RICHARDS, KEITH. Life. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-316-03438-8. Pp. 564. $ 29.99.
In 1967, when my father was fifteen, he confided in his journal that he planned on running away to London to become a rock star with the Rolling Stones. The journal does not survive. What does survive is the letter my grandmother wrote him that summer, in which she mentioned in passing that she'd been cleaning his room, had found his journal and was surprised to read that he wanted to become a English rock star. Needless to say, Dad did not make it to England to fulfill his dream, and after reading Keith Richards' memoir, I guess I'm glad he didn't
Obviously my father's adolescent pipe dream shows to some extent how influential the Rolling Stones were, and still are. As Richards humbly told a fan on the street: "Whatever you're listening to now, they wouldn't have been there without me". So now all the young boys of forty-odd years ago, who all one day dreamed of sporting Mick Jagger's epically wide mouth and Richards' wiry legs, are now bankers and lawyers and professors, and they're all buying up Richards' memoir, Life, to get another taste of what it was they so wanted to be. Dad is no exception.
But even Dad has to admit it's a long hard slog through more than 500 pages of drug-addled experiences. Going into it, and certainly by the 200-page marker, I was slowly overwhelmed with a sense of inevitable doom as life as a Rolling Stone took a backseat to the story, and drugs became the favorite topic. This book is hard to swallow and it's certainly not for everyone. I've been feeling gloomy all week, thanks to this book. Nevertheless, it's actually pretty easy to read, stylistically. It's really an oral history, there's no denying it. No one actually sat down and wrote Life. Which is fine. At least we know it wasn't ghost written. Unless I'm a huge dupe and it really was. Still, the chattiness of the piece is both its strength and its weakness. Richards' voice is more immediate when you are under the impression that he's regaling you with these tales while sitting in his Connecticut house over tea. The problem is that I don't think anything was edited out. Because this is all Richards' voice, it's all true, it all has to stay in. Including stuff like "I also felt like I was doing it not to be a 'pop star'. There was something I didn't really like about that end of what I was doing, the blah blah blah." Thank you, Keith. Well said.
What I enjoyed most of all in the book were all those moments that clearly inspired the creators of "This Is Spinal Tap". The work is sometimes rife with hilarity, although the bulk of it includes the decade-plus during which Richards became a junky with his former partner Anita Pallenberg while raising two children (a third son died at two months of age, while Richards was on tour). The self-destructive spiral they both were in is artfully captured in the narrative, but that doesn't make it fun to read. Richards may have gone off the stuff thirty years ago, but his fixation remains.
By far my favorite chapter is the first, which is kind of discouraging four hundred pages along when you realize Richards saved the best for first. The chapter is more of an anecdote, describing a bust that took place in Texas in 1975 during one of the Stones' tours in the United States. The cockiness with which he recounts the incident is delightful, although it does lose stamina as the rest of the book progresses. Who doesn't feel a little cocky when they're surrounded by a bunch of Texans? "We were the most dangerous rock-and-roll bank" and it was "Open season on the Stones". The encounter took a comical turn, which, we discover later, was not always the case when Richards would get busted. In this case, toilets were clogged with pot and cocaine in an attempt to be rid of the evidence and the Texas police "suddenly didn't know what to do with these international stars stuck in their custody".
I doubt many people will make it all the way to the end of Life. It's in need of a good trim, but it's too late for that now. Still, Stones fans like Dad should be able to enjoy the first three hundred pages pretty well. Reading about a poor English kid's rise to super stardom makes for some pretty good reading, despite all the blah blah blah.