Book Reviews: Keith Richards’ “Life” vs George Bush’s “Decision Points”
As many of you know, George Bush’s autobiography hit the stands this week. Well George Bush, of course, isn’t the only figure of world-historical importance to write an autobiography lately. And no, I’m not talking about Tony Blair’s stupid book. So, its competition time. Book vs. Book; Memoir vs Memoir; hell, Life vs Life. Yes, I’m talking about Keith Richards vs George Bush.
The differences between the two men are subtle, but real. Both are famous for cocaine abuse. Both have notorious tempers. Both came of age in the 60s (though on different sides of the cultural divide). But only one tried to beat up Truman Capote while doped out in Dallas.
A bit about Bush’s biography first. Bush begins his memoirs by explaining that he had been in discussion with “more than a dozen distinguished historians.” I would love to know who these “distinguished” historians are. Why do a suspect they regularly appear on History Channel’s UFO Hunters?
Anyways, there are rumors that George hired a ghost writer . Nonsense. You can’t fake this writing style. Like ending paragraphs about the educational crisis with lines like this: “I had promised to take on the big issues. This was sure one of them.” It’s got that “gee-shucks” I can’t believe you morons voted for me attitude that we all came to love. Plus the rhetoric about freedom and liberty that would embarrass a lazy freshman. Just check out chapter 13—titled, I shit you not, “The Freedom Agenda.” A few choice quotations: “Freedom is not an American value; it is a universal value. Freedom cannot be imposed; it must be chosen. And when people are given the choice, they choose freedom.” As we later learn, evil is real. But, don’t worry, guess what beats evil?… freedom! “The answer to evil was freedom.” Whew… glad we solved that.
In terms of writing styles, Keith is much more free and loose. His description of being busted while on acid, for instance, is quite good. “There’s a knock at the door, I look through the window and there’s this whole lot of dwarves outside, but they’re all wearing the same clothes! They were policemen, but I didn’t know it. They just looked like very small people wearing dark blue with shiny bits and helmets. ‘Wonderful attire! Am I expecting you? Anyway, come on in, it’s a bit chilly out.'” On the downside, his constant reference to female groupies as bitches, is a bit disconcerting. He is, after all, almost 70 years old. Nevertheless, casual misogyny aside, Richards wins on writing style. (Richards 1, Bush 0)
Bush has been clear that he is no revisionist historian. He’s not spinmiesiter. Just a good ol’ boy telling it like it is. Richards, on the other hand, is refreshingly honest, that he’s not quite sure how much of himself is now image and how much is real. The whole dirty dangerous image of the Stones, after all, were consciously crafted by record executives to compete with the pretty-boy Beatles. He’s also aware that his memory was, well let’s say impaired, during certain large chunks of his life. At one point he acknowledges that “memory is Fiction, and an alternative fiction is…” before giving someone else’s version of a story. Self-awareness, then, goes to Richards (Richards 2; Bush 0)
Both, interestingly, begin their memoirs with stories of substance abuse. George first: “We had a big meal, accompanied by numerous sixty dollars bottles of Silver Oak wine. There were lots of toasts—to our health, to our kids, to the babysitters who were watching the kids back home. We got louder and louder, telling the same stories over and over again. We shut the place down, paid a colossal bar tab, and went to bed.” The next morning he woke up with a killer hangover that almost prevented him from jogging.
Did you make it through that ok? Real Requiem for a Dream stuff. Luckily for the cause of evil-fighting, Bush gave it up. Redemption, and all that.
Keith, likewise, begins his bio with a drug story. He’s in the South and is pulled over by the cops: “I had a denim cap with all these pockets in it that were filled with dope. Everything was filled with dope. In the car doors themselves, all you had to do was pop the panels, and there were plastic bags full of coke and grass, peyote and mescaline… In the 70s I was flying high as a kite on pure, pure Merck cocaine, the fluffy pharmaceutical blow. Freddie Sessler and I went to the john, we weren’t even escorted down there. He’s got bottles full of Tuinal. And he’s so nervous about flushing them down that he loses the bottle and all the fucking turquoise and red pills are rolling everywhere and meanwhile he’s trying to flush down the coke.” This isn’t really a fair competition, but the award for drug stories goes to Richards. (Richards=3; Bush=0)
Both of them have brief moments of contrition. In one heart-wrenching story George describes his shame at his alcoholism. He’s at a family event. “As we were eating, I turned to a beautiful friends of Mother and Dad’s and asked a boozy question: “So, what is sex like after fifty?” Everyone at the table looked silently at their food—except for my parents and Laura, who glared at me in disbelief.” The next day, he faces an angry Laura, ashamed of his behavior. Interestingly, this is pretty much the only thing that Bush apologizes for in the whole autobiography. Later on Bush brags about authorizing torture (“Damn right”), defends his wiretap program, and wishes he could have privatized Social Security.
