Review: Life (Keith Richards)

I picked up this 2010 book because I had heard a lot of people praising it. They were right. Keith Richards and co-author James Fox (who had known KR for 40+ years).

I liked it for telling his story from the beginning (he met Mick Jagger on a train platform because MJ had a bunch of blues albums under his arm); through the crazy (paraphrasing: “we were the bad boys in comparison to the Beatles, but we were all mates”); the deadly (“I just used heroin at the same level for ages. I thought I was in control until I wasn’t. Guys died when they (a) started up again after going cold turkey with their old dose or (b) raised the dose thinking they would get higher”); and the glorious (“All I wanted to do was play, and I met the most extraordinary people through music…. I’ve had all the girls in the world but finally I found a WOMAN.”)

The prose is sometimes a bit too casual to understand, but it’s nice to feel like KR is “talking to you” in the text Fox provides. KR comes across as a quite the nice guy, if only in comparison to badder pirates 🙂

Here are a few quotes I enjoyed, running from the 1960s to 2000s:

  • The Flying V [of snot] was the one that missed the handkerchief. People were always having colds in those days; things were always running out of their noses and they didn’t know what to do with them. And it can’t have been cocaine; it was a little too early. I think it was just bad English winters.
  • We had nobody to impress except us and we weren’t looking to impress ourselves. I was learning too. With Mick and me at the beginning, we’d get, say, a new Jimmy Reed record, and I’d learn the moves on guitar and he would learn the lyrics and get it down, and we would just dissect it as much as two people can. ‘Does it go like that?’ “Yeah, it does as a matter of fact!’ And we had fun doing it. I think we both knew we were in a process of learning, and it was something that you wanted to learn and it was ten times better than school. I suppose at that time, it was the mystery of how it was done, and how could you sound like that? This incredible desire to sound that hip and cool.
  • At first, our audiences were female driven, until towards the end of the ‘os, when it evened out. These armies of feral, body-snatching girls began to emerge in big numbers about halfway through our first UK tour, in the fall of 1963. That was an incredible lineup: the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Mickie Most. We felt like we were in Disneyland, or the best theme park we could imagine. And at the same time we had this unique opportunity to check out the top cats.
  • The power of the teenage females of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, when they’re in a gang, has never left me. They nearly killed me. I was never more in fear for my life than I was from teenage girls. The ones that choked me, tore me to shreds, if you got caught in a frenzied crowd of them — it’s hard to express how frightening they could be. You’d rather be in a trench fighting the enemy than to be faced with this unstop-pable, killer wave of lust and desire, or whatever it is – it’s unknown even to them. The cops are running away, and you’re faced with this savagery of unleashed emotions.
  • The little idiosyncrasies become so annoying. It was the typical drug thing, that they think they’re somebody special. It’s the head club [as in “crack-head” or “smack-head”]. You’d meet people who’d say, ‘Are you a head?’ as if it conferred some special status. People who were stoned on something you hadn’t taken. Their elitism was total bullshit. Ken Kesey’s got a lot to answer for.
  • Levitation is probably the closest analogy to what I feel – whether it’s ‘Jumpin’ Jack’ or ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘All Down the Line’ – when I realize I’ve hit the right tempo and the band’s behind me. It’s like taking off in a Learjet. I have no sense that my feet are touching the ground. I’m elevated to this other space. People say, ‘Why don’t you give it up?” I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me.
  • The smack helped my siege mentality. It was my wall against all of that daily stuff, because rather than deal with it, I shut it out, to concentrate on what I wanted to do. You could go out and about, totally insulated. Without it, in certain cases you wouldn’t have walked into that room at that time to deal with something. With it, you could go in there, brazen it off and be very smooth. And then go back and get the guitar out and finish what it was you were doing. It made everything possible. Whereas straight, I don’t know, there were too many things going on. While you’re insulated like this, you live in a world where other people go round with the sun and the moon. They wake up, go to sleep… If you break that cycle and you’ve been up for four, five days [his record was nine days], your perception of these people who have just got up, who have crashed out, is very distant. You’ve been working, writing songs, transferring tape to tape, and these people come in and they’ve been to bed and everything! They’ve even eaten stuff! Meanwhile, you’re sitting at this desk with a guitar and this pen and paper. Where the fuck you been?’ It got to the point where I’d be thinking, how can I help these poor people who have to sleep every day?
  • It’s now famous, my rule on the road. Nobody touches the shepherd’s pie until I’ve been in there. Don’t bust my crust, baby. It’s written into the contract. If you come into Keith Richards’s room and he’s got a shepherd’s pie on the warmer, bubbling away, if it’s still pristine, the only one that can bust the crust is me. Greedy motherfuckers, they’ll come in and just scoop up anything. I put that sort of shit about just for fun, quite honestly. Because I very rarely eat before I go on stage. It’s the worst thing you can do, at least for me. Barely digested food in your stomach and you’ve got to head out there and do ‘Start Me Up’ and another two hours to go. I just want it there in case I realize I haven’t eaten that day and I might need a bit of fuel. It’s just my particular metabolism; I’ve just got to have enough fuel.
  • There was Syphilis, a big wolfhound I had before Marlon was born. And Ratbag, the dog I smuggled in from America. He was in my pocket. He kept his trap shut. I gave him to Mum, and he lived with her for many, many years. I’m away for months, yet the time you spend with pups binds you forever. I now have several packs, all unknown to one another due to the size of the oceans, although I sense they scent the others on my clothes. In rough times I know I can count on canines. When the dogs and I are alone, I talk endlessly. They’re great listeners. I would probably die for one.

Oh, and Mick… He’s a control freak (Lead Vocalist Syndrome) and selfish, but they’re like brothers — writing and jamming since 1961.


Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Review: Life (Keith Richards)”

  1. Good one!
    I’ve got that on my reading list now, thank you.

    Poignant & lol:
    how can I help these poor people who have to sleep every day?
    There was Syphilis…

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