- Life by Keith Richards, with James Fox
Weidenfeld, 564 pp, £20.00, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 297 85439 5
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.
But as with the aged drunken bores I used to listen to at the French Pub in the early 1960s, there are moments when the fog lifts and the slurred voice suddenly sharpens into knowledgeable passion, and you come back to paying attention, even if you know almost nothing about their subject. This happens in patches when Richards talks about music, his own music making, and what he was listening for in the old masters’ playing of Chicago blues. I have less understanding of how the music I listen to works than I do of the specific techniques involved in making the cutlery I use. I haven’t the faintest idea what he means when he talks about discovering open tuning on his guitar, but I nevertheless woke up from my rock-and-roll-history-induced stupor and paid careful attention as Richards described finding his way there and seeing what he and the band could do with it. He boasts and whines about more or less everything else, but he talks intricately and interestingly about music, and even if knowing a fret from a fifth string is a struggle for me, I want to read about it.
The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes – the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It’s tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time … It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work.
He’s also good on life in postwar Dartford, growing up small and bullied:
For over a year, when I was nine or ten, I was waylaid, Dartford-style, almost every day on my way home from school. I know what it is like to be a coward. I will never go back there. As easy as it was to turn tail, I took the beatings … They didn’t call it Gravesend for nothing. Everything unwanted by anyone else had been dumped in Dartford since the late 19th century – isolation and smallpox hospitals, leper colonies, gunpowder factories, lunatic asylums – a nice mixture.
There’s some very sensible advice on how to take drugs, too. Too much money and especially too much fame is difficult for people in their twenties to deal with. This by now is a given, a familiar moan by the rich and famous, usually in post-clean-up autobiographies like this one, for which Richards was allegedly paid $7 million. Mick got off on the unbearable spotlight, while Keith got further off on heroin, coke, uppers and downers. The rock death toll has been quite high even among celeb fuck-up stories, and what Richards is most famous for (apart from being in the same band for 50 years) is getting to 66, looking 86, and surviving not just his fame, but also his escape route. His story is littered with the premature deaths of those who failed to take the precautions a serious junkie with funds must take. He’s sorry about them, but what can you do? He’s taken his drugs seriously, as you have to if you’re going to go on living, and gives some good advice, if you’re in a position to follow it. You use pure heroin that you cut yourself and pharmaceutical cocaine and never try to get higher by using more. There is no higher, only high or sooner or later an overdose. You never mainline, but skinpop the stuff directly into your muscles for a slower but safer top-up. From time to time you cold turkey, and then return to smack, remembering not to take the dose you were taking before you cleaned up, but the one you took before you were a maestro of addiction (Gram Parsons’s fatal error). There are people who have led longish busy working lives using heroin: Burroughs, Trocchi, Anna Kavan, Keith Richards, among quieter others. As ever, it’s the poor and desperate who die, although Richards quite rightly points out that when he started in the late 1960s, there was briefly a scheme in England that registered addicts with GPs, who gave them regular prescriptions and needles. It was effective in keeping people away from crime and messed up street drugs. Everyone doubled their requirement, so even if, like Richards, you weren’t registered, there were decent drugs available to buy at reasonable prices.
The rest is an account of living the rock and roll myth, his own and other people’s, and repeatedly the pressures and consequences of being a star, of being rich, of being Keith Richards of the Stones. The goodness of the music, the memories of Dartford and the useful know-how of his drug regime keep sliding into boastful swagger which, unless you are a diehard Stones fan or just really pleased that Richards is still alive, is mostly embarrassing. The authentic ramble – or as the publicity would have it, ‘his own raw, fierce voice’ – encompasses a world of women who are never referred to as ‘women’, but as ‘bitches’ (‘And there’d be a band, a trio playing, big black fuckers and some bitches dancing around with dollar bills in their thongs’); ‘chicks’ (‘With English chicks it was you’re putting the make on her or she’s putting the make on you, yea or nay’); ‘whores’ (‘all the bitches from Nice would come in, and Monte Carlo, and all the whores from Cannes’); ‘groupies’, ‘mothers’ and ‘nurses’ (‘there were loads of groupies out there that were just good old girls who liked to take care of guys. Very mothering in a way … And they were nurses basically. You could look upon them more like the Red Cross’).
