New York Mother Nature knows how to welcome Keith Richards.
The afternoon is warm and sunny minutes before Richards is to be interviewed at his manager’s office in downtown Manhattan, a veritable Keith shrine with posters and pictures on the wall, and a director’s chair with his name on it, ready for him to be seated.
At the top of the hour, the clouds darken. The door swings open and the grinning Rolling Stone arrives.
He is 66, his face tanned and lined, his walk slightly bent, an old cowboy gone electric. He’s wearing a tan, wide-brimmed hat, black leather jacket, black pants and a loose-hanging white T-shirt. He has on sneakers, turquoise, a distant cousin to blue suede shoes.
Unlike Mick Jagger, Richards has never been knighted. But he can claim honors in the world of letters. Nearly 30 years after Jagger gave up on writing a memoir, alleging he had forgotten everything, Richards has emerged as a best-selling author who seems to have retained it all. “Another feather in my cap,” he says with his smoke-ringed laugh, lighting up the first of several Marlboros.
“It’s been a much harder journey than I expected. At first, it was like, ‘Oh, sure, I’ll tell you anything,’ without realizing how things connect together and the effect they have on you. Hey, it’s not easy to relive the death of your own son (Tara, who died in infancy in 1976). Old wounds are opened here and there, only to heal them.”
Co-written by journalist and “White Mischief” author James Fox, “Life” topped the best-seller list on Amazon.com even before publication Tuesday. Richards has received a rave (“achingly, emotionally direct”) from The New York Times. “Life,” a firsthand journey from wartime London through the wilder parts of the 1960s and 1970s and beyond, could as easily be filed among the works of Richards’ friend William Burroughs as alongside the memoirs of Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton.
“Life” is told in Richards’ offhand, conversational rhythms, through recording sessions and concerts, orgies and true romance, drugs and drug busts, family fights and domestic comforts, guitar tunings and adventures with Mick. It’s the rare rock memoir with recipes (for bangers, English sausages), guidelines on street brawling (flash the knife as a decoy, then kick your enemy where it hurts) and staying awake for days.
“I thought James did a remarkable job,” says Robert Greenfield, an author and former writer for Rolling Stone magazine who traveled with the band during its 1972 tour and interviewed Richards the year before. “He not only drew Keith out and got him to talk and provide information, but some of the language is so literary and I think it comes from Keith.”
Jagger writes most of the Rolling Stones’ lyrics, but in countless interviews Richards has laid down his own take. He is candid and philosophical, jaded and tender, Bogart with a guitar, inspiring such books as “What Would Keith Richards Do?” and “Stone Me: The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards.” His stature on paper is nearly as long, and as great, as his musical catalog. Quotes from over the decades — “I’ll just keep on rocking and hope for the best,” “I’ve never had a problem with drugs; I’ve had problems with the police” — are mottos for his fans.
“Life” is like the ultimate Keith Richards album, as if all the interviews were scraps of music that Richards and co-author Fox fleshed out and arranged. Private letters and diaries and journals were discovered, old friends consulted. Fox worked hard with Richards to freshen his memory.
“We got underneath the years of telling the stories. They were always the best stories, and always good, but he had flattened some of them by repetition over the years,” Fox says.
“I wanted to build them and we often returned to stories, just by accident or because I wanted more, and this always produced more detail each time, and it slowly built up and came more alive — at least in a literary way. It was real weaving. Some of the narrative passages have detail from many sources, all turned into Keith-speak.”
Richards was born east of London, in Dartford, in 1943. The Nazis were dropping bombs at the time, his mother told him. “That was evidence that Hitler was on my trail,” Richards writes.
He remembers “landscapes of rubble,” bombed-out streets and beatings in the schoolyard. His father, a foreman at General Electric, was often away. But Richards was close to his mother and adored his grandfather, Gus Dupree, a bohemian and musician who harmonized with Keith on radio songs and taught him a few chords on guitar. One of the great discoveries of working on “Life” was remembering his grandfather and “how much in his own way he had to do with what I became, how much I learned from him.”
In 1961, he was on a train and ran into Mick Jagger, a childhood acquaintance from the cleaner side of town, Posh Town. Jagger was carrying rock and blues albums under his arms; a musical bond was born. Mick liked to sing. Keith could play. By 1962, the Rolling Stones were a working band, by 1963, a live sensation, and by the mid-1960s, international outlaws, the dark side of their friends and rivals the Beatles.