Keith Richards ended up calling his memoir Life, not, as had been planned, My Life, the more conventional choice. Almost any memoir ever written could be called My Life. It’s what Bill Clinton called his own memoir. For Clinton it was a defensive, even a defiant, title, but then, memoirs are defensive by nature. To exist, they must justify their existence. Uniqueness—the “my” in “my life”—is an important condition: without it none but the first-ever memoir would have to exist. And the suspicion of insufficient uniqueness is one great nullifier of memoir: this is the problem when memoir subgenres (abuse memoirs, addiction memoirs, conversion memoirs, travel memoirs) promise to convey shock or pathos or virtue, but get their ingredients from a cake mix.
The recent crop of purloined, plagiarized, and manufactured memoirs—James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, for example—unsettled readers not because some sacred line dividing fact and fiction had been crossed, but instead, I think, because they suggested we might actually be running out of interesting lives. Aspiring memoirists may just have to start writing fiction: though there the competition to make something new and good is, if anything, even more keen.
The temptation for most memoirists is to beef up, at times even to make up, life; for Richards, who has lived one of the most eventful and excessive lives ever, the point is to tamp it down. His is an odd book for many reasons, among them its refusal to impute any meaning to the structure of experience, beyond its basic contingency. The book tells no “story,” presents no overwrought “themes,” proposes no shape to life beyond the amorphous ooze of passing time. Thus the hilariously nonchalant title, which, shorn of the expected first-person possessive, would suggest that Richards’s life is more or less the one we all experience.
At one time or another, everyone rides in a red Cadillac with the Ronettes out to Jones Beach, then wakes up on Ronnie Spector’s mother’s living room floor in Spanish Harlem, to a plate of bacon and eggs. We’ve all had the major licks of “Satisfaction” come to us in a dream, then adjourned to the pool to write the lyrics with Mick Jagger. This is the kind of thing that happens. Uschi Obermaier, the German leftist supermodel, chews off your earring in a Japanese-style hotel in Rotterdam, leaving you with a “permanent malformation” on your right earlobe. The prime minister of Canada’s wife turns up in your hotel room, looking eager to party. That’s life. Or, Life.
The surfeit of wildly nontransferable details (the earlobe-gnawing supermodel/communard, the varieties of smack, scrapes, fame, hotel rooms, speedboats, and Bentleys) is nearly comic, in a book whose title professes grounds to generalize, if not to moralize. Richards’s near-total abandoning of moral counsel for forms of practical guidance—not to not do heroin for decades, but how to do it so as not to die—makes Life feel at times like an instructional pamphlet or how-to guide. Moral counsel is one of the classic rationales for memoir, from Augustine forward (though many memoirs, especially if they are by businessmen or athletes, do give pointers: know the markets, know the strike zone). There is almost no moralizing here, and even the practical instruction, since it pertains to a life only Keith Richards could have lived, is often strictly useless (though the recipe for bangers and mash Richards gives at the book’s conclusion looks tasty). What am I going to do with information about Swiss detox clinics, open-tuning a Gibson, or villa-hunting on the Côte d’Azur?
Life is, despite itself, a raffish and unlikely heir to two great memoirs of thrift and common sense, Walden and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Like them, it provides the unaccountable pleasure of being told precisely how to do things you will never want or need to do. This displacement of moral instruction onto purely practical, if flagrantly useless, direction itself implies a moral position. Richards elevates expertise, street smarts, tactical rather than strategic intelligence, industry, and adaptability over all forms of metaphysical cant, a code he developed in childhood that found its great adversary only much later in life, in the fame-obsessed and dandyish Mick Jagger. These are the Thoreauvian virtues, and Life is at times a kind of peregrine Walden.
Thoreau tells us how we can hew timbers six inches square, or sound the depths of the pond, or tight-shingle a homemade dwelling, or dig a cellar hole. But what he is really telling us is that we should know how to do such things, or at least know that knowing how to do them, or things like them, is an important use of mind. Substitute Richards’s canon of skills (if you need to master your tapes for nine sleepless days straight, try Merck cocaine) for Thoreau’s, and you get Life, the title of which even starts to sound like a suppressed chapter title from Walden. Of course “life” carries another sense: it is the opposite of “death,” though in Richards’s case the two sit side by side almost interchangeably, like salt and pepper.
Richards’s death-in-life and life-in-death persona—the skull ring, the cadaverous thinness, the rumors that he once snorted his father’s cremated remains—only seems like an act because he didn’t, in fact, die. Odds were placed and bets were made, but Keith defied the death pools. He seems almost apologetic, abashed, about having stayed alive, as though he might be willing to reimburse the people who bet against it. There are dozens of deaths in Life, most tragically the crib death, in 1975, of Richards’s two-month-old son, Tara. The child, he says, still “invades” him: “He bangs into me once a week or so. I have a boy missing.” That death and the death of Richards’s chum the country music pioneer Gram Parsons, a few years before, along with the astonishing ferment in the Stones’ music that ended (with Exile on Main Street) in 1972 give the second half of this book a posthumous air. The pragmatic, instruction-giving Richards cannot reach across time and tell Gram Parsons not to get so high when he gets high, or be there when his wife, Anita Pallenberg, finds their child dead. This helplessness following upon heedlessness, a zone of feeling no aplomb or expertise can manage, is the great tragic tone that counterbalances Richards’s nonchalance.
