“I love the way he talks and how it goes on to the page,” James Fox says of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, over the phone from London a few weeks before the publication of Richards’ new autobiography, Life. Fox, Richards’ co-writer, first interviewed the guitarist in 1973, for a London newspaper. Even then, Fox says, “I noticed that he is a very good storyteller. He has an economy of phrase and expression. In that way, he reminds me slightly of William Burroughs, who I also interviewed. You would expect him to be rambling around. But when you transcribed it, you realized he was always making a point.”
Fox, a journalist and author who wrote the true-crime book, White Mischief, has been a friend of Richards’ since the Seventies. In this interview, for the introduction to Rolling Stone‘s exclusive serialization of Richards’ memoir, Fox describes what it was like to help bring Richards’ Life to print.
When did you and Keith have your first serious discussions about doing a book?
In fact, since I wrote that piece about him for The Times [of London]. We became good mates. I think he noticed that I’d written about him seriously. And I said to him, as we saw each other over the years, “We’ve got to get these stories down.” It wasn’t necessarily for an autobiography. It was, “These stories are priceless. And you tell them very well.”
We got cracking in 2007. The real writing started. It wasn’t easy. I remember first going down to Turks and Caicos [in the West Indies], where he has a house. Keith would say, “Let’s wait ’til the sun does goes down. It’s too hot.” Or “I’ve got to do this and that.” And nothing happened for three days. Finally Patti, his wife, said to him, “Don’t you think you two should get together?”
I then learned what Keith told [Stones backup singer] Blondie Chaplin, when I wanted to talk to him. Keith told Blondie, “I’ll tell you what’ll happen. He’ll sidle up to you, then you’ll start talking.” And that’s what happened. I’d pick a moment, usually late in the day, and start on a topic. We talked in topics and periods, themes, never chronologically. If you try that, you hit a big wall. They were often two-hour talks. I’d come back after five days with a great deal of stuff.
How did you and Keith decide on the other voices in the book — the eyewitnesses who supplement his memories, like Marianne Faithfull and his son Marlon?
They came up naturally. These were the stories in his heart, to do with moments when he was touched or moved by something. Ronnie Spector was an early love, something that was sharp in his memory, so of course, I had to go and see her. Bobby Keys was also a great storyteller. Keith described him as his closest pal. And indeed, they were the wicked twins of rock and roll for a long time.
I love Keith’s loyalty to his friends. He talked about that — he gets an idea early on that he likes these people. I remember saying, “Here’s a list of people we might talk to, who I reckon to be your buddies.” He looked down and said, “I never realized they all had jail sentences.”
How do you see Keith’s perception of his relationship with Mick Jagger? He uses the words “friend” and “brother” a lot. There is also a strong sense of betrayal.
Underneath what Keith was saying was a terrible sadness — of two lost friends. I think he really minds that he can’t be close to Mick. He keeps on looking and searching for the Mick when they were so close that they wouldn’t even have to speak to each other about music. The frustration of somebody he found unapproachable — it hurts him. There are a couple of photographs in the book of Keith with his parents, when he’s 12. He looks so forlorn, only-child-y. Therefore the betrayal thing would be even more painful. He believes a lot in loyalty. As he says about people, “With one look, you can tell.” And he won’t give up on them until they give up on him.
This book could be the last great rock and roll memoir. Keith set the high bar for misbehavior and survival.
I was conscious of that. I realized I was getting the last witness of the great rock and roll years, from the beginning through the turbulence. He’s still here, and he can still tell the story. But survival — that is an interesting thing about Keith. He was a rare drug-taker in the sense that he did have a measure of control. If ever the music was threatened, he would do a cold turkey. And he eventually stopped. He’s very clever, Keith. But it wasn’t cleverness that got him off drugs. He does see things very clearly.
Where did the title, Life, come from?
The title came from the publisher sending a mockup of the cover to Keith. It said, “My Life, Keith Richards.” He just crossed out “My”.