Question: What are two things that would survive nuclear war?
Answer: Cockroaches and Keith Richards.
Sadly, nowhere in his new memoir, Life, does the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards reveal exactly how he has eluded death for so long.
Certainly, given the prodigious amounts of narcotics he cops to having ingested over a period of several years, a brush with something other than the law must have been in order. But no, while dear friends (Gram Parsons) and contemporaries (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison) dropped around him, Richards persevered, surviving by the skin of his teeth and living to tell his tale.
Co-written with British journalist James Fox, Life is a wonderfully engaging autobiography that pulls back the curtain on one of rock 'n' roll's most notorious pirates, a man about whom much has been said and even more has been mythologized. Over the course of these 576 pages, which are studded with carefully chosen photographs of the period to illustrate Richards' points, one of music's most indestructible souls reveals himself to be far more thoughtful than the clichés would suggest, as well as an artist hopelessly devoted to his craft.
Richards is the first active Rolling Stone to offer up his life and career for scrutiny; ex-bassist Bill Wyman has penned a couple of tell-alls. Yet Richards wears the weight of his contributions to the rock canon and pop culture lightly. He's far more interested, as are most musicians, in the minutiae of creating a song, stripping a work down to its chords. Time and again throughout Life, he walks readers through the genesis of creating immortal tunes like Tumbling Dice or Sympathy for the Devil, vividly describing how he happened to fall upon the right combination of notes, which provided the perfect bed for Mick Jagger's lyrical contributions. The circumstances and subject matter of classic Stones songs drift by in the background, but only become a point of interest if they dovetail with a great story.
That knack for spinning yarns -- Richards' gift as a storyteller, whose personality leaps from the page -- is what propels Life forward. He anecdotally revisits his childhood, plucking memories from the ether with startling ease (again, given his drug intake, he should be a burned-out husk of a man). Richards gradually offers his perspective on his bandmates; he practically worships at Charlie Watts' feet. There is no 'aha!' moment, unless you count his transfer to Sidcup Art College and immersion in the then-burgeoning avant-garde art scene.
Fellow Glimmer Twin Mick Jagger more or less drifts into his life, a complicated relationship that persists to this day. (According to an interview with Richards in UK newspaper The Telegraph, Jagger told his guitarist and co-writer that Life was "a bit bitchy.")
It's that symbiotic existence that provides the later chapters with an extra frisson of tension. Richards, who never shies away from jabbing at his longtime musical collaborator, clearly relishes pushing his mate's buttons, and as an only child, embraces Jagger as the brother he never had. The insight into the pair's psychological tug of war is never fully explored, if only because Richards is largely loathe to speak on his bandmate's behalf. Wisely or not, he mostly keeps his thoughts to himself, only occasionally indulging in speculation.
Aside from providing a first-person accounting of how some of the best rock albums of the past half-century were created, Richards also sharply sketches what England was like as the Stones and, to a greater degree, the Beatles exploded into the popular consciousness, rewriting the rules as they went. His chronicles of the two bands' meteoric rise to fame, as well as their backstage camaraderie and titillating glimpses into life on the road as a Rolling Stone, offer some of the liveliest moments of the narrative. (Indeed, the book opens with an ominous vignette: The Stones adrift in the Deep South, unclear whether their lives are in immediate danger.)
Although reams have been written, in music magazines, on fan websites and in other nonfiction tomes, Richards manages to make some of the most-discussed moments (the tragedy at Altamont, the band's temporary exile in France) feel fresh and almost tangible.
Richards, 66, may be downshifting slightly, but the Rolling Stones are as titanic a rock band as ever. Frequently, Richards mentioned projects "as of this writing," very much suggesting that the Rolling Stones are still pushing forward, chasing that sound, trying to capture what it is that has both eluded and enticed them ever onward for the better part of nearly 50 years.
So what if Richards has cheated death again and again. He acknowledges as much often in Life. More than anything, he seems to suggest that the answer to that eternal question -- how has he survived? -- lies buried within his life's work, the peerless catalog of the Rolling Stones. He invites you to look (and listen) closer, but dances away before truly revealing everything. The result is one of the best rock reads of the year.
Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic, 817-390-7713