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A literary look at Keith Richards, guitarist for the Rolling Stones, through conversations, history, and music. Booth explores Richard's past, his assessment of his craft, his attitudes toward other Stones band members, his passion for music, and his influences. Photographs by Bob Gruen.
"A close-up look at the hard-driving, passionate musician who was once a choirboy and a convict."—Playboy
"If there's one truth about the Rolling Stones, it's that people tend to die around them. Stanley Booth, God bless him, has lived to tell about it . . . Keith emerges quietly as the portrait of a specific kind of artist—a hard-working, record-mad, true musician."—Sarah Vowell
"Stanley Booth's new bio, Keith, is pretty close to a Stones demythology. Booth gets out of the way and lets the guitarist tell it."—Puncture Magazine
"Booth has crafted a worthy adjunct to his own True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (easily the best chronicle of the band), weaving a tale that's one part straight rock bio and one part Richards-centric view of the rock universe."—Request Magazine
"Booth cuts through the Dionysian thickets of Richards' adult life as gracefully as a blue highway through the Mississippi backwoods. . . . Booth lovingly details forays into the relationship between the artist and his music that are more than just illuminating; they're X-rays that expose the true heart of rock 'n' roll."—David Sprague
You don't know about me, and what is presently more to the point, you don't know about Keith Richards, without your having read a book called The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. It is a mainly true book, with some stretchers, about these English boys, men, who called themselves that and played music and got to be hugely well known. That book has been cannibalized more times and has made more money for everybody save its author than he, that is, I, would care to count.
In his book Keith Richards, The Biography (Poseidon Press, first edition 1992) Victor Bockris tells us that Richards was born on the 18th and 19th of December 1943 (pages 16 and 295; the error was subsequently corrected). For the sake of Keith's mother, born Doris Dupree thirty-three years before the birth of her only child, one hopes December 18 is the correct date.
That soi-disant protracted delivery took place at Livingstone Hospital in the London suburb of Dartford, Kent. Dartford lies fifteen miles to the east and slightly south of London on the way to Canterbury, an easy first stop for London pilgrims. Dartford has been inhabited since the Stone Age; Julius Caesar, following a battle nearby, decided to leave Kent and return to Gaul, and royalty has visited the town many times. Isabella, sister of Henry III,was married by proxy to the Emperor Frederick II of Germany in Dartford Church in 1235. Edward III held a tournament in Dartford in 1331 and later founded there the Dominican Priory. In 1415 Henry V passed through the town on his return from Agincourt, and in 1422, his body rested in the Parish Church on its way to Westminster Abbey. During the Wars of the Roses (1452), Richard of York camped on the Brent and later surrendered to Henry VI at Dartford.
In Tudor times, Henry VIII built a manor house on the site of the Priory and there for some years lived the Lady Anne of Cleves after her divorce. Here, too, Elizabeth "slept at her own house at Dartford," in 1573.
Somehow these visits from royalty did not manage to impart to Dartford the same patina of fashion, elegance, and ease that Cheltenham—Rolling Stone Brian Jones's hometown and another hangout for royals-is considered by many to have. Dartford is just a London suburb rather than a center of vacation landscape, and almost as regularly as there were royal visits there were rebellions. Dartford is closely associated with the Wat Tyler Rebellion of English peasants against the young (fourteen) and inexperienced King Richard II in 1381. (And against most of the clergy, nobles, gentry, ministers, judges, lawyers, foreigners, and anyone who could write a letter-all these were to be killed.) During this civil disturbance, Dartford featured as the rallying point for the rebels on two occasions, and a John Tyler of Dartford is supposed to have killed one of the government tax-collectors. Wat Tyler paid the ultimate price for his rudeness, being dispatched by the scimitar of stalwart John Standwich, one of the king's squires. The other rebel leaders, they who had, accordingto the medieval historian Walsingham, "punished by beheading each and all who were acquainted with the laws of the country," were themselves executed, their severed heads displayed on London Bridge.
During the reign of Mary Tudor, Dartford was one of the many places where martyrs suffered for conscience' sake. The stake was set up at Dartford Brent, about three-quarters of a mile out of the town, along Watling Street. There, on July 17, 1555, Christopher Wade was burned as a heretic; the memory of the Kent martyrs is perpetuated by a monument erected in the old burial ground on East Hill, which was the site of an ancient chapel of St. Edmund the Martyr and a place of pilgrimage in pre-Reformation times. In this reign too, two Dartford men-Robert Rudston and Thomas Fane-became involved in the Wyatt Rebellion and were imprisoned in the Tower of London, where the inscriptions they carved may still be seen. Through the years, Dartford's legacy has been unrest.
