Keith Richards: Musician, Author, Military Man Manqué

But there are other, less expected and equally telling revelations. The fact, for instance, that he was an avid and excellent Boy Scout. Or the relief he felt in art school when it was announced that the National Service in England had been permanently ended shortly before he would have had to sign on. The revelation here is the simultaneous admission that had he joined the army, he might well have remained in it forever. Because what Keith Richards is really good at, in his own estimation, is motivating groups of men (musicians rather than soldiers, as it would turn out) to work together. Not as a leader, but as a kind of ultra-determined, stay-the-course, pay-any-price exemplar to those around him. If he had gone into the National Service, he writes,

I’d probably be a general by now. ... When they got me in the scouts, I was a patrol leader in three months. I clearly like to run guys about. Give me a platoon, I’ll do a good job. Give me a company, I’ll do even better. Give me a division, I’ll do wonders.

When he first started listening to blues records as a teenager, it wasn’t the singers, the front-men, who fascinated him so much, but the relatively anonymous musicians behind them. And that has remained true to this day. The group, the band, the team, the bond, is everything. Which explains his ongoing rage at Jagger for often putting himself above the band, for going solo, for not being as emotionally invested in the Rolling Stones per se as Richards is. Ditto for Woods, Jones, Taylor, Wyman. Only Charlie Watts remains unscathed.

The irony is that, even as the Stones are reportedly preparing for another tour and album, Life is likely to make the atmosphere in the studio thick with resentments. As much as Richards touts the virtues of the group, the overall message of Life is: “The Rolling Stones, c’est moi.” (Jagger, it turns out, isn’t the only one with a giant ego.) His intelligence shines through in his criticisms of others, but he is less interested in turning the spotlight on the less savory parts of his own personality. No doubt that ability to draw the curtains on himself is part of the reason why he is that relatively rare thing: a contented artist. But it does diminish the book for anyone who expects an autobiography to contain serious self-examination.

Nonetheless, for Stones fans, for blues fans, and anyone interested in sex, drugs, drink, groupies (he is particularly good on groupies, and not in the way you’d expect), and rock ‘n’ roll, this book is a very tasty invitation to hours of pleasure. A little too long at 564 pages, perhaps, but there is no doubt that Richards is a terrific raconteur and that he has something interesting to say, and a vivid, stylish way of saying it, from his first childhood memory to how he managed to fall out of that tree in Fiji in 2005.

One leaves the book under no doubt that “Keef” is an even more remarkable character than one had imagined. At one point he states that, given his habit of sleeping only two nights a week for much of his life, in effect he has now been conscious for three average life spans. The man who long ago was supposed to be in a tomb has left us with a pretty impressive tome.