Heroin, books and blues: Keef’s memoir is out

By Kevin Bloom 28 October 2010

It’s been the most anticipated rock memoir of the year, and it was released in the US and UK this week (South Africa will get it in mid-November). Reviewers have already praised its voice and its emotional candour, but most of all have praised its vitality. Which is not surprising, given that Keith Richards’s tell-all biography is called, simply, Life. By KEVIN BLOOM.

“I’ve never had a problem with drugs. I’ve had problems with the police.” So said Keith Richards in an interview long ago, and the reporter knew he had gold. The Chuck Berry-influenced guitarist – whose sense of rhythm and riff was the core of his band’s distinctiveness – repeated it for another lucky reporter a few years later, and this time used even shorter sentences: “Let me be clear about this. I don’t have a drug problem. I have a police problem.” Richards wasn’t joking about the last part; between 1967 and 1978 he was tried on drugs-related charges five times, the most serious of which was in Toronto in 1977, when he was found in possession of 22 grams of heroin. Not a drug problem? Not if you consider that he did copious amounts of the stuff and wasn’t killed by it.

Life. If ever there was a book title that appropriately married the memoir form to its subject, this is the one. The autobiography of Keith Richards was released in the US and UK on 26 October, and so far the reviews, which have been plentiful and gushing, appear to coalesce around the theme of unbridled vitality. New Yorker editor David Remnick (who The Daily Maverick once called “the best journalist in the world,” and who can pick just about any subject in the world to write about) said this of the defiantly-named rock ‘n’ roll tell-all: “Half book, half brand extension, it’s an entertaining, rambling monologue, a slurry romp through the life of a man who knew every pleasure, denied himself nothing, and never paid the price.”

For those (like me) still waiting to get a copy of the book, the Guardian newspaper provided 20 essential things you need to know about “Keef,” the Dartford-born grandfather who’s been playing lead guitar for the Rolling Stones since 1962. Thing number one: “On the night of the infamous 1967 Redlands drug bust, Keef was so far gone on LSD that when the police arrived at his Sussex country mansion, he mistook them for uniformed dwarves, welcoming them in with open arms.” Thing number three: “He once nearly burned down the Playboy Mansion (in his words: ‘basically it’s a whorehouse’). At a party in the 1970s, he and sax player Bobby Keys accidentally set fire to a bathroom while playing ‘smorgasbord’ with their doctor’s drugs. When staff finally broke down the door to put out the fire, a drugged-up Keef, oblivious to the flames, asked: ‘How dare you burst in on our private affair?’”

What the Guardian didn’t mention amongst their 20 things is the fact that Richards is a bibliophile with an abiding interest in history and a secret longing to be a librarian. This was revealed to the UK Sunday Times in May, who mentioned that it would be a sub-narrative in the then-forthcoming Life. Richards, according to the newspaper, has considered “professional training” to manage the thousands of books that fill the shelves of his homes in Sussex and Connecticut. He was quoted saying: “When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser.”

Of course the other institution that deeply affected Richards as a boy was the institution of music, and here the Wall Street Journal secured the rights to an excerpt from Life that details a profound moment: “I think the first record I bought was Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally.’ Fantastic record, even to this day. Good records just get better with age. But the one that really turned me on, like an explosion one night, listening to Radio Luxembourg on my little radio when I was supposed to be in bed and asleep, was ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ That was the stunner. I’d never heard it before, or anything like it. I’d never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day I was a different guy.”

According to the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani (again, one of the world’s most influential reviewers) Richards’s prose can be compared to his guitar-playing: “Intense, elemental, utterly distinctive and achingly, emotionally direct.” This might have something to do with the fact that he co-wrote it with James Fox, the veteran journalist and author of White Mischief, but Kakutani seems convinced that at the heart of the book lies the rocker’s inimitable voice. Whether that’s true or not, what does appear to define the book is its candour.

Kakutani quotes from Life on the question of why Richards became an addict in the first place: “I never particularly liked being that famous. I could face people easier on the stuff, but I could do that with booze too. It isn’t really the whole answer. I also felt I was doing it not to be a ‘pop star.’ There was something I didn’t really like about that end of what I was doing, the blah blah blah. That was very difficult to handle, and I could handle it better on smack. Mick chose flattery, which is very like junk — a departure from reality. I chose junk.”

The relationship with Jagger, who Richards called “Brenda” and “Her Majesty”: another good reason to buy and be satiated by Life when it arrives on shelves in South Africa in mid-November. But the best reason, the reason it’s currently tracking at number 2 on and number 3 on, is provided by Remnick: “It’s the titillation of hearing from someone who has never seen the inside of a factory or an office, and has consumed what there is to consume and survived to crow about the fact.” DM

Read more: Abstract of David Remnick’s review in the New Yorker, “The Keef facts,” in the Guardian, “It’s only books ‘n’ shelves but I like it,” in the UK Times, Excerpt from Life in the WSJ, Michiko Kakutani’s review in the NYTimes.

Photo: Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones attends a press conference to present the film ‘Shine A Light’ running in competition at the 58th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 7, 2008. REUTERS/Johannes Eisele.


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