During the English Civil War, the Lady Chapel in the Parish Church, which in 1642 had been converted into a powder magazine, was seized by the Kentish Royalists. At the time of the Restoration, Charles II passed through Dartford on his way to London. Stagecoaches started to run to Canterbury in 1670, and by 1815, seventy-two coaches were passing through the town every day. From a population of 2,406 in 1801, Dartford has grown to include over seventy thousand citizens. Its industries include cement manufacture, quarrying chalk, and papermaking; J. & E. Hall of Dartford is the world's foremost manufacturer of refrigeration plants for cargo ships, and Dartford is also an important center for the manufactureof drugs, zinc oxide, and fireworks. Almost the same percentage (one-tenth) of land in Dartford as in Cheltenham is devoted to parks and open spaces, but in Dartford most of the open spaces are playing fields, rather than flower gardens.
Few buildings of historical interest remain in Dartford, at least partly because of its having earned the name "Doodlebug Alley," after the German flying bombs during World War II. It was also called "The Graveyard."
Typically, Keith Richards, the ultimate rock 'n' roll survivor, who has been described as looking like an unresur-rected Christ, remembers heroic occurrences from his early youth that didn't exactly happen.
"Even if I'm walking down a hotel corridor," he told me, "and somebody as I'm passing their room has the TV on, and it's playing one of those blitz movies, English war movies, and I hear that siren, there is nothing I can do about it. The hair goes up on the back of my head and I get goose bumps. It's a reaction, something that I picked up from what happened in the first eighteen months of my life, from other people that really knew what was going on. My old man was in the army, and my ma took me out shopping for an hour or two and a VI, you know, the doodlebug ... we came back and the house was destroyed, it landed right on my crib. Adolf was on my tail. The bastard was after me. I went up the road to my auntie's, 'cause we lived on the same street."
The facts are less dramatic: The house was damaged but not destroyed, and it happened after Keith and his mother had been evacuated (an appropriate verb to describe the early activities of an artist never blind to thecloacal vision) to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where thirty-seven-year-old Bert Richards—Keith's father, his leg wounded in Normandy—was in hospital. ("Boris and Dirt," Keith gave as his parents' names to a credulous fan mag.) The V1 raids lasted only two and a half months, and then Keith and his mother did go to stay with his aunt. "We went up there," Keith said, "and lived with my aunt for the rest of the war, which was like for another nine months, this happened late '44. After the war was over—my first memory actually is looking up in the sky and sort of pointing up and my mom saying, 'It's a Spitfire.'
"After that I guess the memories start when I was three or four years old. I remember London, seeing these huge areas of rubble and grass growing and absolutely nothing. Dartford then was a very small town. You were on the edge of London but there was still plenty of space; you didn't actually feel part of London even though you were. When I was growing up, in those few years, if you went one way you went straight into the country and if you went towards London then you'd be in the suburbs in five or ten minutes. Dartford is a few miles from the Thames; all that's between Dartford and the river is just marshland. Which nobody has ever been able to do much with. We used to go down to the river when we were kids and play in these machine-gun bunkers and that was our playground, where weirdo hoboes would be living. Bums living in the marshes, and guys with shotguns. As I say, in Dartford you either go that way or you go in, and Dartford is one of those places where a lot of guys go out, they don't go in. No authority, none at all, just be the weirdest people living down there.
"The other reason that nobody would ever go near it was that ... right on the river from Dartford, which I lived close to, this marshland, is the smallpox hospital ... the plague joints. Built and left there, just in case an epidemic or something breaks out, lepers and ... mud flats ... . The Thames—the river's how you find out how to get to London from the air, it's easy to spot. It's like 'This way.' But it's not very habitable land, so it's like five gunpowder factories, armament factories; they make fireworks in peacetime, if it's wartime, they're just makin' powder. There's power stations and cement works on the horizon and nothing else except geese, little streams, marshes, marshland."
In 1954, with his family, the eleven-year-old Mick Jagger—who would become Keith Richards's songwriting collaborator and fellow band member in the Rolling Stones-moved to Wilmington, just outside Dartford in Southeast London. The year before, Keith Richards, six months Mick's junior, had come with his mother and father to live in a Dartford council estate that Keith would later characterize as "soul-destroying."