Memoir, as a genre that still prizes authenticity over artifice, puts a special pressure on literary style: anything too lyrical or shimmering invalidates the memoirist’s moral claim. The best tone for the job is still Henry Adams’s self-savagery, which allows the reader to restore mentally whatever sympathy for Adams Adams withholds from himself. Richards’s sharpness is surprising coming from a guy whose mind, everyone had to assume, was by now a salvage heap. On stage, he is a prince of apparent mindlessness, deploying a small repertoire of lip curls, grimaces, and crooked smiles. You expect that his memoir would be written in the language-equivalent of those facial expressions, but Richards is and always has been a writer, one of the greatest songwriters in rock history.
Richards has said that he considers his job “to write songs for Mick Jagger to sing,” though in practice, this has usually meant that the shape of the song is devised by Richards, while most of the “hard work of filling it in and making it interesting” falls to Jagger (only “Brown Sugar,” of their well-known songs, was 100 percent Jagger; the rest they assembled together).
Much of that work happens in performance; for Jagger, lyrics are malleable within performance. The songs are almost all dead on the page. Furthermore, Stones production (there are rare exceptions) normally sinks the vocals into the instrumentation, and Jagger’s drawl is sometimes completely unintelligible. Often the chorus (for example, “Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash, it’s a gas, gas gas”) will emerge and shine, clear as day, after an interval of murky verbal gestures that only sometimes approximate clear words. It’s not “writing” in the folk-based, lyrics-based tradition of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell: nothing is ever lyrically devastating in a Stones song. Richards writes grooves, with words attached.
He is, however, also a marvelous sentence-maker, though every sentence seems cut short by the eruption (to the reader, inaudible) of phlegm from his lungs and the consequent coughing fit. This kind of spasm punctuates all of Richards’s spoken statements; you can hear it in any interview, and, in a book that feels entirely dictated, it also happens on the page. The vocabulary is in a race with the phlegm. Here is a typical passage concerning the “Prince” Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, known as “The Dandy Aesthete of Swinging London,” son of the painter Balthus, who is dispatched to Rome by the band member Brian Jones to bring back Anita Pallenberg, Jones’s girlfriend, whom Richards has stolen. The prince was called “Stash”:
Stash had the bullshit credentials of the period—the patter of mysticism, the lofty talk of alchemy and the secret arts, all basically employed in the service of leg-over. How gullible were the ladies. He was a roué and a playboy, liked to look upon himself as Casanova. What an amazing creature to sweep through the twentieth century.
“Stash” is in fact a lifelong “student of the Alchemical arts,” now living in his father’s castle in Lazio. He is just one of many mystics and sages who drift into Richards’s sights only to get blasted to smithereens (Allen Ginsberg, whom Richards describes unforgettably as an “old gasbag,” omming and “pontificating” at Jagger’s place in London, is another). In interviews, Richards’s very funny remarks also crack him up (and start him coughing) not because he loves the sound of his own voice, but because he has captured the absurdity of these cats so vividly that in describing it he suffers it afresh.
As the entourage of aristocrat-magi bearing opium, movie stars, painters, and groupies (Margaret Trudeau among them) assembles, all of them blathering about mysticism, mishandling the drugs, lazing about in bathrobes, Richards himself comes to seem like a transparent, albeit bloodshot, eyeball: the zonked, nonparticipant nucleus of the whole Stones organism. His passivity catalyzes wild behavior in others; he is shaping social space by staring at his guitar. Marlon Brando tries to get him into a ménage à trois with Anita Pallenberg. “Later, pal” is Richards’s response, but the real response is this memoir, with all the real-time suppressed judgments going off like little time bombs.
His general air of disengagement was maintained in mid-career by heroin addiction. This was the mounting physical cost he incurred as his celebrity snowballed. But his disengagement, sometimes fortified by strong drugs, was in part a way of staking out permanently the authorial point of view, a decision to remain the beholder rather than (like Jagger) the beheld. You can see it in his stage manner. He and Jagger do their occasional and brief pas de deux at the front of the stage, but usually Keith is just back there, making his guitar make sounds, the byproduct of which is music, the byproduct of music being a band, and fame, and money, and girls, and cars, and self-destruction, and all the rest of it. He is a great ironist, in ways he doesn’t even fully intend: with Richards’s own feet planted on the ground, Jagger’s paroxysms and fits seem all the more bizarre (bizarrely beautiful, but still bizarre: Richards opines that Mick got his tight, jackhammering moves from playing their first gigs on very small stages, with lots of equipment limiting his range). He ironizes the band, the scene, the spectacle, and most importantly and radically his own body, regarding it and its ravages with resignation, even amusement. Every junkie has this relationship to his body; nobody takes his body on that kind of ride without thinking of it as rather pitifully a thing apart.