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Topic: Keith Richards: The pirate king of rock'n'roll Return to archive
7th April 2007 10:07 PM
Ten Thousand Motels Keith Richards: The pirate king of rock'n'roll
The Stone's story about snorting his father's ashes is solid gold. Who cares if it's true?
By Nick Coleman
Published: 08 April 2007
Independent Online

We should take it, as it were, with a pinch of salt. And we should certainly snort with amusement. Not at the possibility that Keith Richards really did vacuum up a choice blend of his dad's ashes and cocaine. Heaven forfend! And anyway, official denials have of course been swiftly forthcoming. No, we should snort because, whether Richards's story of paternal ingestion is true or not ("I couldn't resist grinding him up with a little blow... He went down pretty well"), it confirms two of life's great certainties: one, that The Rolling Stones have some tickets to sell; and two, that the funky old coot still has it in him to tell everyone what they want to hear.

You might also choose to add to the mix the thought that, in a life story built to a large extent on myth, wishful thinking and "honesty", Keith's honking of his insufficiently loving daddy constitutes the most rocking variation on the Oedipus story you've ever heard.

Richards is a smart cookie and a funny one, too. He is aware of his place in our culture, and of what that culture requires of him. Yet in this latest episode, he reveals an unsuspected capacity for rolling with the times. The Stone spills the beans in an interview with NME. Yet what reached the news-stands (in addition to reflections on the sharp taste of Bert at the back of the throat) was a celebrity bitchin' sesh, with the venerable Stone forswearing hipster surreality in favour of well-chosen thoughts on Pete Doherty and Kate Moss, the Arctic Monkeys, Johnny Depp and heroin. Gossip is the new rock'n'roll, baby. And Keith Richards knows his market.

Should we factor in the state of his nut? Richards fell from a coconut tree early in 2005 and underwent brain surgery. Might there then be a connection between the two events? Well, Keith-watchers can console themselves with the thought that the brain op postdated the Oedipal Snorting by half a decade. If Bert Richards went north at all, he did it in 2000.

Keith Richards was an only child, and a beloved one. He was born in Dartford in December 1943 to the music of air-raid sirens. His first conscious visual memory, he has said, is of Spitfires circling his pram at 3,000 feet. That was in 1946. Months after the war ended. Nevertheless, Keith grew fond over the years of declaring that "Hitler had me pegged" - not quite so outrageous a piece of solipsism as you might think, given that Dartford lay smack in the middle of the Luftwaffe's bomb corridor. Accordingly, Keith and his mum, Doris, were evacuated to Mansfield in 1944, where Bert was recuperating after having "his leg blown up in the Anglo-American tour of Normandy". Naturally, a Doodlebug landed in Keith's Dartford cot as soon as they'd left the house.

The Richardses were an intriguing family. Keith's grandfather - Bert's Dad - was mayor of Walthamstow, and was succee- ded by his widow. Both were solid, working-class socialists. By contrast, Keith's maternal grandfather, the deathlessly named Theodore Augustus "Gus" Dupree, was of Huguenot descent, a musical hall fan and a band leader. This original "funky old coot" was his grandson's hero, second only to the cowboy Roy Rogers. "I come from a weird mixture," Keith once said. "Very stern on one side, very frivolous, gay, artistic on the other."

Bert spent most of his son's childhood yomping to and from Hammersmith, where he worked in an electrical plant. He was not an emotionally forthcoming man, so Mum compensated. Keith spent long periods on his own, in and out of his cowboy hat and holsters, and evolved into the reflective, self-determining, artistic, stern but frivolous Man Of The West we have since come to so value. In common with many of his generation, Richards was infatuated with all things American, converting his passion for Roy Rogers into one for Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and then the hard-core Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson: a pallid, cup-eared hipster was born.

Richards first encountered the posher "Mike" Jagger at school, and then years later on a railway platform, magnetised by the American blues records each of them carried as badges of cool. Then, when Keith sloped off to art school in Sidcup, Mike took the high road to the LSE and a lifelong passion for the folding stuff. By the time they were reunited on the nascent London blues scene, Mike had downwardly mobilised his name to Mick, and Keith had copped some basic Chuck Berry licks. They fell in with narcissist/blues nut Brian Jones, and The Rolling Stones reared their ugly heads to challenge The Beatles, if not in pop songwriting terms, then certainly as an embodiment of all that was truly energising about rock'n'roll. Richards's orc-ish transformation through the Sixties into the coolest white man on the planet is one of the underpinning narratives which made rock'n'roll the interesting thing it once was. The process began with his first great authorial moment in 1965, the chromatic riff to "Satisfaction"; it gained pace with his appropriation of Jones's girlfriend, of his sartorial style and then his position of musical pre-eminence within the group. By the time the befuddled, not very lovable Brian died in 1969, Richards was in his pomp. No one had ever embodied rock'n' roll with so much Byronic elan.

True, they might not have made a great record in 35 years, but without The Rolling Stones it is conceivable that the way the British see themselves would be different - because of the group's capacity for rubbing up the establishment the wrong way, for making money, for playing music with an American displaced backbeat; and for dramatising the whole shooting match of post-war class mobility.

Yet the private life of the "Human Riff" has had its woes, not least the humiliating bust by the Mounties for trafficking heroin in 1977, which bottomed out nearly a decade's worth of mutually destructive co-habitation with the beautiful and intelligent German-Italian jetsetter Anita Pallenberg. It is entirely possible, then, to regard the Byronic cowboy-pirate Keith Richards as a front worked up to disguise an agonised inner man. But the secret of Keith's success at being Keith is his capacity for living with himself.

Richards has been gifted with the luck, the gall and the wherewithal to do what we'd all like to do: to carry on responding to the world as we did as children, and get away with it. He's been off heroin for 20 years, although he still enjoys medicating himself by other means. His band continues to rock the world on a fairly regular basis. And he is said to be happily married to the American ex-model Patti Hansen. Metaphorically at least, he still wears his cowboy hat and holsters to bed and, despite his elder status, he gets to keep 'em on in the morning.

He always wanted to keep on keeping on, right up to the end, in the style of Muddy Waters. He has succeeded. He is the definitive funky old coot and he partly has Bert, the father from whom he was estranged for two decades, to thank for that.

[Edited by Ten Thousand Motels]
7th April 2007 10:51 PM
CraigP I hadn't realized that the snorting of Bert(had it been true) would have been possibly Oedipal-related.
7th April 2007 11:59 PM
Good read. Keith man, you're the fucking best. love ya.
8th April 2007 12:21 AM
GotToRollMe Great read, thanks!
8th April 2007 09:57 AM
Ten Thousand Motels Are there any pictures or bio online of Gus Dupree?
8th April 2007 10:12 AM
gimmekeef 100 years from now when history of Rock is reviewed..It will be Keith they write of.....
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