Rock-and-roll memoirs are among the most persistently disappointing of literary subgenres. Like athletes, rock musicians are rarely articulate about their craft. Both groups have easy recourse to common bodies of stale jargon—athletes give glory to God and say they “just went out and gave 110%”; rockers are all about the music, are glad to be clean, and didn’t really mean to suggest in their last interview that they were ambivalent about success. Genius that relies on fleeting inspiration, gut feeling, and unthinking improvisation is ill suited to the slow, reflective process of writing. It takes an outsider to get inside. Observers like John McPhee, John Updike, and Gay Talese have done this with sports. But rock music has eluded even serious writers. When Rolling Stone sent Truman Capote on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1972, he complained that there was simply nothing to write about, and never filed.
Capote’s work ethic had certainly eroded by then, but even the canonical body of book-length rock writing, by the likes of Greil Marcus, Stanley Booth, and Nick Tosches, never feels like more than the musings of very smart devotees about frequently inane artists. Nothing essential is transmitted. Read Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, and you understand baseball. Read Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, and you have a headache. If something essential about rock music eludes capture by writers as fine as the ones I’ve listed, it positively dissipates when the musicians themselves try to explain it.
Into the long and prosaic line of rock star autobiographies comes Life, by Keith Richards (co-written by James Fox), which will be released on October 26th and which is excerpted in the most recent issue Rolling Stone. I’ve had high hopes for Keith’s autobiography, and not only because I’m a Stones fan. Rock autobiographies that aren’t Bob Dylan’s Chronicles fall into two equally hollow categories:
1.) The sentimental redemption tale, in which our hero discovers the blues in his small town in rural England or northern Minnesota, finds success, finds that this success comes too early and too fast, uses a lot of drugs and alienates a lot of people, finally cleans up, and unconvincingly assures us that he now knows what satisfaction is. Eric Clapton’s recent autobiography and the popular film adaptations of the lives of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash fall into this category.
2.) The raunchy, no-apologies tell-all, in which the rock star has a lot of sex, takes a lot of drugs, and refuses to repent doing either. Gene Simmons’s Kiss and Make-Up is the benchmark here, though elements of the tell-all are essential to any mainstream rock autobiography.
Keith’s life presents a chance to avoid the dual-track stagnation. For one thing, Keith Richards doesn’t deal in redemption; survival is his game. He’s cleaned up but still seems like an outlaw. This isn’t because he refuses to apologize, but because, by force of personality, he’s kept beyond the cultural discourse wherein fans simultaneously crave tales of backstage debauchery and demand apologies for them. Only Dylan has been so successful at staying above the public’s wildly oscillating morals. And while we’re speaking of debauchery, Keith’s addictions could be legitimate points of interest. The needles-and-groupies portions of most rock books tend to devolve into numbly pornographic lists. But Keith’s sustained cocaine and heroin usage has become so legendary that it might be interesting to know how he didn’t die.
As it turns out, the answer makes Keith sound like Warren Buffett telling you how he made his money. Richards and Fox write:
It’s not only the high quality of drugs I had that I attribute my survival to. I was very meticulous about how much I took. I’d never put more in to get a little higher. That’s where most people fuck up on drugs. It’s the greed involved that never really affected me…Maybe that’s a measure of control, and maybe I’m rare in that respect. Maybe there I have an advantage.
That’s it. Keith Richards survived because he had a sense of moderation, and because he could afford the really good stuff.
Not only is this passage laughably anticlimactic, it just doesn’t sound like Keith. This is not to fault James Fox; his task was nigh impossible. Richards is one of the better interviews in rock and roll. His memories change a lot from interview to interview, but he is amusing and tries to be honest. His appeal, however, depends on his gravelly voice and his erratic deportment. Abstracted to the page and filtered through a co-author, things Keith would say tend to sound silly: “The travelling physician we’ll call Dr. Bill, to give it a Burroughsian ring.” Just as often, the excerpts don’t sound like Keith at all, as when he suddenly morphs into a frat boy: “No wonder I’m famous for partying! The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it.”
As that last quote suggests, Life does not refrain from the obligatory relation of prurient details. There is indeed a lot of sex in the Rolling Stone excerpts. Even the sex that might have been interesting is degraded. Of his relationship with Anita Pallenberg, whom he stole from soon-to-be-deceased bandmate Brian Jones, Keith says, “I still remember the smell of the orange trees in Valencia. When you get laid with Anita Pallenberg for the first time, you remember things.” Spoken like someone who doesn’t remember; everyone knows Valencia smells like oranges. Of another sexual encounter with Pallenberg, Keith says, “Phew.”
The excerpts do offer insight into another of Keith’s tortured and talked-about relationships: the one he’s maintained for forty years with Mick Jagger. The Glimmer Twins’ dynamic tends to be inscrutable, and Keith offers a bit of directness. Jagger, he muses, was jealous of Keith’s friendships with other men. He felt like he owned Keith. “…I love the man dearly; I’m still his mate,” Richards says. “But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
Or are we? As interesting as all this is, anyone who’s read even a few interviews with Jagger or Richards knows that there is no easy way to describe their friendship; the pair is always saying, “Yes, but…” Every blanket statement that makes for a nice block quote comes with a qualifier that does not. This is true of any subject, from Keith Richards to George Washington. Good biographers use nuance to approximate a life; they bring us closer to how a person lived. And a serious autobiographer can draw us even nearer to understanding, for no barriers of consciousness need surmounting; the author is already inside. But rock stars are subject to a specific set of demands, and by the nature of their work, they’re disposed to give us what we want. And as long as we desire accountings of every grain of cocaine and tallies of every groupie, we will remain in the audience, watching.