Monday, January 3, 2011
Everybody wants to be Keith Richards
Whereas they might be better off as Patti Smith.
There was a time, not really so long ago, when the growing legion of Rolling Stones fans was divided: Did Keith spell his last name as Richards, with an “s,” or was it just plain Richard? Many inquiring minds wanted to know, and for some time, the interesting part was that Keith himself seemed unsure of how to end the argument.
As best I can determine, bringing all my powers as an investigative reporter to bear on this weighty matter, Keith lost track of the final “s” at some point during the late sixties, roughly coinciding with his decent into heavy heroin addiction. However, as the eighties began, Keith, newly detoxed, became “Keith Richards” again, the family name to which he has remained faithful ever since.
This incident is not mentioned in Keith Richards’ new autobiography, “Life.” And I relate this story not to suggest that Richards literally forgot how to spell his name during the peak of his several drug addictions—though such things are not outside the bounds of possibility for, say, severely addled speed freaks. I am, however, suggesting that the Jekyll/Hyde nature of living a life simultaneously in the open and in secret, as an active addict, does exact some form of toll on one’s internal representation of self.
Did the years of the famed guitarist’s most severe addiction coincide with the years of peak quality output from the Rolling Stones? They did. The same can be said of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Hendrix, and on through the roster of illustrious addicts. Do these same addictive years also coincide with a period during which an abnormal number of people around Keith Richards suffered and died? They do. And this doesn’t count the number of people who were mistreated, ignored, inconvenienced, and otherwise dealt with abominably in the course of coping with a key band member’s destructive behaviors when addicted.
I knew a friend of a friend who almost died partying with Keith. After a night of cocaine—only the best, pharmaceutical stuff, as Keith is at pains to remind us throughout the course of the book—they took my guy to the hospital in an ambulance, after he suffered some sort of coronary meltdown. This incident is not mentioned in “Life.” Too many similar nights with similar friends to recount them all.
In the end, however, we must allow a certain amount of space to exist between the artist and the art. As for Keith, I’m a lifelong fan. His book is by turns funny, thoughtful, barbed, and observant. It is a book about a man with addictions, but it is not a book about addiction. In Keith’s opinion, the drug problem is a qualitative matter; a result of Thunderbird, Ripple, and bad acid. Here, in one passage, are all the contradictions writ large:
I did a couple of cleanups with Gram Parsons at this time—both unsuccessful. I’ve been through more cold turkeys than there are freezers. I took the fucking hell week as a matter of course. I took it as being a part of what I was into. But cold turkey, once is enough, and it should be, quite honestly. At the same time I felt totally invincible. And also I was a bit antsy about people telling me what I could put in my body (p. 284).
In the end, this is how we want Keith Richards to be: smart, arrogant, unruly, piratical. Is he, as so many say, lucky to be alive? I don’t know. I have no idea what that means. Some people get addicted to heavy drugs and die, and some don’t. If you’re convinced you are one of the lucky ones, then I hope you’re right.
Meanwhile, in New York City, a tough little unknown artist named Patti Smith was busily scissoring photos of Keith Richards out of magazines, ultimately cutting her hair and wearing clothes that made her look, as much as possible, just like her idol.
Patti’s Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids,” which won a National Book Award last year, doesn’t dwell at length on drugs, either. But we get the drift of Patti’s thinking easily enough. Max’s Kansas City, the famed punk venue, “was as darkly glamorous as one could wish for. But running through the primary artery, the thing that ultimately accelerated their world and then took them down, was speed. Amphetamine magnified their paranoia, robbed some of their innate powers, drained their confidence, and ravaged their beauty.” (p. 117).
Earlier, staying in a hotel for junkies with Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti strikes up a conversation with an old addict in the next room: “He told me the stories of some of his neighbors, room by room, and what they had sacrificed for alcohol and drugs. Never had I seen so much collective misery and lost hopes, forlorn souls who had fouled their lives. He seemed to preside over them all, sweetly mourning his own failed career, dancing through the halls with his length of pale chiffon.”