Review: Life

This is about Keith Richards’s book, Life, but there’s something awesome about the post title. Life is Richards’s autobiography. He’s the lead guitarist and a significant creative force behind the Rolling Stones – perhaps the rock and roll band – and has a life of debauchery and legend.

While I enjoy the Rolling Stones stuff I’ve heard – and I did go to school in the Midwest, where classic rock a required minor – I’m not a huge fan or student of the band.  I don’t keep track of all the personnel changes or who stole whose wife.  I do know that their music is consistently good rock and roll and that they’ve been doing it longer than I’ve been alive.  I’m sure scholars of the Stones will be fact checking this thing to death for the motivations for this or that decision or further insight into the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards in-fighting that’s been going on.  That’s not the perspective you will get from me.  I’m just listening to the narrative.

The narrative carries a unique voice.  It’s roughly chronological, but doesn’t pretend that the reader hasn’t heard of the Rolling Stones and know the outline of the story.  Most band members aren’t so much introduced as mentioned.  And if Richards remembers a good story, he just tells it.  The result is an engagingly rambling trip through the history of the band.  One suspects that this is a result of Richards sitting down to a series of interviews with contributor James Fox who turned the thing from interviews into a book that the two of them polished up for publication.  Whatever the process – for all I know Richards composed the whole thing and Fox fact-checked it – the resulting stumble through Richards’s life is engrossing and entertaining.

In much the way that William Shatner’s Up Till Now is the sort of autobiography I imagine Shatner writing, Life is the autobiography that my impression of Keith Richards would write.  Its a tale of mayhem and music told by an unapologetic and somewhat addled protagonist.  He’s clearly aware that his shenanigans are far outside the pale, but somehow finds ways to neither make excuses nor apologies for them.  It’s strangely endearing to hear Richards comment on his son’s recollection of a Richards-driven car crash with “I’m a good driver.  I mean, nobody’s perfect, right?”

It’s also endearing that he doesn’t remember significant events clearly – often admitting he was badly impaired for them and bringing in other eyewitness accounts.  I imagine that Stones scholars find this infuriating, but who could argue with it?  Richards’s reputation for indulging in intoxicants is a given.  It is similarly whimsical to hear the number of times he goes cold turkey or swears off one of his vices, only to have it reappear a few pages later.  These things aren’t a big deal for him, and it’s clear that he doesn’t think that they should be a big deal for the reader, either.

That style has a tendency to downplay his most outrageous actions or to gloss over bad behavior, but for me it didn’t really have that effect.  One gets the impression that when Richards talks to people he would downplay it, but that he is aware of his short temper and casual approach to child rearing.  While he talks with  admiration and respect about the capable women he knows, he also addresses women in general in some unflattering terms. He doesn’t hide much, but he does describe everything in his charming, roguish way.  It seems like he would be perfectly happy with the reader forming their own conclusions from that.

Overall its a diverting life story told in a unique voice.


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