"When I met Mick," Keith said, "I was living on the other side of town to where we eventually ended up. I first met Mick in 1949 or 1950, if not a little earlier. We went to our first school together at five, and he used to live around the corner from me, so we used to run into each other on our tricycles, and hang around here and there.
"Rationing lasted until 1954, so World War Two went on for people of my generation for another nine years after it finished everywhere else. That's when finally the candy came off rationing. When you're a kid growing up,that's the big thing. You can get more than one little bag a week, if you've got the bread, suddenly you can buy as much as you want. I remember when I first went to school, for months and months you got a bottle of concentrated orange juice—that was the only time you saw it—against the scurvy. Used to come in medicine bottles in England; you'd get them from the school medical services."
Untypically, Keith, who would become famous as the soul of rebellion, of rock 'n' roll, spent his early adolescent years as a ball boy (Bert played tennis) and a choir boy. "Every weekend that the weather was nice—I had no choice, you know," Keith explains. "It was just a little two-court tennis court in Sidcup, where I ended up going to art school. About ten miles from home, I could ride a bike. Nice bunch of people, cricket club across the way. That's what I did on the weekends. We'd be there and if they had some competition and they needed ball boys, I would play ball boy. From seven, eight until ... thirteen, fourteen, fifteen."
As a choir boy, Keith said, "I used to wear the cassock and everything, the whole bit. I can even remember the choirmaster's name, Jake Clair. But at that age, twelve or thirteen ... you're gonna sing, it's just a trip out; but you find out later on that you actually sang for the Queen in the Royal Festival Hall, Westminster Abbey. All my gigs since have gone right downhill. I forgot about it for thirty years, but me and two other guys did soprano, just a trio; the three of us did a whole trip down the aisle at Westminster Abbey, I guess it was about 1956 or 1957. We were the three worst kids, the worst hoods in the school in our own ways. But we had these three angelic voices. And JakeClair had been working on us for a couple of years by then; you'd get taken on the bus with the choir, to compete with this school and that school, and what I didn't realize until very recently was how good that guy must have been to get this little suburban choir into places like that. To us it was a way of getting out of chemistry and physics classes; if you were in the choir, you could get out of doing some of the more boring subjects.
"I had been in that choir two or three years, and once the voice broke there was no choir. So suddenly you're thrown back into the full curriculum and at first I was sort of resentful, being thrown out of the choir. Jake Clair had to be hard. I'm sure it broke his heart in many ways because the sopranos only last so long when they're boys ... . If you've got a soprano and he's eighteen years old, baby, he's got a problem. At the same time, it was the first time, like, 'We'll call you.' And so, immediately, the next year I fucked up royally. I was resentful, I had to do all this shit that I'd managed to get out of. So then they sent me to art school.
"In art school there's a very free atmosphere, you could walk into the John to take a pee and there would be three guys sitting around playing the guitar. They'd skip life class and they're doing like Woody Guthrie and Jack Elliott stuff. I didn't learn much about art in art school, but I did learn a lot about guitar playing. 'Cause then ... in the john you get the underground. You get into 'Talkin' New York Blues,' 'Mule Skinner Blues,' and 'Cocaine' -the song, not the stuff at the time. I was getting very interested in the blues, doing the Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters stuff through listening to these cats play,and listening to like Jessie Fuller, twelve-string stuff, 'Sta-golee.'"
The strongest influence from Keith's family was his grandfather. "Gus—Augustus Theodore Dupree-was me mother's father. My granddad's name was DuPree because they were French, but they were protestant French and they got blown out and so they moved to the channel islands, the islands between England and France, and they came from there to England. He was a musician, a guy who could do anything, just about. If he can't do it, give him somebody to talk to and he'll talk him into doing it. He had seven daughters, and obviously he was living with the wife, so he's in a house full of eight women. It's enough to drive any guy balmy, that ... . And the only way around that is a sense of humor, which he had an abundance of.
