Keith Richards’ autobiography has rocketed to the top of my favorite Stones books list, with good reason. It’s not like other celebrity memoirs, not written to make a buck, grind an axe, or make the author look good. It doesn’t have the anonymous bland tone that signals the hand of the ghostwriter. It takes off in a chatty conversational voice that is unmistakably Keith, and it shows, over 550 pages, what it’s like to be Keith. That’s an epic achievement in itself. Keith Richards has always cut a mysterious and slightly terrifying figure. Always on the run from the law, knife in boot, weaseling out of one scrape after another while all around him his associates drop like flies. Did he sell his soul to the devil? Ineffably cool, but not exactly likable. Well, now he’s managed to make himself very likable indeed, by making no apologies about his badness.
Life is no tour guide to rock star depravity. It’s a love story – between Keith and his music. It runs throughout the book, an undimmed, unabashed, joyful enthusiasm for all things musical. Keith Richards really fucking digs his job, and he’s never stopped being amazed at his success. Not his popularity or ability to fill stadiums, but just the ability to play and write songs and make great music and earn the respect of other musicians. There are constant long asides about the technicalities of guitar heroism, stuff about tuning and strings and dropped chords. As a non-musician, I’ve never understood the significance of those things, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to grasping it. It’s the best window on how those famous sounds came to be. That alone makes the old devil immensely sympathetic. Also, his disinterest in repeating the sordid old anecdotes. There’s some juicy bits there, all right, but they’re not the point. The notorious pissing on the wall incident doesn’t even merit a mention. Richards isn’t interested in what’s been talked to death already, he wants to tell the stories he thinks are important. Like a daring rainbound cat rescue, a childhood accident with a rock, or how he met his wife’s family for the first time. The death of Brian Jones is dealt with in a few lines – he’d been written off as a goner long before he took that fateful midnight swim – while the deaths of Ian Stewart, Gram Parsons, and Keith’s mother are given full requiem.
Besides music, the other long running love story is the one with Mick Jagger, of course. The notorious Glimmer Twins who used to be thick as thieves are now barely cordial, to Keith’s eternal chagrin. Mick Jagger has changed, not for the better, thinks Keith, while Keith has stayed steadfastly the same. It was Marianne Faithfull, in her own memoir, who called it out that those two were really the loves of each others lives. What I think we have here is the kind of passionate romantic friendship that used to flourish among the Victorians, a Platonic union stronger and more important than any marriage or sexual relationship. Each party complains bitterly about the other’s shortcomings, accusations of betrayal fly, sometimes blows are exchanged, but they always come back to each other. Keith repeatedly complains that Mick is jealous and hostile, actively trying to block potential ‘rivals’, but he seems unaware that his own criticism of Mick, Mick’s personality and Mick’s solo work comes off more like the bitterness of a neglected spouse than any valid point being made. The shocking and much publicized denigration of Jagger’s manhood does occur, but the context is more interesting than the slur itself. In the same paragraph Keith claims not to care about Mick’s affair with Anita Pallenberg on the set of Performance, brags about nailing Marianne and suggests that Donald Cammell’s suicide was good riddance. Reading between the lines, it’s clear the betrayal stung and stings still. The low blow is just a jab of payback. It’s a tragedy, according Keith Richards, that Mick Jagger had to grow up and become the monstrous ego demon “Mick Jagger.” After all those years and ups and downs, he’s still missing the kid on the train with the blues records.
Jagger has become the “Jagger” we know and love. He grew out of his blues purism and his stance against the world, accepted his knighthood, let the flattery and flashbulbs go to his head, and runs The Rolling Stones like a well-oiled money making machine. Richards has stayed the same blues-obsessed outlaw who goes to sleep hugging his guitar. He’s the one who exults in the honor of being allowed to jam with the locals in Jamaica, or the honor of playing with obscure but brilliant sidemen who haven’t seen the spotlight since the fifties. Jagger is delighted to have Wyclef Jean as a collaborator. Richards thinks it’s an honor to write with Tom Waits. They used to be The Glimmer Twins, now two more opposite men cannot be found, but together they still manage to form one badass entity called The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger reveals bits of himself in his songs, but he will probably never open up and tell his side of the story. Thank God Keith Richards is open-hearted enough to share his life with us.