It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, But I Like It: Keith Richards’s “Life”

By Georgia Travers

Keith Richards came from the most humble circumstances – an impoverished boy from the London factory slum of Dartford – to become the infamous lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, and one of the greatest Rock n’ Roll stars of all time.  His modestly titled autobiography, “Life,” gives us a raw, brutally honest glimpse into the tumultuous and euphoric reality of that experience. 

In many ways, Richards paradoxically exemplifies the American Dream.  Nevertheless, his inescapably British slang and sensibility lend the book a particularly enchanting and personal tone.  For instance, while his life-blood is, in every way, music, Richards nonetheless dearly fancies what I suppose could be considered “British Cuisine.”  It is evident that the only thing that could rival Richards’s guitars for his affection would be a classically prepared, steaming Shepherd’s pie.  Richards thoughtfully goes as far as to include “My Recipe for Bangers and Mash” in the book.  While it may have (along with considerable quantities of Merck cocaine and amphetamines) fueled some of the greatest musical compositions of the last century, I nevertheless find the deep-fried mush of sausage, “spuds,” and peas to be highly suspect. 

I truly enjoyed reading “Life.”  I’ll begin with the negative, because it is only marginal.  The book’s length, almost 550 pages, could be called gratuitous and certainly causes the narrative to drag.  Richards also repeatedly uses the device of “but more about that later” to prolong the reader’s gratification from and create suspense around his most outrageous stories.  That being said, “Life” is only so long because Keith Richards has enjoyed such a rich, dynamic existence.  Due largely to his consumption of cocaine, Richards explains, “For many years I slept, on average, twice a week. This means that I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes.”  His autobiography is certainly much less than three times a reasonable length, and thus it truly is an action-packed narrative.

While reading “Life,” I initially reacted to Richards’s litany of delinquent-rockstar anecdotes with a bemused lack of surprise.  However, it is important, and staggering, to remember that Keith Richards both invented, and perfected, this phenomenon years before it became a cliché.  But he was not always an international celebrity badboy.  Born in 1943, the youthful Richards was appointed Beaver Patrol Leader of the Seventh Dartford Scouts in the early ‘50s, and excelled as a local choirboy.  Too poor to afford the bus fares both to and from school, Richards resigned himself to getting beaten up as he walked home every day.  Frustrated and defensive, he soon got kicked out of technical school and began to obsess over music, his “one true love” and, as it turned out, his extraordinary talent.  He began listening religiously to American Rhythm & Blues artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. 

One fateful day, Richards struck up a conversation at the Dartford Train Station with a wealthy-looking boy of about his age who was carrying a pile of records by Waters, Berry, and other Chicago bluesmen.  In those days, records were prohibitively expensive (especially for a working-class boy like Richards) and somewhat of a novelty.  Richards, obsessed with music, craved new songs, and as he explains, “got to hear a new single every few months at best, if [he] could bum an LP off someone on the street.”  The young man, Mick Jagger, came from an upper-class background, and as a result could afford to buy new American records, which he eagerly shared with his new friend.  

Keith Richards describes his music taste at the time as “completely identical to Mick’s,” and as a result the two hit it off.  Their passion centered around the schools of Rhythm and Blues developing informally in Chicago and the Mississippi Delta.  Both boys also loved the powerful simplicity of Elvis Presley.  Richards describes these seminal musical influences as follows: 

John Lee Hooker; most of his songs are on one chord. Howlin’ Wolf stuff, one chord, and Bo Diddley.  It was listening to them that made me realize that silence was the canvas.  That’s what I think “Heartbreak Hotel” did to me.  It was the first time I’d heard something so stark.  Or listen to “Mystery Train,” another Elvis.  It’s one of the great rock-and-roll tracks of all time, not a drum on it.  It’s just a suggestion, because the [listener] will provide the rhythm.  Rhythm only has to be suggested.  Doesn’t have to be pronounced.  It’s got nothing to do with rock. It’s to do with roll.

