Keith Richards' Life: Somehow He Still Has One

In his honest reflections on one of rock's most debauched careers, Keith Richards leaves no stone unturned

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Jan Persson / Redferns / Getty Images

Keith Richards in 1970

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If Richards' aspect and affect suggest a dull mind, then that is the sneakiest of his subversions. Anyone who opens the 564-page Life expecting an addled, one-note memoir — a print version of the world's longest guitar solo — will get a liberating surprise. The book is a vivid self-portrait and, of the Stones and their musical era, a grand group portrait. Surely thanks in part to his co-writer James Fox, Richards shows a strong, sure authorial voice, acute in detail, passionate about his achievements in music and nearly always amused by his excesses, not least in having survived them. "This is the Life," he writes in his own hand on the book's inside flap. "Believe it or not I haven't forgotten any of it."

The only son of Bert Richards, a factory worker, and his wife Doris, Keith was born Dec. 18, 1943, in the London suburb of Dartford, which he describes as a centuries-old refuge for thieves. ("If somebody's got a nice pair of diamond somethings, you never ask, 'Where did they come from?' ") Campers in their youth, Bert and Doris took the boy on hiking trips; as a teen he became a devout, proficient Boy Scout. Keith's paternal grandfather was a gardener by trade, a socialist by choice; the boy's maternal grandfather, Gus Dupree, was the leader of a jazz band. "God bless him — I owe so much of my love for music to him," Richards recalls with unabashed affection. "I write him notes frequently and pin them up. 'Thanks, Granddad.' " Gus introduced Keith to the guitar; Doris introduced his ear to Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. "When songs came on the radio, we'd all start harmonizing. A load of singers." On a weak signal from Radio Luxembourg, he heard the music that would change his life: Elvis Presley singing "Heartbreak Hotel." When he was 15, Doris bought him a guitar. "I took it everywhere and went to sleep with my arm laid across it."

Howlin' Keith

In middle school, Keith had been one of three boy sopranos chosen to perform at Westminster Abbey; when he returned, he found that he was to be held back a grade because he'd missed classes to practice. He considered this a betrayal and thus was turned "from a reasonably compliant student into a school terrorist and criminal, with a lively and lasting rage against authority." His attitude soured, his grades sank, and when he was expelled from Dartford Technical School for truancy, his headmaster advised him to try art school in the nearby town of Sidcup, where he spent most of his time immersing himself in the traditional blues of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. On a train he saw Mick Jagger, who had lived near him years before and now owned some Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry albums. The two started jamming, aligned with Brian Jones and two other young musicians, formed the Rolling Stones and moved from the suburbs into town.

The London Stones came together just as their Liverpool cousins, the Beatles, were soaring to the top of the charts. The Stones' manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, proposed that they be "the anti-Beatles": not just playing rhythm and blues instead of pop rock but jettisoning the starchy uniforms for rehearsal wear and replacing the Fab Four's cuddly, even-Mum-likes-them image for a highwayman vibe that was both surly (Keith) and explicitly sexual (Mick). There would be two other differences: the four Beatles were together for eight years, the Stones now for 48; and though the Beatles made the better music, the Stones were unquestionably the more — the century's most — influential rock band. The Stones set the mold for the testosteronic bad-boy bands of the next 40 years; they made outlawry in. It was they who promoted strength and volume over the Beatles' angelic harmonies; who cemented the notion of the lead singer, unencumbered by guitar, as the focus of theatrical attention; who established the live performance, not the studio recording, as the genre's organic expression. As Richards told some kids while on a recent visit to Dartford, "Whatever you're listening to now, it wouldn't have been there without me."

With fame came the screaming girls on the streets, in the hotel rooms, at the concerts. "Amongst the many thousands," Richards recalls, "a few got hurt, and a few died ... But the limp and fainted bodies going by us after the first ten minutes of playing, that happened every night. Or sometimes they'd stack them up on the side of the stage because there were so many of them. It was like the western front." Instead of roses, the young ladies threw their panties. "I remember walking back out onto the stage after the show, and they'd cleaned up all the underwear and everything, and there was one old janitor ... and he said, 'Very good show. Not a dry seat in the house.' "

Richards believes that the Stones' popularity and up-yours demeanor made them the "focal point of a nervous establishment ... They had to leave the Beatles alone because they'd already given them medals. We got the nail." (In fact, the Beatles were susceptible to drug busts too.) But the two groups held no animosity for each other. "We were a mutual-admiration society," Richards writes. "Mick and I admired their harmonies and their songwriting capabilities, they envied us our freedom of movement and our image." In the post-Beatles era, Richards spent time with John Lennon, whom he affectionately calls "a silly sod in many ways" and who was no match for grandmaster Keith in consuming drugs. "He'd try and take anything I took, but without my good training ... And John would inevitably end up in my john, hugging the porcelain." Recently, Richards has shared long, warm chats on the beach of his island retreat in the Turks and Caicos Islands with the Beatles' least Stonesian member, Paul McCartney.

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