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Keith Richards has made an honest, forthright account of his musical career in the new autobiography Life. (Christopher Wahl)
Keith Richards has made an honest, forthright account of his musical career in the new autobiography Life. (Christopher Wahl)

Music

Keith Richards won't fade away Add to ...

Way back in the mid-1960s, as the Stones started their roll to fortune and fame, their manager hit upon a question that was picked up by newspapers and magazines everywhere: "Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?"

The answer was supposed to have been no. After all, the Rolling Stones were the anti-Beatles. Scruffy, lewd, rude and crude, they seemed to have other things in mind besides wanting to hold a girl's hand or whisper a secret in her ear.

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Most parents would be happy to have their daughter marry a Rolling Stone, especially if that Stone turned out to be Keith Richards, alternatively known as Keef, Arabic for cannabis resin and the pseudo-Cockneyish pronunciation of Richards' first name favoured by in-the-know fans. While Richards has always been influential, for better (Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Johnny Depp) and worse (Aerosmith, Ronnie Wood, Johnny Depp), he's undergone a sort of apotheosis in recent years, from disreputable, dissipated, drug-addled celebrant of excess and rock 'n' roll hedonism to, at age 66, avuncular sage, the very model of a louchely modern English gentleman, albeit one whose manor house is in Connecticut rather than Surrey.

Today everyone of us lives in a Keith Richards universe. Our haircuts, the three-day stubble, our slang and allusions, the jeans we wear, the radio stations we listen to, the stadium concerts we attend, even the movies we see (no Keith Richards, no Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean) partake of the sensibility Richards created and the chords he strummed.

As a musical and cultural force, the Stones haven't mattered, not really, for at least a quarter-century, likely longer. Yet survivorship has its privileges and, in the Stones' case, most of them have accrued to Keith Richards. Mick Jagger may have the knighthood befitting a man of wealth and taste, but Keef has the integrity (including a face that seems never to have had the benefit of a moisturizer, let alone a Botox injection).

His has been the triumph of a kind of stealth charisma: Instead of trying to refute the showbiz saw of "never upstage the lead singer," Richards let his riffs (hot and crunchy) and attitude (cool and piratical) do the talking. As Sir Mick (con)descended into manneristic shtick, Keith became the heart and soul of the Stones. Or more precisely, he became the emblem of the myth of the Stones.

These days it's easy to forget just how grey, stodgy and repressive England seemed when the Stones arrived on the scene. Homosexual acts between consenting adults, for example, weren't decriminalized until 1967. Corporate rockers though the Stones may be now, their sass and cheek made them real rebels 40-plus years ago, their best songs anthems of resistance, declarations of independence, harbingers of new mores.

Certainly nostalgia plays a big part in the man's weathered, leathery appeal. Yet in the best Stones' music there remains a freshness undiminished by the passage of decades. Is there soul anywhere unmoved by the G-chords that open Honky Tonk Woman? Attention must be paid. And with his newly published memoir, Richards has created a 576-page "song" that at once refreshes his band's legacy and rivals their finest creations.

Excerpts: Richards on life

Cold turkey isn't the best way to quit heroin

I've been through more cold turkeys than there are freezers.

Eat your bangers and mash with restraint

It's very bad for you to stuff all that crap in at once. Better to have it a bit here, a mouthful there, every few hours a bite or two. The human body can deal with it better than shoving a whole load of crap down your gob in an hour.

The importance of visiting the doctor

I didn't know that I had fractured three ribs on one side and perforated the other lung until a month later, when I had to do a medical for a tour.

Are headaches a state of mind?

I never have headaches, and if I do, it's an aspirin and it's gone. I'm not a headache man.

The hospital always knows best

He had opened the skull, sucked out the blood clots and then put the bone back on like a little hat with six titanium pins to connect the hat back to its skull. I was fine except that when I came out of it, I found myself attached to all these tubes. I've got one down the end of my [expletive] one coming out of here, one coming out of there. I said, what the [expletive]is all this [expletive] What's that for? [Dr.]Law says, that's the morphine drip. OK, we'll keep that one.

All things in moderation

The key to survival was that I paced myself. I never really overdid it. Well, I shouldn't say never; sometimes I was absolutely comatose.

Excerpts: Richards on Friends and foes

On Margaret Trudeau and her famed escapade with Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood:

She was a groupie, that's what she was, pure and simple. Nothing wrong with that. But you shouldn't be a prime minister's wife if you want to be a groupie.

On John Lennon:

For all his vaunted bravado - he couldn't keep up. … I don't think he ever left my house except horizontally. Or definitely propped up.

On the Beatles-Stones rivalry:

It was a very friendly relationship. It was also very cannily worked out, because in those days singles were coming out every six, eight weeks. And we'd try and time it so that we didn't clash. I remember John Lennon calling me up and saying, "Well, we've not finished mixing yet." "We've got one ready to go." "OK, you go first."

On Truman Capote after a Dallas concert:

He was being an old fart, actually complaining about the noise … it got a little raucous. I remember, back at the hotel, kicking Truman's door. I'd splattered it with ketchup I'd picked up off a trolley. Come out, you old queen. What are you doing round here? You want cold blood? You're on the road now, Truby!

On coming up with a lyric about Mick Jagger:

I suddenly had a focus, and it was Mick. Trying to be gracious at the same time. But my version of graciousness: What makes you so greedy/Makes you so seedy.

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