10 Oct Move like Jagger, write like Richards.
So you may not be a rock legend but if you’re a Stones fan here’s an insight into the way Keith Richards put his autobiography together. This is just one in a series from Johnnybio where we deconstruct a published biography to give you ideas on how you might write your own life story.
The bulk of Keith’s autobiography (co-authored by James Fox) is about what happened to him in his twenties and thirties. He devotes two chapters to his early life and one to his life after age sixty. The book was published when he was sixty-eight.
Life is 640 pages long and has thirteen chapters conventionally named Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three …
It includes many photos of Keith Richards’ working life, a few of himself and family pre-Stones, and a few of his life as a married man and father. He includes a dedication and a page of acknowledgements.
Each chapter begins with a summary of what he’s about to cover and he hands some of the storytelling over to friends and family who write their recollections of shared experiences throughout the book. There are also photos of letters and diary entries written by the younger Keith Richards, evincing a slice of the past.
Begin your story with the middle of your life.
Keith doesn’t begin his biography with his childhood instead he draws us in with a little slice of his rock and roll life as it was in 1975 when he was in his early thirties. He uses an incident in small-town America to illustrate the atmosphere of racial tension, overbearing law enforcement, and recreational drug use as the backdrop to his life at the time.
The next chapter is about his ‘only’ childhood. He writes about his first memory, his parents, family, holidays, religion, his first encounter with death, and his character. He writes about the things that are common to all of us like school, the town he grew up in but also what he did outside of school, recognising how much the scouting of his youth has done for him.
The backdrop to this chapter is an England still scarred by WW2. This is where he acknowledges those who helped set him on the path to a lifetime in music. He also gives his opinions on education and authority.
What Keith did in his twenties and thirties.
Now we come to the bulk of the book with ten chapters devoted to his life from the time he left school until his late thirties, chapters three through twelve. Here Keith writes about college life, fashion, national service, and a seminal movie. He includes a letter he wrote to his aunt in 1962 outlining his chance meeting with Mick Jagger at Dartford rail station in the spring of the year before.
Keith’s young adult life is a rush of new people, pubs and clubs, musical influences, and a first job interview. He writes about the man who was instrumental (pun intended) to the success of the band and the woman who was his first love. Did someone play such an important role in your life or career? And who was your first love?
From there he writes about the horror of shared digs and includes a few sparse diary entries from the 1960s. When things start to pick up he writes about travelling around the UK. This is something we can all write about. Remember your travelling twenties? And perhaps a moment when you realised an ability to do something really well. A talent. In Richards’ case, that was songwriting. He already knew he could play the guitar.
Keith writes about living through and being part of a generation stifled by tradition who used music, drugs and hippy culture to break free, at the same time unleashing a feminist rebellion. He mixes with dubious people but ends up meeting his best friend. He gives over a few pages to friends and family to reminisce about the times they shared. Think about the times you lived through and the changes you witnessed. Who were the most colourful characters from your past, and did you lose any of them? Who can you ask to guest write a few pages of your story?
This was a prolific time for Keith and the band, churning out songs or ideas for songs almost daily. This was probably the peak of his career. When was yours? What were your greatest career achievements?
In his thirties Keith gets close to his eldest son, loses a child, kicks his addiction, gets a divorce, meets the next wife, gets married again, reunites with his father, falls out with his closest band member, loses his guiding light, and is proud to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Which were the major events of your thirties? If you were recognised for your contribution to something, how did you feel about it?
Keith makes it up with Mick but they continued to rub each other the wrong way. Were you in a long-term business partnership where you couldn’t live with them as much as you couldn’t live without them?
The music business has changed dramatically since the 60s and touring is the only way to make money. What changes have you seen in your own work environment? Do you make money in the same way you used to or have you had to remodel the way you work to keep up with the technology that both threatens and enhances our livelihoods?
Chapter thirteen, the final chapter. In the book, anyway. Keith is still loving every minute on stage, and liking the fact that musicians are turning back to the music and not obsessing about the technology.
He writes about his houses, the wildlife, his dogs and other animals, holidays, and how his domesticity revolves around listening to music and reading fiction and history. He also writes a lot about falling off things and hurting himself, the loss of his mother and a Charlie Watts’ close shave with cancer. He shares stories about food, his theories on eating, and includes a recipe.
These things are all pretty commonplace, maybe not the ‘being on stage’ bit, but family, houses, food, health and pastimes. What’s your view on retirement? In the only quote we’ll use from the book, Keith says, ‘I can’t retire until I croak.’
Now write your life story.
If the Keith Richards’ approach appeals to you use his formula to write your own life story. Ask friends to write up their accounts of shared experiences, find letters, diary entries, and pictures, add a précis to the beginning of each chapter as you write, and make ‘Acknowledgements’ the final chapter title when you’re writing Sixty Up.
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