The Madness Of King Richards

Keef's life and times are chronicled in a new autobiography which promises to be page-turning stuff

As I write this, an excerpt from Keith Richards' autobiography Life, due for publication on October 26, has just been previewed in the Times of London, a day after Caitlin Moran's interview appeared in the same organ. The book is something of a publishing event as well as a musical one: Richards and longtime friend James Fox (author of the non-fiction book White Mischief, the story of the unsolved murder of a British lord in colonial Kenya, filmed by Michael Radford in 1987) did a £4.8 million deal for the manuscript in 2007.

Advance media coverage has been predictable enough, focusing on salacious titbits (“Keith Richards Mocks Size of Mick Jagger's Penis”) and rehashing mouldy old Mars bar/Altamont/pharmaceutical heroin/Margaret Trudeau/Dad's ashes/Jack Sparrow apocrypha. Journalists who have spent more than a minute in the man's company have been wheeled out to repeat pet anecdotes and reheat hyperbolic descriptions of the guitarist's mummy-like complexion.

Red-top droppings aside, both Moran and Rolling Stone's David Fricke have described Life as the best music autobiography since Bob Dylan's Chronicles. Fox has not only jolted the guitarist's memory but gotten underneath that leathery skin, particlularly in passages dealing with the death of Richards and Anita Pallenberg's infant son Tara in 1976.

"The first time we talked about that," Fox told Rolling Stone, "Keith couldn't get out more than five words. Then we realized we had to go back to it. He told me that he thought about it every week."

Then there's the music. Richards wrote the Stones' greatest song, the apocalyptic 'Gimme Shelter', in a state of jealous torment while waiting for Pallenberg to return from the shoot of Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's Performance, co-starring Mick Jagger, with whom Richards believed she was having an affair. “As a description of what it's like to be inside a legendary song as it makes landfall,” Moran writes, “Richards's recollections of writing 'Gimme Shelter' are without parallel.”

Richards has repeatedly proved himself most lucid and eloquent when speaking about music. If the finer parts of Chronicles included thumbnail portraits of Roy Orbison, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, one might expect Richards's book to address the mystery and magic of Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, and devote a few pages to collaborations with Chuck Berry, Gram Parsons and the Wingless Angels as well as the Stones' misadventures. Above all else, Richards is a musician, and a great one. Let's hope Life reflects that fact.


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