Keith Richards Delivers a Classic Rock Memoir

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Richards carefully explains the process by which he and Jagger wrote all those tunes. It usually started with a riff dreamed up by Richards, a sharp Chuck Berry-like run of chords; Richards would attach a phrase (“Can’t get no satisfaction,” “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away”), then pass it to Jagger, who figured out a melody and wrote the lyrics.

Richards never explicitly says that his contribution is the greater one. But he makes it clear where he thinks the art lies. Once the foundation is in place, he implies, the rest is almost busywork. Even when he has something nice to say about Jagger, he gets in a dig: “Mick is one of the best natural blues harp players I’ve heard,” he says. “[It’s] the one place where you don’t hear any calculation.”

As you read on, you feel that all those little swipes are about something bigger, grander. Betrayal. Honor. What a friend owes. How people grow apart. Though Life tells so much about the creation of music, the art of guitar, the rise of rock & roll, the pettiness of the legal authorities, it’s really about the way things fall apart.

Addiction is the recurring theme – sessions in which Richards did not sleep for days, and he makes heroin addiction sound sensible. How else can you toil 200 straight hours? In one passage, he writes of feeding his habit on the road: “It was difficult in the 70s to get hypodermics in America. So when I traveled I would wear a hat and use a needle to fix a little feather to the hatband. . . . OK, but now I need the syringe. I’d go down to FAO Schwarz, the toy shop right across . . . from the Plaza. And if you went to the third floor, you could buy a doctor and nurse play set, a little plastic box with a red cross on it. That had the barrel and the syringe that fitted the needle that I’d brought. I’d go round, ‘I’ll have three teddy bears, I’ll have that remote-control car, oh, and give me two doctor and nurse kits! My niece, you know, she’s really into that. Must encourage her.’”

You can quote a thousand episodes in this book just as great. After a few hours, you feel like you’ve been with Richards when he is hungover and rundown nasty, and with him when he is coked-up and flying. But the very things that make the book so much fun – this is the junkie’s eye view of the world – limit the view the reader gets of the world around Richards. He jabs Jagger again and again (“It was the beginning of the ’80s when Mick started to become unbearable”). But what we never see is what those years must have been like for Jagger – to be in business with a junkie is no easy trick. Richards’ world consists of best friends and father figures, all of whom happen to be junkies; and to any junkie, a nonuser is an enemy, i.e., Jagger. By Richards’ own account, Jagger is always there to come to his rescue. “I have to say that during the bust in Toronto, in fact during all busts, Mick looked after me with great sweetness. He ran things . . . and marshaled the forces that saved me.”

Of course, it’s never enough.

Richards’ real beef comes later, in the late 1970s, when he gets off heroin and wants to reassert himself. But Jagger had taken control in the drug years and didn’t want to relinquish it. “I realized Mick had got all of the strings in his hands and he didn’t want to let go of a single one,” writes Richards. “I didn’t know power and control were that important to Mick.”

The injury was compounded in 1983 when Jagger cut a deal with Sony Music for three solo albums. “The Rolling Stones spent a lot of time building up integrity,” Richards writes, “and the way Mick handled his solo career jeopardized all that, and it severely pissed me off.”

But where Richards sees abandonment, another person might see Jagger fleeing a madhouse. The way Richards speaks of his addiction might be fascinating, but it’s probably less so if you were depending on the guy not just for a laugh but for a livelihood. Explaining why he survived, Richards credits the nature of the shit he ingested. “The reason I’m here is probably that we only ever took, as much as possible, the real stuff, the top-quality stuff. Cocaine I got into because it was pure pharmaceutical – boom.”

Of course, this is classic junkie talk: I’m fine so long as I get the top drawer, etc. And though Richards does make standard warnings of the don’t-try-this-at-home variety, drug abuse has never seemed so fun or glamorous as it does here. This might be the only celebrity drug memoir ever written that features no redemptive cleanup, no 12 steps, no regrets, no apologies.

But the victims of his excess certainly pile up. There is an impressive list of people who partied with Richards and died or just went batty: among them, Gram Parsons and John Phillips, his friends; Anita Pallenberg, his love. Richards takes responsibility for none of it, unaware of his effect on all the would-be madmen who wanted to trade shots with a legend. “The thing with John [Lennon] – for all his vaunted bravado – he couldn’t really keep up,” writes Richards. “He’d try and take everything I took but without my good training. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, couple of downers, a couple of uppers, coke and smack, then I’m going to work. I was freewheeling. And John would inevitably end up in my john, hugging the porcelain. . . . I don’t think John ever left my house except horizontally.”

Life is not a standard addiction memoir, because Richards sees his addiction as anything but standard. It’s not a weakness, not a disease. It’s martyrdom. “They imagined me, they made me, the folks out there created this hero,” he writes. “Bless their hearts. I’ll do the best I can to fulfill their needs. They’re wishing me to do things that they can’t. They’ve got this job, they’ve got this life . . . but at the same time, inside them, is a raging Keith Richards. When you talk of a folk hero, they’ve written the script for you and you better fulfill it. And I did my best.” In other words, Richards taunts death so that we can be free.

Much of the trouble between Jagger and Richards must come from the simple fact of longevity. They are locked in a partnership that started when they were too young to make lifelong commitments. How would you get along with your high school friends if you still had to depend on them today? Richards, a sentimentalist, cannot help but compare how it was then to how it is now with sadness. “Mick has changed tremendously,” he writes, “only thinking [back] do I remember with regret how completely tight we were in the early years of the Stones. First off, we never had to question aims. We were unerring in where we wanted to go, what it should sound like, so we didn’t have to discuss it.”

In the end, it does not matter that Richards is unfair to Jagger or that Richards sees the world through a coke-addled lens. In this book, as in his music, Richards’ real obligation belongs not to Jagger or anyone else. It belongs to the reader, and to the art. At this, Richards succeeds brilliantly. The result is a classic book of rock & roll. Of course, it’s interesting to remember that the Stones are still a working band. This book is not just an artifact, but part of the story it chronicles. So here’s the big question: Will the Rolling Stones, who survived the drugs, death, madness and chaos, survive the prose of Keith Richards?

The above 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.

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