March 15, 2013


A mini odyssey through rock autobiographies

by Keith Richards with James Fox
547 pages, Orion Books

Review by Pat Black

The word “iconic” has been somewhat overused. Actually it’s been incorrectly used, if we’re going to be pedantic about it. See also “legendary”, and “genius”. Indeed, “the word ‘genius’ has become overused”, is a phrase that has become overused.

When I say the words “Keith Richards”, we’re getting close to the import behind those clichés. He’s a still-living, still-kicking character who has a large semiotic cache in our minds. Five guitar strings; the Telecaster; the chandelier-type hairstyles and headgear; the drawling, often incomprehensible utterances; that Annie Leibowitz picture of him passed out on a chair somewhere in 1972. Keith Richards has a lot in common with Napoleon, or Santa Claus, or Jesus Christ. Or Mick Jagger. There’s something of the caricature in there. He’s someone we think we know on sight.

And once we invoke the image of the Rolling Stones guitarist, the stories follow. Anita Pallenberg and Brian Jones, Altamont, the original demo of “Satisfaction” accompanied by 45 minutes of snoring, police busts at Redlands, Marianne Faithfull in a feather boa… A Mars Bar in Marianne Faithfull..? Apparently not… A blur of snapshots, a flip-book animation of faded Polaroids, lots of neon and dry ice. Anyone with an interest in rock n’ roll history could probably make a decent stab at writing a Keef biography themselves.

This book caused a sensation when it first came out in 2010, and I devoured the extracts and interviews when they were serialised in the Sunday Times. The most striking parts were the ones where Keith is delivering a verbal beating to Mick Jagger. It’s easy to imagine band members falling out with each other, but there’s something particularly galling to think of Mick and Keef barely on speaking terms. It’s the Glimmer Twins! Come on, surely you’re still mates, swapping Chuck Berry LPs, locked in kitchens writing songs? No?

What happened? Did you grow up? Or even worse… have we?

Life by Keith Richards has been written in autotune; that is to say, it captures Keith’s memorable speaking cadences and hepcat rhythms, but cleans up the skipped beats and slurring which slips through in his televised interviews. But it’s no sanitised production line package. The language is salty: Little Richard is a “massive fag”; Anita Pallenberg is a “sexy fucking bitch”; Studio 54 is “a room full of faggots in boxer shorts”. It’s an uncompromising book that delves into Keith’s background and childhood. It punctures the mystique as well as upholds it. 

But mainly the latter.

Keith doesn’t soft-soap the idea of his mother cuckolding his father. Nor does he skimp over the fact that he was horribly bullied at school in Dartford – only getting out of the cycle of abuse when he acquires minders in exchange for homework, followed by a red mist moment at school when he beats one tormentor to a pulp. Getting a reputation is what it’s all about, we can gather.

These episodes partly explain the curious allure of this man. On the one hand, quintessentially English, with a polite manner that some women found irresistible. On the other, he has something of the savage in him, something feral and occasionally violent. It’s a weird mix. Several times he reflects on his un-Englishness. In one section he jokes about being lily white, but with a black heart thrilled to bits with its deception. He was the type of person who hung around with roadies and technicians and session players while Jagger was off reading the romantic poets, making friends at Studio 54 or trying out new clothes for a photoshoot. Keith was never shy about indulging in the seamier side of life.

You’ve got roughly 100 pages before Keith has his fateful meeting with a former junior schoolmate, Jagger, at Dartford railway station. This was in 1960, with rock n’ roll in full bloom as Britain began to climb out of the austerity of the post-war years. Scenes were beginning to emerge, record shops were appearing on high streets. It’s funny to think of the young Mick n’ Keef going to houses of uber-geek record collectors, solemnly listening to blues records on headphones, drinking in every note. Although Keith is scathing about his formal education (it’s worth noting that he did go to art school; Jagger attended the London School of Economics), he does recognise that this was a period of musical scholarship for the ramshackle unit which would eventually become the Rolling Stones.

