Saturday 17 March 2018

Review: Life by Keith Richards

Orion, €23.40, Hardback

That he's here at all to tell the story is a miracle. Back in the 1970s, New Musical Express used to run an annual Top 10 list of the rock stars least likely to see the following year due to their fondness for various substances. Top of the list year after year was Keith Richards.

"That was the only chart on which I was Number One for 10 years in a row," he writes in his book. "I was kind of proud of that position. I was really disappointed when I went down (to second on the list)."

Those were the days, as Mary Hopkin used to say. His intake was on an industrial scale and the behaviour that went with it created his global image as the ultimate rock 'n roll wild man. But what the book reveals is that this was always less than half the story. The real Keith Richards has been obscured for years behind that image.

He may look like an urban pirate (Johnny Depp robbed the look for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) with the flamboyant clothes, mad hair, crazed eyes, skin like an alligator and speech permanently slurred by decades of drink and drugs. But the real Keef is -- and always has been -- a serious, and supremely gifted, musician.

All the rest of the stuff happened, of course, and it's all part of him now. But what always mattered, above anything else, was the music. His book, possibly the most honest rock 'n roll autobiography ever written, goes through all the drug binges and busts, the groupies, Altamont and everything else in detail. But although he hides nothing -- and doesn't apologise for anything either -- it's all very much an aside to the main business, which is the music.

It's the story of an ordinary kid from London who discovered the guitar and the Chicago Blues and turned himself into one of the world's greatest rock guitarists. It's about the endless hours of listening, learning and trying.

It's about the months on end when he was 17 and 18 when he did nothing else all day except practise the guitar and copy the way the great blues men produced their sound until he had figured out how to do it.

In these X Factor days, his systematic approach and sheer hard work is a reminder of what real musicians are about. And as the book shows, he has never stopped working at his art.

Where it came from initially in the Acker Bilk 1950s remains a mystery. (It's a bit like asking how that nice middle class Jewish boy from the Midwest Robert Zimmerman turned into the freewheelin' Bob Dylan.) But he heard Chuck Berry and Elvis on the radio and a seed was sown.

Dartford in the 1950s where Keith grew up was (and still is) one of the rundown areas of London. He lived in a council house, his father worked in a local factory and Keith was an only child, a scrawny kid with sticky-out ears who was bullied at school. But he had a grandfather who had been in a dance band and who taught him the basic three chords on the guitar he had got at 15.

By his late teens he had discovered Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and by the time he bumped into Mick Jagger at Dartford station (both were carrying Chuck Berry albums) he was hooked on the blues. It was 1961, they were both 18, and before long the Rolling Stones had been born.

The speed at which everything happened is dizzying. In 1962 Keith was struggling to pay the rent. The following year the Stones supported Bo Diddley and Little Richard on a UK tour and they were mobbed everywhere. The year after that they toured the US and a year after that 'Satisfaction' was No 1 around the world. It was a rollercoaster ride into wealth and global notoriety.

They say that if you can remember the 60s, you weren't really there. Well, today's slightly scrambled Keith remembers very well, and he writes about it all with an ex-junkie's detachment and frankness -- like the much-publicised reference to Mick's "tiny todger". He also has old diaries to remind him, not something you would expect from someone who was supposed to be out of it most of the time.

Of course he wasn't always a junkie. When he was a serious 19-year-old he shopped his then girlfriend to her parents for trying drugs. At that stage he was totally focused on the music. But once he started, there were no limits. "Mick chose flattery, I chose junk," he writes. To his credit he does not hide anything, but he seems only half aware of how awful he was.

His young son Marlon's job was to prod him awake when the drugs made him nod off at the wheel. The devastation wreaked on Marlon's mother, Anita Pallenberg, also a junkie, is painful to read.

He finally got himself clean in 1978, mainly because by then it had become impossible for him to travel. Anita failed to do so at the time, which is one reason why she was replaced by Patti, his wife for almost 30 years. Of course some of it is almost funny, especially all the stories of outwitting the customs or the cops and being busted in bizarre circumstances. But mainly it's sad; he survived but others were not so lucky.

These days he lives the privileged life of an elder statesman of rock, with palatial homes in several countries, more kids and and a happy family life, although he still likes to give the impression of getting down and dirty with the brothers.

Overall, this is a musician's book. There's an entire section on guitar styles and the blues and the pages teem with famous players. There's insider stuff on how he came up with the famous riffs and wrote many of the great songs. He is generous with credit for Jagger but it's clear where the main creative force came from.

It's over 500 pages and 'Satisfaction' is guaranteed.

Irish Independent

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