"I don't think I looked for it," Keith Richards says in a low, even growl. The Rolling Stones guitarist is talking about trouble, the kind that runs through his autobiography, Life, like a hellbound train: drugs, cops, cold turkey, death and the turbulent relationship between Richards and his Glimmer Twin and childhood friend, singer Mick Jagger.
"That's just the way things pan out," Richards says, sitting in his manager's New York office and sipping a late-afternoon cocktail from a red plastic cup. "Conflicts arise all the time, especially if you're working in such a closed unit." There is a rumbling chuckle. "If I'm in conflict with somebody, then it means somebody is in conflict with me."
The title of Richards' book is a simple, accurate description of the contents: the 66-year-old guitarist's highs, lows and death-defying excesses, from birth to now, vividly related in his natural pirate-hipster cadence and syntax. Life opens with a comic roller-coaster account of a last-minute rescue from hard time in Arkansas during the Stones' 1975 tour. Richards, who wrote the book with British author James Fox, then goes long and deep on his postwar boyhood — an only child of divorced parents in the rough London suburb of Dartford — and the emotional rescue he found in American blues, the formation of the Rolling Stones and his creative bond with Jagger. At one point, Richards describes a recent trip to Dartford, visiting old haunts like the three-room flat over a grocery where he, his mother, Doris, and father, Bert, lived from 1949 to 1952. "It's almost like you're looking at somebody else," Richards says now. "Then you start to feel small things, like the smell of a gas lamp or my grandmother shuffling around and my grandfather going, 'Make the boy some egg and chips.'"
Richards relates, with blunt detail, the outlaw rush and sordid daily routine of his decade-long affair with heroin, which he ended in 1979. "If I hadn't looked back on that, something would have been missing," he contends. "When I was taking dope, I was fully convinced that my body is my temple. I can do anything I want with it, and nobody can tell me yea or nay." But Richards also counts the damage from his choices: the loss of cosmic cowboy and fellow user Gram Parsons; the hellish descent of Richards' lover Anita Pallenberg; and the death of his infant son, Tara, in 1976 while Richards was on tour. "Leaving a newborn is something I can't forgive myself for," says Richards in Life.
"The first time we talked about that," Fox says, "Keith couldn't get out more than five words. Then we realized we had to go back to it. He told me that he thought about it every week."
Fox, who wrote the 1983 true-crime book White Mischief, first interviewed Richards in 1973 for a London newspaper. For Life, Fox says he and Richards "talked in topics and periods, never chronologically," for several days at a stretch, up to three hours a day, starting in late 2007. Life includes eyewitness testimony from people close to Richards who were interviewed by Fox, such as singer Ronnie Spector ("an early love") and saxophonist Bobby Keys. But Fox did not speak to the other Stones. "I did try," he says, noting, "There is a tradition among Rolling Stones of not having anything to do with each other's books."
Life is ultimately two stories: one of music, misbehavior and survival; the other a fond, perplexed, sometimes outraged telling of Richards' life with Jagger, including their battles over control and the destiny of their band. "I had a feeling Mick would have no problem with the truth," Richards claims. He goes quiet for a moment. "No doubt I was as infuriating to him as he can be to me."
Jagger read Life, Richards says, "and he was a bit peeved about this and that." But, the guitarist insists, "Mick and I are still great friends and still want to work together." Richards' proof: He and Jagger talked over the summer about new Stones action in 2011. There is another of those earthquake cackles. "Can you imagine if life went along smoothly and everybody agreed?" Richards asks. "Nothing would happen. There'd be no blues. There'd be no 'Happy,'" referring to his iconic blaze of joy on 1972's Exile on Main Street.
There would certainly be no Life.
This story is from the October 28, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.