This period in time generated a somewhat risible notion which has been frighteningly influential in popular music: that of bone white, skinny English men from London and the Home Counties modelling themselves on black musicians from America’s Deep South.  

Of course, there are no racial boundaries when it comes to music. I don’t know how many times I’ve informed people who parrot the line “Elvis stole everything he knew from black people” that music isn’t segregated. If that division is written down in law somewhere, then please point it out to me. 

That said, the idea of “being a bluesman” in the sixties – never a bluesgirl, of course; this is definitely an all-male club – carried terribly serious, often pompous overtones. It also created divisions and barriers.

Keith came to understand that; he was thought a little bit odd among his early peers, in fact, drawing from many different wells. Keith liked early rock n’ roll, Buddy Holly and Elvis, as much as he did Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon; and he loved the soul singers, too – Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Etta James. Learning and growing all the time. There’s a beautiful section where Keith – pre-drugs Keith, mind – shows us a sketch he penned as a 16-year-old, showing musical notes floating free from the “prison bars” of sheet music. Keith didn’t study musical theory, a lack of formal education he shares with Paul McCartney.

It’s all about feeling, he says. Not about how you rock, but how you roll.

The wonderful thing about Keith’s review of the Stones’ early days, from the riots in British seaside towns to the top of the bill in the US, was that they were genuinely not motivated by money. They lived in filthy hovels, shoplifting food, coveting half decent equipment. Granted, it seems like they got used to the idea of money when the folding stuff began to appear in large quantities, but the initial ethic was learning one’s trade and working hard. For a young Keith and Mick, there were no models for them to look up to; there were no millionaire bands from the UK just yet, although the Beatles had opened the door for everyone. It was do-it-yourself. Keith estimates that the Stones only had about 10 days off during their first four years on the road; under the wing of manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham, they were put to toil.  

None of them were worked into the ground, of course. Though one of them did end up there before the sixties were out.

Brian Jones was the one who came off the rails most spectacularly, although most of the Stones had a go at crashing and burning at some point. What a face he had; the evil choirboy. No empty respecter of the dead, Keith is brutal in his criticism, detailing some of his fellow guitarist’s psychopathic, manipulative tendencies and also his descent into an early celebrity hell. Brian bought into the fame and notoriety of things, regarding himself as the “leader” of the Stones and attaching mystical significance to every acid-tinged experience. But he was fragile. Soon, he lost his grip.

Keith acknowledges he has a bit of a cheek criticising anyone for drug intake, but you sense that he resented this prototype scenester, wasting time with appearance, fripperies and foibles while Keith only wanted to get on with the rock n’ roll. But it’s a curious fact that even though Mick and Keith will always be the heartbeat of the Stones, Brian was responsible for some of their most interesting early moments. The sitar on “Paint It Black”? That’s Brian. The marimba on “Under My Thumb”? That’s Brian.

And then came Anita.

There is very little rock n’ roll in the book’s most interesting section. But there is plenty of sex and drugs. Keith does a fine job of painting himself as “Sir Galahad” in the love triangle which became a love straight line between Brian, Anita Pallenberg and himself. But the cold facts of the matter are that Keith slyly inserted himself between the pair – a volatile coupling, although Brian often came off worst in his violent rages towards Anita – and basically nicked his bandmate’s girlfriend.

A slow-burning seduction comes to a head during an acid and hashish-fuelled road trip through France and on into Tangier and Marrakesh in 1967. Not completely without irony, Keith recalls being irritated by Brian’s constant health complaints in the car. When they finally accede to his demands to see a doctor, it turns out Brian has pneumonia, and is confined to a hospital bed. Sir Galahad decides to provide Anita with an escort as the group travels on without Brian to meet up with Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. And then of course, the storm breaks, and long-threatened lightning strikes between Keith and Anita. 