Keith also has some shameful memories.
“Some of most outrageous nights I can only believe actually happened because of corroborating evidence. The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it. You get these brief vignettes of what you did. ‘Oh you don’t remember shooting the gun? Pull the carpet, look at those holes, man.’ I feel a bit of shame and embarrassment. ‘You can’t remember that? When you got your dick out, swinging form the chandelier, anybody up for grabs, wrap it in a five-pound note?’ Nope, don’t remember a thing of it.” Hmm… maybe he’s not too contrite. So in terms of heart wrenching stories of redemption, we’re going to call a tie. Score stays at Richards=3, Bush=0.
Both, of course, suffer from the occasional lapse of judgment. In Richards’ case, its hard to agree with his opinions of the Rolling Stone’s 80s and 90s output. Really? Bridges to Babylon is a good album? Your solo work was good? C’mon, man. Plus his explanation for why Some Girls is not racist is, let’s say, unconvincing (It involves the fact that the Rolling Stones really have slept with lots of different types of women, so they should know what they’re talking about). Bush’s poor judgment, on the other hand, starts in, well, the introduction, continues to page 44, when he acquires the Texas Rangers, and then begins again on page 48 when he stops talking about baseball. The index seems well put together also. Richards 4, Bush 0
There are touching moments in each. Keith discussing Brian Jones’ death and the death of his infant child, George Bush visiting wounded soldiers. In fact, my favorite moment of Bush compassion comes when he meets a wounded solider. This poor guy had a rocket propelled grenade tear off part of his skull, his right hand, and put shrapnel all over his body. He had a request for Bush: he’d like to become a citizen. See this, my friends, is what compassionate conservativism is all about. After NAFTA destroys the basis of Mexican agriculture, you can come to America, pick fruit for your childhood, go fight in some imperialistic adventure, get your skull half blown off, and then, then, the President of the United States shakes your hand! Well, not your hand. Because you don’t have it anymore. But still! What a compassionate path to citizenship!
Compassion, though, isn’t really either of their strong suit. Bush, of course is a complete psychopath responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. And Keith Richards once almost killed a man (at his daughter’s wedding no less) because he stole some of Richards’ onions.
Both are responsible for their share of mayhem and violence. Keith, for instance, informs us that he has been carrying a knife since being a teenager. He explains the best way to win a knife fight (hint: the knife is for distraction, the main attack should be a kick in the balls), and explains that in his occasional drug purchases that have gone bad, he always takes the chances with gunfire. It’s very difficult to hit a moving target he reminds us.
Of course there really is no competition in terms of senseless violence. Richards may have Altamont, but Bush has Abu Ghraib and Fallajuh. So we have to give the award for senseless loss of human life to Bush. Richards 4; Bush= 1.
In all seriousness, though, the most remarkable difference between the books is that Keith Richards, almost certainly, has more self-awareness and integrity than our President did. What makes Bush’s book such a shitpile is exactly what made him such a terrible president: his total lack of self-awareness and self-consciousness. David Foster Wallace once wrote this great review of a tennis star’s autobiography (“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” in Consider the Lobster). He made the point that great athletes excel partly because they are able to concentrate completely on the sport, unencumbered by nagging doubts in high-stakes moments. What makes a tennis player great, then, is exactly what makes an author terrible; hence there are few great sports memoirs. Bush’s book is bad for the exact same reason. There is no self-reflection, no moments of humility (besides the obligatory references to the troops, mandated, no doubt, by his PR people), no second guessing, no shame about the fact that he compares himself to Abraham Lincoln at least five times (pps. 389, 368, 203, 195, and 183). At least Tracy Austin had the excuse that she was a great tennis player. Bush isn’t even interesting in his self-absorption.