It starts around midnight–I settle in under the duvet, adjust the lamplight, take a sip of water. Then I flip open the page.
We’re currently in the middle of ’76. Richards has brought his seven-year-old son, Marlon, on tour through Europe–the two of them drive to the gigs, Marlon holding the map, Richards at the wheel. Marlon has been instructed to tell his dad when they’re 15 clicks away from the borders. Then it’s time to pull over, so Richards can “have a shot.” (After, he either dumps or re-sorts his stash, before crossing into the next country.) His heroin habit is very, very bad by this point in “Life,” but it never stops him from missing a show–though sometimes he arrives three hours late. He’s also taken to sleeping with a gun under his pillow.
I’m not a massive Stones fan–not that I don’t like their music–I just never took to the songs in the same immediate way as those of the Beatles, The Doors, Hendrix and Joplin. But I’m fascinated by the era they lived through. I used to think I was born in the wrong time. I wanted to be like Jenny in Forrest Gump (before she gets messed up.) I wanted to move to San Francisco with my friend Stu. (I still dream of living there.) I remember my mom belting out Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and thinking it was one of the best songs I’d ever heard. (Eventually I learned how to play it myself, on my little red guitar.)
I bought “Life”–Richard’s 2010 autobiography–last November as a belated birthday gift for my dad, who is a Stones fan. So when I moved into his and my stepmom’s house in March for my temporary stay and spotted it, I decided to give it a go.
Reading the book is like swinging back in time as Richards’ silent sidekick, then watching him fight, stride, and stumble his way through the chaos that makes up his days. You’re with him as a kid-in postwar Dartford, England, where he was frequently beat up on his way home from school. You’re there when he discovers records and Elvis and Chuck Berry, and in the sweaty London clubs where the Stones first performed, trying to become the best blues band in London. You’re with him in a smoke shop in Tangier, Morocco, and along for the acid-fueled road trip he took with John Lennon. You’re in a police chief’s office in Arkansas and in the back of a blue Bentley driving through Spain with his bandmate’s girlfriend.
In one chapter you’re in a prison in England called Wormwood Scrubs, another you’re on an Italian speedboat called Mandrax, pulling into Monte Carlo with Mick and the boys for lunch. All this is conveyed against the backdrop of rock and roll’s thundering sweep over Britain, the U.S., and the generation that viewed its message as a ticket to another existence.
But beyond the drugs and the stage, the women, the road, the feuds, the houses and hotels, the arrests and the exile, lies the central theme of Richard’s life–his relentless, life-sustaining passion for music. He writes:
“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself 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. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching of bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab to the heart. Sometimes I think songwriting is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.”
If you play guitar, read this book. (Richards will teach you his tricks.) If you’re fascinated by what makes up a life, the characters that inhabit it and the passions that fuel it, read this book. It will make you grateful you haven’t made the same reckless choices as the man named No. 1 on a list titled Rock Stars Most-Likely-To-Die. But it also might make you gaze down your own winding path, and wonder if the adventure could be amplified.
Richards and Jagger on their 1969 U.S. tour. Image via: time.com
p.s. Funny 1964 footage of the Stones, and a powerful piece by Russell Brand on heroin, abstinence and addiction