By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
Published: November 17, 2010
NEW YORK The literary event of the week, along with "The
Autobiography of Mark Twain," is "Life," the Rolling Stone guitarist
Keith Richards's juicy memoir, the subject of a stylishly worshipful
three-page review in the New York Times Book Review last Sunday and
the talk of the Web sites.
It's no surprise that in the week after its publication "Life" leaped
to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times's nonfiction best-seller
list, a slot often earned by celebrity writers or the better-known
television commentators the No. 2 spot belonged this week to the
conservative Glenn Beck of Fox News, No. 3 to the liberal Jon Stewart
of "The Daily Show."
And yet, predictable as it is, there is something very telling about
the huge success of Mr. Richards's book and the extravagant attention
it's getting, something sort of summed up in the photograph of the
author that accompanied the Times review. It's a picture not just of
a certain calculated and fashionable dishevelment, but of a cool,
tough triumphalism as well.
It's an image of the rock star, sunglasses and cigarette drooping
from his lips, a rakish defiance emanating from his visage, and it
illustrates the ability in our celebrity-soaked culture for certain
people to get away not just with a look but with an attitude that
would sink most ordinary people.
Or, as the online Daily Beast put it, in what seemed a statement of
admiration, "The Stones really do exist on a different planet from
the rest of us."
I should probably confess here that, while I was charmed and disarmed
reading Mr. Richards's charming, disarming, and pungent narrative, I
was never much of a Rolling Stones fan.
The Beatles, yes. Bob Dylan, absolutely. The Doors and Janis Joplin,
to be sure. But the Stones always seemed raucous and noisy to me.
More important, they gave off a kind of threatening arrogance. In an
essay a few years ago, Ian Buruma, a Dutch academic and frequent
contributor to The New York Review of Books, seemed to have Mr.
Richards in mind when he spoke of a certain "kinky fascism" in the
rock counterculture, of "the allure of hard men, black leather," the
adoring crowds mesmerized by the spectacles of rock stardom.
This is not to say that there was anything fascist about the Stones
or the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll culture of the 1960s and '70s.
Especially in the '60s, when their music melded with the antiwar
movement and the demands for personal liberation from arbitrary
constraint, the rock stars spoke a kind of blunt, unvarnished truth,
not to power exactly, but to the power of sentimental myths, personal
and national. But their very celebrity and their defiant,
drug-culture behavior also set an example you wouldn't want your kids
Mr. Richards's opening anecdote, summed up in every review, is about
getting busted for drugs in the "conservative, redneck southern
community" of Fordyce, Arkansas, in 1975.
"We had been inciting youth to rebellion," he writes. "We were
corrupting America." And every law enforcement agency in the country
was looking to grab them.
The situation is an embodiment of what the Harvard sociologist Daniel
Bell was describing that very year in his book "The Cultural
Contradictions of Capitalism." The theory is that the historically
unprecedented prosperity produced by disciplined,
gratification-delaying capitalism generated the impatient,
self-indulgent, gratification-right-now culture that would undermine
the very values and practices that gave rise to the production of all
that wealth in the first place.
So, yes, though Mr. Richards believes he was helping to liberate the
United States, not to subvert it, he and the other members of the
band driving through Fordyce, their pockets full of dope, were in
that sense agents of subversion, a danger to the established order.
But what happened? The suddenly star-struck police, knowing that a
horde of journalists and the Stones' well-connected lawyer were about
to descend on them, supervised the detainees so loosely that they
were able to flush most of their contraband down the toilet. Then,
with 2,000 fans pressing toward the courthouse, the drug charges were
essentially dismissed, and the band members posed for pictures with
their arms around the judge.
The episode is marvelously recounted by Mr. Richards, but you also
have to recognize that, while the Stones got away unscathed, even
though their car's lining was stuffed with illegal sub stances, most
other people wouldn't have.
That's at least part of the point about Mr. Richard's "Life." Most of
us, maybe all of us, have the wish somehow to live lives of
post-capitalist gratification, untrammeled by the obligation to
submit to the rules of economic and social discipline, and we admire
those like Mr. Richards who, as the Times reviewer put it, "did it
his way" all his life.
But he was unusual in being able to do it so entirely his way. Even
in those instances where he didn't emerge quite as easily as he did
from Fordyce he was convicted on drug charges in England and France
before that and spent some time in jail he wasn't too harmed.
A couple of years after the incident in Fordyce, when Mr. Richards
was convicted of drug possession in Canada, his punishment, if you
want to call it that, was a suspended jail sentence and a requirement
to give a benefit concert for the Canadian Institute for the Blind,
which, being a do-gooder at heart, he and the rest of the Stones gladly did.
In other words, rock stars with their celebrity, their money and
their lawyers, are different. Other people, perhaps including those
influenced by the rock star example to strive for lives of assiduous
nonconformity, have a harder time of it. Some of these others ended
up serving long prison terms on drug charges in states like New York,
where the rules that applied to rock stars didn't apply to them.
Or, in refusing to play by the rules, tuning in, turning on and
dropping out, as the psychologist Timothy Leary used to put it, they
consigned themselves to the discontented margins.
You can live the cultural outlaw life, and if you've got the talent,
the looks and the luck, you might, like Mr. Richards, ride to wealth,
celebrity, abundant sex and lots of psychedelic adventure. But it was
very risky then and it's still risky now if you don't.