Keith Richards’ juicy memoir spills the gory details of his musical quest and drug-filled decades, says Bijoy Venugopal
MONSOON IN Bangalore” is how Keith Richards recalls his first gig in India, where the Rolling Stones wrung out a cloudburst. That was April 2003 and those were mango showers. But for such libertine insouciance with facts, the memoir of the world’s most “elegantly wasted rock star” is a balloon of penetrating insight, smirky name-dropping, bitter bitching and bourbon-laced warmth, punctured with several needles.
At the Stones’ next show in Mumbai, I was not yet a fan. Keith Richards, older than my dad, with skull-ring, kohl-smeared eyes and eerie T-rex grin, did me in. Life reaffirms how Richards ogled at Mick Jagger’s Chuck Berry records on a train, how they traipsed London bars seeking out the blues, and how they were a crack song-writing duo for decades before Jagger made it “very difficult to be his friend.” How they shoplifted to afford drummer Charlie Watts. And how they played “American music to English people” before discovering that white Americans had not heard the blues. “The Stones’ greatest contribution was to turn American people back on to their own music,” he says.
Life reads like an earnest, frank and unexpectedly lucid fireside chat, all easy self-deprecation and name-calling. Richards’ heart-to-heart guitar talk — open tuning and drone notes — is music even to the tone-deaf. There are bizarre encounters with his heroes — Muddy Waters whitewashing a studio ceiling, Ike Turner begging to learn chords. And merciless swipes at celebrities – Jean-Luc Godard (“somebody slipped him some acid and he went into that phony year of ideological overdrive”) and the “old gasbag” Allen Ginsberg (“who sat around playing a concertina badly and making om sounds, pretending he was oblivious to his socialite surroundings”). And women — from Linda Keith who is “Ruby Tuesday” to the heroin-besotted mother of his kids, Anita Pallenberg.
Life unspools the sleaze and machinations of the music trade, the toil to produce a signature sound, studying the stage acts of the masters. It is abundant with praise for bit-part actors — managers, touring musicians and groupies — and the global web of “top-ranking legal gunslingers” who have ensured that the Stones are not in a penal colony breaking boulders.
But what drove him to hit the dope so hard? “They don’t call it heroin for nothing,” he muses like one smitten, though he’s been admittedly clean for 30 years. “It’s a seductress.” His grasp of guitar patois competes with encyclopaedic junkie wisdom. Speedballs, smack, coke, tuinals, secunals, nembutals, freebasing, maintenance doses — the sheer vocabulary is sobering. He’d use drugs “like gears” but disclaims that “this is not a recommendation”.
Written off in 1973 at the top of a list of rock stars most likely to die, Keith Richards lived to tell the tale. No wonder it’s called Life.
Venugopal is a Bengaluru-based journalist who writes on Indian rock music