Author: Keith Richards with James Fox Publisher: Weidenfeld, 564 pages
IF you can remember the 1960s, blah blah blah. Boy can Keith Richards remember the 60s, which is great. The real miracle is that he can remember the 70s, considering that Keith’s poison was heroin, which would surely make performing in a high-energy band quite difficult, let alone raising two children, with a heroin-addicted Anita Pallenberg.
So the very existence of this book is a marker against the ravages of time. It suggests that Richards’s memory is fresh in a way that his face isn’t. His memory has had a little help: there are letters he sent to relatives, and even a diary, as well as testaments from friends and garnering from other people’s memoirs.
Goodness, there’s enough material to start an archive in somewhere like Texas, or for Andrew Motion to contemplate an official biography. For now, though, we have a lot of kind, perhaps even indulgent, transcription from James Fox.
Keith says in one of his many flips from detail into depth: “Memory is fiction.” But if it were, this book would be in better shape. It rambles between crabbiness and humility, like some 500-page record sleeve shout-out: on page 488 he ends up thanking God, as if the Almighty were a really dependable roadie.
Perhaps this tribute is fair enough. He seems unlikely to have survived without some kind of intervention. One widely believed theory is that he went to Switzerland to have his blood changed. Richards puts it colourfully: “It’s said to have been some transaction with the devil deep under the stones of Zurich, face white with parchment, a kind of vampire attack in reverse and the rosiness returns to his cheeks. But I never changed it!”
He shows how we’ve swallowed his Faust myth. He even compares himself to Robert Johnson, the blues man who sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads and died aged 27. People believe similar things of Richards, and that tells its own story: we’re amazed he’s still alive. He explains how New Musical Express put him on the top of their “rock stars most likely to die” list. Go, Keith! he imagines us saying, in a nasty way.
But he hasn’t gone, and as a result his book provides us with a startling link between the past and the present. The Dartford of his childhood had more carts and horses after the war than there were just before it; it was an age of smog and rationing, and of Chuck Berry. The Rolling Stones began life stealing stage time from trad jazzers such as Acker Bilk and Chris Barber.
His evocation of those days can be funnier than Spinal Tap’s reminiscences of their native Squatney. He relives his mother’s work during the war, distributing very few cakes among 300 people: And she would be the decider of who would get them. “Can I have a cake next week?” “Well, you had one last week, didn’t you?” A heroic war.
And he can be tender, too. If Larkin is right that sex began in 1963, then Richards is a key witness to what happened in 1962: “Sex then was mostly just like, it’s a bit chilly, let’s cuddle, the gas has gone out and no shillings left.” Isn’t that far more lyrical than Larkin’s “wrangle for a ring”?
He isn’t always this poignant, though. There’s a junkie-artist frankness throughout, coupled with a refusal to omit things: how he plays the guitar, how post-gig coupling works, and his recipe for bangers and mash (don’t try it at home). Both his style and his content reveal him to be fastidious: Mariah Carey sounds laid back when compared to Keith Richards’s pre-concert insistence on a freshly baked shepherd’s pie.
There are cameos from friends and family and, to bring us to our own generation, Kate Moss contributes a page. This is surely the most she has had to say about anything, and what a theme she has: it’s about the time when a young guest dug up Keith’s spring onions and appeared with them behind his ear after the Stone had conducted a retentive search.
He chased the guest out of the house with a sabre (probably). These vignettes can be good fun, but the endless accounts of bustups, drugs busts and trials – an impressive feat of recollection under the circumstances – left this reader sadder and wrinklier. – © The Daily Telegraph UK 2010