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Keith Richards: A buccaneer's Life in the fast lane

The legendary Rolling Stones guitarist tells all in his new autobiography Life.

Life. Not A Life or The Life. Just Life.

The title offers some indication of where Keith Richards sees himself on the cosmic stage … but don't misread it. Celebrated, demonised, mythologised, Richards might seem the embodiment of rock star narcissism, and in terms of music and style, who's going to argue? Richards' journey is the central rock'n'roll trajectory, and for any fan of rock'n'roll, this wizened 66-year-old cat is the lead buccaneer.

But that title has a dual sense, of narcissism twinned with humility. Keith refers both to his own life, and the life that dwarfs us all, and that philosophy is central to his understanding of the creative process - and your understanding of it. Because for all the excerpted passages about his rampant drug use, for all the pithy comments about his band's singer, Richards is at least as interested in writing about and explaining his creative process - the mystery of where songs come from, how they are captured, the inspiration/perspiration tandem of their genesis and moulding. And it's a love story.

His love of music comes from his mum Doris, who "trained my ears to go to the black side of town", to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Grandfather Gus and his nylon-strung guitar are a first glimpse into a musical future. Later, his rebel persona will be formed in that crucible of treason - the school choir.

Richards was a 12-year-old soprano competing for his school in a choir competition when he learned about betrayal. The school proudly displayed the trophies he and his mates had won, then kept them back a year for the classes they'd missed. "The moment that happened, Spike, Terry and I, we became terrorists."

And so music and outlaw were fused. Rock'n'roll-wise, his first impulse after experiencing the white flash of Heartbreak Hotel and its perfect starkness, is to imitate, learn, understand and become. There are lengthy passages on the nascent Rolling Stones' dedication to their craft, their abject poverty and devotion to learning the sound, their mission to become (white) Chicago bluesmen (in England).

The Stones were a cover band running out of covers when the Beatles gave them a new song they'd written, I Wanna Be Your Man. Songwriting would be important. Richards was learning that "you were really in one of the sleaziest businesses there is, without actually being a gangster. It was a business where the only time people laughed was when they'd screwed someone else over."

He describes the legendary moment when manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked him and Jagger in a kitchen, refusing to let them out until they'd written a hit. The only way you might protect yourself was to empower yourself, and the result was As Tears Go By. Fiscal lesson learned: it was "The first real cash I ever saw … you've got more than you've ever had in your hand ever, and more than your dad makes in a year."

But more important was the actual writing. Because as he and Jagger traded ideas, "something else took over somewhere in this process". That something else was work, craft.

Richards describes composing "using what we called vowel movement - very important for songwriters. The sounds that work." As in, wordless melody lines built up into words, from - well, sounds that work. Later, there is a remarkable passage on how Jumping Jack Flash, Street Fighting Man and most of Beggar's Banquet were due to him running cheap acoustic guitars through cassette players and overloading the audio. Still later, the evolution of the five-string guitars, open chords and the resulting drone notes that would make songs and an entire sound possible.

Richards loves his aphorisms, his rock'n'roll lexicon, and he's funny too.

But ultimately, songs - and Life - are about something bigger. There is a sublime description of the birth of Happy, of a kind of channelling, wherein "Once you have something, you just let it fly. When you're writing this, you've got to put your face in front of the microphone, just spit it out… Great songs write themselves. You're just being led by the nose, or the ears."

Remember, I said "love story". Which explains the least likely (to some readers) passage in the book. We've learned something about How he wrote songs. Was there a Why? "In a way you want to stretch your way into other people's hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you're playing … an obsession to touch other people … A thread that runs through all of us. A stab to the heart."

Updated: November 15, 2010 04:00 AM

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