by MICHAEL SCHAUB
Rock and roll, by its nature, doesn’t have many rules; if it did it wouldn’t be rock and roll. It does have, however, an unwritten code, and this is part of it: real rockers never quit. Retirement isn’t hardcore, which explains why the Rolling Stones haven’t called it quits after nearly 50 years as, arguably, the world’s second most famous band. Keith Richards, the legendary founding guitarist of the Stones, is 66, but don’t mistake his new memoir for a valedictory. It’s more like a statement of purpose; a lead-off track, not a final cut. “I can’t retire until I croak,” he writes — more than once — in Life. It seems like as safe a bet as you’re ever going to find in rock.
Rock and roll, after all, is his first love. Early in Life, Richards describes his first guitar, “a gut-string job,” given to him by his mother when he was 15: “I took it everywhere and I went to sleep with my arm laid across it.” It’s the kind of honest, guileless moment that makes this book so charming, so unexpectedly moving. Richards might epitomize the popular idea of the rock lifestyle more than any other living artist — and he doesn’t shy away from admitting his deep affections for women and drugs — but he’s at his best, unsurprisingly, when he’s rhapsodizing about rock. “[W]hen it works, baby, you’ve got wings,” he writes. “It’s flying without a license.”
That’s not to say he shies away from the darker parts of his life. The book opens on a scene of Richards nearly being arrested with “grass, peyote and mescaline. … hash, Tuinals, some coke” in Arkansas in 1975. There’s no shortage of passages like these — litanies of bad decisions and inadvisable substances — and they’re as joyless and stark as you’d expect. He alludes, quickly, to the Stones’ reputation among some as misogynistic, thanks to songs like “Under My Thumb.” “Maybe we were winding them up,” he admits, though he can’t help but add, “When you’ve got three thousand chicks … ripping off their panties and throwing them at you, you realize what an awesome power you have unleashed.”