If you’re not a fan of The Rolling Stones, I doubt you’ll ever read “Life.”
You should, but you won’t.
It wouldn’t make sense, plowing through 547 pages of Keith Richards and his memories. It’s hard to believe, if you don’t care about The Stones, that you would be curious or interested in Richards’ indulgences or precisely how certain records were recorded or certain guitar tones achieved.
But if you were born in 1954 or thereabouts (like me) and if The Rolling Stones and The Beatles occupied all the major channels in your personal soundtrack for most of your formative wonder years, from the moment you turned 9 or 10 and straight on through high school and beyond, then “Life” is a must.
Why? Because Keith is so surprising. Of course, that he can stand on two legs is surprising. That he isn’t comatose is another. That he still digs music today isn’t such a shocker. But here’s what really got to me:
The man, Keef, is so matter of fact.
Start to finish, “Life” is a surprise. It’s breezy and light. I guess if you’re writing an autobiography, you are going to want to come across as likable and Richards manages to look in the mirror and back on his life and see the things he likes.
Spoiler alert (for those who don’t already know), here’s a brief recap:
Keith Richards learned to play the guitar, found some band mates, studied American blues, learned to rock, learned the music business, started to rake in serious money, could flit about the world anywhere and anytime, found money was an easy ticket to some amazing women and tremendous quantities of powerful drugs and high-quality liquor, lost some friends to drugs, learned that it’s hard to keep a band together, learned that it’s even harder to stay friends with a lead singer who loves/craves the limelight, met some amazing musicians along the way and gradually grew mellower with the help of courts, old age and, well, life perspective.
This happened, that happened, no big whoop. That’s the whole flavor of “Life.” Keith is so disarming with his off-handed recounting—and so in love with music, simple as that—that he is very difficult not to like, self-indulgences (and they are abundant) and all.
But “Life” practically scoops you up in its arms. There are gems of insight and little lessons on every page. My favorites:
On playing live: “There’s a certain moment when you realize that you’ve actually just left the planet for a bit and that nobody can touch you. You’re elevated because you’re with a bunch of guys that want to do the same thing as you. And when it works, baby, you’ve got wings. You know you’ve been somewhere most people will never get, you’ve been to a special place. And then you want to go back and keep landing again, and when you land you get busted. But you always want to go back there. It’s flying without a license.”
On parental influence in music appreciation: “My ears would have gone there anyway, but my mum trained them to go to the black side of town without her even knowing it. I didn’t know whether the singers were white, black or green at the time. But after a while, if you’ve got some musical ears, you pick up on the difference between Pat Boone’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ and Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame.’”
On being in a band: “This wonderful little world that is unassailable. It’s really teamwork, one guy supporting the others, and it’s all for one purpose, and there’s no flies in the ointment, for a while. And nobody conducting, it’s all up to you. It’s really jazz—that’s the big secret. Rock and roll ain’t nothing but jazz with a hard backbeat.”
On being dedicated: “We needed to work together, we needed to rehearse, we needed to listen to music, we needed to do what we wanted to do. It was a mania. Benedictines had nothing on us….You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was sin.”
On writing songs: “The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room, “I just cant stand you anymore”…That’s the song. It just flows in….You start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You’re constantly on alert. That faculty gets trained in you over the years, observing people, how they react to one another.”
On the perfect sound: “What you’re looking for is power and force, without volume—an inner power. A way to bring together what everybody in that room is doing and make one sound. So it’s not two guitars, piano, bass and drums, it’s one thing, it’s not five. You’re there to create one thing.”
More on writing: “Great songs write themselves. You’re just being led by the nose, or the ears. The skill is not to interfere with it too much. Ignore intelligence, ignore everything; just follow it where it takes you. You really have no say in it, and suddenly there it is: “Oh, I know how this goes,” and you can’t believe it, because you think that nothing comes like that.”
It’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable account of the last 45-plus years of making rock music at the level of pop stardom and musicianship that Richards achieved. Richards projects perspective and while he doesn’t come right out and say it, you get the sense that he knows he was extremely lucky—surviving legal scrapes, heroin and finding a band that managed, through lots of ups and downs, to hang on.
Even his image, the whole Keef thing, he has you believe he fell into it.