This, of course, is deliberate baiting, a dreary bravado, as well as an old man forgetting that hip talk has changed somewhat since 1968 (equivalent to the 1960 Lady Chatterley moment: ‘Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?’). He knows that feminists were dismayed by their lyrics: ‘We always like to piss them off. Where would you be without us?’ As a matter of fact, he was doing us bitches a favour. Those songs with titles such as ‘Stupid Girl’, ‘Under My Thumb’, ‘Out of Time’, ‘That Girl Belongs to Yesterday’, and ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ (‘Who wants yesterday’s papers, who wants yesterday’s girl’) were quite possibly calls to rebellion: ‘Maybe we were winding them up. And maybe some of the songs opened up their hearts a little, or their minds, to the idea of we’re women, we’re strong. But I think the Beatles and the Stones particularly did release chicks from the fact of “I’m just a little chick.”’ This may be one of those places where Fox needed to do a touch more editorial work, just for coherence, not in any way to prevent the authentic voice of Keith Richards on the subject of feminism from being heard.
You do get the feeling that Keith can take or leave sex. ‘I always found with black chicks that wasn’t the main issue. It was just comfortable, and if shit happened later, OK … They were great because they were chicks, but they were much more like guys than English girls were. You didn’t mind them being around after the event.’ Women who are more like men is the gold standard. (I was once told with a certain regret by a part-time long-term lover: ‘If you were a man we’d be best friends.’) And for one reason or possibly another, Richards always prefers women to make the first move. In the chauffeured Bentley, somewhere between Barcelona and Valencia, he finally got it on with Anita Pallenberg, Brian Jones’s girlfriend, after they’d left Brian behind in a Southern French hospital with pneumonia. ‘I’m tongue-tied. I suppose every woman I’ve been with, they’ve had to put the make on me.’ So they sit in the back of the car for several days. At last Anita can’t stand the strain any more: ‘the next thing I know she’s giving me a blow job. The tension broke then. Phew.’ Phew, and indeed, gosh.
He’s less passive about other things. Except for sex, the self-conscious rock and roll wild man is always ready to make his mark. When Robert Stigwood failed to pay up after a series of concerts, he got trapped on a staircase and kneed by Keith 16 times, one for each grand owed. Not that Stigwood apologised (‘Maybe I didn’t kick him hard enough’). Occasionally, he’s a little coy. His chauffeur, Patrick, sold his story about the Redlands drug bust to the News of the World, and Keith explains: ‘Didn’t do him any good. As I heard it, he never walked the same again.’ He always goes about with a knife and admits: ‘I have to say I was using guns too much, but I was pretty out of it at the time.’ That mitigating ‘but’ is odd; I suppose it’s the non-rock-and-roll-chick in me, but if you’re using guns too much, surely it would be better not to be out of it?
Still, it all fits well with the early, Stones-approved notion of the Rolling Stones as the most dangerous rock and roll band in the world. It didn’t last very long, or mean very much; the long-haired, anti-authority look was designed by Andrew Loog Oldham to offer a commodified contrast with the Beatles, and there’s no end of whining in Life about how the police were out to get them, and busted them just because they took drugs and were famous, for all the world as if being ‘dangerous’ was synonymous with everyone leaving you in peace in your country house. An awful lot of people who were neither rich nor famous got busted for possession and went to jail, sometimes for even longer than Richards’s single day. What was the point of being the Stones if the establishment wasn’t out to get them? Richards takes some comfort in the fact that ‘Satisfaction’ was played by American GIs in Vietnam and in Apocalypse Now. It’s his contribution to the anti-war effort. But as I say, this doesn’t last long, and he ends up with that letter to Blair to keep his pecker up about the Iraq war.
Much of the rest is about the hangers-on: the low lifes and the high lifes, crims and aristos that danced attention around the beautiful boys. Which side they chose, like their forms of escape, is what Richards suggests distinguishes him from Jagger. That and testosteronic rivalry. Mick has sex with Keith’s Anita on the set of Performance, but it’s OK because ‘you know, while you were doing that, I was knocking Marianne, man. While you’re missing it, I’m kissing it … my head nestled between those two beautiful jugs.’ Aside from that, it’s control of the band that matters. Mick got a swollen head, followed fashion, loved disco and became a socialite, while Richards took heroin and was true to the music. Mick may have a ‘tiny todger’, lift songs from k.d. lang and take dancing and singing lessons, but that’s only for Keith to say, because Keith understands the true meaning of friendship in that deep low-life sentimental way. ‘I can say these things; they come from the heart. At the same time, nobody else can say anything against Mick that I can hear. I’ll slit their throat.’
