One of the earliest Mick Jagger-Keith Richards compositions was titled “The Singer Not The Song.” That principle applies to Richards’ memoir, as well. Life isn’t going to tell most people who are informed about The Rolling Stones’ history anything they don’t already know. The attraction—and it’s a good-sized one—is the telling. Richards’ uninhibited, streetwise, dry, and often funny way of expressing himself has made for one of the greatest rock biographies; he isn’t afraid of offending anyone, and he sticks to his traditionalist aesthetic guns with caustic aplomb. He likes to dish. And boy, does he have stories. As much as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1 could only have come from one person, Life, for all the cleaning up by co-writer James Fox, is enjoyable just for Keith Richards’ voice.
The early sections on Richards’ lower-class childhood in Dartford, east of London, are lovely, as he describes his early fascination with his grandfather’s guitar (which he eventually got to play) and his mother’s Django Reinhardt records; his checkered school career (he was kicked out of school choir once his voice broke, and was later expelled); and most lovingly of all, the characters in his extended family. He lights up when discussing the Stones’ formative years, when their only goal was to be the best blues band in London: “We didn’t think we were ever going to do anything much except turn other people on to Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed… The idea of making a record seemed to be totally out of the picture. Our job at that time was idealistic. We were unpaid promoters for Chicago blues.”
Richards recounts the glee he took in helping Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham capitalize on the band’s bad-boy image, then the drudgery of being targeted by police in London and Toronto for a drug problem that spiraled out over a decade. The arrests only bolstered his legend, and helped turn The Stones into rock’s biggest band. As the group grew more corporate, Jagger and Richards’ relationship began to sour in the ‘80s, to the point where now, nearly every time he gives the singer his due, Richards accompanies it with an “actually” or a “to be fair.”
Richards can be overly fond of his own myth, even as he punctures it. His account of his 1977 drug bust in Toronto, which required his lawyer to work his way up to the White House for intervention (which was granted) to get Keith out of Canada and into the U.S. for a heroin cure, comes across as a blaring war story he’s unapologetic for. Occasionally, the book gets cute—there are many unsubtle hints at the depths to which Richards’ relationship with Jagger later sank. Richards’ memory isn’t perfect, either: He suggests incorrectly that The Stones never recorded a Jagger-Richards composition until late 1964’s “The Last Time.”
But Richards discusses the inner workings of the Stones’ music with relish, dipping into the mysteries of the open-G five-string guitar tuning in graspable language, and pulling apart some of the band’s classic albums: “You can’t say apart from ‘Sympathy’ or ‘Street Fighting Man’ that there’s rock and roll on Beggars Banquet at all. ‘Stray Cat’ is a bit of funk, but the rest of them are folk songs… I mean, the body of work was not to smash you between the eyes. This was not heavy metal. This was music.”