A Modern Minstrel

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Life, by Keith Richards (With James Fox)

I’ve always been fascinated with personalities – not the glamor flavor of the month, necessarily, but those who seem strong in personality, archetypes, if you will, of recurring personalities throughout history. After reading this rather long book, I have to admit that Keith Richards is one of these – the archetypal minstrel, the peripatetic sailor. One who shuns convention, not necessarily wishing to influence others with his lifestyle, but simply saying, “leave me alone, damn you, and let me live my life.” In a certain sense he’s a throwback – strongly individualistic, but he’s also a modern man whose life would likely have come to nothing were he not to have committed himself to a certain cooperative venture, in this case the Rolling Stones.

As with any autobiography, his is to an extent self-serving, puffing up what he sees as his virtues and downplaying his vices and weaknesses. Born in the last year of World War II to a lower middle class English family of Welsh extraction, Richard’s account has him bored with school, trifling with the law in rather non-threatening ways, hence an early rebel in the school of James Dean and Marlon Brando. He becomes fascinated with American blues and prototypical rockabilly music. The Stones set out initially to be the “best blues band in England,” but fortune smiles on them early. This early music is testimony to American blues and rhythm and blues, but success quickly turns their heads to prototypical rock, eventually a harder version of pop music – a genre they have remained within since.

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Richards doesn’t spare us his faults; he was addicted to heroin for a couple of decades. He doesn’t paint himself a victim, though. He imply says he used it to put distance between himself and the surrounding craziness, much of it his own making. If he has an agenda here it’s to portray his slow maturation to family life as rather inevitable, and to paint himself as the soulful anchor of the band.

There’s much more detail to his tale, though: the craziness, the arrests, the drugs, the band’s evolution, his growing apart from musical partner Mick Jagger. He writes as if holding court in a bar, a bottle of Jack Black in his hand. He’s angry in places, wryly funny in many, wistful at times, that unrestrained personality always at the fore. And he seems a rather intelligent bloke. The Stones have been tailing off for years as an influential musical force, but their fans remain legion, and I have no doubt a grander part of the reason for that is life, as lived by Keith Richards.

My rating 17 of 20 stars

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