Keith Richards: Musician, Author, Military Man Manqué

According to David Hadju in the New Republic, a lot of people have expressed bemusement that Keith Richards would have it in him to write as good a memoir as Life -- the equivalent of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory when compared to the jottings of most rock stars. After all, not only has Richards steeped himself in virtually every addictive substance known to man -- most notoriously heroin, but also warehouses of whiskey and tobacco -- he fell out of a tree five years ago and had to have brain surgery afterward.

Graying Stones fans will know better, however, particularly those who have read his eloquent interviews. If Richards’ writing partner and lifelong obsession, Mick Jagger, has sometimes appeared to shrink into a cartoonishly corporate version of himself over the last two decades (Mick Jagger, Inc.), Richards has been a late bloomer. Not as a songwriter (all his best work was completed over a quarter of a century ago) but as a personality. As the living embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form, he has no rivals. There’s a narrowness to that, but a compensatory depth of richness as well.

Life is a book of surprising richness, no more so than in the part most people dread when opening a biography, auto -- or otherwise: the early years, or “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” as Holden Caulfield memorably phrased it. Not that Richards lays it on too thick, but he has an excellent memory and a novelistic eye for character, or rather “characters” -- his mother, father, aunts, uncles, school teachers, playground bullies, etc. He was drawn to eccentricity as eccentrics were drawn to him. Born in 1943, he grew up amid the deprivations of post-war England and captures the flavor of the time with a skill many professional wordsmiths would envy. He was conceived, appropriately enough, during an air-raid in the war: it was “Gimme Shelter” from the start.

Even if this is very much Richards’ book, it shouldn’t be forgotten that James Fox, the man who helped him put it together, is no ordinary journalist. His own book, White Mischief,  published in 1982, is a cult classic about an unsolved murder among monstrously decadent English colonials in Kenya during the 1930s and '40s. Though he ended up writing that book alone, he began it with the celebrated English literary critic and bon-vivant Cyril Connolly, who knew everyone from James Joyce to Henry Miller, and won First Prize in English and History at Eton while a fellow student by the name of Eric Blair, later known as George Orwell, had to content himself with second place.

I bring this up because Richards, for all his street-smarts and rebel appeal, has long been an aristocrat of sorts --  what you might call an alt-aristocrat. (If he has become more popular than Jagger, it is because Jagger, who grew up only a few streets away from Richards but in a higher-income bracket, gives the impression of having tried to become a real aristocrat, and people don’t like aristocrats any more. But a “gypsy” one like Richards is OK.)

Parts of the book -- the frequent dissing of his band mates, particularly Jagger, but also Ron Wood, Bill Wyman, the late Brian Jones, and the great ex-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor -- have already received plenty of publicity, along with revelations about Richards’ love life (he seems to prefer cuddling to actual sex), spectacular run-ins with the police over his legendary drug use, and the general madness that attended Rolling Stones tours in America during the 1970s.

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.