|Keef in the kitchen, clearly not making his famed bangers and mash recipe from the end of his book (pic: Ken Regan)|
No, dear readers, Life isn't a bad book. I honestly couldn't put it down, once I'd started. But maybe if it hadn't arrived couched in so many expectations....
See, Keith had many years and many bookshelves' worth of competition. For one thing, anyone writing a book about the Rolling Stones would have to compete with Stanley Booth's amazing, definitive The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, even if it does leave off with Altamont. But as inextricably tied with Keith's life story as the Stones have to be, this isn't a book about the Stones. Still, it's lacking on that score.
Essentially, Life is an extended version of one of Keef's interviews, which have increasingly gotten less candid since the first Keef interview of note (in Rolling Stone magazine, August 19, 1971). Keith has his verbal riffs down now, all his stories, and they've gotten more polished and less revealing over time. And the tone is understandable, since "editor" (he really should be credited as a ghost writer) James Fox essentially transcribed and organized tapes of Keith talking for this book, adding in material from others when Keith's memory fails. Keith is a witty and wonderful interview always. But as stated: He's got this shit down pat now, and rarely deviates. Fox should have challenged Keith more. Then again, no producer the Rolling Stones have had since roughly 1980 has had the balls to tell them things they need to hear, like, "Mick, you need to work on those words longer than one hour the afternoon you cut vocals. Seriously, you wrote 'Sympathy For The Devil.' You can do better. And Keith? You wrote that riff in 1972. And you wrote it better a couple of times before now."
Precious little detail is added to Keith's recollections. He's at his best here talking about music: Learning how Jimmy Reed resolved his classic chord progression in an ingeniously lazy fashion, the art of 5-string open G playing, how legendary songs came together, life in the studio with Keef. He's great talking about his lifelong love of Jamaica, where he's basically lived for years, or his love of books, even sharing his kitchen tips (including that bangers and mash recipe that bloggers and reviewers alike love to reprint).
But yes, Jagger gets savaged, as has been written about endlessly and tediously in other reviews. What most reviewers fail to note is the undertone of heartbreak in Keith's churlish swipes at his longtime partner: He feels something has been lost between them, and he mourns that. The thing is, Charlie Watts ("the bed that I lie on" on Keith's words) and perennial Stones sideman Bobby Keys aside, he displays little affection for any of his band mates. Not surprising in the case of Brian Jones, whom no one in the Stones seemed to have any sympathy for, once his worst character traits overtook him as the Stones hit the top, eventually destroying him. But even Ron Wood, who was famously profiled as Keith's best pal and ultimate musical foil since the early '70s, seems to be dismissed as a spare tire for the Stones to keep their machine rolling upon. Which just seems downright nasty.
The Stones' early years are recounted in a swift blur. Was that how they seemed to Keith from the inside? Yet he goes on at length about Bridges To Babylon and its making, a fairly minor work, and not the stuff from which the Rolling Stones' legend was built. And boy, does he relish telling endless shaggy dog stories about his drug years - pages of those! But I would have been happier reading more about his admitted introduction to that world (i.e. - black performers on early Stones' tours letting Keith in on the time-honored tradition of smoothing out white crosses with a little weed, to keep sharp and together through the endless work rate). Or about the making of, say, After Math, or the "Brown Sugar"/"Wild Horses" sessions in Muscle Shoals - the sorta music which did build that legend. (Instead, the amazing, much missed Jim Dickinson chimes in from beyond the grave with his recollections of the latter sessions.)
It probably hasn't helped that, as a palate cleanser, I've been re-reading Bob Dylan's amazing Chronicle Volume One from a few years back, a book so well-done, I have to return to it periodically. It can be argued Bob's book suffers from similar faults as Keith's: Emphasizing certain periods in Bob's life that may not have been the work which made Dylan, Dylan; going off on tangents; etc. Yet Bob wrote so well, and was far more revealing and humanizing than he ever has been, that the book was a delightful literary monster and a bigger window into the man's mind and soul than we ever have had. Keith rails a lot about the difference between him as a man and The Keith Richards Myth, yet he doesn't seem to want to open up that much. (He does thankfully dispel some of the most ridiculous rumors about him, including the Swiss blood change one, which he admits he started with a sarcastic remark.) Ultimately, Life is a pretty decent fun read. It's just that I am still left hungry. This could have been a lot more. Maybe I just need some bangers and mash....