"My aunts and uncles told me about the things he got up to when they started getting to the dating age. With seven daughters there were like four boyfriends around the front steps at once, and Gus would put a fucking used rubber on a piece of string and dangle it from an upstairs window so all the boys would see it—anything to fox 'em. He was one of the great dirty old men—I'm still trying to figure him out. See, when you know your family ... it's usually after they're dead and gone that you start to really appreciate them and suss out all the ramifications that they were trying to lay on you. At the time, 'There's Granddad and he's my granddad and I'm gonna do what he says.' Then you start to understand, they're fuckin' gurus. Just your granddad, or dad, or your auntie, they canteach this shit and they'll do it in a way ... they know what they're doing. You don't realize what it is they've done. I still sit here realizing things that my grandfather did. Just startin' to cotton on to the angle that he laid on me ... .
"He was a saxophone player, also a master baker, and in the First World War he got gassed, chlorine shit, and after that he couldn't work in a bakery or play the sax anymore. The lungs were gone. So he took up the fiddle and guitar and piano, he used to have bands in the thirties. Later on, in the fifties, he played American G.I. bases in England, with a sort of western swing band, real hokey shit really, 'Turkey in the Straw,' good enough for the fifties.
"When I'd go to visit him, first off he'd feed me, then I'd just look at this guitar. I always thought it lived on top of the piano. In actual fact it was always in its case, and when he knew I was coming over, he would for some reason take it out, polish it up, display it. Never pushed it on me. He never said, 'You should do this,' he would just leave it there as a sort of icon, just resting on the wall, on top of the piano ... and I would always look at it—and, like, the guy was a smart guy. He waited for years and years for me to say, 'What's that? Can I ...? ' Never tried to force it on me at all. He started that shit when I was about six, seven. I must have been twelve, thirteen, it must have been after my choir years. Before that I wasn't into instruments, I was just into singing. I guess he caught me at the point where I had to transfer any interest into playing instrumental music.
"It happened in a very smooth way, because I had been going to art school for a couple of years and mygrandfather had eventually turned me on to the guitar and given me a few pointers, and said, 'Play this for me,' as if I was doing him a favor. I was really bad, I had only just started playing, but he would sit back and say, 'Play "Malagueña." If you can play that you can play anything.' It's a great exercise, and no matter how badly I played it, he would lie back, sit back in his chair and keep his eyes closed and nod. I mean, it must have been appalling. And every time, he would pretend he liked the way I played it, and so, wow, I'm turnin' my granddad on—which is an amazing way of teaching things.
"I used to hang around with him, he would take me around London, we'd be in Charing Cross Road in the back of Ivor Marantz's guitar store where they're repairing instruments. I used to sit for hours and hours in the back rooms in these guitar shops, in the middle of London, with the glue boiling and bubbling away and they're re-patching guitars, down in some little basement somewhere—it's like Santa's workshop. These guitars are hanging up and varnish is going on, wonderful smells in the air. To watch for two or three hours while these guys take this mashed-up old violin apart and make it come alive again in front of your eyes. Steam's going down, they're pressing wood, and patching, it's amazing, like some alchemist's laboratory for me at the time.
"And around 1956, I heard 'Heartbreak Hotel,' and the world suddenly went Technicolor. Candy came off rationing, rock 'n' roll arrived, and suddenly there's color. During this time, I saw Mick only by accident. I once saw him outside the Dartford Library selling ice creams—he had a summer job there with a little trolley, refrigerator." ["It may come to that again," I said.] "Yeah, I hope heremembers the moves. Anyway, in a town like Dartford, if anybody's working in London or anyplace in between, at Dartford Station you're bound to meet. So one day I ran into Mick there and he had two albums with him—Rocking at the Hops, by Chuck Berry, and The Best of Muddy Waters—and I had only heard about Muddy up to that point, I'd never actually heard him. I didn't get to that day, obviously, we're on the goddamn train. But I tell Mick I know all Chuck Berry's licks, and he says, 'What you play, guitar?' I said yeah. He had a little youth-club band that he was working with at the time, doing like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran stuff, but Mick was very heavily into blues. He had bothered to figure out how to get it together.
"Me, I wasn't at that stage, I was never that organized, still ain't. Scotty Moore, with Elvis, was my man at the time. I knew Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Leadbelly. My mother brought me up more on people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Basie, Ellington, a lot of Nat Cole. It was a very musical family, they just loved music. You see, to me, the art of music is listening to it, not playing it. The real art of it is hearing it. And then if you have a facility and the opportunity that way, then maybe you get around to playing it, but the number of people who make music compared with the number of people who listen to it is minimal. So what I guess you're trying to do is tickle those ears out there in one way or another, see if I can get inside you one way or another."
KEITH. Copyright © 1995 by Stanley Booth. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Posted August 20, 2012