November 10, 2010


Sex, Drugs & Literary Innovation?

This week, Keith Richard’s autobiography, Life, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list. Even if you haven’t read it, you probably already know why many have been tempted: recollections of Mick Jagger’s “tiny todger” (allegedly!), Brian Jones’ domestically violent ways, what really went down in that notorious drug raid that found Marianne Faithfull naked and wrapped in a rug, as well as Richards’ own endless narcotic adventures. Like any satisfying piece of nonfiction, he leaves no stone unturned.

Though Richards is a proud, certified pioneer in modern hedonism, in authorship, he fits into an already well-hewn genre of rock memoirs in which innumerable fellow musicians have one-upped each in self-reflecting tales of exploit and/or redemption. There are a handful of standouts:

Most notoriously, there’s The Dirt, Mötley Crüe’s unrelenting ode to addiction that’s become the spiritual template for all hard-rock bios. Though an amazing read, it alternates between band members’ debauchery and tragedies like a relay race of dime-store psychotherapy. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One, meanwhile, is a fascinating attempt by the artist to paint his own portrait of the artist as a curious man. He debunks his legend by perpetuating a new one: mysteriously skirting talk of his fame to detail how his love of, say, military history and polka dances stimulated his creativity. Then there’s the gold standard of memoirs, Cash: The Autobiography, Johnny Cash’s soulful, unpretentious, even simple look back at his simple beginnings and the trappings of fame.

Overseas, Marianne Faithfull expanded on romantic notions of her fall from musical ingénue to Rolling Stones sybarite in Faithfull. Ray Davies virtually became a character from the Village Green Preservation Society—an extension of his band’s wit and whimsy—in X-Ray, blurring fact and fiction by writing as if he were speaking to an interviewer who works for an evil corporation. And John Lydon’s Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs was decidedly snarky, irascible, funny—exactly what you’d expect from an ex-Sex Pistol.

By comparison, Life stands out, and in a way that makes me wonder if it’ll change the way rock memoirs are written. Though most of the previously mentioned books are heralded for being honest accounts, they also pointedly play—sympathetically—into the authors’ images. What’s unique about Life is that while it stirs the appeal of Keith Richards, at the same time, it tries to debunk it. “I can’t untie the threads of how much I played up to the part that was written for me. I mean the skull ring and the broken tooth and the kohl,” he writes—though thankfully Life never holds back from detailing the events that stoked his reputation. “People think I’m still a goddamn junkie. It’s 30 years since I gave up the dope! Image is like a long shadow. Even when the sun goes down, you can see it.”

Richards likewise redefines what it means to be candid: He understands his shortcomings, but unlike most in memoirs, the guitarist remains stalwartly unsentimental in his remembrances. And in many cases, downright unapologetic. For instance: “It’s not only the high quality of drugs I had that I attribute my survival to. I was very meticulous about how much I took. I’d never put more in to get a little higher. That’s where most people f--- up on drugs.” Let’s compare that to Nikki Sixx talking about drugs in The Dirt: “I had been onstage performing for tens of thousands of people; now I was alone. I had sunk into subhuman condition.” Who’s the badass now?

Life offers a rare glimpse into bygone rock and roll in that it uses a medium that stereotypically turns these self-instigated exposés into very fuzzy, regret-laden confessionals. It’s a way for the sinner to redeem himself in the public’s eyes and earn New York Times best-seller bragging rights while doing it. Richards, a true renegade, has achieved the latter without playing to expectations. “I can’t retire till I croak.” He’s writing about stubbornly continuing to perform, but this is also an apt metaphor for why he would lay a lifetime of mythos out on the table. “I don’t think [people] quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me.”