Our hero recalls this watershed moment in his life thus: “Next thing I know, I’m getting a blowjob in the back seat of the car.”

The affair continues until Brian realises that rather than Sir Galahad, Keith is in fact Sir Lancelot. Amazingly, the Stones continued to tour with Brian in the band before he was “let go” in 1969, prior to a long-term commitment with death at the bottom of a swimming pool. The animosity that built up between the two guitarists must have been blistering. Even though Keith was the clear winner of whatever power struggle was going on in the band, he still can’t resist several potshots at Jones. “He lost his status… He wasn’t leader of the Stones after me and Mick started writing the songs.” The guy was a joke, Keith tells us, a figure of fun, mocked and picked on by the rest of the band. 

The story doesn’t quite end there, of course. As well as a good time gal, Anita was an artist and actress, well-connected with the doyens of the London art scene. One of these was the film-maker Donald Cammell, who thought it would be a wheeze to cast Anita opposite Mick Jagger in the movie Performance. 

Keith accepts that the pair had an affair at this point. “She probably broke his back,” he says. Rationalising the betrayal as a symptom of the sixties, Keith nonetheless drops a wee bombshell of his own, which must have had Jagger spitting out his Earl Grey when he read it. Keith, never a man to allow a grudge to go unanswered, gained his revenge by sleeping with Marianne Faithfull behind Mick’s back. “Sorry buddy – but while you were missing it, I was kissing it.” Indeed, there’s a near-miss when Keith has to “do one out the window” after Jagger returns home unexpectedly, leaving Keith to sweat over whether or not Jagger saw the socks he’d left on the floor.

Although there’s comedy in these picaresque reminiscences, we have to remember that Anita wasn’t a sort of off-the-cuff rock star dalliance for Keith; she bore him three children, and they were together nearly a decade. Again, despite the “free love” excuse, the affairs can’t have been a good thing for inter-band politics, and now you can appreciate why Keith says that Jagger hasn’t spent any time with him socially for more than 25 years. There’s a lot of hurting in there.

And here’s a chilling thought – what if Pallenberg, as she protests to this day, never had an affair with Jagger? That being the case, Keith is very much the villain. And how does Jagger feel about that?

Most of us would be forgiven for stamping Mick’s Sex Credentials sight unseen, waving him through Sex Customs. Enjoy your stay, Mr Jagger. He’s surely one of the great womanisers, with a well-documented sexual appetite. But Keith even has a pop at that, hinting that Jagger’s jabber might not be the full French loaf. “He has massive balls, but they’re hardly going to fill the gap, are they?” Keith hisses. Goodness me! Jealous much, mate?

Another sign of Keith’s nature can be divined from his spitting cobra contempt for Donald Cammell. Keith recalls bumping into the director not long before his suicide, and claims he suggested to him: “Don’t you ever fancy taking the gentleman’s way out?” Cammell sounded like a nasty piece of work, but it’s a wicked thing to write about another dead man. I suspect Keith doesn’t allow any wrongs to go unpunished.

It’s a heady time – pardon the pun. At the zenith of the 1960s, Keith is now starting to do an awful lot of drugs. He recalls one near-mythical encounter with John Lennon, where the pair took off on a road trip, full of LSD, the details of which neither could remember. “What happened on that road trip?” Lennon asks, years later. Keith is unable to answer. It’s left to our imaginations. There’s got to be a movie in there, somewhere.

What isn’t left to our imagination is Keith’s herculean drug intake, going into the 1970s. Heroin makes its appearance, and while it’s managed to leave Keith with us, it did take a few others away, most notably his friend Gram Parsons.

Like heroin? Like cocaine? Got an album to record? Why not take a speedball? It seems incredible that (barring Brian) all of the Stones are still with us – and yet we’re down to just two Beatles.

