‘Life,’ according to the Stones’ Keith
Mother Nature knows how to welcome Keith Richards.
The afternoon is sunny minutes before Richards is to be interviewed at his manager’s office in downtown Manhattan — a veritable Keith shrine with posters and pictures on the wall, and a director’s chair with his name on it, ready for him to be seated.
At the top of the hour, the clouds darken. The door swings open and the grinning Rolling Stone guitarist and songwriter arrives.
He is 66, his face tanned and lined, his walk slightly bent, an old cowboy gone electric. He’s wearing a tan, wide-brimmed hat, black leather jacket, black pants and a loose-hanging white T-shirt. He has on turquoise sneakers, a distant cousin to blue suede shoes.
Unlike Mick Jagger, Richards has never been knighted. But he can claim honors in the world of letters: Nearly 30 years after Jagger gave up on writing a memoir, alleging he had forgotten everything, Richards has emerged as a best-selling author who seems to have retained it all.
“Another feather in my cap,” he said with his smoke-ringed laugh, lighting up the first of several Marlboros.
“It’s been a much harder journey than I expected,” he said. “At first, it was like, ‘Oh, sure, I’ll tell you anything,’ without realizing how things connect together and the effect they have on you.
“Hey, it’s not easy to relive the death of your own son [Tara, who died in infancy in 1976]. Old wounds are opened here and there, only to heal them.”
A wild ride through the ‘60s
Co-written by journalist and White Mischief author James Fox, Richards’ memoir Life topped the best-seller list on Amazon.com even before publication last October. Richards has received a rave (“achingly, emotionally direct”) from The New York Times where it is currently number six on its best seller list..
Life, a firsthand journey from wartime London through the wilder parts of the 1960s and 1970s and beyond, could as easily be filed among the works of Richards’ friend William Burroughs as alongside the memoirs of Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton.
Life is told in Richards’ offhand, conversational rhythms, through recording sessions and concerts, orgies and true romance, drugs and drug busts, family fights and domestic comforts, guitar tunings and adventures with Mick.
It’s the rare rock memoir with recipes (for bangers, English sausages), guidelines on street brawling (flash the knife as a decoy, then kick your enemy where it hurts), and staying awake for days.
“I thought [co-author Fox] did a remarkable job,” said Robert Greenfield, an author and former writer for Rolling Stone magazine who traveled with the band during its 1972 tour and interviewed Richards the year before.
“He not only drew Keith out and got him to talk and provide information, but some of the language is so literary and I think it comes from Keith.”
Jagger writes most of the Rolling Stones’ lyrics, but in countless interviews Richards has laid down his own take. He is candid and philosophical, jaded and tender, Bogart with a guitar, inspiring such books as What Would Keith Richards Do? and Stone Me: The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards.
His stature on paper is nearly as long, and as great, as his musical catalog. Quotes from over the decades — “I’ll just keep on rocking and hope for the best,” “I’ve never had a problem with drugs; I’ve had problems with the police” — are mottos for his fans.
Life is like the ultimate Keith Richards album, as if all the interviews were scraps of music that Richards and Fox fleshed out and arranged. Private letters, diaries and journals were discovered, old friends consulted. Fox worked hard with Richards to freshen his memory.
“We got underneath the years of telling the stories. They were always the best stories, and always good, but he had flattened some of them by repetition over the years,” Fox said.
“I wanted to build them and we often returned to stories, just by accident or because I wanted more, and this always produced more detail each time, and it slowly built up and came more alive — at least in a literary way.”
Richards was born east of London, in Dartford, in 1943. The Nazis were dropping bombs at the time, his mother told him. “That was evidence that Hitler was on my trail,” Richards writes.
He remembers “landscapes of rubble,” bombed-out streets and beatings in the schoolyard. His father, a foreman at General Electric, was often away.
But Richards was close to his mother and adored his grandfather, Gus Dupree, a bohemian and musician who harmonized with Keith on radio songs and taught him a few chords on guitar.
One of the great discoveries of working on Life was remembering his grandfather and “how much in his own way he had to do with what I became, how much I learned from him.”
Richards was a choir boy, crushed at age 13 when his voice changed and his talents were no longer needed. “It still rankles, that humiliation. It still hasn’t gone out, that fire,” he writes.
“That’s when I realized there’s bigger bullies than just bullies. There’s them, the authorities.”
Rock ‘n’ roll, he likes to say, changed the world from black and white to Technicolor. On the radio, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were shouts from a party he was dying to join. On paper, he found a lonely, fictional soulmate in Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye.
“It just opened me up, just, wow,” Richards said of J.D. Salinger’s novel. “A kid from another country, and a certain sense that the emotions were pretty much universal. You could feel just as disconnected in Iowa or New York as you can in Berlin or London or anywhere else.“
In 1961, he was on a train and ran into Mick Jagger, a childhood acquaintance from the cleaner side of town, Posh Town. Jagger was carrying rock and blues albums under his arms and a musical bond was born.
Mick liked to sing. Keith could play. By 1962, the Rolling Stones were a working band. By 1963, a live sensation, and by the mid-1960s, international outlaws — the dark side of their friends and rivals the Beatles.
By writing the memoir “I was hoping to explain a lot of what went down to be part of the Stones,” Richards said. “Also, in a strange way, I wanted to put order into it myself.
“It’s a very kaleidoscopic life, rock and roll, and trying to find some order and narrative is probably the hardest, because in real life, you don’t think of things in such clear-cut terms.”
Richards’ take on Jagger
His words are sometimes too well remembered, so Richards uses the interview to laugh off his latest cracks about Jagger. He said he doesn’t hate Mick Jagger, despite his comments in recent days about his bandmate’s “tiny todger.” Many of the negative remarks in his book date from the 1980s, when Jagger’s solo career nearly broke up the band.
The Stones have material to work on, and Richards hopes to tour next year.
“You don’t expect relationships to remain in the same groove all the time. It goes up and it goes down and we always end on middle ground and find our spot together,” he said.
Richards said Jagger has read the book and had only minor objections. Richards doesn’t know if fellow Stones Ron Wood or Charlie Watts have read it and didn’t seem worried. (Both come off fine.)
Richards, the father of four and husband since 1983 to actress-model Patti Hansen, said his family is enjoying Life but they had no more to say about its content than Jagger did.
“If I had let my daughters and my family edit my book …,” Richards said, trailing off in laughter. “What kind of guy do you think I am?”
He is a grandfather, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, a movie star, a friend of Bill Clinton, a landed Connecticut gentleman with a private library. He is off hard drugs, but still enjoys a drink and smoke. He shrugs at the latest trends: “Damned good try, girl,” he said of Lady Gaga. Times hurry on and he takes in the show.
“Technology, for example, is sort of an obvious illustration of that. And, of course, doing what I was doing, recording, I was very much aware of the speed of how things were developing, in front of my eyes, in front of my ears,” he said, adding that he never did take to cell phones.
“You accept the pace and things changing, and you’re able to roll with it, and at the same time you try to remember a simpler life, before everybody could find you, even in a john, which is why I don’t have a phone.
“If I had one, it would just be ringing all the time.”