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A Shepherd's Pie on the Warmer

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More recently, some have ghoulishly proposed to study Keith as a science project for clues to his survival when others have gone under. They probably needn’t bother; his survival against the odds was partly a case of a remarkable physical constitution — a gift of the genes as much as the gods — and his own innate sense of the distinctions between enough and too much:


It’s not only the high quality of drugs I had that I attribute my survival to. I was very meticulous about how much I took. I’d never put more in to get a little higher.


It’s the greed involved that never really affected me. People think once they’ve got this high, if they take some more they’re going to get a little higher. There’s no such thing. Especially with cocaine ...



Tragedy is an equal opportunity employer. For Keith, one of his worst personal moments occurred on tour, in June 1976, with the news by telephone that Tara, his son with actress Anita Pallenberg had died suddenly of sudden infant death syndrome. The public persona of Keith as licentious, devil-may-care rake has to reckon with the father’s agony, a deep grief that’s almost palpable in these pages. “Everything’s supposed to go in its natural order”, he writes in part. “But seeing a baby off is another thing. It never lets you rest”.


This is Keith not so much unplugged as unvarnished, a man recounting his life’s experiences with the same raw emotion that went into living them, on his terms, right or wrong. Usually right and wrong.

Keith dispels a number of hoary rumors and old misconceptions. The early state of his teeth — once the stuff of rock legend — had less to do with excess and more to do with enduring the infancy of part of postwar Britain’s early universal health care:


I should have a badge for surviving the early National Service dentists. The appointments were I think two a year — they had school inspections — and my mum had to drag me screaming to them… The dentist was an ex-Army bloke. My teeth got ruined by it. I developed a fear of going to the dentist with, by the mid-‘70s, visible consequences — a mouthful of blackened teeth.


A steel wheel in one of rock’s juggernauts, Keith offers fresh perspective on rock’s obsession with spectacle and scale, something that had its origins with the Stones and which continues (recent case in point: U2’s mammoth 360º Tour). What led to the megatours that preoccupied the Stones’ persona between 1989 (with the Steel Wheels outing) and 2006 (year of A Bigger Bang)? For Keith, it’s really not all about the Benjamins:


It was basically public demand that expanded them to this size. People say, why do you keep doing this? How much money do you need? …


Touring was the only way to survive. Record royalties barely paid overheads; you couldn’t tour behind a record like the old days. Megatours were, in the end, the bread and butter of keeping this machinery running. We couldn’t have done it on a smaller scale and been sure to do more than break even.


The rock legend we’ve come to think of as a mercurial, fire-breathing satyr turns out to be endearingly domestic. Keith reveals a deep love of books and libraries; he’s got one at his home in Connecticut, capacious and crowded floor to ceiling with volumes. He’s been known to go on family outings in a “battle-hardened Winnebago”, roaring off (wife Patti Hansen’s family in tow) to look for America. He’s thoughtful enough to include a recipe for bangers and mash that’s as definitely funny as it is probably delicious.


Still, though, being rock royalty has its perks. He recounts the fallout from an incident on tour in which the security detail had eaten one of Keith’s favorites — shepherd’s pie,  delivered backstage — without so much as alerting the boss:


It’s now famous, my rule on the road. Nobody touches the shepherd’s pie until I’ve been in there… It’s written into the contract. If you come into Keith Richards’ room and he’s got a shepherd’s pie on the warmer… the only one who can bust the crust is me.


As it must, Keith’s autobiography reflects a man of his generation, sometimes for better or worse. Honesty has its contradictions, its sudden rough edges. It’s more than a little unsettling, for example, when one of your heroes describes gays as “poofters” and “faggots”. But you buy the ticket, you take the ride. This is Keith not so much unplugged as unvarnished, a man recounting his life’s experiences with the same raw emotion that went into living them, on his terms, right or wrong. Usually right and wrong.


Implicit in his story of the Rolling Stones, Keith makes it hard not to see him as the band’s spiritual embodiment, the essence of its endurance. And who else really fits that bill? Jones (who died in 1969) and Stewart (he in 1985) didn’t live long enough. Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor (who quit in 1975) didn’t stay in the band long enough. Wyman quit almost 20 years ago. Ron Wood (who replaced Taylor) was a late arrival; even the legendary Watts, by light-years the group’s best drummer, wasn’t the group’s first. Jagger, a charter Stone and ever the social climber — that’s Sir Mick to you — has long been beguiled by celebrity according to high society.


He’s too much of a gentleman and a team player to ever do so, but it’s Keith — the bluesman, the scrapper, the pirate, the hardscrabble soul survivor — who could lay rightful claim, ladies and gentlemen, to being the Rolling Stone. His experiences are distilled in a volume of depth and a rich narrative throughline — the kind of willfully meandering, frequently hilarious, deeply ruminative, emotionally honest work that deserves to be called an autobiography.


“I played with Muddy Waters six months before he died, and the cat was just as vital as he was in his youth,” Keith told Rolling Stone magazine’s Anthony DeCurtis in 1988. “And he did it until the day he died. To me, that is the important thing. I mean, what am I gonna do now, go for job retraining and learn to be a welder? I’ll do this until I drop. I’m committed to it and that’s it.”


It’s that kind of commitment that’s endeared “Keef” to generations of fans, a commitment reflected in a work of candor and self-awareness, with all apologies to no one, making excuses for no one — himself, least of all.


Life is rock history with the bark on, and the bite. Because Keith Richards has deeply, fiercely lived the book he’s written, he’s written a book that lives on.

Michael E. Ross writes frequently on the arts, race matters, politics and American culture. He has worked as a reporter, critic and editor at various news organizations, including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and msnbc.com. He blogs on politics and media at Short Sharp Shock. American Bandwidth, a book of essays and blog posts spanning the 2004 presidential election and the dawn of the Obama administration, was published by Authorhouse in October 2009.


Tagged as: keith richards | life
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