After Richards was kicked out of school, his oppositional attitude to mainstream culture began to develop considerably.  While his personal style included shockingly tight pants and infrequent haircuts, Richards crafted his musical identity primarily around the influence of African-American bluesmen that “defied the Royal Academy’s definition of the Blues.”  The term “Rock n’ Roll” was used as a derogatory term for music that “contradicted too many of the Academy’s rigid rules defining the Blues.”  Thus, the Stones emerged as anti-establishment musicians who both rebelled against British class hierarchies and embraced many aspects of American culture.  Richards believes that the Stones sound fundamentally American in a lot of ways, saying, “[The] chord sequence for ‘Midnight Rambler’ was pure Chicago blues… ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ was primarily influenced by our experience playing with black gospel singers in America.”  He explains how blues purists in Britain “wanted a frozen frame, not understanding that whatever they were listening to was only part of the process; something had gone before and it was going to move on.” 

In many ways, the flexibility and mobility of the American cultural expanse provided the perfect canvas for the musical innovations that Richards and his compatriots were developing in the early 1960s.  First of all, the development of recording began in the US, a phenomenon that Richards describes as “the emancipation of music.”  He explains: “Being able to hear recorded music freed up loads of musicians that couldn’t necessarily afford to learn to read or write music, like me.”  Jazz, Blues, and ultimately Rock n’Roll became great musical levelers because, according to Richards, “they started to take over the world the minute recording started, within a few years, just like that.  The blues is universal, which is why it’s still around.”  Richards describes the enchantment that Dartford’s one jukebox, located in Old Dimashio’s Ice Cream Parlor, had for him as a child: “There was this jukebox there, so it was a hang.  Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard…it was our only access to music, the one little bit of Americana in Dartford.”  

Technological innovations developed in the US also allowed poor, aspiring musicians (such as the 1964 Rolling Stones) to record almost anywhere on cheap cassette machines.  Richards explains “We did ‘Street Fighting Man,’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ and half of ‘Gimme Shelter’ just like that…made on rubbish, made in hotel rooms with out little toys.”  Richards emphasizes the importance of other seemingly minor bits of American life as well.  For instance, the ubiquity of car radios.  He describes the bliss of the Stones’ first American tour as follows: 

You couldn’t believe it after England!  Sitting in a car with its radio on was beyond heaven.  You could turn the channels and get ten country stations, five black stations, and if…they faded out, you could just turn the dial again and there was another great song!  Listening to car radios through a thousand miles to get to the next gig. That was the beauty of America.  We used to dream of it before we got there.

Richards also attributes his famous five-string guitar “open-tuning” technique to country music popularized in rural America in the mid-20th century.  “When Sears, Roebuck offered the Gibson guitar in the early ‘20s really cheap…cats would tune it, since they were nearly all banjo players, to a five-string banjo tuning.  Most of rural America bought their stuff from the Sears catalogue…copying them, I got to relearn the guitar, and it was fascinating.”

America reciprocated the Stones’ affection, and the songs they composed in the late Sixties were heavily influenced by the oppositional culture developing in the US at the time. “Think about the title ‘Get Off of My Cloud,’” Richards notes.  “It’s why you have ‘Satisfaction’ in Apocalypse Now.   The lyrics and the mood of the songs fitted with the kids’ disenchantment with the grown-up world of America, and for a while we seemed to be the only provider, the soundtrack for the rumbling rebellion, touching on those social nerves.”  Similarly, class in the UK was a tremendously divisive factor in Keith’s life, and music was the obvious way for him to transcend that social structure.  America, in true form, eagerly embraced a sound that was both a rejection of traditional authority and ultimately, was just plain fun.  Liz Phair describes the Stones’ earth-shattering first trip to America as an intoxicatingly provocative contradiction: 

Nineteen sixty-four was also a year of great cultural shifts: the burgeoning youth culture, the civil rights movement and the early antiwar protests all intersected in the irreverent personas of the Rolling Stones. They were white, but sounded black. They played American music, but came from England. They dressed like women and didn’t cut their hair, yet everyone’s wife, girlfriend or daughter went mad for their raw sexuality.

