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.”
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.