The musical chapters were interesting, as Keith gives the lowdown on his experiments with open tuning. There’s no big mystery to it, Keith says, just tuning your open strings to an actual chord. It is the key to his guitar sound, and without it you can’t play those riffs properly. I’ve always wondered how you get the tone for “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” Now I know. This chapter will have guitar freaks dusting off their instruments in the cupboard. And also having a strum of their guitars.

The title of this book becomes more of a joke as the seventies go on. Keith had a heroin habit, and whatever he might say about “not being greedy” or restricting himself to pharmaceutical grade stuff rather than “Mexican sole scrapings”, there can be no doubt that he sailed close to the wind. The cadaverous photos from this era do not paint a picture of a man in great health. A born trouper, he kept on working – whether that’s in the south of France for Exile on Main Street, arguably the Stones’ peak, or creating entire fogbanks of weed in Jamaica for the recording of Goat’s Head Soup. He kept to the tunes. That was the drive. Never mind this silly “going to sleep” business.

Soon, though, for a variety of reasons – some natural, some not – faces start to disappear. Gram Parsons, for one. And then Anita – not dead, but lost. After that, pianist Ian Stewart, the “sixth Stone” – the burly Scot wasn’t a fit for photocalls or Top of the Pops appearances, but he was very much a member of the band. It was nice to see Keith paying Stewart his dues. Without Stewart – no Stones.

Out of all the Stones proper, only Charlie Watts gets pass marks – perhaps because he always kept himself aloof from the rest of the boys, or perhaps because he still has the look of a gentleman from London’s East End who could show you a couple of knife tricks. Certainly, in one episode which I previously thought was a myth, Keith reveals Charlie exploded into immaculately-tailored violence upon being rung at 3am by Jagger and asked, “Where’s my drummah?”

However, the rest are rather liberally Swiss-cheesed. Brian’s grave is danced on time and again, and Mick and Bill Wyman (“Bill Perks”) are soundly scudded (apart from the times they helped Keith out when he was struggling on smack). The latter years with Jagger appear to have been the worst for Keith, particularly after the Stones’ mid-80s hiatus, in which we discover that record industry chiefs felt a solo Mick Jagger could be “as big as Michael Jackson”. Keith saw Mick’s solo career as a massive betrayal of the band.

Ronnie Wood, the new boy – more than 35 years on – comes across as very genial, though Keith still found time to deck him in a fight. Keith got on his high horse because Ronnie was freebasing. Crack cocaine is a big no-no for long-term ex-heroin addict Keith, apparently. So in strides our hero, like John Wayne, to sort out the drug-taking sluggard with a right hand to the jaw at San Franciso’s Fairmont Hotel. Keith’s concept of irony is somewhat elasticated, we might say.

The author delivers a strictly metaphorical one-two punch to both Wyman and Jagger for their womanising. “Mick would hate this, but to be honest, they were almost the same bloke. Writing in their diaries. ‘Who have you had?’” Barring the odd jam, Wyman’s long off the scene, but you wonder of the remainder: how can they stand to be in the same room as each other, never mind sharing a stage or a recording studio?

Keith doesn’t quite tell the full story of his dealings with women. Perhaps he is being disingenuous, or perhaps he is mindful that he did have partners at the time, but the guitarist claims that a lot of the time he just liked a kiss and a cuddle with girls he’d hook up with on tour. Admittedly he was out of the game on heroin at the time, and that doesn’t tend to have a bolstering effect on one’s libido, but I found this cute. Just cuddling in and sleeping with hundreds of women, but not having sex with them. It’s like the experimentation you might have had as a teenager, doing everything but the naughty. I can imagine the rest of the Stones busting Keith’s chops when he gets back on the bus, glittery eyed. “How did it go?” “Yeah, alright.” “She a goer, then?” “S’pose.” “So… any details?” “Not really.”