Alexander de Tocqueville famously remarked in his 1831 ethnography, “Democracy in America,” that American vitality is intrinsically linked to its vulgarity.  The Rolling Stones’ experience confirms the accuracy of his impressions, even 150 years later.  Rock n’ Roll was only able to defy mainstream culture because of its irresistible popularity, and as a result, became a powerful vehicle for capitalist cultural liberation.  This quintessentially American phenomenon, unfortunately, also produced extremely destructive behavior, much of which is scrupulously documented by Richards in “Life,” because it did, ultimately, transform and define so much of his life.  The extreme wealth, rebellious defiance, and ubiquity of illicit drugs due to America’s volatile cultural climate in the late Sixties had a profound impact on Richards.  Most notably, he developed a severe addiction to “smack,” a.k.a. heroin, that killed many of his friends and ruined many of his relationships.

Richards describes his struggle with heroin in detail, as well as his long-term relationship with Anita Pallenberg, sometimes called the Yoko Ono of the Rolling Stones, which was defined, and ultimately destroyed, by the drug.  After Richards fell for Anita, girlfriend of bandmate Brian Jones at the time, the two became “junkies” and the habit distanced Richards considerably from the band.  Richards and Anita had three children, although she ended up falling for Mick Jagger somewhere in between, which Keith believes had a permanent impact on the close relationship between himself and Mick, “the Glimmer Twins.”

However, Richards explains that his relationship with Jagger had more profound problems. The two come from extremely different class backgrounds, and Richards believes Jagger, who grew up quite well off, was more prone to airs and vanity.  In response to the overwhelming pressure of international celebrity and stardom, Richards explains, “Mick chose flattery, which is very like junk — a departure from reality. I chose junk.”  Richards was horrified at his friend’s acceptance of knighthood, for instance.  “You’re going to accept an honor from a system that tried to put you in jail for nothing?  Mick’s class-consciousness had become more and more evident as we went along, but I never knew he’d fallen for this shit.  It may have been another attack of LVS (lead vocalist syndrome).”

Richards’s voice showcases a tremendous dynamism, both personal and musical.  He defines himself and his music as profoundly both American and British.  “America was exhilarating because it was so extreme, veering between Quaker and the next minute free love, and it’s still like that,” he says.  “Still,” Richards explains, “our mood had a distinctly English idiom, despite being highly American influenced.  We were taking the piss in the old English tradition.”  

Despite its modesty, “Life” cannot help but awe readers with its description of the technical perfection and innovative, comprehensive musical mastery that truly distinguishes the Rolling Stones as one of the greatest Rock n’ Roll bands of all time.  Richards’s detailed descriptions of the composition process, as well as humorous, informative digressions entitled “Keef’s Guitar Workshops” shed light on the Stones’ unparalleled musical genius, fueled primarily by spectacularly successful collaborations between Richards and Jagger.  And while Richards obviously intended to portray himself positively, reading “Life” has undeniably augmented my appreciation for the Rolling Stones vast oeuvre, in fact, I find I can hardly stop listening to the band I thought I knew so well, discovering dozens of underappreciated “b-side tracks” that are truly, unquestionably, brilliant.

Yet while that newfound appreciation is extremely satisfying, reading “Life” is honestly a pleasure unto itself, and for much more than all the juicy, shocking, and outrageous stories.  Richards tells his story with a charming elegance that is irresistible, and it’s impossible to ignore that he is a genuinely down-to-earth, likeable guy.  He makes fun of his own disobedience to the police, saying, “even Elvis said, ‘Yes, sir’.”  He laughs about his bad boy image, reminding us, “Some of my most outrageous nights I can only believe actually happened because of corroborating evidence.  No wonder I’m famous for partying!”  Richards relishes in the freedom at the heart of Rock n’ Roll.  He considers one of the greatest moments of his life to be when “at the end of the Steel Wheels tour we liberated Prague, or so it felt.  One in Stalin’s eye.  We played a concert there soon after the revolution that ended the communist regime.  ‘Tanks Roll Out, Stones Roll In’ was the headline.  And we were glad to be part of it.”

After Richards fell out of a tree in 2006 and spent a number of weeks in the hospital, Tony Blair wrote him a letter with the opening line: “Dear Keith, you’ve always been one of my heroes…” Surprised, Richards reacted, “England’s in the hands of somebody who I’m a hero of? It’s frightening.”  But honestly, after relishing all 547 pages and countless details of Richards’s life, I’ve got to say that Mr. Blair’s comment does not surprise me a bit.  The electricity of Keith Richards’s story resembles that of his music, and I have no doubt that both will continue to be loved around the world for years to come.