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Twenty years since Keith Richards’ early obit seemed a sure bet, rock’s former prince of decadence has not only survived, but become its elder sage—a man of wealth and taste. In fact, Richards’ most impressive recent work has appeared neither on record nor in concert, but in conversation. In countless interviews, he reveals himself as a hep street philosopher dispensing wit as well as life lessons. With his ever-burning cig and his glass of bourbon, Richards—who increasingly resembles his skull ring—expounds on everything from the origin of music (“that cat who found the bone and beat the bone on the rock and started to yell at the full moon”) to religion (“The devil doesn’t bother me. It’s God that pisses me off—wait until I meet the motherfucker”). He’s also got some strong opinions about drugs, Nat King Cole’s early trio, and the pleasures of family and friendship.

Keith: Standing in the Shadows is for fans who will never get the chance to chat and share a bottle or two with the unhealthy half of the Glimmer Twins. No typical rock bio (except for its inane subtitle), Keith consists mostly of the master’s own words as heard by author Stanley Booth, a friend since the late ’60s. In fact, Booth styles himself as an American Boswell to Richards’ Samuel Johnson, even taking for his epigram Johnson’s famous dictum: “Nobody can write the life of a man, but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him.” As one who often did heroin with the world’s most famous junkie, Booth is qualified for the task.

Rather than some gossipy confession of a former drug buddy (cf. Tony Sanchez’s sleazy memoir, Up and Down With the Rolling Stones), Keith is a coda to Booth’s True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, one of the best chronicles of rock culture and coming of age in the ’60s. In that wrenchingly personal narrative, Booth identifies most with the doomed, pathetic Brian Jones (pauvre ange, he sadly calls him), but most admires Richards for his rebellious spirit, musical genius, honesty, and integrity. In Keith, that admiration has grown into hero worship: “I have been with him in many circumstances—among helicopters and Hell’s Angels, at home and abroad,” writes Booth, “but never have I seen him waver in his determination to offer himself as a living sacrifice for a kind of human expression whose history he reveres and whose future he continues to represent.”

If that seems an overblown assessment of a rich rock star, consider that Booth has watched Richards defiantly stand up to the British judicial system at his ’67 drug trial (“ “We’re not old men,’ said Keith, walking up to botheration and taking it on the chin as usual. “We don’t have these petty morals’ ”); rescue a battered Anita Pallenberg from her abusive relationship with Jones (“Keith would always do the heroic thing”); and valiantly try to prevent the chaos at Altamont (“ “Either those cats cool it or we don’t play,’ Keith said, doing once again not just the right but the heroic thing”). Consider too that Booth esteems Richards as the best-hearted bloke in the world—except for Charlie Watts, of course.

Thankfully, there are enough warts-and-all anecdotes to keep Keith from becoming a hagiography. Take this scene at a trendy L.A. restaurant in ’69: “The atmos phere wasn’t entirely friendly,” writes Booth. “As we were preparing to leave, a (grown-up) man and woman encountered Keith coming back from the toilet. “You’d be cute,’ the woman said, “if you put a rinse on your hair.’ “You’d be cute,’ Keith told her, “if you put a rinse on your cunt.’ ” Richards is no Samuel Johnson, but then Rasselas doesn’t rock like Beggars Banquet.