If you know me, you have seen me in my Rolling Stones shirt. I love it. It’s super soft, and so I wear it all the time. I will weep bitter tears when it falls apart and has to be thrown away. I keep waiting for Target to bring it back so that I can buy a backup or three, but so far they have been uncooperative. The regularity with which I wear my favorite shirt gives a false impression of my devotion to this band, though. Don’t get me wrong – I love the Stones. I was raised right. However, I am not so enamored that I shell out for the concert tickets, and I’m not familiar with their deeper cuts. Maybe one day. For now, I’m satisfied with ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ and ‘Paint It, Black.’
So, when I saw that Keith Richards, guitarist extraordinaire, had written his memoir, I was interested, but I didn’t drop everything to rush to the bookstore to pick it up. I assumed I’d get around to it one day, either from the library or once it came out in paperback. It seemed like it would be the perfect beach book, and I was in no hurry. And then I found out that Johnny Depp read the audio book of Life (Hachette Audio 2010), and I decided to find this sooner rather than later. I’m pretty sure that Johnny Depp could read a debate about Beta players vs. VCRs and keep me riveted. He’s that good when he wants to be. (He can also be dull. Have you tried to listen to his commentary on Pirates 1? Snoozefest.) He doesn’t disappoint in this little favor he did for his buddy Keef. His performance of the opening chapter is my favorite part of the entire audiobook. It involves Keith, Ronnie Wood, and other members of their entourage getting arrested in Fordyce, AR, for a number of trumped up charges that began with them exiting a parking lot in a manner that did not sit well with the local authorities. The story includes the disposal of various illegal substances in a variety of ways, a drunken judge called into court late at night, and a Free Keith protest outside the courthouse while the BBC was on the phone. Johnny does a masterful job of recounting it, complete with the Captain Jack voice for Keith’s bits and a spot-on Southern accent for the cops.
After this rollicking intro, the story goes back to Keith’s childhood and moves forward chronologically-ish from there, although there is a good bit of wandering off-topic along the way. About four chapters in, the narrator changes, and Joe Hurley – also hand-picked by Keith for this project – picks up. I’m not going to lie, the change was jarring to me. I had gotten so used to Johnny’s deadpan delivery that Joe’s enthusiastic reading threw me at first. Honestly, I thought that his British accent was put on when he started, so I googled him to see where he was really from, and it turns out that he’s a Londoner, so I suppose it’s the real deal. I didn’t find his voice as easy to listen to as Johnny’s, so it took me longer to get through his section of the book. Also, while the subject matter was usually interesting, occasionally there would be a detailed discussion of something like open tuning that went on for quite some time. This is probably of interest to other guitar players, but I found it a bit dull. Sadly, there is no skimming in audiobooks, so I now know more about it than I ever thought I would. I also learned a good bit about drugs – various nicknames, how one takes them, good stuff vs. bad, how to work the system, balancing your intake of uppers and downers to stay away for days at a time, and the absolute hell of quitting cold turkey. Seriously, I don’t know how Keith did that multiple times. I don’t think I’d be able to go through it again once I knew what was coming.
While I appreciated the tips on knife fighting, the best parts of the book by far are about the formation of the band and its heyday. I loved learning about how the songs were written, who they were about, and the evolution of the music. I enjoy knowing that they cut ‘Satisfaction’ thinking that it was just going to be a demo, and then they heard it on the radio while they were driving to their next gig. Once the band is established and they fall to infighting, the story isn’t as interesting to me. I’d like to hear Mick Jagger’s take on some of what happened. Or, even better, Charlie Watts’ impressions of what was going on between Mick and Keith. Perhaps one day they’ll write their memoirs, too, and I can hear all sides of the story. I get the feeling that Charlie’s take would be the most objective of the three. He seems to be the only one who didn’t join in the weird girlfriend merry-go-round that the rest of the band participated in. He’s also looking very dapper these days, while Keith and Mick look like they died years ago and someone forgot to tell them. Considering that Keef spent 10 years topping a list of rock stars most likely to die, it’s pretty impressive that he’s still alive and kicking, especially after reading up (or listening to, I suppose) on all of the shenanigans he’s engaged in over the years. He’s survived wartime London bombings, various car accidents, cohabitation with a paranoid junkie girlfriend, setting fire to the Playboy mansion, a cracked skull, and much more.
The book is a fun ride. I’d always just thought of Keith as the Stones guitarist with an ever-present cigarette, and it was fun to learn so much more about him – his life, his family, his library. He’s passionate about his music, a doting father, and a stalwart friend. It may be time for me to investigate some of those deeper cuts I’ve been ignoring for years in case I tire of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ before my Stones kick ends.