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“I t’s just that demon’s ‘Life’ has got you in its sway,” are words of wisdom from the Rolling Stones song “Sway,” heard on the band’s 1971 album Sticky Fingers. It would not be the last time the subject of demons would appear in their tracks. Richards would later use the word “Demon” as the title of a song on his second solo album, 1992’s Main Offender, recorded with the X-Pensive Winos. In ‘Life,’ the demons come from within, and at other times, the demons are from outside forces, acting in opposition. Richards separates the two types of demons, as he deconstructs the facts after more than four decades with the Rolling Stones.
There have been a slew of books published about the Rolling Stones for decades, some of which have passed on more inaccuracies than others, including one that managed to get Richards’ date of birth wrong.
For those who have followed the long history of the Rolling Stones, not just by way of catching them on the radio, but for those who actually own all the albums and video releases, kept up with the interviews in the press throughout the years, dropped everything in their lives to make it to dates on many of the band’s tours (as well as New Barbarians dates and the two X-Pensive Winos tours), Richards ’1986 date at the Fox Theater with Chuck Berry, and other sporadic gigs, it would not be a moment too soon that Richards would finally release an autobiographical work. While clearly not an over-extended tell-all (the man deserves a right to some privacy), given the many revelations in it, ‘Life’ clearly delivers the goods. This book will keep Richards’ fans “happy,” regardless of what their interests are, from the most casually curious to the most absorbed, trivia filled enthusiasts.
Those who have tooled around on guitar, trying to figure out many of Richards’ signature licks and chords, will find it a pleasure to read about subjects in Life that include his open tunings, how Richards’ permanently injured digit affecting his playing, his theories on “groove,” learning to play on acoustic guitar before electric, playing double stops, and his one effects box, a black MXR.
Those looking for scandal will get that, and readers who are dyed in the wool music fans will feel gratified, reading about Richards’ musical influences, and how they affected his life. Rock historians will appreciate getting the story about Richards’ upbringing from his point of view, and last but not least, everyone gets to read a book about Richards that is not an ‘interpretation’ of him. Those that appreciate The Rolling Stones’ music will enjoy reading about how many of their songs were composed, and the inspirations behind their lyrics. There is something in ‘Life’ for everyone.
Richards’ book even heavily delves into politics. In Life, written with longtime friend, journalist James Fox, Richards says that his grandparents, Ernest and Eliza Richards, “more or less created the Walthamstow Labor Party. As for Eliza, according to ‘Life,’ “She more or less invented child welfare for Walthamstow, a real reformer.” Although born in Britain, Richards, who was seduced by primarily black American musicians at a young age, would get a very keen grip on what was going on in The States. By way of experience, his education about the USA would include far more than music. Its mores and its government workings would become strikingly obvious to the guitarist. According to Richards in ‘Life,” “In the time of Nixon,” rock and roll was too much for the forces that controlled the government branches. “He had personally deployed his dogs and dirty tricks against John Lennon.” Some of those at top government levels would “officially” tell one of Richards’ attorneys, Bill Carter, that the Rolling Stones were “the most dangerous rock and roll band in the world.” More similar American postcards would follow.
Richards also takes note of the fact Brian Jones was among the targets, owing to the fact he “picked up an American flag that was lying around backstage in the mid-60’s…He put it over his shoulder, but a corner of it touched the ground.” The band was accused by law enforcement officers of “demeaning” the nation, “an act of sedition.” It is not lost on Richards that Nixon’s “Watergate henchmen” would be among those “involved personally” with the FBI’s spying on John Lennon. As his attorney, Carter would “fight every inch of the way” when “the police moved, in every city, they violated the law, acted illegally, tried to bust in without warrants, made searches without probable cause.” Demons would follow the band as they made their way through the country to their fans.
Similar demons would try to take the band down in their homeland.
Richards’ relationships with his parents and his background are spelled out, and a historic tour is given of his hometown, exploring it before and after World War II.
Perhaps unexpectedly, as has been the experience with many famous performers, Richards, talks about being bullied by his peers in school. The most pivotal moments in his youth would surround his poignant musical relationship with his uncle Gus (Theodore Augustus Dupree), a key figure in his life.
Richards is emphatic throughout the book that his main goal was always for the Rolling Stones to be the best live blues band; it was never to become multi-millionaires. The sincerity of his claim comes though loud and clear within the pages of the book. As the Stones’ audience expanded, having the expenses of a tour underwritten by corporate entities would become a necessity in order to pull them off. The mission was always that the band would stay true to its musical roots and inspirations along the way. “Touring was the only way to survive. Record royalties barely paid overheads.” He explains, “We couldn’t’ have done it on a smaller scale and been sure to do more than break even.”
Among the escapades Richards takes his readers on, he opens up about the infamous July 5, 1975 Fordyce, Arkansas drug bust that occurred while Richards was en route to Texas during the tour. Freddy Sessler, a Jew of Polish descent, who was in his teens when the Nazis rolled into Poland, was honored to take the rap for the contraband which was found in the vehicle that boasted Richards and Ronnie Wood among its passengers. Carter represented the defendants, and won the case. Richards muses about what might have happened to the drugs that were hidden in the car, which were never found.
