A Rolling Stone who gathers no gloss
KEITH RICHARDS by Victor Bokris Hutchinson, £17.99, pp. 352 Keith Richards — 'Kee to those who love him, especially from afar — is, and always will be, the Ultimate Rock Star. If, as the Sixties graffitists had it, ERIC IS GOD and MICK IS SEX (both of which I and many others would take issue with), then, quite simply, KEEF IS ROCK — for
better or worse, for chapter and verse. While all around him his fellow Rolling Stones died, divorced and ponced from Pipes of Pan to pipes of port, for the laying down of (Mock Jogger), only Richards stayed true to the shabby tiger spirit of his calling. His women, children, homes and addictions were always of secondary impor- tance to music:
Keith can be in a room with fifty other people and he won't notice anything but the guitar,
says his longtime lady-friend, Anita Fallen- berg. This may not be particularly admirable — but in a business full of phonies, Richards has been an honest man in a way that few beat musicians have ever been.
He looked great, too; better even than Slash, Rotten or Ian McCulloch. Always a negative, even in colour photographs, he perfected that black hair/white face/
black teeth/white knuckle look before P. J. Harvey was a twinkle in Patti Smith's eye. Unlike other Sixties pop
stars, Richards has never been embarrass- ing:
I've always just tried to avoid doing anything that would make me cringe. Anything I do, I like to be able to live with,
and never looked less than cool and effort-
lessly contemporary. But his utterances have been few, as befits a beautiful icon;
icons should be seen and not heard. Even Madonna, a true smartie, can be cringe- making when she decides to get serious: Freedom of speech is better than sex.' Pop stars shouldn't say things like that, even if
they think them; and if she really believes it, why isn't Madonna's forthcoming photo- graphic book called Freedom of Speech, featuring large glossies of prominent civil rights leaders past and present, rather than Sex?
So Richards has always been a sardonic, near silent presence on the dark outskirts of scores of books and features about Mick Jagger; not silent because he had nothing to say, like Wyman or Watts, but silent because it looked so good against Jagger's frantic caperings. The few things one remembers him saying have an odd junkie Lady Bracknell haughtiness — 'It is the height of bad manners to turn blue in someone else's bathroom' — and indicate a man who actually thinks before he speaks; rarer even in pop than in real life.
Victor Bockris, who wrote brilliant biographies of Andy Warhol and Cassius Clay, is the biographer Richards deserves; a fluid, supple, generous writer who never descends into puffery or ascends into sarcasm. (Sarcasm is a noble art, but it is probably too easy to be sarcastic about pop stars.) Unauthorised (of course; was there ever an authorised biography which wasn't completely worthless?), this one took three years and its acknowledgments alone read like a Who's Who Of Hip; Albert Gold- man, Robert Greenfield, Marianne Faith- full, Deborah Harry, Vaclav Havel, Maria Lexton, Joe Stevens, Gus Van Sant and Doris Richards, Sainted Mother of Keef. Any of these people are worthy of biographing in themselves; their 'inspira- tion, insanity and information' is a sure sign of this book's worth. It is dedicated to Linda Keith, Anita Pallenberg and Sheila Oldham, the Big Three women in Richards' life before his marriage to Patti Hansen, which is a nice touch. Although a groupie's Eldorado, Richards was never a whore like most of his colleagues; drugs and rock and roll you'll find cartloads of here, but precious little sex.
The reading rule with most biographies is simply to skip the first third: that's the Boring Bit, before fame came calling. Here, even the boring bit is good; we learn on page one that Keith was born in Dart- ford, Kent, during the war — a town which was in that corridor between capital and coast called 'Bomb Alley' and 'the Grave- yard.' Here the doodlebugs did their worst — the invention of Wernher Von Braun, who would go on to become architect of the American space programme and a fanatical fan of the Rolling Stones. Life, eh?
