Sympathy for the devil... the remarkable life of Keith Richards
He's the notorious hellraiser who has managed to survive decades of drugs, debauchery and chaos, with his health and his marriage and family intact. As he releases a new studio album, we take a look back at the remarkable life of legend Keith Richards
Published 05/10/2015 | 02:30
A few years ago, Keith Richards and his wife and extended family gathered for a get-together and sun-kissed photo shoot at their tropical retreat on Parrot Cay in the Caribbean. They are a glamorous bunch, a motley crew of grown-up children, golden-headed grandchildren, step-brothers and sisters, the handsome, living and breathing evidence of Richards' colourful life. The pictures were a world away from the dark, self-destructive image with which Keith Richards name is associated.
This is Richards 2.0. Now off the drugs, though still fond of a fag and tipple, his life these days is more Sunday supplement than tabloid scandal.
From his formerly chaotic and often dysfunctional approach to relationships and child-rearing, Keith has created a sprawling, messy, but apparently happy family.
Throughout the 70s and the 80s Richards spent over 10 years on a list of celebrities most expected to die young. He'd already had a few narrow escapes by then - perhaps most memorably in 1965, when he was electrocuted on stage by his guitar and knocked out for a full seven minutes before he finally came to, sat up, scratched his chin and asked, "what do I do for an encore?" But it wasn't the wiring that was the greatest risk to his health. For decades, he was wholeheartedly and cheerfully committed to drugs and bad behaviour. He once memorably described a cocktail of heroin and cocaine as "the breakfast of champions." And yet he's survived it all. After the apocalypse, goes the old joke, all that will remain are cockroaches and Keith Richards. In 2015, he's still going strong, celebrating more than three decades of marriage this year to former model Patti Hansen, and a new solo album just released to widespread critical acclaim.
Richards has always been a man well aware of the scale of his own legend. He has mellowed over time rather than reformed, and remains true to the anarchist, hell-raiser, spirit that has defined him.
He was always a bit of a rebel. The son of an electrician he grew up in Dartford, Kent in a flat above a grocer's shop. But his was a bohemian and arty family populated by actors and musicians. They were unconventional too - his mother split with his father so she could marry her toy boy. As a child Keith was, rather improbably, both a boy scout and a member of a children's choir, but such squeaky clean beginnings didn't last long, and he ended up expelled from technical college as a teenager. In his memoir, Life published in 2010, he wrote that he grew up in a neighbourhood where "everyone is a thief." There were sulphur and chaos in the atmosphere around his childhood, certainly - and he remembered blasts from the nearby fireworks factory, and escapees from the local asylum regularly being discovered in the surrounding countryside. "In the morning you'd find a loony on the heath, in his little nightshirt," Richards said during an interview with The Times in 2010.
There is however, an element of performance involved in being Keith Richards. In an interview in 2010 he complained to The Telegraph's Neil McCormick of the burden of upholding the image, saying he sometimes gets "real sick of the skulls and sh*t ... The image thing is a ball and chain. There's nobody like Keith Richards that would ever be alive. No way. But you can't buck the image. As long as I don't have to be that guy all the time, or with my friends. I guess the Keith Richards hard man is something that gives me the room to be who I really am. He's my perimeter defences."
Beyond that perimeter, the rest of the man is reserved for his family. Despite his prodigious reputation for womanising, Richards has always been the committing type. His tumultuous, and infamous, relationship with Anita Pallenberg lasted 13 years, in that time surviving plenty of mutual infidelity, their shared and entrenched drug addictions, and even the tragic loss of their second son Tara, who died of cot death when he was just a baby, when Richards went on tour.
Anita Pallenberg was Brian Jones's girlfriend when Keith first met her. With Jones, she had a famously abusive relationship - the spats between them descended, regularly and spectacularly into physical violence. Keith found her instantly compelling, even though she wasn't available.
