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Oh, so elegantly wasted

The Human Riff aka Keef aka Keith Richards ? or Keith Richard, is the sound and the fury of the Rolling Stones.

art and culture Updated: Feb 07, 2004 10:14 IST

Keith Richards: Satisfaction
Christopher Sandford
Headline books
£ 12.99

Cultural historians specialising in the 20th century are obsessed with two 'What If?' questions. The first involves the failed attempt on Adolf Hitler's life on November 8, 1939. If the Fuhrer had copped it that day, would there have been a World War II, a Holocaust, Commando comics, or 'Hun jokes' in Fawlty Towers?

The second 'What If?' involves a 22-year-old Keith Richards whose guitar accidentally touched a live microphone on December 4, 1965, knocking him out for a whole seven minutes. (He survived thanks to his rubber-soled shoes.) If he had been electrocuted to death that evening, would there have been any mandatory chain-smoking-cum-guitar-playing by future axe men, Byronic legends of sex'n'drugs'n'rock & roll, the mainstreaming of a particular genre of music called rhythm'n'booze, punk rock, or, for that matter, the Rolling Stones? Christopher Sandford doesn't seem to think so.

The Human Riff aka Keef aka Keith Richards — or Keith Richard, as Stones manager Andrew Oldham insisted he be known as because "it sounds more Clockwork Orange" — is the sound and the fury of the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger may have the tighter tush, the more obvious stage presence, the first seat in the hyphenated song-credit bench and… oh, the voice and the chutzpah of the fallen angel himself. But as Sandford, in every alternate page of Satisfaction hammers into every reader's head, it is 'Keith, man, Keith' who's the real glitter of the Glimmer Twins.

But it is in another department that Satisfaction scores. One doesn't have to be a producer of Channel V Pop Stars to know that rock stars are human beings who behave differently when they're in the bog or petting their pet dog from when they're playing Nuremberg Rally on-stage. It is here that the reader not only gets to see 'Little Ricky' from Dartford who, obsessed with playing music, makes it big, but is also introduced to the notoriously mad, bad and dangerous drug-artiste, who…. loves Shepherd's Pie and HP sauce, loves his mum and is married to a nice Lutheran girl with whom he occasionally goes to church. "I can be the cat on stage any time I want," says Mr Richards of West Sussex. "I like to stay in touch with him.... But I'm a very placid, nice guy — most people will tell you that. It's mainly to placate this other creature that I work."

One definitely gets another perspective on the creator of Satisfaction, Brown Sugar, Midnight Rambler and Honky Tonk Women when one reads how Winston Churchill broke into tears while hearing the Westminster Abbey choir over the radio in the early Fifties — with Master Keith's voice being the centre of the choral attraction. He was also a model Boy Scout, as well as a pretty good sportsman (a cricket and tennis fan till this day). Sandford tells us how in his 'elegantly wasted' phase, Keith was challenged to a game of tennis by the present Sir Mick. Rubber Lips appeared on the court dressed for Wimbledon. His opponent sported ragged jeans and kept a cigarette end clamped to his lip throughout. Keith won the match 6-1.

Sandford also points to Keith's fascination for history. Apart from reading all seven volumes of Edward Gibbon's Rise And Fall of the Roman Empire in between tours, Keith was fascinated b y Nazi regalia — turning up at Mick and Bianca's wedding in full Wehrmacht uniform. Then there's the kinder side to the guitar-fiend who out-punked punk half-a-generation before the Sex Pistols. A few years ago, Keith opened a letter appealing for funds to save his local village hall. The council wondered whether residents might each be willing to donate £30. Keith wrote out a cheque for £30,000. And that's not including all the stories of him helping out down-and-out blues guitarists — including one who was making a living by painting houses.

Sandford admits (almost grudgingly, it seems) that Keith has known all along that his 'bad boy image' helps the Rolling Stones cause. The real image-change, he points out, took place after the infamous Redlands drug bust in 1967. The early gruffy, boyish, angel-with-cowboy-boots composer-guitarist changed overnight into the kohl-wearing, heroin-speed ball gulping, Stoli(chnya)-and-Jack Daniel's-drowning Lord Byron of Rock'n'Roll. The reason for such a drastic shift — apart from getting good reaction from millions of record-buying Enemies of the System — may be traced to what Keith said after the infamous 24-hour stay as Wormwoods Scrubs' Prisoner No. 7855: "If you're going to kick authority in the teeth, you might as well use two feet."

As a friend of Keith puts it, "People say, 'Oh, he's a junkie.' I always say he's extremely friendly, the sort of guy you can have a laugh with about football or cricket. He has a human quality." Sandford suggests that Keith Richards has always been the Arch-Romantic, "not the Tabloid Romeo like Jagger". This is a book that helps Keith Richards fans to clinch the battle — against the Jaggerites, that is — as well as making a convincing pitch for anarchic conservatism. Recommendation: Play all the 1968-1973 Stones albums while you read the book. If you like what you hear, vote for Keith Richards.

First Published: Feb 04, 2004 12:03 IST