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Life by Keith Richards4 stars

I don’t consider myself a hardcore Rolling Stones fan, but this autobiography was an eye-opening and entertaining read. Life is narrated by the legendary guitarist to journalist James Fox, and has a rambling, conversational style that seemed to give a pretty good impression of the “real” Keith Richards as man and musician.

I especially enjoyed reading about his hardscrabble childhood in an English industrial town, and was rather tickled to hear that he’d been both a choirboy AND an enthusiastic Boy Scout! What happened? It was also interesting to read about the level of obsession with music and all of the hard work that went into the creation of the Rolling Stones.

The idealism of their beginnings was touching. They truly just wanted to bring the “real” blues to England; fame and fortune were not part of the vision. There was some recognition that what they were doing was part of a larger cultural shift, but it was something that they were caught up in, rather than creating intentionally.

This book will probably be of particular interest to guitar players, because there is considerable analysis of the way Richards acquired his particular sound, and how he was influenced by other players.

A huge chunk of the book deals with the general craziness of the rockstar life. The drug use especially seemed so over the top. I hadn’t really followed much of Richard’s life in the past, but the fact that he survived the lifestyle is even more surprising now that I know the details.

I know- I’m very square, and probably a bit naïve. The bulk of my musical experience has been in the classical realm, which is very much NOT sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

I have to admit, I did get pretty fed up with the whole scene as he described it. Frankly, it seemed like a nightmare, with the music being the only redeeming factor. I also have really mixed feelings about Keith’s crazy, unpredictable and unacceptable behavior. He did spend a lot of time explaining how he and the Stones were part of this huge cultural upheaval, which was supposed to be a huge F You to the Powers that Be, but a lot of the behavior seemed to just be the acting out of a spoiled bad boy, rather than driven by any deeper motivation.

I got particularly irritated when he started having children. After that, whenever he described drugged-out escapades with Anita Pallenberg, I couldn’t help but think, “Where are the kids- are they okay? Who’s watching them? What’s it like to have rich and famous heroin junkies as parents?” Marlon and Angela seem to have turned out okay, but it was really hard to read about their early years without feeling super-judgmental.

I’m learning to embrace my judgmentalism- I’m a Myers-Briggs INTJ– so that makes it okay.

In the abstract, at least, Richards makes possible to understand how removed from reality the life of a huge rockstar is. You have a specific image, everyone wants a piece of you, and holding onto your own identity in the middle of all that must be a challenge. The drugs were simply the most available method of coping with all of that.

As hard as he could be to take at times- and he does come across as incredibly cocky in addition to everything else- I got the sense that Keith Richards just might be one of those rare people who has found a way to be really authentic. His attitude seems to be: “This is who I am, and screw you if you don’t like it.”  That, I can admire.

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