The hype surrounding Keith Richards’ memoir (Life) has been bubbling away for a year or so, ever since the announcement of the mega-advance he received. From there it was all about how this would be the “best music book since Dylan’s Chronicles“ and so on.
And I believed (a lot of) it, too.
Unfortunately, Richards is not Bob Dylan as a prose-writer; so this is noChronicles. Instead we get a rambling monologue which many will think is suited to the subject and author but is actually borderline impenetrable for the first hundred pages.
It is also bogged down in the worst kind of family-history scene-setting. And it’s not even Keith writing. Veteran journo James Fox was called in to transcribe the tapes, to thread the stories together.
It’s ramshackle and frustrating and occasionally there’s a sparkle; occasionally there’s a jewel of truth, a gem, a nugget. But too often cantankerous Keef comes across like the spoilt brat only-child he was.
His lack of compassion for any of the band members serves to show just how much of an enterprise The Rolling Stones now is – ironically the one that gets the most savaging is Mick Jagger. It’s ironic because he is the one that has turned the Stones in to the huge machine it is – thereby rewarding his old chum (who apparently can’t really stand him now) with a job for the last thirty years, given he gave up writing decent songs years ago.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the Stones. I’ll happily defend their worth (and regularly seem to). If you believe their only decent period was 1968-1972 there is still a huge amount of riches that came out from there.
Enough to, mostly, sustain their live shows these days – with a sprinkling of the before and after to even it out.
But of course there is a lot more than just those classic four albums and a couple of killer singles. Most of the 1970s work stands up to scrutiny – and through to the early 1980s. And the first “comeback album”, Steel Wheels, is, if nothing else, solid. And from 1965-1968 there were some great pop singles.
But Keith’s book dances around a lot of this, tracing around some of the songs and how they were written, getting bored and discussing some of his bedpost notches, getting bored and meandering over to drug use, sashaying over to discuss some of the non-Stones music he loves. And it’s all so rambling – a little too rambling.
The feeling I had 120 pages in or so was that no-one believes in the myth of Keith Richards more than Keith Richards. At page 530, or whatever it was, I still had that feeling. Sure, there are some jokes about that from Keith – he discusses the idea that image hangs over him, casting a long shadow, and that people think he’s still a junkie even though he gave it up 30 years ago. Clean.
People have praised this book for its honesty – but that’s ridiculous – if Keith was honest he’d be thanking Jagger for keeping him in work for the last 30 years; he’d be thanking Ronnie for covering his playing from time to time rather than writing him off as, essentially, a good mate who is thoroughly unreliable and a bit of an idiot.
He gives Bill Wyman about three lines in the whole book – that seems less surprising though. Just as it’s not a surprise that Keith has a lot of love and respect for Charlie Watts as both player and person, Charlie is also hardly mentioned but he’s not toyed with, teased and mocked like the others.
Brian Jones certainly cops it – which seemed almost surprising. As talented as he was, I’ve no doubt that Jones was far too much the loose cannon but it seems a tad, well, revisionist, for Richards to paint Jones at arm’s length now rather than in detail.
But then, one criticism of Jones does stand truth with what Keith holds dear. He discusses Brian’s inability to create songs, to write. And this is clearly so important to Richards that it does illuminate why he might not respect Jones, musically.
The songwriting partnership of Jagger/Richards is looked at, often. And this will be of interest to fans – Keith essentially coming up with a lyrical theme, a title, a line or two or maybe a chorus and then basically tossing it to the side for Jagger to turn in to a full lyric. It speaks to both of their musical personalities; that Keith writes the riff and dashes out the idea, then gets someone to finish it for him. And that Mick makes the improvements creates the flash, the dazzle, the chance to peacock-prance. You get a picture of him almost writing the lines to emphasise the strut he has in mind.
But too often Keith comes across as a classless grouch, crass and a little too full of himself.
And for all his discussion of songs he spends far too long trying to justify Bridges To Babylon as a great Stones album, unfairly maligned. I wonder if this is because he had more songs on it than he normally does with Stones albums these days. Funny that he doesn’t spend the same amount of time dissecting A Bigger Bang.
Ah, but you see that album received fairly positive notices – and several raves. And that album was put together, driven in fact, mostly, by one Sir Mick Jagger.
It’s funny how he and Jagger have changed roles in the band. It’s actually Jagger that drives the ship now – has been for a long time. Keith might seem like the cool one, but would the Stones exist without Jagger.
Impossible – because the Stones are a live show. And it is Jagger that brings that show. Sure, Charlie and Keith are the sound of the stones, but Jagger is the show.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. I think having read several books about the Stones, including other biographies and watching the concert films and documentaries there was little left for me to discover.
And the picture Keith paints of himself is pretty much what I expected and what I always had him pegged as: far less cool than so many people actually think. At his best he wrote great riffs, he embodied rock’n’roll in the sound and the lurch on stage. But he is lost in the idea of what he is supposed to be to people.
And this book is an often lazy, far too unkempt collection of shaggy-dog stories.
And the picking on Jagger seemed petty and all for the purpose of providing juicy excerpts. Read the reviews and think of all the advance-press, it all amounts to seeing a racy film trailer and then being bored by the full movie.
That’s what I thought about Keith’s Life. I was underwhelmed. What about you? Anyone love the book? Or is it on your Christmas list still? Are you planning it as a summer-read? Or did you never have any interest in this memoir?
Between late 2007 and early 2016 I wrote a daily music blog at Stuff.co.nz called Blog On The Tracks. I’m reposting some of the entries here because the discussion is still valid or entertaining or because you might have missed them the first time.
Click here to see the original post from 2010.