Actually, one story in the book is slightly differently but better told in Wikipedia, because Richards leaves out the crucial final line of dialogue. It concerns the strong, silent, immaculately suited, true Stones hero, Charlie Watts:
A famous anecdote relates that during the mid-1980s, an intoxicated Jagger phoned Watts’s hotel room in the middle of the night asking where ‘my drummer’ was. Watts reportedly got up, shaved, dressed in a suit, put on a tie and freshly shined shoes, descended the stairs and punched Jagger in the face, saying: ‘Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my fucking singer!’
Though Richards does enhance this when he tells us that having left the country for the South of France (on account of the super-tax of 83 per cent and 98 per cent on ‘so-called unearned’ income), it was hard to get hold of Charlie, who rented a house in the Vaucluse, 130 miles from the rest of the lads on the Côte d’Azur. ‘To Charlie it was an absolute no no. He has an artistic temperament. It’s just uncool for him to live down on the Côte d’Azur in summer.’
And then there is family. The family is important to Richards. A photo shows the current clan, his wife Patti, their two daughters, Alexandra and Theodora, as well as Marlon and Angela, Richards’s surviving children with Anita Pallenberg. Marlon’s wife is there and their three children, along with two dogs, all squeezed together on a bright white sofa, with husband, father and granddaddy Richards clutching a plush pink parrot. Everyone is smiling bright white smiles, except for Marlon, now 41, who looks comfortable but noncommittal in shades, no teeth showing, and two of his children, one who looks coldly out at the camera, the other back to her big sister. Although there’s another big tour coming up next year, Richards is OK now, he says, he can rest on his laurels in his handsome study in Connecticut, reading George MacDonald Fraser and Patrick O’Brian, and he’s always ‘got some historical work on the go’: Nelson, World War Two, the ancient Romans.
Before the settling down, though, back in 1973, while Richards was in London, Anita Pallenberg was living in Jamaica with Marlon aged four and Angela a year old, when she was arrested. The police left the children alone in the house.
My immediate reaction was to take the first flight back to Jamaica. But I was persuaded that it was better to put the pressure on from London. If I’d gone there they’d have probably popped me too. The brothers and sisters had taken the kids and whisked them up to Steer Town before the authorities had thought, ‘What are we gonna do about these two children?’ And they lived up there while Anita was in jail, and the Rastas took perfect care of them. And that was very important to me.
Angela, aged five, went to live with her paternal grandmother in Dartford after the new baby boy, Tara, died a cot death at two months, while in the care of the increasingly paranoid and addicted Pallenberg. Marlon, seven at the time, was with his father, touring Europe as Richards’s ‘road buddy’. It was his job to warn him of upcoming border posts so that the drugs could be dumped, and to keep nudging his father when he dropped off at the wheel. They only crashed once. He acted, Richards says, ‘beyond his age’. It was also Marlon’s job to wake the comatose Richards when it was getting time to play a gig. The rest of the entourage entrusted this task to the boy because Richards always slept with a gun under his pillow and they reckoned he was least likely to shoot Marlon if enraged.
Living with his mother back in London wasn’t easy either. Her teenage boyfriend killed himself while playing Russian roulette in the bedroom, and although Marlon witnessed the aftermath, he says: ‘He kept telling me – a really nasty kid – he kept saying he was going to shoot Keith, and that upset me, so I was kind of relieved when he shot himself.’ During the 1980s, living in a derelict, unfurnished mansion with his grandfather, Marlon didn’t go to school but rattled around, left almost entirely to himself. He remembers: ‘I didn’t really mind all this self-sufficiency. I was kind of happy not to have everyone around, really, because it was exhausting with Anita and Keith.’ Eventually in 1988 he asked to go back to London and get an education. He was in his late teens and lived in a flat of his own opposite his mother. Marlon would like it known that he got four A levels, and quite rightly. Keith is aware it was not an easy childhood: ‘By now, Marlon understands; it was the times, and the circumstances, that made it tough on him. It was very difficult to be one of the Rolling Stones and take care of your kids at the same time.’
And there Marlon sits alive and, I hope, well in his shades next to Keith on the big white sofa. Along with the other children, the grandchildren and the dogs. A survival portrait of a Rolling Stone.