The road party stories are what you might expect – lots of high jinks with sax player Bobby Keys, lots of groupies running around planes half naked, but also lots of heroin. Most of the 1970s were stuffed full of junk for Keith. It seems a miracle he is alive – he was top of the celebrity dead pool for 10 years, he proudly states. And it’s here that the laughter has to stop. Keith bigs up his driving skills more than once in this book, but he also crashes his car more than once – the first time with Anita, when she’s pregnant with Marlon, and the second time with several passengers including his young son. Keith escapes with a slap on the wrist for various alleged offences, mainly involving drugs, which would have landed you or I right in the slammer. The threat of arrest is always hanging over him, and this put me in mind of the scene in Goodfellas where Henry gets paranoid about the lingering presence of a helicopter. For all the jive about being an outlaw rock n’ roller and ducking and diving to avoid the cops, as the 1970s drew to a close Keith Richards was an absolutely pathetic junkie. His money was the only thing separating him from the slack-eyed ghouls you sometimes see squatting in underpasses. Coincidentally, he also escaped a lot of fires in houses and hotels - “brushes of fate”, as he calls them. He seems to have been very unlucky when it comes to staying in places which had faulty wiring. Nibbled by mice and such.

Although he does clean up, ditches Anita, finds lasting happiness with Patti Hansen (despite one of the most disastrous “meet the parents” episodes of all time) and the Rolling Stones evolve into the slick, professional touring monsters they still are today, you wonder at the full human cost of a life lived on the edge. It certainly gives one a little perspective when you see Johnny Depp paying cutesy homage to Keith while dressed as a pirate in a children’s film.

You may not believe it, but Life is a love story. There’s a part of Keith that laments his other half not being quite as close as he once was. While Keith was busy exploring the stratosphere, Mick Jagger had his feet on the ground, looking after business, making choices outside the music. Keith is sharp enough to acknowledge the good sense of this. For all we might cackle at Keith’s stories of cutting albums at four in the morning, throwing knives at folk, firing guns, getting busted and causing general chaos wherever he goes, there is always another1 side to the story of someone whose substance abuse is out of control. How many times did the rest of the band cover for Keith? They had a lot to put up with, I’d suggest.

The Glimmer Twins’ relationship had deteriorated alarmingly, to the extent that they couldn’t even set up their gear next to each other in a studio by the 1990s. Keith says that after getting a knighthood, Jagger mellowed out a little towards him, but you sense their dealings with each other are more détente than companionship. I would be stunned if the pair have had a night at the pub or a restaurant in donkey’s years.

And yet they still refer to each other as “best mates”. Still the two boys who met on platform three at Dartford station, for all that. That actually rings true, the older I get. Even without a scrap of animosity, you do grow apart from some friends. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just life. You wonder if perhaps the pair of them need to be locked into a kitchen together again, see if they can’t strike some more sparks, or at least crack open a bottle or something. They’re both kicking 70 now, but it’s not too late. It never will be until one or both of them are in the ground.

Any omissions? Well, like Neil Young and Rod Stewart being model rail aficionados, Keith Richards does have one nerdy habit which was not well known until recently. He is a massive bookworm, with an enviable library of first editions. There is very little space in the book devoted to this pastime, and I wouldn’t have minded hearing more about what he liked to read, his treasured books, his key experiences between the pages. And what does he think about moves to close public libraries in the UK? I’d like to know more. It’s not quite rock n’ roll, but we like it.

One other thing which intrigues me: Life, although brilliant, is only one half of the ticket. Mick Jagger is present all the way through this book - even when you don’t see him, like the shark in Jaws. Surely he’s considering his own side of the story, just as in-depth, and surely just as vicious? Mick’s revenge. That would make a perfect pair.

How about it, Mick? Shall I count it off?



  1. Great review. Totally absorbing. I've kept meaning to get the book - this makes me do so at last.

  2. Cheers Bill, it's a terrific book. Tip of the hat to James Fox; he captures the speech rhythms really well - it feels like Keith's actually speaking to you.