THE FACE OF ROCK… KEITH RICHARDS ON HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY “LIFE”
Up until Life, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles had set a new bar for rock autobiographies…
That was the other thing I couldn’t go through, trying to outdo somebody else’s.
Everybody’s got a different way of telling a story and has different stories to tell. But Chronicles was
fantastic. That was the benchmark. When we started, I told James a few school stories and said this is what I remember. But within a week, James had found the guy I was talking about, and got the confirmation that
this story would hold up. After that, I started to get more confidence in my memory. I mean, it’s been pretty fried.
Why did you decide to do the book?
The Stones had just finished the last tour, having been away for three years, and I knew there was going to be an inevitable gap where we would all be sitting around thinking about what’s going to happen next.
And the idea came up just at that moment, and it seemed the perfect thing to keep me occupied.
It just seemed the right point in the story so far. And then other things fell into place and I knew that
I had a couple of years to do it, basically.
What did you want to achieve with the book?
I just wanted to tell it from my point of view, and the incredible escapades we got involved in.
It would be enough for most people’s lifetimes if just one of those things happened to them.
But I wasn’t expecting the incredible reception that it’s got. It’s got me into a semiliterate area people thought
I was just a moron. I’ve actually got to like critics in the last year! It’s like, “Wow, thanks pal, let me buy you a drink!” I thought they were going to drag me through the mud, as I’m used to that, but in actual fact it sort of elevated my opinion of myself. I don’t want get bigheaded here, as I always play myself down, but I’ve been
pleased. To me, my biggest fear is getting a big head, and that is when I get the hammer. Because it’s very
easy in this game to believe you’re something special. Just look at Brian Jones – he died from it.
You’ve been fairly transparent about the partnership between you and James,
and that’s earned you a lot of credit.
I couldn’t have told the story without him. In some uncanny way he captured the strength and breadth of the story. I’ve been friends with James for years, so he was used to my rhythm of speech. It helps that he’s also a very good blues guitar player. So when I’d run out of ideas or taped the stories, we’d sit down and play some blues.
But it’s weird to drag through your whole life, because in the process you’re actually living the damn thing twice.
As we went on I was shocked by thinking, “How did one guy go through all this?” And then I realised it was me!
It put my past into a more coherent perspective. Before doing the book I’d look upon my life as incredible,
disconnected episodes, and in the process of doing the book I managed to make sense of it. When I finished
I felt more exhausted than after three years touring with the Stones. I felt a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
What did you learn about yourself writing the book?
That I’m a much meaner bastard than I thought. But at the same time, I realised how much friendship
had meant to me, and how much my friendship had meant to other people, which I hadn’t thought about before.
This is the rock’n’roll life, and you had to invent it as you went along. There was no textbook to say how you operate this machinery. You didn’t know you were always walking on the edge of disasters, and there’s nobody to turn to
and say, “How did you feel?” because no one had been there before. It was very exciting. Still is, in a way.
There are loads of things people wish I’d done, and some things I wish I’d done! You become a cartoon character, and I can play that to the hilt, and I know that people have come up with a great story and they go, “He didn’t do it, but if he’d thought about it and he’d been there, he would have done it.”
You were the rock’n’roll blueprint.
I hope so, and it’s very nice of you to say so.
You’re also very selfdeprecating in the book…
I’ve slowly grown into that. When you’re supported by millions all over the world, you can either go nuts,
or try to feed off the goodwill. I always felt that it was my job to give back to them as much as possible.
I want to make better records, better shows. So it’s about reciprocation – there are millions of fans, and
if you get that feedback, especially from an early age, it’s indescribable. It’s the same with the Beatles, John Lennon
in particular. It’s something you have to handle all the time. I’ve never taken it for granted. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
You spend a long time describing London after WWII.
Even though my memory of the war is pretty much nonexistent, as I was only 18 months old, I still had a sense
of sirens and collective fears. But as you’re growing up in the Fifties, you’re thinking this has got to change,
it’s too tight, the atmosphere, it’s too restricted. The others running the joint want us to go back to the Thirties
and we can’t. And I guess as I was reaching the age of 15, 16, you’ve got the energy and you’re bursting to escape.
Plus, I fell in love with blues music, and that was where you found roots and a form of expression we didn’t
have in England. But as I was growing up, my mother was listening to a lot of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald…
You hear things on the BBC, and then you start to bump into other guys who are into it, too; you realise it isn’t just you sitting in a council flat. There are other guys out there listening to music, and somebody’s got a new record from America and you’re immediately at their house. You bring a bottle of beer – that was your entrance fee – and you sit around and listen to records, which is nuts but it’s beautiful. It was very innocent.
Were there parts you really didn’t look forward to writing?
I really didn’t want to go through and remember the death of my son. You spend a lot of time trying to bury that
kind of s***, not bringing it up again. That was the hard one for me, to relive that.You don’t forget s*** like that.
In the book you describe using drugs as gears. What gear are you in these days?
I’m pretty much in neutral.
How many stories couldn’t you include?
you include? There were a lot for legal reasons. Especially concerning families who didn’t even know that one
of their relations was a drug dealer.
A lot of my friends were very well brought-up boys, and I wouldn’t want to upset the family just to name somebody. Everybody was experimenting and everybody was a pirate, especially in those days.
In the club subculture, actually in every sort of culture, there are some very interesting people down there,
but it’s a great leveller where you find out who’s one of our people or who’s full of s***;
who would stick by your side in a tough situation, and who would rat you out. It’s not the most pleasant world
to be in, but I do think it’s kind of necessary to keep one foot in the gutter.
Because I never trusted the pavement.
Has this given you a taste for doing a bit more writing?
Yeah, there is talk about that, but basically I want to get the Stones back together and give it one more bash.
I think they’ve got it in them. But it’s about timing and an awful lot of very careful diplomacy.
Mick didn’t love the book, did he?
Mick was obviously a bit peeved, but that was yesterday and this is today. We’re two guys divided by life.
Did you read Ronnie Wood’s book?
Well, I think he tossed it off. Even Ronnie would admit that. Ronnie’s got a much better story to
tell than that book, that’s all I can say. Charlie’s book is the one I really want to read.
You haven’t glamorised being on the road.
It actually wasn’t a very glamorous life; it was a lot of hard slog, a lot of hard work. We were taking care
of two hours on the stage and the rest of it; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
How do you feel when you go back to Britain?
It’s the only place in the world where I feel like a tourist, just because of the obvious changes. I always feel like a
stranger, but I’m sure if I stayed there for a year that feeling would disappear. It’s just that I’m not there a lot.
But I do love the old country. Get me down to Sussex and you have to dig me out.
Six months before the book came out I bumped into David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker,
and all he could talk about was your book. He said that he was hoping you were going to explain the
open G tuning. Which you did!
I’m amazed by that part of the book, and how much response I’ve got from the guitar players of this world.
It’s so difficult to put on to the page how you play an instrument, and I was amazed by the fact that I can, and
I apparently made it fairly comprehensive. It’s got a lot of tips in there, and that was the one difficulty for me and
James – I didn’t know how to put it into words. I know you have to do this and put this there, but on the page that will look dopey. But the translation worked.
And is there going to be a movie of the book?
Yeah, there are feelers out at the minute. I’m in no rush right at the moment. Also, how are they going to find me?
The idea of a succession of Keith Richards coming down is horrifying.
Maybe whenI’m dead and gone they can make a movie of it.
FROM BRITSH GQ