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Monday, Jan. 17, 2011

Keith Richards Reflects on ‘Life’

An inside look at the legendary musician

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Like his idols among the great Delta bluesmen, Keith Richards is intent on playing music until he dies. In fact, he may have cheated the Grim Reaper a few times already. Fittingly, Richards titled his autobiography Life (Little, Brown).

Rock ’n’ roll was in its infancy in the early ’60s, and there were no templates. Thus, Richards became an archetype. For better or worse, his career as the soul of the Rolling Stones set the standard by which rock stars are defined. He also adapted the blues players’ open G tuning to create the signature guitar tone of the Rolling Stones.

But it wasn’t always that way. In Life Richards traces his upbringing as a shy only-child in postwar England, tagging along with his music-loving grandfather. Eventually he catches glimpses of the wild-ass music making its way from America. If he was touched by the mania of Little Richard and intrigued by Muddy Waters, it was the mystery of Scotty Moore’s guitar solo on “Heartbreak Hotel” that was Richards’ siren call.

The embryonic Stones, as led by Brian Jones, started as a blues/R&B cover band. But the legend really began to take shape when manager Andrew Loog Oldham sent Richards and singer Mick Jagger into a room with instructions to “come out with a song.”

Along the wooly path, Richards encounters like-minded pals and generously lets them relay stories in which they played key roles—that is, if they are still alive. Bobby Keys, Richards’ soul brother (they were born within hours of each other), tells about some wild rides. Gram Parsons was a mighty influence on Richards. He succumbed to demons long ago, and it is obvious Richards misses him still.

Co-written with James Fox, Life’s refrain is Richards laying his cards on the table. From the nightmare of Altamont to drug busts and life on the lam with young son Marlon as his caretaker, Richards comes across as less than willing to play by society’s rules but ready to do anything for his family and band. He refuses to make excuses for his lifestyle.

Not until the band’s flirtation with the mainstream (“Maybe we’ve got a quintessential disco thing here,” Richards says of “Miss You”) in the late ’70s is Richards awakened from his junky fog. In the process of cleaning up, he discovers that, during the years he was maintaining his habit, Jagger had become the band’s rudder, making most of the important decisions. Richards gradually regains his share of control, but along the way his view of Jagger evolves dangerously close to a snarky business arrangement, as he referred to the frontman as “Brenda” and “Her Majesty.” Granted, some of the animosity began when Jagger launched a solo career (though that opened up Richards to a side project fronting the X-Pensive Winos, working with Chuck Berry and producing Wingless Angels, a band of Jamaican neighbors).

While there already are shelves of books about the Stones, Life is a well-paced bird’s-eye view from the engine that has kept the band moving for nearly four decades.