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Keith Richards' 'Life': Sex, Drugs And Brown Sugar


Rock and roll, by its nature, doesn't have many rules; if it did it wouldn't be rock and roll. It does have, however, an unwritten code, and this is part of it: real rockers never quit. Retirement isn't hardcore, which explains why the Rolling Stones haven't called it quits after nearly 50 years as, arguably, the world's second most famous band. Keith Richards, the legendary founding guitarist of the Stones, is 66, but don't mistake his new memoir for a valedictory. It's more like a statement of purpose; a lead-off track, not a final cut. "I can't retire until I croak," he writes -- more than once -- in Life. It seems like as safe a bet as you're ever going to find in rock.

Rock and roll, after all, is his first love. Early in Life, Richards describes his first guitar, "a gut-string job," given to him by his mother when he was 15: "I took it everywhere and I went to sleep with my arm laid across it." It's the kind of honest, guileless moment that makes this book so charming, so unexpectedly moving. Richards might epitomize the popular idea of the rock lifestyle more than any other living artist -- and he doesn't shy away from admitting his deep affections for women and drugs -- but he's at his best, unsurprisingly, when he's rhapsodizing about rock. "[W]hen it works, baby, you've got wings," he writes. "It's flying without a license."

That's not to say he shies away from the darker parts of his life. The book opens on a scene of Richards nearly being arrested with "grass, peyote and mescaline. … hash, Tuinals, some coke" in Arkansas in 1975. There's no shortage of passages like these -- litanies of bad decisions and inadvisable substances -- and they're as joyless and stark as you'd expect. He alludes, quickly, to the Stones' reputation among some as misogynistic, thanks to songs like "Under My Thumb." "Maybe we were winding them up," he admits, though he can't help but add, "When you've got three thousand chicks … ripping off their panties and throwing them at you, you realize what an awesome power you have unleashed."

It's undeniable rock-nerd fun to read about the first rock song Richards fell in love with (Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel"), the Stones' first several gigs, and the first Jagger-Richards song ever written ("As Tears Go By"). But the tone of Life veers dangerously close to humorless spite when Richards recounts his frustrations with his bandmates -- Brian Jones, who he calls "cold-blooded, vicious" and a "whining son of a bitch"; Mick Jagger, whose solo album Richards compares to Mein Kampf ("Everybody had a copy, but nobody listened to it").

But rock and roll isn't supposed to be pretty, and it's hard to second-guess one of the art form's most pioneering, most original survivors. Richards's memoir, like his now universally famous guitar riffs, is likable and infectious; co-author James Fox has done an admirable job preserving the rocker's unique voice, while weaving a compelling and sometimes fascinating narrative. Life isn't always easy; you want things to end happily, even when you know how the story turns out. But that's rock and roll -- and you can't always get what you want.

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Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.