In a world where Justin Bieber is cranking out his "life story" at age 16, (more afterbirth than life, really), and rock 'n' roll autobiographies in general seem little more than a letter to fans, Keith Richards' autobiography Life is the real deal. By the time you've finished this generous tome, you will feel you know Richards as well as your own brother. For all his faults, blemishes, and bluster, you will probably end up admiring him, because he comes across as overly honest, forthright and open, not so much an Old God as a true veteran rocker and bluesman for whom the music always seemed like the most important thing. There's enough cultural history, gossip and general folk (and medical) wisdom here to appeal to almost anyone who lived through the era, and for Stones fans, it should be indispensable.
Until this point, the definitive work on the Rolling Stones was Old Gods Nearly Dead, Stephen Davis' plodding recounting of The Stones' odyssey up to the 40-year mark. But Richards' work is a generous (one might even say sprawling), and wildly cogent testament to life inside the greatest real rock 'n' roll circus in the world. Richards and co-writer James Fox were savvy enough to begin by dropping the reader full-bore into a 1975 drug bust. This wasn't the biggie (the Toronto heroin bust), but a comic episode in the Deep South, involving a red-necked sheriff and a drunken judge in Fordyce, Ark., which ended not only with the charges being dropped, but with the judge demanding the Stones pose with him for a photograph. It gets the whole drug thing out there in a hurry. That Richards is a leading consumer advocate for all things pharmaceutical is no great revelation. But by page 18, you know that no stony end will be left unturned.
Anyone who has read a lot of British rocker-type biographies will recognize the next bit – the growing up in postwar Britain tale. Richards spent his early years in London's bomb-beaten and crime-infested section known as Deptford. "My earliest memories are the standard postwar memories in London. Landscapes of rubble, half a street's disappeared." He was beaten up constantly going to and from school, but it was in Deptford that the first associations, chance meetings really, with Mick Jagger took place. Both were students at Wentworth Primary School, though Jagger was famously from the other side of the tracks ("Posh Town, we used to call it.") The table was slowly being set.
The early years of The Stones chronicled here will offer very little new to the true Stone's devotee. Keyboardist Ian Stewart's effect on the creation on the band cannot be overstated, and Richards gives the late "Sixth Stone" his full due. That the band's co-founder Brian Jones was a brilliant player and something of a creep is also well-documented elsewhere, but Richards includes anecdotes that illustrate that Jones could be exceptionally cruel. "Brian, a cold-blooded, vicious mother[expletive] Only short and blond with it," he notes, recounting at one point the story of a sycophantic friend whom Jones had locked outside, nearly naked, on a winter's day.
In weeks leading up to the memoir's publication, Richards' mercurial relationship with Jagger took centre stage. The fraternal relationship is surprising in its energy, building in its complexity as the book, and the Stones' history, progresses. On one hand, Richards can positively gush at his long-time partner's musical prowess ("Mick turned out to be the most amazing harp player. I'd put him up there with the best in the world"). On the other, he can be downright cruel. He criticizes Jagger's musical tastes ("in 1983, he was just trying to out-disco everyone") and his already well-known defrocking of Jagger's physical attributes is simply juvenile, showing a surprising lapse of taste.
Richards' various drug addictions, arrests, near-arrests and drug-related episodes have, over the years, defined him as much as his playing has – an unfortunate caricature that the book undercuts. He relates in detail his love for pure blues, and how he worked hard to copy those who were great influences on him. He also notes how distressed he was when the band morphed from being "bluesmen" into "some [expletive]ersatz Beatles," with the music being drowned out by the screaming crowds of teenaged girls. His memories of his formative years in the band are amazingly comprehensive, aided somewhat by diaries he kept at the time (Keith Richards a diarist?) and letters sent to relatives which had been unearthed for this retelling.
For nostalgic Canadian readers, the quick flip-through might be to the Toronto heroin bust, The El Mocambo concerts and a bandmate's dalliance with Margaret Trudeau. ("She was a groupie, that's all she was, pure and simple.") Of the bust, Richards believes that "the longer the process went on, the clearer it was that the Canadian government wanted to wriggle out of it," which goes a long way to explain why it played out the way it did. With character references supplied by the likes of Dan Aykroyd and Lorne Michaels – and the Maggie distraction providing yet another reason to make it all go away – Richards was found guilty, but freed. He was ordered to play a concert for the blind, "the most Solomon-like judgment that had been handed down in many a year," according to the wispy, freed defendant.
Momentary lapses of judgment notwithstanding, Richards' Life is a fascinating warts-and-all account, the ultimate insider tale. And as such, possibly edgy and pointed enough to merit some sort of response. Jagger?
Keith Richards once phoned Alan Niester's house to talk up the band's appearance at the Toronto SARS concert.
Special to The Globe and Mail