Keith Richards' essence as an artist, like dark matter elsewhere in the universe, is something we comprehend only by inference and comparison. Although we think of Richards as absolutely unique among rock stars, we tend to conceive of him and his music in relative terms. Compared to Mick Jagger, Richards's needy, flamboyant, beknighted partner in the Rolling Stones, Richards seems to be a model of masculine insolence as cool. Compared to the Beatles, those lovable moptops, Richards and the Stones embody rock stardom as a state of permanent bad-boyhood. Compared to Chuck Berry, his dominant influence as a guitarist, Richards sounds almost psychedelic. Compared to Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Richards is a minimalist.
This week, Richards's memoirs were published under the uncharacteristically grandiose title Life, and the book has been exalted in terms easy to see as more Richards relativism. That is not to say that the book isn't wonderfully fun to read, smart about music, sensationally entertaining, and true to its subject. I picked it up on Monday morning and barely put it down before finishing it on Thursday afternoon. Life is unaffected and blunt, and in its dozy, casual sketchiness, it mirrors its author's guitar playing. Still, the book is something other than—not something less, but something different than—a masterpiece of literary autobiography. Richards's great resource as both a musician and a writer is his offhandedness, an attribute that prevents him from probing into his life with a great deal of analytical depth. As always, it seems, we can't help seeing Richards in relative terms. Compared to most rock memoirs (Dylan's Chronicles notwithstanding), Life is Speak, Memory. Compared to the incoherent muttering we had every right to expect from Richards, the book he produced (with the help of co-writer James Fox) is a monument of lucidity.
It does seem a kind of miracle that Richards could elicit the performance he got from the dozen or so brain cells to have survived the neurological genocide of his drug and alcohol intake. I like Keith Richards's Life, even though I know it's only a rock and roll book.
I only hope Richards records a video version, reading the book into a camera, for the iPad. The text of Life rings so true to its writer that it comes across like half the information in a filmed interview, just waiting to be completed by the scary-sexy image of its author in all his satanic majesty.
David Hajdu is the music critic of The New Republic.