It is noted in Life, that in 2006, “the political ambitions of Governor Huckabee of Arkansas, who was going to stand in the primaries as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination” granted a highly-publicized pardon to the guitarist. Citing the absurdity of it, the book says, “In fact, there was nothing to pardon.” He had been found not guilty.
It was on his first tours in America that Richards would witness the country’s racial discrimination against people of color. While traveling on “minor roads” in the South, when hearing music wafting through the air, Richards would wander into juke joints in black communities to get a whiff of the music inside, and enjoy a short hang with those reveling inside. According to Richards, “You’d walk in and for a moment there’s almost a chill, because you’re the first white people they’ve seen in there.” He adds, “I could have stayed there for days.”
The book is laced with Stones song titles and phrases from the band’s lyrics couched quietly through passages of the books, wherein only those very familiar with the band might catch all of them. Richards attempts bares all, including his teeth. He talks about where he believes his uncanny ability to physically survive despite all odds likely started, and reveals the name of his childhood pet mouse, Gladys.
Richards straightens out some of the rumor mill on a variety of subjects, and spits on Fleet Street’s tabloid media that wanted to take down the Stones. Richards takes on the revisionists, making note of the fact it was he who first began referring to himself as “Keef,” and that is was during his youth.
Richards’ philosophies as a musician, which are expressed in ‘Life,’ are full of depth and resonance. Example: “If you can’t say it, sing it.” Keithfucious say: “Don’t think you’re going to be Townshend or Hendrix just because you can go wee wee wah wah, and all the electronic tricks of the fucker.”
Richards reveals the one lick he can’t “get down.” There is also the issue of “Fender or Gibson.”
More advice for guitarists from Richards includes, “Chords are something to look for. There’s always the Lost Chord. Nobody’s found it.”
Paying his respects to the early blues players, Richards says, “Thank God for recording. It’s the best thing that’s happened to us since writing.”
He pays homage to a large number of musicians, only a few of who include Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and Muddy Waters. Richards concedes that the loan to pay his first guitar was defaulted on.
Richards expounds on the music of the British Invasion, and many of those who were a part of it, including Eric Clapton and Cyril Davis; he goes into detail about his longtime love of country music, which began even prior to his first gig in art school, before he had begun playing with the Rolling Stones. The book also has the contents of a 1962 letter Richards sent to his aunt Patty, preaching the gospel of Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and other black American musicians. The skull-ringed guitarist pontificates at great length in his book about the blues.
Richards remembers his early relationship with Jagger, who at a very young age, had already written to Chess Records in Chicago, and had begun acquiring a catalogue American blues records. At that point, Richards did not have the money to go to concerts, but Jagger did. In Life, the Stones guitarist quips, “Wow, when I grow up, I’ll get a ticket. Of course, they all croaked before then.”
“We sat around and listened to every Chess record ever made,” comments Richards. Robert Johnson was another motivating influence. Richards says, “Every waking hour of every day was just sitting in front of the speakers, trying to figure out how these blues were made.” Money did not come fast, and it was hard earned. “We were unpaid promoters for Chicago blues.”
One of his early journals notes that the band made “thirty seven pounds between five blokes” for the week.
Richards describes the scene during the days of the Rockers and the Mods, its fashion and musical divisions, and offers a slice of ‘Life’ at London’s famed clubs during those days.
The history of the Rolling Stones is laid out from Richards’ vantage point. Throughout its long course, it includes the late keyboardist Ian “Stu” Stewart. Richards corrects the rumor-mongers on internet and elsewhere, and gives credit to one of the Kinks when discussing the July 12, 1962 BBC live broadcast gig, pointing out, “The drummer that night was Mick Avory, not Tony Chapman, as history has mysteriously handed down, and Dick Taylor on bass.”
Richards knights Jagger as “a great harp player. His phrasing is incredible. It’s very Louis Armstrong, Little Walter.”
Richards takes on some of Brian Jones’ fatal flaws, referring to him as a “cold-blooded, vicious motherfucker, only blond with it.” He dispels the boring conspiracy theories that still permeate the gossip columns decades after his death.
Richards offers plenty of social commentary from the point of view of a rock and roller receiving an onslaught of haughty vibes from those in smaller towns, outside of the rock and roll scene. “All of these hayseeds literally chewing on straw.” It was a theme that would later return.
Richards reveals how what he learned from watching Little Richard would influence the X-Pensive Winos. Richards, in fact, discusses the Winos, in great detail in ‘Life, which has additional commentary from keyboardist Ivan Neville and guitarist Waddy Wachtel.
Keith expounds on his relationship with John Lennon and comparisons between the Stones and the Beatles. He notes, “A good song is not really that easy to write.”
Richards opens up his heart, and talks about his having fallen deeply in love with Ronnie Spector, and their efforts to spend time with each other, despite her then violent, ill-fated marriage to Phil Spector.
