Musician Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones attends the re-release...

Musician Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones attends the re-release of The Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St." album at The Museum of Modern Art on May 11, 2010. Credit: Getty Images

"For many years I slept, on average, twice a week," Keith Richards writes in his memoir, "Life." "This means that I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes."

The key word there, of course, is "conscious." In "Life," we are not dealing with a drug-addled cartoon, but an artistic genius whose form of expression - guitar playing - is nonverbal and thus frequently misunderstood or not even perceived. Richards' gift, like Hemingway's, is the gift of unadorned intensity. Of what he hears in Mozart and Vivaldi, Richards writes, "They knew when to leave one note just hanging up there where it illegally belongs and let it dangle in the wind and turn a dead body into a living beauty." The same can be said of his own unique way of playing, using just five strings in an irregular tuning to produce a sound as iconic as Che Guevara.

It's interesting: Almost everyone in the world wants to live like a rock star now, but for Richards, stardom was never the goal or even the main reward. The goal and the reward was to play this music.

"It's not that easy being famous," he writes. "You don't want to be. But at the same time you've got to be in order to do what you're doing."

What that meant at first was uninterrupted work. Between 1963 and 1966 the Rolling Stones played "virtually every night, or every day, sometimes two gigs a day . . . perhaps 10 days off in that whole period." World travel, but no time to see the sights. Three years living like a traveling salesman, albeit one chased by mobs of blindly hysterical girls. Anyone who thinks this sounds like a dream come true should ask The Beatles why they gave up touring at their height. Or they might look at what happened to fellow Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who wound up dead in his own swimming pool at the age of 27.

Energy, pluck, humor - these are what have saved Richards throughout his "three lifetimes." In the early days, he writes his Aunt Patty, thanking her for a birthday card: "Everyone here is back to recovery, except that my leprosy keeps coming back and Dad's got Parkinsons [sic] disease and Mum's down with the sleeping sickness." Later, he makes fun of The Beatles for wearing their guitars too high. Even when describing the lowest point of his heroin addiction, he has a sense of humor. "Cold turkey in paradise," he says of Jamaica. "If you're gonna clean up, there are worse places. (Still, it was only slightly warmer turkey.)"

The three-year tour came to an end in 1966, just as LSD was coming into style, and it was after an acid trip that Richards, Jagger and some friends were arrested and put on trial for possession of drugs. "The judge managed to turn me into some folk hero overnight," Richards writes. "I've been playing it up ever since." Suddenly rock and roll was a social issue, a threat to democracy (though certainly not to capitalism). It's hard to remember that into the late '70s Richards was routinely facing jail time.

"For every stereotypical junkie," he writes, "I can point to 10 others who live perfectly ordered lives, bankers and whatever." This may sound preposterous, but it's coming from someone who seems to have used heroin and cocaine as a functioning workaholic, doing five-day stretches without sleep to produce four of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time: "Beggars Banquet," "Let It Bleed," "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street."

There are ugly moments. Friends die, a fan is killed at Altamont, the '60s collapse. The most painful episodes in "Life" involve Richards' ex-girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, the chaotic childhood of their son, Marlon (who, nevertheless, seems unscathed), and the accidental death of another son, Tara. There is no reason for Richards, 66, to go into all this as honestly as he does. The effect is only to enhance his stature.

"It's like taking off in a Learjet," he writes about playing music. "People say, 'Why don't you give it up?' I don't think they quite understand what I get out of this. I'm not doing it for just the money or for you. I'm doing it for me."

LIFE, by Keith Richards. Little, Brown, 564 pp., $29.99.

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