Getting Keith Richards to sit still was the first problem.
“I’d have to catch him like a salmon,” says James Fox, the British journalist who spent five years wrangling the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist in service of Life, Richards’ new memoir, which debuted this week to rave reviews.
The effort spanned two continents and included countless hours lost to procrastination, says Fox, who pieced together the memoir from free-form interviews with the famously clever, witty, and drug-addled rocker. But after this initial “approach resistance”—after Fox managed to trap Richards in front of a microphone—he settled into a candid, colorful, and surprisingly lucid recounting of his years on the road with the Rolling Stones.
Life covers all the bases: sex, drugs, guitar riffs, the size of Mick Jagger’s endowment. It also digs down into softer spots, including Richards’ tumultuous relationship with Anita Pallenberg and the death of their son. The book, which already seems to have earned a place in the admittedly small canon of genuinely great rock lit, is dishy but not lurid, technical but not wonky. Richards’ voice, filtered through Fox’s brain, is so relentlessly endearing, no less a critic than Maureen Dowd has declared the prince of darkness a “consummate gentleman.”
“He has got very old-fashioned, sentimental, loyal ideas,” says Fox, who spent hundreds of hours with Richards in Parrot Cay in the Caribbean and in Britain.
Their sessions took place at a table, with the two participants seated at a 90-degree angle from one another. Instead of moving chronologically, Fox encouraged Richards to allow his mind to “dart about.” Some sessions lasted hours and some, dealing with the more painful parts of Richards’ life, lasted just minutes, “and then he would depart in tears.” The one constant was music, which Richards always kept playing in the background.
• 12 Juiciest Bits from Keith Richards’ Memoir“I remember our first negotiations, I said, ‘Keith, we’re going to have a slight problem if the music’s this loud.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s kind of too bad,’” Fox says. “So I got a lapel mic, and so he always wore the mic, and there was always music on. I remember once in Parrot Cay, for about three days we had a '50s radio station on. Then it was bluegrass for another two days. Then classical for a bit. And so on. It was mostly radio. He was listening all the time while he was talking. One ear was listening out for the lost chord, lost riff, whatever it is.”
Fox, the bestselling author of White Mischief, is a guitarist himself but not a rock journalist by profession. He first met Richards in the early 1970s for an interview about his particular playing style. “You hear one chord and you know it’s Keith playing,” Fox says, “and I wanted to know: ‘How do you do that?’”
“I remember at the very beginning of the project, Keith looked at me and kind of growled, ‘What I want this book to have is panache.’”
The Rolling Stones were a decade old at this point, but no journalist had homed in so narrowly on Richards’ technique. It was this Sunday Times of London story which launched their friendship and led eventually to Richards’ decision to enlist Fox in the writing of his life story. Publisher Little, Brown reportedly paid an advance of more than $7 million for the work.
Life covers all of Richards’ 66 years, but the juiciest bits come, of course, from the Rolling Stones’ heyday, when Richards was calibrating his moods with cocaine and heroin and entertaining a truly impressive number of female paramours. Throughout the book, he comes across as the mensch to Jagger’s cad, comforting Jerry Hall when she discovered Mick’s mistresses and disclaiming responsibility for the lyrics to some of the Stones’ more misogynistic songs. He’s no saint, and he may be pickled from decades of heavy drug use, but now (and always) Richards seems to have a heart.
But even more than his heart, the organ of interest in Life is his ear, and even as the narrative wends through Richards’ feud with Jagger and the ups and downs of his love life, Fox never veers far from the music that was always his subject’s driving force. Once the manuscript was complete, he sat opposite Richards and read the entire book aloud to him.
“He wanted to hear the book,” Fox says. “We sat down at a table with the manuscript, and I read the whole thing. The longest I’d ever read was to my son at bedtime, 25 minutes. This was a week of reading aloud. There is a musical rhythm to his prose, dots and dashes and that kind of stuff. He turned out to be a really natural editor. He cut according to the sound of it. He’d say, ‘We’ll cut eight lines here. Cut this, cut that,’ all depending on how it sounded. And I never disagreed.”
“I have such reverence for Keith, really wanted to make a book which turned him into a really superb storyteller,” Fox says. “I was trying to make it into a sort of work of literature, tis true, without wanting to sound pretentious. I wanted it to be a very good and very sort of… I remember at the very beginning of the project, Keith looked at me and kind of growled, ‘What I want this book to have is panache.’”
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.