Along the way through ‘Life,’ Richards names a famed American songwriter that refused to meet him and Andrew Oldham when they came to pay a visit to him at his New York office. Buddy Holly is revisited by way of Bobby Keys, a longtime saxophone player who has graced many Rolling Stones albums and tours.
More hayseeds are spit out. Richards writes about “the stark thing you discovered about America. It was civilized around the edges, but fifty miles inland from any major American city, you really did go in another world. In Nebraska and places like that, we got used to them saying, “Hello, girls.’ We just ignored it.” Richards cites the obvious about the syndrome of hostile treatment, saying, “They felt threatened by us.’” He adds, “And whole loads of insecurities, it seemed to me.”
Contrarily, Richards picked up that when it came to black people and musicians, “We could talk. It was far more difficult to break through to white people. You always got the impression that you were definitely a threat.”
Hayseeds in Nebraska would rear their head again. Richards recalls, “The first time I stared into a gun barrel was in the men’s room of the Civic Auditorium (I believe) in Omaha, Nebraska.” It was then that Richards began his “illicit relationship” with Smith and Wesson.
Other countless true tales in the book include Andrew Oldham and press stunts. Another story surrounds Richards’ disapproval of his former girlfriend Linda Keith taking drugs, and her breaking his heart by running off with Jimi Hendrix.
He offers his true feelings on the music industry (“one of the sleaziest businesses there is without being a gangster”), and when discussing the song “Paint It, Black,” what readers find out what he calls “the Jew in me.”
On several occasions, Life sprinkles phrases or titles of Rolling Stones lyrics, while relating events that occurred in a time period that is far different from that of the mentioned song’s release. Despite the revelations, Richards maintains some intriguing mystery.
Richards reveals who is the girl that is “Ruby Tuesday.” Richards also describes what ended his longtime intimate relationship with Anita Pallenberg, the mother of two of his children.
Richards details Brian Jones’ unreliability that put an untenable strain on the band. Throughout other passages, Richards expounds upon the downside of acid, and the upside of barbiturates; he offers an acidic take on lysergic acid diethylamide.
He recalls crooked cops trying to set up the band both in England and the States, and gives examples. His son Marlon grows accustomed to seeing his father peek out windows to see if undercover agents or police are spying on him.
Gram Parsons’ relationship with Richards is also featured, as he expounds on Parson’s short-lived life, which has had a long-lived influence on what Richards refers to as “outlaw” music. Richards explains why Parsons left the Byrds, a direct result of his telling him about apartheid in South Africa. There is also an acid-fueled trip taken by Parsons, Richards, Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Chrissie Bibbs to Stonehenge, in Richards’ Bentley.
Parsons is memorialized with stories of hanging out at the “Riot House” (the Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles), and scoring drugs with him when Richards and his then girlfriend and mother of two of his children, Anita Pallenberg, lived in the Stone Canyon section of Los Angeles.
The bands legal woes with ABKCO are also duly noted.
Richards recalls the legendary Sunset Strip riots in Los Angeles, and talks about friends he lost in the Viet Nam War. He concedes, “You wouldn’t have had “Street Fighting Man” without the Vietnam War.” Richards makes note of the shootings at Kent State, and end of the ‘60’s that culminated in Altamont. Death was “just a shot away.”
He also reflects on the “beautiful scam” of England’s now defunct National Health registry for heroin addicts. Richards’ opines, “We were creating a nation of junkies.”
Richards addresses his love of reggae, rastas, and his labors of love, culminating in two albums with a group he assembled, the Wingless Angels.
Richards marvels at having been able to show Ike Turner how to play open tuning with just five strings. The late former husband of Tina Turner would end up using it throughout his next album.
“Spanish” Tony Sanchez of Up And Down With The Rolling Stones fame gets plenty of ink in return from Richards. Other events covered include the Glimmer Twins getting their moniker, a bourbon fueled songwriting session for “Wild Horses,” a song that a relentless and incorrect urban legend credits to Gram Parsons.
Lyrics and music of Rolling Stones albums are given treatment, as well as the climate within the band at the time those respective albums were recorded.
Some of Richards’ advice includes, “Nothing wrong with it (being a groupie). But you shouldn’t be a prime minister’s wife if you want to be a groupie.”
Richards says of his performance at the Fox Theater with Chuck Berry, “It’s the best Chuck Berry live you’re ever going to get.”
There is also his relationship with Jagger, which at times has been tempestuous. Richards gives several examples of problematic incidents with Jagger. In one their duels, Jagger demands that Jane Rose be fired from working for the Stones. Instead, Richards promotes her to be his longtime and still current manager. He says loyalty goes a long way. With an endless list of accomplishments, it was Rose who negotiated his role playing Captain Teague in Johnny Depp’s Pirate of the Caribbean.
A beautifully composed book, there are as many stories in Life as there are Rolling Stones songs that have been recorded.
The one thing that Keith Richards never addresses in Life is the future. He doesn’t have to. Time is on his side.
PHYLLIS POLLACK lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She can be reached through her blog.