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Published: 2011/07/28
by Mike Gruenberg

Keith Richards
Life

My summer reading list is not unlike my ongoing reading list. There are always three elements to my selections. My categories of choice are Non-Fiction, Mystery and Pop Culture. At any given time, I will have books covering these topics on my agenda in various forms of completion. For good measure, there will always be a sports book included to round out the tomes of choice.

For example, under non-fiction, I just completed reading Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides. This is a most engaging book detailing the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King and the subsequent manhunt and arrest and conviction of James Earl Ray. Under mystery, my favorite crime solver of all time has always been Lew Archer, which was written most skillfully by the late Ross Macdonald. I have read virtually all the books in the series and was pleased to discover a book of short stories written by Macdonald. I enthusiastically would recommend books by both authors for anyone’s reading list. As for pop culture, I had the pleasure to read Life by Keith Richards.

My musical “coming of age” was formed by listening to and attending concerts to hear and see music performed by the Beatles, Stones, and as many of the British Invasion groups I could afford to see. American groups like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Rascals, Jefferson Airplane, Blood, Sweat & Tears were among many others that rounded out my rock musical education. I knew the names of all the musicians, their record labels and many a factoid about each. However, to me, Keith always represented a man of mystery, someone who I really did not know. Maybe it was because Mick played so prominent a stage role that he publicly dwarfed the rest of the group. Or maybe because I looked to drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman as the best rhythm section in the business or maybe because I could usually see the pain on Brian Jones’s face. Or maybe it was because I was so wrapped up in the Beatles. Don’t know, but I never gave Keith his due.

I have a picture in my rock memorabilia collection of the Stones standing on West 45th Street & Broadway in New York City in 1964. Mick is confidently smug; Charlie Watts is smiling and well-dressed, as usual. Brian Jones looks great wearing his custom-made shirt and vest with expensive looking cuff links. Bill Wyman is behind him with his hand on Brian’s shoulder almost in a protective stance and Keith has this incredible smirk on his face wearing clothing more befitting a country bumpkin than a rock star. It’s almost like he’s amazed that he’s gotten this far playing guitar.

1964 was the Stones first year they experienced a modicum of success in America. They came to the U.S. in June of that year to tour and record. They actually recorded at the legendary Chess studios in Chicago and the next year, “Satisfaction” became a worldwide hit and they never looked back. However, in 1964 they were just coming of age and already the swagger was there from Mick and the band.

So what about the book? Not only did I enjoy reading it, but I finally got to know about Keith and his amazing life. At any given time during the reading of the book, I laughed, scratched my head in disbelief and just had a truly enjoyable time reading about the life of Keith Richards. I got to know him, respect him, disagree with him and most of all understand what type of person he turned out to be with all the many detours along the way. We are taken though his youth, when he met Mick for the first time, forming the band, getting busted, dealing with Brian’s death, living though the haze of drugs and unbelievably coming out of it as a most revered and sober human being married to a most understanding woman.

There were times in the book that Keith himself paints himself as a most unsympathetic and loathsome character especially in relation to his description of the life and death of Brian Jones. Brian was totally unsuited to handle the success and pressures of rock stardom and predictably wilted under the spotlight. His behavior became erratic and contributed to significant tension amongst the band. In actuality, it was Brian who created the group and was devastated when Mick and Keith fired him with full support of Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager. It was Keith who undermined Brian and stole Brain’s girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg and flaunted that new relationship in his face.

Pallenberg and Richards had three children together, of which two survived. They had a stormy relationship which is graphically described in the book. And yet, for all their time together, replete with drugs and violence, they exhibited touches of humor. Richards had an automobile, but not just ANY automobile. He named it Blue Lena. It was 1-of-86 produced vehicles by Bentley, the S3 Continental Flying Spur. He named it in honor of Lena Horne and sent her a picture of it. Anyway Keith and friends decided to drive Blue Lena from Paris to Morocco. Along with a driver, Brian, Keith, Deborah Dixon, an old friend of Anita’s piled into the car for the trip to Morocco. Keith describes Brian as being more childish and obnoxious as usual on the journey. Brian complained of being sick, but no one took him seriously. Sure enough, after a day and night of his constant complaining it turned out that Brian was indeed sick and subsequently had to be hospitalized after being diagnosed with pneumonia. They told him that they would continue driving though Spain and he would meet them later in Tangier. Upon entry to the hospital, Brain gave Deborah strict instructions not let Keith and Anita be alone together.

The next day, Deborah had enough of the tension and flew back to Paris allowing Anita and Keith to be alone and guess what; they discovered they had romantic interest in each other. He speaks about the first time he made love to Anita which was in Valencia, Spain. There, they checked into the hotel under the assumed names of Count and Countess Zigenpuss.

When I finished the book, I imagined a meat grinder where you combine all sorts of desirable elements such as his self-taught musical talent to play the guitar, a knack for composing catchy guitar riffs, a unique way of playing only 5 strings on a guitar and a talented musical writing partner turning out hit after hit. Combining that with all sorts of undesirable elements such as continual use of drugs, rock star excesses, booze, philandering, toxic relationships and grind both the good and bad elements up together and what do you get?........Keef, lovable Keef!

Richards gives the reader a look into the total world of rock music. We get to see how the business side works and how the musical side evolves. The trappings of success and the depression of failure are clearly chronicled. He spares no one, including himself. I got to know him and feel his pain, become annoyed at his antics and delight in his success. I found myself rooting for him to succeed. He is candid about his shortcomings and disappointments. He tells of his frustrations with Mick and how upon meeting and working with his boyhood idol Chuck Berry became a letdown for him. He vividly describes the Thanksgiving meal at his future in-laws house as a disaster caused by him. But In the end, this admitted “mama’s boy” who remained respectful of his parents and family throughout his travails scaled the Mt. Everest of rock music and lived to tell the tale when everyone around him predicted his early demise.

Keith Richards today is clean and sober. He’s has a lovely family with children from Anita and Patti and he looks like a contented man. He has two children from his relationship with Anita Pallenberg and two daughters from his current wife of 28 years. He married Patti Hansen in 1983 and they are still married today. That’s a better track record than most couples and certainly most rock’n’roll couples. And yes, he’s also a grandfather.

Keep rockin’ old man!

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