"Memory lane isn't particularly my avenue," Keith Richards says at the start of our conversation about Life, the Rolling Stones guitarist's new autobiography, written with James Fox and out on October 26. "I'm always looking forward. Suddenly you're pulled up short: 'Oh, I'll do the book.' Sure, great. Then you realize what it entails." Richards grins, then slumps his shoulders with mock exhaustion. "I understand more about authorship and the agonies," he adds with a raspy sound that is part irritated growl, part triumphant laughter.
For the next hour, Richards — speaking for the introduction to Rolling Stone's exclusive publication of excerpts from Life in issue 1116 — goes back through the process of writing the book, sifting through memories and confronting the roughest terrain in his past: the drugs; his madhouse life with the Stones, on and off the road; and his complex relationship with singer Mick Jagger. What follows are additional passages from that interview.
Blood From a Stone
Why did you finally decide a book was worth doing?
There have been so many books out. Some of them are very good. Some of them ... [snarls] But they have all been done at different times, from different points of view. I thought it was time to pull it all together, at least from my point of view.
It was James Fox who laid the concept out, the way he felt comfortable telling the story. Basically, I followed his guidance. James would have to needle me: "What happened with ...?" But when he would ask me a question, it would spring an idea and lead me, via connections, to the answer of some other question he had. It was all kind of disconnected, the way it worked. But that's the way the brain is — especially mine.
There are voices other than yours in the book — eyewitness accounts from friends and fellow troublemakers. Your son Marlon talks extensively about how, as a small boy, he was your personal road manager on those hair-raising Seventies tours. Were you shocked or surprised by how others saw you at your wildest and worst?
I wasn't, because that's really the way it was. Marlon grew up on the road. It was an interesting experiment. The fact that he's turned into a perfect English gentleman is pretty amazing. But he grew up hustling on those tours. And he was very sharp at it. If you wanted something, he'd be like, "Alright, that's half a dollar." Whether that was a good way to bring a kid up, he was the one who made that choice. He went to school when he wanted to, and we always had tutors and stuff. But he was learning life on the road. It was an interesting education. I wish I had been brought up that way. My childhood was very boring.
Not according to the book: Two of the most fascinating characters in Life are your mother, Doris, and your grandfather, Gus. You seem to be a combination of both: her strength and clarity and Gus' bohemian ways with women and music.
My mother was an extension of him, in many ways, which was why it was very easy to hang with my grandfather. It was like being with Mum — the same sense of humor, the same music. I could travel between those generations.
Your mother had a phrase, and variations on it, whenever you got into trouble or complained about something: "This is life, something we can't fight." Is that where the title of your book comes from?
Funny enough, I hadn't connected it to that. Maybe it's like a hand-me-down. But that was basically her attitude. When things got out of hand, or you didn't know what to do, she'd just say "That's life."
How much do you think being an only child — having a need to bond — influenced your relationships with the other Stones, especially Mick?
With Mick, it was basically music. We had been playmates — we happened to go to the same school for awhile. But it was me seeing him again [on the train, as a teenager], with the [blues] records, that was the bombshell — to suddenly find we were both madly in love with the blues, churning to get to the bottom of this thing. It was the missionary feeling.
Forming the band was kind of weird. Because, in a way, it formed itself. You didn't have to do much about it.
Through the Past, Darkly
You and Mick started the Stones with Brian Jones, and in Life you are frank about Brian's self-destructive flaws. You talk about his importance in the early days, but by the time of his death, any sentiment you had for him is gone.
I enjoyed his company, and I tried incredibly hard, in 1966, to pull him back into the group. He was flying off. But my attempts to bring Brian back into focus were a total failure. After that ... [long pause] He did some despicable things. The man was failing. He had been a strong man, but he was wiping himself out. Brian demanded, you have to understand. And in a band like this, you also have to be supportive and giving. Having to deal with his jealousy, with Mick and me writing the songs, when you're working 300-odd days a year — it becomes intolerable, and you can get really nasty about it. I tried to be fair to him. But to be honest, he was a bit of a bastard. And it doesn't surprise me that he came to a sticky end.
What was it like to relive your relationship with Mick? You've talked a lot about it in interviews. But this is the permanent record.
It was quite difficult. Because the relationship changed so much over the years. It's had its ups and downs, and sometimes you wonder why it was worth it.
What I really regretted was when we started to live apart. Mick and I could write so easily when he was next door, or on the next floor. That's when things exploded. After Exile on Main Street, we had to learn a whole new way of being — of putting things together that were so disparate, coming together after several months and saying, "Well, have you got anything?" then working it up. It was difficult — and I'm sure it was for Mick too. If you're stuck together in a band, I could just walk next door in the middle of the night and go, "Mick, I've got an idea."
But you also changed. Your drug use became a complicating factor.
Our lifestyles changed. Obviously, knowing each other for so long, I understood certain parts of what he was going through. And he understood perfectly well what I was doing. By then, we had been backstage together for years. Everybody knew what was what.
At the same time, I was still writing the songs. I was doing my end of it.
Was it hard to go back over the wreckage of your drug use — especially the damage on your family? One of the most dramatic portions of the book is when you leave your partner, Anita Pallenberg, because of her own harrowing addiction.
I had no intention of leaving the mother of my children. But you gotta believe me that there was no option. And thank God she's still one of my best friends. We've been through the mill. And she admits she could be Vampirella when she wanted.
It was tough. At the same time, there is an underlying love that goes beyond all of that other stuff. I can say, "I love you, I just won't live with you." And we're now proud grandparents, which we never thought we'd ever see.
That relates, in the same way, to Mick. The underlying love is effected. But it's not sundered.
How would you describe the Mick Jagger who comes out at the end of the book?
Mick and I are still great friends and still want to work together. Both of us know things about each other — and are still finding out. There is no final judgment on one or the other. To me, it's the miracle of juggling. You gotta juggle these weird things that don't actually come between you, but they are just there. There's no point in me saying, "The Stones have gotta go to work" if Mick doesn't feel like it. It's tiring trying to get everyone's enthusiasm up at the same time. And a lot of times it isn't there. But when it is, it's fantastic. And you have to pick those moments, in order to still be the Stones again.
When will that be? Is there talk of something — an album, a tour — next year?
We're whispering — I wouldn't say talking. I'm getting hints. And I'm always ready. Mick and I spoke about a month ago in New York. It's at that mumbling stage. But I had some outtakes from the last sessions we did [for A Bigger Bang] and said, "Just to jog your memory ..." So there's interaction. You don't want to push it too hard.
Do you feel like the catalyst — that it would be less likely to happen if you weren't so committed to the Stones as a working band?
Maybe, in that if there is a hint that they want to work, it drifts to me as a touchstone. Because they know I will say yes. I'm confirming what is already sort of confirmed in their minds. What I hope is that when we take these extended gaps, usually, when we come back together, something different comes out of it. You never know what that will be until you get there, when the ingredients are mixed.
Now that you have written a book, do you have any stories left to tell?
Well, life goes on. That's the story so far.