Life, by Keith Richards with James Fox, Weidenfeld & Nicolson RRP£20, 564 pages

There is much to learn from Keith Richards’ richly entertaining autobiography. The rules of knife-fighting, for instance (“the whole point is never, ever use the blade”); Mick Jagger’s supposedly “tiny todger” (“I know he’s got an enormous pair of balls, but it doesn’t quite fill the gap, does it?”); and, unrelated, the best way of cooking sausages (“let the fuckers rock gently, turning every few minutes”).

This is the “Keef” of Rolling Stones legend: rascally, dangerous, witty; the ultimate rock 'n' roll survivor. But what about the real Keith? Well, he emerges too – but you have to dig a little deeper to find him.

It opens with an atmospheric account of his childhood in Dartford, on the border of London and Kent. Born in 1943 in the midst of the Blitz, Richards remembers the suburb where he grew up as a Dickensian place of thick fogs and woods with army deserters camping rough. It has, he claims, an ancestral outlaw spirit: “Everyone from Dartford is a thief.”

When not in mythopoeic mode (Dartford as the Stones’ Mississippi Delta), Richards sharply evokes the greyness of 1950s life: sadistic gym teachers fresh out of the army, factory-like schooling. He excels as a choirboy, singing in front of the Queen at Westminster Abbey (“I’ve still never played a better gig prestige-wise”), but then his voice breaks and it’s back to school, where he’s sent down a year to catch up academically. “It still rankles, that humiliation.” The fallen choirboy heads over to the dark side.

The blues were Richards’ weapon. A shared love of the music drew him to fellow Dartford teen Jagger, and led to the formation of the Rolling Stones in 1962. Almost 50 years later, Richards still sees himself as the archetypal bluesman, romanticising life “on the road” as an existential state of being, a self-contained world which nothing can interrupt – not even the death of his two-month-old son Tara in 1976, when the guitarist decided to continue touring rather than return to his then partner Anita Pallenberg.

Some of the wilder rumours surrounding him are debunked, such as the trip to a Swiss clinic to change all his blood, but he can’t resist buffing up the bad-boy image. There’s much casual bravado (“The first time I stared into a gun barrel …) and a lot of prehistoric alpha-maleisms.

Druggy escapades are related with relish, such as the time he stayed up for over a week without sleep before keeling over. “Eight full days, and on the ninth day, he fell.” But his descent into heroin addiction is treated unheroically, with Richards coming across as an oddly self-controlled junkie. He ultimately knew when to stop, quitting heroin in 1978 after a drugs bust in Canada and cocaine after suffering a brain injury falling out of a coconut tree in 2006.

The ghostwritten narrative reads like it’s been dictated: Keef drawling into a tape recorder over a bottle of wine or two. His memory, refreshed by notebooks and interviews with cronies, is better than you’d expect. He’s fascinating on the subject of his guitar-playing, explaining the “Satisfaction” riff (he was trying to imitate the sound of horns) and “the weird echo of very, very ancient music” in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.

Emotional relationships are skated over. The exception is Jagger, with whom Richards fell out in the 1980s due (in Richards’ telling) to the singer’s egotism. At times Life reads like a lament to a lost love affair between the pair. “You’ve got to go through bullshit; it’s like a marriage.”

The pair haven’t written a decent album together since 1978’s Some Girls, yet the marriage continues. Richards’ fidelity is reminiscent of his father, Bert, an emotionally distant, hard-working foreman whose “idea of ambition was getting hold of a job and keeping it”. Life, for all its tales of bohemian excess, suggests he’s a chip off the old block.

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic

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