bone again, that one and many others. He has opened the old wounds, relived the ancient rivalries, binges, busts, cold turkeys, near-deaths and actual deaths. The book is a chronicle of an era, rock & roll in its golden age, little clubs and struggling bands, studio musicians and recording sessions. It’s a drug memoir, too, among the best ever written, but mostly it’s the story of a friendship, in its first flush, and in its death throes. “I used to love to hang with Mick,” Richards writes, “but I haven’t gone to his dressing room in, I don’t think, 20 years. Sometimes I miss my friend. Where the hell did he go?”
The book starts in Dartford, England, a small, glum town outside London, which Richards makes sound almost Dickensian. “Everyone in Dartford was a thief,” he writes. “It runs in the blood. The old rhyme commemorates the unchanging character of the place: ‘Sutton for mutton, Kirkby for beef, South Darne for gingerbread, Dartford for a thief.'”
This is where Keith picks up his first guitar (“a sweet, lovely, little lady”), and hears “Heartbreak Hotel” on the radio for the first time. (“When I woke up the next day, I was a different guy.”) Most important, Dartford is where Keith meets Mick, first as boys then again when Keith is at art school, being trained for a career as an ad man, and Mick is commuting to the London School of Economics. This meeting, on a train platform, is one of the mythic encounters of the pop age. Trotsky meets Lenin; Bill Gates meets Paul Allen. There would be consequences.
From there, the story unfolds in flashes: first Mick and Keith and friends playing in a tiny club (they call themselves Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys); then Mick and Keith answering an ad put in Jazz News by Brian Jones (“He was calling himself Elmo Lewis. He wanted to be Elmore James”); then living in the squalor of dirty dishes and high jinks (“Mick had come back drunk to visit Brian, found he wasn’t there and screwed his old lady”); followed by the picturesque hassle of early days (“We despised money, we despised cleanliness, we just wanted to be black motherfuckers. . . .”) – culminating in the rocket ship to stardom. “The Beatles couldn’t fill all the spots on the charts. We filled in the gaps.”
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