Never Mainline

Jenny Diski

I’m going to hang on to Keith Richards’s autobiography, because sometimes I worry that I lead a boring life and wonder if I shouldn’t try harder to have fun. When that happens, a quick flick through Keith’s memoirs will remind me that I’ve never really wanted to live the life of anyone else, not even a Rolling Stone. Or especially. I haven’t bought a Stones album since Sticky Fingers in 1971 and haven’t deliberately listened to anything they recorded after Exile on Main Street a year later. I find Mick Jagger’s dancing embarrassingly inept and can never remember Bill Wyman’s name (I’ve just looked it up). I preferred the Stones to the Beatles, in the days when you had to make a choice, because they were disapproved of, and I liked ‘Little Red Rooster’ and ‘Play with Fire’ more than ‘Ticket to Ride’ and ‘Yesterday’ because they suited my temperament better. Couldn’t have got through the 1960s without dancing to ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Get Off of My Cloud’, but I’m quite surprised to be reminded that ‘2000 Light Years from Home’ is the Stones, not Pink Floyd, though they were purple hazy times. The last time I found myself interested in the band was when I read that Richards had snorted his father’s ashes, because I have a sneaking admiration for taking things to their conclusion. But really after the 1969 Hyde Park Free Concert (Mick’s rather desirable white frock and all those hypocritical butterflies for the newly dead unlamented Brian), Richards’s reiterative narrative of Stones songs, gigs and internal warfare in Life was all news to me, and not all of it riveting.

I see that this makes me an unlikely reviewer of Keith Richards’s autobiography. Perhaps I should have recused myself, but I’ve dutifully flogged my way through every damn word, so I’m going to write about it anyway. At least I thought I’d read it all. I was sure I had, until I saw that the Daily Express quoted Richards from the book on the subject of the Iraq war: ‘I sent [Tony Blair] a letter saying it was too late to pull out now baby, you had better stick to the guns. If I had spare time I’d go out there and give them a shot or two myself … I’d terrify them!’ Could I have missed this? There’s nothing in the index, but then there’s no mention of Blair in the index at all, and Richards certainly says that he received a get well soon letter from Blair, when he (Richards) fell out of his tree. Is it possible the passage has been taken out on its way from publication in the US? Strange because not much else has, certainly not the American spelling, or the careful explanation of anything even faintly British, along with dogged translations of rhyming slang no one has used, except Richards, since Fanny was a girl’s name.

Other reviews I’ve seen have been pretty much raves. ‘Whooooosssh! What a trip,’ says Charles Spencer at the Telegraph: ‘it is an absolute blast. Over more than 500 pages, its narrative only rarely fails to grip.’ According to John Walsh in the Independent, ‘the 500-plus pages of Life throb with energy, pulsate with rhythm and reverberate with good stories.’ And in case you think it’s just a boy thing, Michiko Kakutani, awarded a Pulitzer for her ‘fearless and authoritative’ journalism, considers (in both the New York Times and the Scotsman) that Life is an ‘electrifying new memoir’ which will ‘dazzle the uninitiated’. Mr Richards, she says, writes in a prose which is ‘like his guitar playing: intense, elemental, utterly distinctive and achingly, emotionally direct’, with ‘razor-sharp’ ‘verbal photos’. ‘Hugh Hefner is “a nut” and “a pimp”, Truman Capote was a “snooty” whiner.’

In fact, Mr Richards doesn’t write at all. The author produced the book ‘with James Fox’, a journalist and friend of Richards’s, but we aren’t told how the collaboration worked. I’d guess that Keith talked into a recorder over a long period of time, prompted and unprompted by his ghost-writer, and then Fox took the recordings and some diaries Richards found and wrestled them into a semblance of chronological order. Fox has written books himself and can write perfectly well, so it must have been an editorial judgment to let Richards’s spoken words stand where not absolutely impossible. Either ennui or the same editorial judgment has also permitted a good many repetitions of phrase and incident. This marvel of collation and super-light editing has produced what feels like an authentic experience of many hours and days of sitting at a bar, or worse, in a Caribbean hideaway (with no train or clipper home) while some over the hill geezer (rhymes with ‘sneezer’) a.k.a. Richards – who has given up smack and coke but not booze and dope – rambles about his 66 years on the planet. Oh, how he rambles.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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