Keith Richards’s Coda: A Folk Hero Caps off His Legacy
Review by Matt Shedd
With an icon like Keith Richards, who has not only lived up to the rock and roll ethos of rebellion, unbridled sexuality, and hard-living–but was so wild he was instrumental to fashioning our modern folk hero of the rock star–it’s amazing enough he is still alive in 2011. But when a myth looms much larger than any of the man’s guitar licks, albums, or legendary substance addictions, how could he possibly enrich the story through an autobiography? Apparently by using a large dose of corrosive British wit, tightly crafted prose, and the guiding hand of writer James Fox. Richards’s (and Fox’s) Life reads as if you had the rare pleasure of taking Mr. Richards out to the dirtiest dive bar you could find, gave him an open tab, and just said, “Alright, go.” And he goes…for a long time, producing the most unpredictably wild and entertaining 500-plus pages I’ve encountered in a while.
“For many years I slept, on average, twice a week,” he states with his usual modesty. “This means that I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes.” It’s hard to say whether this is hyperbolic or not. Regardless, this man has lived a long life, and everything is a potential subject in this book: the countless squabbles with Mick, his development as a musician, the dirt on nearly every legendary rock icon, his heroin addiction, kicking heroin, starting heroin again, etc. If you want merely a brief introduction to the Stones, you should go to Wikipedia rather than buying this book. But if you’re even remotely interested in the band, the history of rock and roll, or even if you just want to listen to a fascinating guy for several hours, it’s a delight.
However, the book is not merely an endless string of rock and roll antics. Although he may be setting the bathroom on fire at the Playboy Mansion on one page, before long he’ll be giving brief lectures about the history of recorded music or the benefits for songwriters who work with open-G tuning. He even provides thoughtful cultural analysis on several occasions, like this passage concerning teenage girls at the early concerts:
It’s not just the size of his personality, but also his awareness of the myth surrounding him that makes Richards’s Life worth reading. An autobiography is bound to be a performance, and this monologue, full of digressions and Richards’s wizened bits of practical advice, is a particularly powerful one. He allows the reader inside the persona without it collapsing—a persona he describes in the following way: “There’s a demon in me, and there’s a demon in everybody else…People love that image. They wish me to do things that they can’t. They’ve got to do this job, they’ve got this life, they’re an insurance salesman…but at the same time, inside of them is a raging Keith Richards.” In Life, not only do we get to ride shotgun on all of Keith’s exploits, we also get to see somebody whose job it is to play that role. He not only recounts his various difficulties while playing the part, he adds layers to it as well, complimenting his unassailable place in the modern mythos as raging Richards with the persona of aging artist, ruminating over a life nearly spent. The resulting book enriches Richards’s already impressive catalog of work by adding a measure of reflexivity to his rebellious personality.