But it was on a road trip from Paris to Marrakesh that things started to develop. A party of five, including Jones, Richards and Pallenberg decided to drive across Europe in Richards' blue Bentley nicknamed Blue Lena. "Having this car was already heading for trouble, breaking the rules of the establishment, driving a car I was definitely not born into. Blue Lena had carried us on many an acid-fuelled journey. Modifications included a secret compartment in the frame for the concealing of illegal substances," he wrote in Life. By the time they reached Spain, they'd abandoned Jones in a hospital in Toulouse, and had lost the other two companions enroute. Leaving only Keith and Anita in the car. In Life, Richards reveals an unexpectedly retiring side. "I have never put the make on a girl in my life," he writes. "I just don't know how to do it. My instincts are always to leave it to the woman. Which is kind of weird, but I can't pull the come-on bit: "Hey, baby, how you doing? Come on, let's get it on," and all of that. I'm tongue-tied. I suppose every woman I've been with, they've had to put the make on me. Meanwhile I'm putting the make on in another way - by creating an aura of insufferable tension. Somebody has to do something. You either get the message or you don't, but I could never make the first move."
It was no exception with Anita, so it was left up to her to break the "insufferable tension" which she did, with characteristic style, by wordlessly unzipping his pants as they sat in the back of Blue Lena "somewhere between Barcelona and Valencia, Anita and I looked at each other, and the tension was so high in the back seat, the next thing I know she's giving me a blow job. The tension broke then. Phew. And suddenly we're together. You don't talk a lot when that s*** hits you. Without even saying things, you have the feeling, the great sense of relief that something has been resolved," he writes, adding. "I still remember the smell of the orange trees in Valencia. When you get laid with Anita Pallenberg for the first time, you remember things."
They fell almost instantly and madly in love. But Brian Jones was a problem and the new romance threatened to potentially derail the band. "We realised we were creating an unmanageable situation", Richards writes, of why initially he agreed to "make a strategic retreat."
But the retreat, though well intentioned, didn't last long. Brian and Anita's relationship - violent and overwrought, was patently coming to an end. "They'd beaten the s*** out of each other," wrote Keith. "If I were Brian, I would have been a little bit sweeter and kept the bitch. But she was a tough girl. She certainly made a man out of me. She had almost nothing but turbulent, abusive relationships, and she and Brian had always been fighting, she running away screaming, being chased, in tears. She had been used to this for so long, it was almost reassuring and normal. It's not easy to get out of those destructive relationships, to know how to end them."
Things finally came to a head when having arrived in Marrakesh, Brian Jones picked up two local prostitutes and brought them back to the hotel, trying to push Anita "into a scene." It was the final straw and seemed to crystallise things for Pallenberg, she headed straight for Richards' hotel room. In the middle of the night, Keith and Anita bundled into Blue Lena and disappeared to Tangiers. "It's said that I stole her," he writes. "But my take on it is that I rescued her."
Before long, more dramas arose which threatened to drive them apart, not least when she was seduced by Keith's best friend, Mick Jagger, after they were cast opposite each other in the controversial and explicit film Performance. Keith's sense of betrayal springs from the pages of his autobiography many decades after the event. And it remains, to this day, a source of contention between the two Stones. Still, Richards made sure he got his revenge. "You know, while you were doing that, I was knocking Marianne, man," he writes, addressing Jagger directly as he recounts his night with Marianne Faithful, Jagger's then girlfriend. "While you're missing it, I'm kissing it. In fact, I had to leave the premises rather abruptly when the cat came back. Hey, it was our only time, hot and sweaty. We were just there in, as Mick calls it in Let Me Down Slow, the afterglow, my head nestled between those two beautiful jugs. And we heard his car drive up, and there was a big flurry, and I did one out the window, got my shoes, out the window through the garden, and I realised I'd left my socks. Well, he's not the sort of guy to look for socks. Marianne and I still have this joke. She sends me messages: "I still can't find your socks."
It was a memorable experience apparently. Last year, Marianne Faithful said it remains the best night of her life, some 50 years later. "I think it was so great and memorable because it was just one night. That was it. And we're still great friends," she said.
