Over the past couple of years I’ve found myself sucked into the vortex of audio-books. This is not of my choosing, or not mostly. Like many in the Washington, D.C. area I have a medium (sometimes longer than medium) commute to work, but that’s not the reason—that’s the excuse. I became fascinated by audiobooks last spring when I listened to the brilliant Tree of Smoke as read by Will Patton, which I listened to during an extended car trip. An avid reader, I was struck by the way in which Patton’s performance brings the words to life in a way that my own mind could never quite do—he is the master of dialogue, accents and dialect, in particular, and he can cover both genders equally well. What does this have to do with music? Recently, I discovered a copy of the masterful Life by Keith Richards (and James Fox) in the local bookstore. I had no idea what I was in for.
Audiobooks are hit and miss for me. If the mannerisms of the performer are a bit askew, a smidge stiff or put-on, I lose interest and halt the proceedings, move on to the next one. This was the case with the audiobook of Saturday by Ian McEwan, for instance, which struck me as overly stuffy and lofty in presentation. With the audiobook of Life, however, the voice of Johnny Depp initially lead me right down the rabbit hole. Depp has a soothing, mellifluous voice and the early disks of the twenty disk audiobook were some of my favorites. Partially this had a lot to do with the top notch content: Richards detailing his rugged childhood, his days alone with his acoustic guitar, his early days with the Stones, his initial love of the Chicago blues and American music in general (Bo Diddley, Elvis, Chuck Berry).
But then Joe Hurley takes over, turning my experience of this particular audiobook inside out. While there is nothing really wrong with Depp’s narration, it’s certainly not scintillating or especially dynamic. Hurley, on the other hand, sounds like you think Keith Richards sounds. His voice is rich and guttural and gnarled and caustic and every word drips with irony and a sense of world-weary awareness. Hurley’s voice itself is a musical instrument—he dawdles over words. The directors of the audiobook for Life—which won an Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year in 2011—made a calculated decision to let Depp’s more innocent voice lead and Hurley’s take over at about the time when Richards discovers heroin. It’s as if heroin turns Depp’s straight-forward innocence into Hurley’s experience—Blake’s lamb and the lion.
Hurley so embodies Richards’ voice without a touch of stereotype that when Keith Richards reads some of his own words in the last disk or two of the audiobook, this reader wants Hurley back. Richards’ own voice sounds much more mannered and sophisticated than Hurley’s rumbling chortle. I especially love the way Joe Hurley laughs in the middle of a syllable, extending the word in a kind of scalawag’s melisma. Who better to takes us from the 60’s into the drug-addled 70’s and Richards’ recounting of his numerous attempts to both score and kick heroin?
The first third of Life is really about the music, about the personalities, about Richards, Jones, Jagger and company attempting to bring the blues to London and find a way to feed and house themselves at the same time. It is about the learning process and the ways in which Richards and the gang found ways to develop the sound of the Stones and make it unique. Some of the most thought-provoking passages to me had to do with the writing process—how the Rolling Stones had to move away from being a cover band of American blues music to writing their own songs. As the story goes, Richards and Jagger in a kitchen, forced to come up with something. Or else!
Hurley takes us through some of the most renowned moments in the history of the Stones—the making of Exile on Mainstreet, the arena rock era, the near-death escapes, extensive insomnia benders whilst recording, Jamaica, Gram Parsons, his relationship with Anita Pallenberg, and of course the drugs. It is this last item of the list which encompasses much of Richards’ time and energy in the 70’s and he’s not shy at sharing the intimate details. We learn that for Richards heroin was not a mere pleasure vehicle but was rather something he relied on for mood maintenance and stability (or so he says). Richards certainly doesn’t glamorize heroin addiction, and if anything Life is an effective cautionary tale (Richards is not afraid to point out his own mistakes). However, Life does bog down a bit in this heroin haze and unfortunately, in passages of the book, the music recedes into the background.
In the last few disks of Life Depp’s narration returns, bringing with it this time an aged, thining quality. By this point in the Richards story, he is on the outs with Jagger—who has ditched the Stones for a middling solo career. Health scares and new relationships abound, along with a solo project of his own (Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos. But inevitably, as we all know, the Rolling Stones reunited after an extended break in the 80’s and are now the touring megalith we all know (and can’t afford tickets for). Finally, in the last few disks, Richards himself appears, along with special guest voices, including the inimitable Tom Waits (who will be the voice of his autobiography?).
Overall, if you haven’t already read Life, I’d highly recommend the audiobook in particular. Not only is it a rich tapestry—almost Dickensian in its wealth of lived details—but if you think of the stereotypes of the Stones that have entered popular culture, this is also the book to dispel such notions. In fact, I would argue that Life transcends the Stones entirely. Though Keith Richards’ autobiography is first and foremost about Richards and secondly about the Stones, through the prism of Richards’ experience it is also about an entire era of rock history and popular culture. Some of my favorite moments in the audiobook recount Richards’ dealings with someone not in the Stones at all—Hoagy Carmichael or Chuck Berry, John Lennon. There is a moment toward the end of Life when Richards himself recounts a conversation with Paul McCartney on the beach—McCartney tracked Richards down. McCartney tells Richards that in his opinion the Beatles were a singer’s band because everyone in the band could carry a tune and the Stones were more of a musician’s band. High compliment.