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Life

By Keith Richards, James Fox, Contributor Little, Brown, $29.99, 564 pages Reviewed by Larry Le Francis
LIFE, the autobiography of Keith Richards has all of the salacious, exciting, delightful and jaw-dropping tales of rock and roll redlining that is to be expected of one of the most extraordinary and polarizing musical figures of our time. But what may be lost in the feats of extraordinary financial success and its attendant excesses and madness is what has driven this man from childhood into the impending dusk of mortality, kicking and living the hell out of life along the wayan absolute, consuming and complete love affair with music. Written with complete candor and a generous helping of humor and bemusement, it is the almost primordial context of music that Keith has embraced throughout his life that ultimately has sustained him. His philosophy about music is deceptively simple: People really do want to touch each other, to the heart. Thats why you have music. If you cant say it, sing it. This is crucial to Keith, to stretch yourself into other peoples hearts. As a boy, Keiths mum Doris played music every day, exposing the boy to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Big Bill Broonzy, Sarah Vaughn and more. It just spoke to me. He recounts an early memory of being taken to and sitting in a music repair shop by his beloved grandfather Gus with a biscuit and a cup of tea, music floating through the air, instruments being fixed and tested,

vats of hot glue bubbling, guitars and violins hung and turning on conveyer belts. He writes fondly of Gus merely leaving a Spanish gut-string guitar on top of the piano for the little boy to stare at with awe, a sweet, lovely little lady that it took him years to even touch, then grasp with intense desire. Music was like a drug, in fact, a far bigger drug than smack. I couldnt kick music. One note leads to another, and you never know quite whats going to come next, and you dont want to. Its like walking on a beautiful tightrope. Then, some pivotal points: buying his first rock and roll song, Long Tall Sally by Little Richard and an early exposure to Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley. It changed his life, the songs rawness appealing to the bullied-at-school little boy, struggling to hear it and other wondrous music like it on his cheap, tiny radio in bed at night, feverishly twisting the antenna to get a clear signal from Radio Luxembourg. His first LP was Elvis Mystery Train which introduced him to the great guitarist Scotty Moore. The love affair with the explosive, raw sound of the blues soon merged with his rock and roll lust. The story of hooking up with Mike Mick Jagger and the equally driven Brian Jones is now chiseled into music lore. But the early Stones considered themselves unpaid promoters of the Chicago blues, turning people on to Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed. He recounts how a few years later in Manchester, (including countless gigs around Londons burgeoning blues club scene) the key troika of the Rollin Stones, Mick, Keith and Brian are blown away seeing their idols Muddy Waters with Junior Wells, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, John Lee Hooker and more on stage, only to be astounded when Muddy, after playing acoustically for half an hour, re-takes the stage and plays electrically, only to be booed by the die-hard country-style British blues aficionados. During their first tour of the UK opening for the Everly Brothers and Little Richard, their popularity exploded, but they became labeled as a pop band, which grated the hell out of them they thought of themselves as blues men. Keith considers one of the greatest contributions of the Stones is turning the American people on to the blues, their own indigenous music. Some key points that resonate: On songwriting: You start to become an observerobserving people, how they react to one anotherIts a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter. You start looking round, and everythings a subject for a song. On new bands: I love every band that comes along. Thats why Im here, to encourage guys to play and get bands together. On the signature rock and roll riffs he has conjured up through the years: he attributes this to open 5-string tunings and what he calls these crucial, wonderful riffs that just came, I dont know where from. Im blessed with them and I can never get to the bottom of them.

He loves stripped-down recording techniques. He created the unique sound of Jumping Jack Flash and Street Fighting Man with layers of acoustic guitar mashed onto a cheap cassette recorder plugged into an equally cheap little amp. Charlies drums were a simple practice kit that folded out of a suitcase, a technique born out of endless touring, cheap hotels and valuable writing and recording time compressed between relentless gigs. Ultimately, its the sound of the room with a group of musicians playing together that defines the music. Everybody got carried away with technology (during the 80s) and slowly theyre swimming back. The idea of separation (walling off musicians with baffles and sound barriers in the studio) is the total antithesis of rock and rollits the sound [musicians] make together, not separated. As Keith stresses, some people like to play guitar. Others look for a sound. Keith looks for THE sound. The music lover and the musician will be enthralled with this book. Its a dirty little pleasure to be the proverbial fly on the wall as music icons, media personalities, derelicts, thieves, addicts, groupies and more weave their way through Keiths particular lens. But be prepared for his harrowing tales of hard drugs use, where the wretched horrors of heroin addiction overshadow even cocaine. It is with razor-like honesty that only Keith Richards can paint with a survivors brush. That part of the book is extremely difficult to read. But he doesnt glamorize his experiences in the least. And after all, Keith is made of sterner stuff than most human beings. So in the end, the reader has to wonder: is this all true, or has the author taken liberties with the story of his own life? Maybe that depends upon if you believe that the Devil really came a-knockin on Robert Johnsons door and he said, Hello, Satan, I believe its time to go.

"Reprinted By Permission with San Francisco Book Review & Sacramento Book Review. All rights reserved.