He and Pallenberg have two surviving children, Marlon and Dandelion, both of whom grew up in the thick of their parents' chaotic, drug-addled lives and seem to have become remarkably well-adjusted adults despite it all. According to Pallenberg, after Marlon was born (she'd discovered she was pregnant just after Brian Jones was found dead in a swimming pool) he was simply recruited into the travelling circus with the Stones. His mother claims he was smoking joints at the age of four. But his father, devoted to him from the first, took him on tours with the band starting when he was seven years old, as his "road buddy", making him responsible for getting him up in the morning after binges, and helping to guide his heroin-addicted father across borders and from city to city. Marlon was exposed almost constantly to drugs, but it seems to have made him averse. He later said he found them "repulsive, but I did learn to clean them up and not to touch them and not to leave them lying around.
"I don't remember too much bacchanal, really," Marlon has said. "We shared a room with two beds. I'd wake him and order breakfast from room service. Ice cream for breakfast or cake. And the waitresses would often be very condescending to me - oh, poor little boy - and I'd tell them to f*** off. I found that really annoying. I got wise pretty quick to the hangers-on and people who'd try to get to Keith through me. I got used to getting rid of them, too, saying: 'Look, I don't want to see you here, go away.' Or: 'F*** off, dad's asleep, leave us alone'."
Eventually, in 1980, Richards ended his relationship with Anita, who by then was, by his description, "off-the-rails, lethal and crazy." Dandelion was sent to live with Keith's mother Doris in Dartford, while Marlon shuttled between his two parents - life on the road with his dad, and the unheated, semi-derelict home where his mother lived. He was in the house when Anita's teenage lover Scott Cantrell shot himself, allegedly during a game of Russian roulette. Against all odds, Marlon who is now in his 40's is a content adult, happily married with children of his own. "He's bringing up his own kids in a very secure way, hands-on all the time, because he never got that," Keith has said. Anita, an impressive survivor herself, eventually also got clean. Now 71, she's explored careers in acting and fashion, and lives in Chelsea, London.
By the time of the split, Keith already met the woman who would become his wife, Patti Hansen, at Studio 54 when he was 35 and she was 23. They danced together that night, but didn't get together until his 36th birthday party later that year. Hansen has said that a friend tried to steer her away from Keith, but she was drawn to his wild side. "At three o'clock in the morning he wants to go check out some clubs and hang out. I was just ready. I really never liked to go to sleep. I think he saw that I was a trouper. That I could hang with him."
Though, over the course of their life together she would eventually manage to rein in his anarchic spirit to some degree, and for almost 35 years has been the backbone of a stable family life for their three children, though not without some rocky times before and since. In Life, Keith gives an eye-watering account of his first meeting with his future in-laws, Hansen's parents. Keith turned up to their house in Staten Island already drunk, bottle in hand, and promptly launched into classic rock star behaviour, smashing his guitar on the dining room table, while Patti retreated upstairs in tears. Her parents must have eventually forgiven him though. And Patti denies it was ever her intention to rescue Keith from himself. "I joined in on Keith's frenzy too, remember," she recently said to Harpers Bazaar. "It was the '70s, so we can't say it was all Keith ... But my mom told him that she was worried about her baby, and he told her not to worry because he'd take care of me. So, if I ever got really thin running around with him, he would take me off, put some weight on me. Keith promised my mom he would take care of me, and he did."
Patti says that she and Keith saved each other, but according to manager Jane Rose, the family is founded on Patti's grounded temperament. "She is very old school. That is the most deceptive thing about her: When you meet her, she is this wild, fantastic free spirit, always. But she has such ethics and principles; she is very sure of who she is and the things she believes in," he said.
"We have had our trials; that's for sure. But on the whole, it's great. We both have the same morals and background. We both come from working-class families. I think we are very similar in many ways. You know, he works and I have the house waiting for him with all the flowers and make sure he has all his bangers and mash in the fridge."
Crosseyed Heart, the new album from Keith Richards, is out now.
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