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BOOK REVIEW

A legend looks back on a rock ’n’ roll ‘Life’

Keith Richards goes through the past, darkly

The Rolling Stones guitarist, shown performing at Fenway Park in August 2005, informs his bawdy, rambling autobiography with humor and sharp insights. The Rolling Stones guitarist, shown performing at Fenway Park in August 2005, informs his bawdy, rambling autobiography with humor and sharp insights. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File)
By Carlo Wolff
November 2, 2010

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The highly self-regarding Keith Richards is a master guitarist and Mick Jagger’s better half in the Rolling Stones. He was a prodigious user of hard drugs and a womanizer. He is remarkably disciplined, even in a narcotic haze, and frightfully accident-prone.

He also is funny, sharp, and insightful, qualities that inform “Life,’’ the bawdy, rambling autobiography Richards wrote with journalist and “White Mischief’’ author James Fox. It tracks the rock idol’s life from a scruffy childhood in suburban London to his comfortable later years in suburban Connecticut as a grandpa who spends time in a tall, dangerous library (yes, he accidentally fell there, too) reading British naval histories and pondering yet another Stones tour.

“Life’’ tells the story of this reluctantly reformed outlaw who prizes his guns and knives and built rock and pop classics on the bedrock of Chicago blues (Richards’s commentary on Jimmy Reed is terrific). Stones and Richards fans will delight in the trove of anecdotes and insider dirt here. But beyond those pleasures, the book is an important addition to the canon of rock lit, chronicling not just the life of an iconic musician and a seminal band but a significant slice of the golden age of rock.

No book about Keith Richards would be complete without an accounting of his physical mishaps. “Life’’ is stuffed with accounts of the musician’s near-death experiences, among them his skull-busting fall from a tree in Fiji in 2006, burning his finger to the bone in a phosphorus flash during the 1989 “Steel Wheels’’ tour, various car crashes, and drug busts that dogged this notorious heroin lover from the late ’60s to the late ’70s, the Stones’ most creative decade.

The book attests to his robust constitution, intellectual curiosity, and a fearlessness that informs Richards’s relationships, including a perpetually prickly one with Jagger, a long affair with ruinous siren Anita Pallenberg (and a fling with the troubled Marianne Faithfull, who ended up getting busted at Richards’s house attired in nothing but a fur rug), and musical bonds with everyone from the band’s jazzy drummer Charlie Watts (his closest ally after original Stone Ian Stewart, the keyboardist who gave the band its grounding in the early ’60s) to soulmates Bobby Keys, Gram Parsons, and John Lennon.

Richards reveals himself as a big music fan, reveling in playing with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Don Everly, and George Jones. A good dad, too: Among the most touching threads is his relationship with son Marlon.

At the same time, the sentimental Richards is deeply macho and swings some sharp elbows here. He refers to Allen Ginsberg as an “old gasbag,’’ says novelist and LSD popularizer Ken Kesey “has a lot to answer for,’’ and disses Lennon, saying he “couldn’t really keep up’’ when the two were drug competitors in the late ’60s.

Stones aficionados will especially delight as Richards dishes dirt on fellow band members. For instance, he clearly dislikes the Stones’ first guitarist, Brian Jones; considers Mick Taylor, Jones’s successor, a waste; dismisses Jagger as an effete narcissist; and portrays former Stones bassist Bill Wyman as a bore.

“Life’’ delivers personal information in spades, as expected. What’s unexpected is Richards’s ability to explain the music, illuminating the open tuning that animates such classics as “Brown Sugar,’’ “Happy,’’ “Tumbling Dice,’’ “Honky Tonk Women,’’ and “Start Me Up’’ (which began as a reggae song). “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,’’ which he wrote with Jagger, brought fuzztone guitar to prominence and became the first No. 1 US hit for the Stones in summer 1965.

Richards also provides a glimpse into his and Jagger’s creative process. “I would say on a general scale, I would come up with the song and the basic idea, and Mick would do all the hard work of filling it in and making it interesting,’’ he writes.

“I would come up with ‘I can’t get no satisfaction . . . I can’t get no satisfaction . . . I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried, but I can’t get no satisfaction,’ and then we’d put ourselves together and Mick would come back and say, ‘Hey, when I’m riding in my car . . . same cigarettes as me,’ and then we’d tinker about with that. . . . I wrote the melody, he wrote the lyrics.’’

Such collaboration still occasionally joins the Glimmer Twins, though they’ve been spent as a creative force for 30 years. Richards doesn’t address that; rather, he celebrates the music, the refinement of presentation, and the spectacle that has come to dominate Stones shows since the ’80s. Beyond the old war stories, Richards also spends some time detailing his most recent ventures, including his joy in his own great band, the X-Pensive Winos, and in the Wingless Angels project, his foray into Rastafarian spiritual tunes.

Drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll. But in the end for “Keef’’ it was all always about the music. Right good of him to share this stuff.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer in Cleveland and the author of “Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories,’’ can be reached at carlo.wolff@gmail.com.

LIFE

By Keith Richards

with James Fox

Little, Brown, 564 pp., illustrated, $29.99