Keith Richards, Life, Little, Brown and Company, 2010, 576 pp., $29.99.
Anyone remotely familiar with the Rolling Stones will already know about 75% of the material in Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life -- just out, in time for the beach, in paperback. Fans who have read Bill Wyman’s far superior 1991 opus Stone Alone, or seen the 1989 Stones documentary 25 x 5, will know all of it.
Writer James Fox has mastered the "as told to" format, getting down the throwaway, don’t-give-a-shit inflections that have endeared Richards to guitar heroes everywhere. The resulting lack of seriousness, while charming to the novice, can be wearying for longtime Stones’ fans. Indeed, Richards’ lack of generosity in Life is often grating, particularly to Stones’ bassist Bill Wyman, whom he mocks for not using his real name, Bill Perks, and whom he accuses of summoning dozens of groupies to his hotel rooms on tour to make it appear as if he is having lots of sex -- which Keith claims Wyman wasn’t.
Of course it is Wyman -- never a drug user -- who scores heroin for Richards, at considerable risk to himself, when Richards is jonesing for a fix. As for Mick Jagger, Richards constantly appraises his singer and fellow blues buff like a prized racehorse, expressing "shock" when the pony veers off course into disco, androgyny, stinginess and (gasp!) weariness with Richards’ sidewalk-pirate shtick.
Keith’s loyalties, however, are salient to his "real" self: a large, middle-class, female-dominated (the Richards’ women all look like cute female wrestlers) and Jewish (!) family; Stones founder Ian Stewart, who turned into a roadie and piano-playing sideman, because his rough, stevedorish look didn’t jibe with the band’s longhaired image; the love of his life, Anita Pallenberg, still thriving at 64 (I met her at Walter Robinson’s loft!); and, above all, security-guard nonpareil Bill Carter, ex-Secret-Service for JFK and probably more responsible for the Stones’ success than anyone, due to his "straight" connections to power and his ability to secure visas, police cooperation and other perks, in the face of the Stones’ various (and often unjust) drug busts.
There is one major revelation in Life which blew my mind. After guitar virtuoso Mick Taylor ripped up the Stones’ 1969 tour of the U.S., leaving Keith in the dust, Richards switched to open tuning! Keith describes open tuning as the greatest revelation of his life "because you can’t play a wrong note," and claims he had "done all there was to do with conventional tuning."
Open tuning, in which three strings are tuned to, say, "G," with a double octave, means -- to borrow a phrase from the art world -- "your kid could do that," i.e. play the Stones catalog. Richie Havens, for example, was lambasted for using open tuning, because it meant that he could accompany his soulful singing by just barring his guitar frets with his thumb. Conversely, players like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell are notorious for seeking out the most obscure and complex tunings for their compositions.
The revelation that Keith Richards uses open tuning is akin to the news that Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst has all his work fabricated by others. While "whatever works" is whatever works, it seems to belie the whole point of exceptional virtuosity, always Richards’ celebrated special niche. My advice is to avoid this book and download Rolling Stones Now! -- on the beach, of course.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).