It says here that Doris Richards, then 33, bore young Keith 'for the express purpose of avoiding wartime work'. He certainly comes from a very colourful family; Welsh, Huguenot, socialist and showbiz; a danger- ous gene pool, easy to drown in. And, unusually for a pop star, quite genuinely working-class. In later years Richards would take to flexing his roots like the black blues players he worshipped, and why not? After half a lifetime as a junkie, hav- ing watched posh pals drop like flies, he would say:
The things that would kill other people don't kill me. I come from very tough stock.
At his best, Richards stands for the working-class values of hedonism, generosi- ty and straightforwardness, against Jagger's lower-middle caution, stinginess and pre- tentious social climbing. But at his worst, he is a junkie; and as any moderately worldly person knows, junkies are incredi- bly boring people — like train-spotters without the lust for life and locomotives. To be fair, Richards made a better junkie than most, learning to ski at the height of his addiction and invariably offering to drive guests home at 4 am rather than decant them into a taxi.
At times, as in all great rock lives, events
'We cover each other's arses.' Jagger and Richards on the US tour, 1975
start reading like out-takes from the great rock parody film Spinal Tap:
[Of Nick Kent] He pointed over to this field and he said, 'Listen, it breaks my heart to look into those fields because me and Tony Sanchez hid a kilo of raw morphine in a barn out there and we can't find it and I just look at the crows and know they're more stoned than I am.'
But stoned crows and stoned chivalry (it was inevitably to Richards that maltreated Rolling Stone wives came crying, sure of his indignant intervention) aside, the harrowing nature of the junkie life comes through; Pallenberg's addicted pregnan- cies, the serial arsons committed by Richards nodding out with a cigarette, the strange life of young Marlon, his son, even at six:
Marlon had this little water gun. He shot at everything — but he never shot at the drugs.
And, of course, the sheer itchy boredom of waiting for the man.
A rock star's life, however enviable it may seem to the adolescent outsider, is always to some degree no real life for a man; the endless travelling through the same stadiums, decades apart, the singing of the same songs over a period of 30 years. There is no room for the development which is possible in the other arts — the fans want to hear the hits, and can be mer- ciless in the withdrawal of their favours when said hits are not forthcoming. The wild boys become wild old men, churning out their standards as surely as the croon- ers they despised and replaced. Bockris, describing a tiring and uninspiring Stones tour of America, evokes the irony of Richards performing his song 'Happy' ('Never want to be like Daddy, working for the boss every night and day'). Atlantic Records proved a formidable foreman.
But Richards has stayed Richards through and through, like a stick of rock; there is none of the turncoat peepshow posturing that has characterised pop stars from his Mick to our Madonna. As Albert Goldman says:
Almost from an ethical standpoint, I could say authenticity is there in his face, in his style; also a certain grace. He does have soul, he does look like what he is . . . Richards struck me as being, in some weird way — and you find these people in jazz, too — someone who gave himself up so completely to the rock life, who did so little to protect himself from its dangers and its traps, that he eventu- ally developed a strange purity amidst filth. He obtained a kind of blessedness in the gutter.
This may be pushing it a bit; but there is a real mythic outlaw sweetness in the portraits of Richards leading a posse of women, including his own wife and the culprit's wife, to do serious damage to a `cheating' Ronnie Wood. And, while Jagger ponced around the world's restaurants developing a taste for gourmet food, Keith stuck strictly to his diet of egg and bacon with HP, hamburger and fries with HP, fish and chips with HP, shepherd's pie with HP. He bought the sauce by the crate, and Anita Pallenberg remembers:
Once a member of the crew ate his shep- herd's pie and Keith threatened to cut him up and put his legs in a shepherd's pie. So now he gets miles of shepherd's pie every- where, and he doesn't have to worry about it. While Jagger chases young chicks, as he will from now unto death, it is nice to think of Keef settled in Connecticut with his beautiful, Lutheran, headstrong, working- class, supermodel wife and two daughters, for this is a man who understands:
There's always this thing in showbusiness you have an image, and you play it to the hilt. But I'm a family man; I'm not the guys I see on MTV who think they're me. There are so many people who think that's all there is to it. It's not that easy to he Keith Richards . But it's not so hard, either.
Being an icon — like being a pop biographer — is for the most part boring and eventually thankless work; Richards and Bockris are definitely as good as it gets.