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Keith Richards - Caught in a cross fire hurricane
on 27 October 2010
Keith Richards is in danger of becoming respectable, what with starring interviews on the Andrew Marr show, bit parts in Disney's "the Pirates of Caribbean" and an emerging status as national treasure. He has even received the ultimate accolade this week namely a vicious attack from the increasingly insane ex Trot and current bigot Peter Hitchens who blamed him for causing more damage than the Iraq War and described him as "a debauched, capering streak of living gristle who ought to be exhibited as a warning to the young of what drugs can do to you". As usual Hitchens couldn't be more wrong since after reading "Life" a electrifying autobiography ghost written with James Fox someone ought to work out the physiology of Richards since the man is clearly indestructible despite the most astounding chemical intake and even more remarkable he appears to going as strong as ever. The life of this man who founded the Rolling Stones, invented rock guitar, gave us "Honky Tonk Women", "Brown Sugar", the seminal "Exile on Main Street" and a host of other treasures is something we should warmly celebrate and not carp about.
Great rock autobiographies are a rare species but this book by Richards amounting 547 pages ranging from a drug bust in Fordyce, Arkansas to a quick final explanation that he did indeed snort his Dad's ashes (but in a very affectionate way!) and ending in the death of his dear old mum Doris is a very intimate, revealing, warts an all account of a fascinating life packed with brilliant photographs and stories to spare. Fox has captured his subject well and you can hear Richards voice loud and clear with its colourful language of "cats", his love of Shepherd's pie ("don't bust the crust") and roguish charm. You will not be surprised that a large part of the book deals with Richards copious pharmaceutical use. Indeed with parts of his memory wiped out sections of the text are given over to the first hand remembrances of family members and friends like Waddy Watchel, Don Was and his great mate Bobby Keys which are often very harrowing. The legendary Freddie Sessler "Keith's second dad" is a key figure here. This is a man who described himself as "the worlds oldest groupie", got Keith out of "scrapes" and supplied his drugs including pharmaceutical cocaine graphically described in a passage on page 373. Richards knows that he was lucky to survive all this hedonism and the poignancy of his remarks when he tells us stories about the deaths of fellow travellers like Billy Preston and Gram Parsons are all the more pronounced and sad for it. The fact that his co-conspirator Ronnie Wood navigated this madness particularly with a his own "freebasing" crack cocaine indulgences which Richards highlights from 1980 onwards is another example of the "get out of jail" philosophy of life employed by the two most colourful members of the Stones.
At the core of the book is the Jagger/Richards relationship which has gone through phases of almost tender brotherly love to intense visceral hatred (listen to "Had it with you" on Dirty Work which charts the nadir of this phase). The cleaned up Richards circa 1980s "Emotional Rescue" cannot today forgive Jagger's attitude on "his return" who had "fallen in love with power" and whose constant put downs of him are still very raw. As he states "the phrase which rings in my ears all these years later is "Oh, shut up Keith". Things gradually improved over the years and despite Jagger's Knighthood ("the Mick I grew up was a guy who'd say shove your little honours up your ar*e") by 2004 Richards and Jagger were working a closely as ever and he accepts "you've got to go through the bulls**t; its like a marriage"
The book charts all the great Richards myths, the blood changing, the skull ring, the tax exile in France, the falling out of the tree incident and the Toronto drug bust in huge detail which finally led to him giving up heroin. The part however which I especially enjoyed was his early years around Dartford and Sidcup and his passion for the blues particularly Jack Elliot and the impact of Elvis. The generosity throughout to the great Charlie Watts who clearly is the glue that holds the Stones together, and a great loss to the United Nations Peace Keeping Corps, is genuine and full of love. Watts survival from cancer is emotionally charted by Richards and his relief tangible that Watts came back. And then there is the music not just with the Stones but Keith's side projects like the X-pensive Wino's which is a tale well told; while his relationship with Anita Pallenberg and its impact on the construction of the Stones greatest song "Gimme Shelter" is fascinatingly unveiled.
The life of Keith Richards is a chronicle of the ultimate rock survivor and icon. Frankly he should not be here and the fact that he never sleeps means he has been here "longer" than the average 66 year old. Despite yourself you can't help but be absorbed by the myth and legend of the man, his bluntness and his often outspoken nonsense. Let us be frank anyone who calls his dog "Syphilis" must have something going for him. Consequently when in a hundred years time someone sits down and writes the definitive history of rock music it should start with the sentence that "In the beginning was the riff and the riff was with Keith".