I lead a gentleman’s life. Listen to Mozart, read many, many books. I’m a voracious reader. History, in particular the British Navy, is my subject. The Nelson era and World War II are top of my list, but I do the ancient Romans too. I have a fine library furnished with these works, with dark wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling. This is where I hole up.
This is not perhaps how most people would picture the leisure days of one of rock and roll’s most famously debauched characters. Yet in his 2010 autobiography Life (there were surely more compelling title options than that!), Keith Richards comes across as a surprisingly erudite, intelligent and articulate individual. And yes, in his own way, he seems to be a gentleman – and a gentle man.
‘Surprisingly’ sounds condescending and perhaps a little naive – swallowing the druggie, dissolute showman image whole and not giving too much thought to the fact that that there is a person underneath this facade.
And this autobiography reveals a person who is thoughtful, perceptive, caring and seemingly completely without prejudices and the baggage of judgement. Naturally his background means that he is not a great respecter of ‘suits’ – the Establishment. The 75-year-old (67 when the book came out) has always been ready to ‘stick it to the man’ both in song, gesture, verbal exchange and – in previous years – in deed (he’s had a few punch-ups along the way and admits to habitually carrying a knife).
The writing style here is engaging. How much credit is due to the co-author James Fox is difficult to judge. The former Sunday Times journalist has been a friend of the rock star since the early 1970s and would certainly be able to bring an authentic authorial tone to the writing. But to me the voice (and certainly the view of life) belongs largely to the man himself. Fox is perhaps not so much ghosting and tidying up the prose – putting apostrophes where they should be and reworking sentences which lost their way.
First meeting with Jagger
We begin in 1940s Dartford, Kent, birthplace of Richards and a certain Mick Jagger. The family history background, often rather tedious in works such as these, is illuminating and entertaining. By sticking to the salient, Richards keeps the reader engaged.
From a boyhood love of the guitar and hours of finger-bleeding practice, his story leads us through the famous railway station meeting with Jagger – where a profound affinity in musical taste is established – to the early days of playing for beer (or for nothing) in seedy clubs and grimy pubs. Band members come and go; Brian Jones appears and stays; Jagger and Richards really want a drummer called Charlie Watts and they manage to snare him; a bassist called Bill Perks completes the line-up under the name of Wyman.
Years of poverty (getting the deposit back on stolen beer bottles) in squalid houses and flats precede a sudden propulsion – under the management of Andrew Oldham – to modest fame, notoriety (urinating at the roadside) and ultimately world-dominating rock deity.
The career-span of The Rolling Stones is unprecedented in the world of showbiz. In the 1989 documentary 25×5, Richards (then a mere 46 years old) said the band was travelling ‘without maps’. No other group had lasted that long; there was no model, no template to follow. Amazingly the Stones continue to tour to this day filling gigantic stadia the world over. They’ve gone from ‘Lock up your daughters’ through ‘Lock up your mums’ to ‘Lock up your grannies’ and still (replacing a guitarist or two) they rock on.
The rise-to-fame part of the story Richards tells without pretensions of grandeur. He knows the band is unique and very good at what they do. He doesn’t have to work the message. His engaging, chat-over-a-pint style is never affected. He is proud of his achievements but not boastful.
An unreliable narrator?
There is, however, a point in the book where Richards becomes less engaging and develops the feels of an unreliable narrator. For most of the 1970s he was catastrophically involved with drugs. Heroin, in particular, created turmoil in his life. Though he somehow managed to make the gigs and turn up in the recording studio, his life was formed around drugs and the necessity to have them available. It took several years, in and out of cold turkey, to free himself from smack. When he came round, it was the 80s.
It is in this passage of Life that Richards loses my good will. He complains about Jagger’s insistence on controlling the band and making the decisions – conveniently forgetting that for a decade he was more or less out of his wits and his band mate had stepped up to the mark to keep the show on the road. Until then Richards had always been the glue, keeping the best interests of the group at heart and pushing forward.
Though there had been some disagreements between the two before (an unavoidable clash of two massive egos) this was the start of a rift between the boyhood friends which endures to this day. Richards complains that Jagger became ‘a control freak’ but doesn’t acknowledge that there was probably good reason for Mick taking the reins – doubting, as he must have done, the mental capabilities of his junkie partner.
Earlier in the book Richards complains that Brian Jones had become unpredictable and unreliable because of his drug habit. Regarded as an embarrassment and dead weight, he wanted Jones gone. Jagger can’t be blamed for feeling Richards had become a similar encumbrance, though the loss of this gifted songwriting partner would probably have dealt a lethal blow to the band.
But Richards pulled out of his nosedive and the band played on. The group’s legendary globe-trotting tours continue to this day with all four frontmen well into their 70s, travelling without maps and, seemingly – bar the odd accident with a coconut tree – without care. As they once observed: it’s only rock n roll.
Friday was St David’s Day here in Wales, the feast day of our patron saint. It’s a day when the nation is meant to celebrate our heritage and what it means to be Welsh. In my childhood, it meant going to school dressed in our national costume of a black and white check skirt, white blouse, red shawl and the most ludicrous of black hats, and spending hours singing and reciting poetry (in Welsh).
Fortunately these days I can mark the day in rather more refined fashion – which was why this week I indulged in A Few Selected Exits, the autobiography of one of most eminent writers Gwyn Thomas.
Gwyn was born in 1913 as the twelfth child of a coal miner in the Rhondda valleys of South Wales. His mother died when he was six and it was left to his sisters to care for the family, relying often on soup kitchens particularly during the depression years of the 1920s or when the miners went on strike for better working conditions.
For boys like him there was scant hope of escaping the desperate poverty of this area; he was destined like his elder brothers to follow them down the mines. But Gwyn miraculously escaped by virtue of a scholarship to read Spanish at Oxford university. It might have seemed his life had turned a corner but he struggled to find full-time work and to get his novels and plays published. Only in 1946 did his work come to the attention of the BBC and he was commissioned to write for the radio, then became a regular panelist on the prestigious BBC Brains Trust chat show and a regular presenter and respected commentator on Welsh politics and life in general.
His was a mellifluous voice that could ring with wit and humour one moment and then soar with passion the next. His oration at the commemoration service for the Aberfan disaster is a tremendous example of his ability to perfectly project the mood of a nation stricken with grief with humanity and gravitas.
In A Few Selected Exits, it’s his wit, his love of words, and his powers of observation that are most evident as he describes his life through a series of comic episodes and a cast of hilarious characters like Nim Jones a young neighbour who constantly dashes about the village with gossip.
However quietly, secretely, a thing might happen, Nim would get to know and he instantly became a vibrant wire stretched from one end of the village to the other, telling the facts. Ned was shouting my name and his face was blithe. This gave no clue to the nature of the news he bore. Rape, arson, theft, subsidence, all flowed with equal ease into the net of Nim’s enjoyment.
Thomas tells these stories in a conversational tone that reveals little about himself but much about his love for his fellow countrymen and their eccentricities.There are so many passages that it’s hard to choose just one to illustrate his style but one of my favourite episodes from the early part of the book comes when Thomas is persuaded by his headmaster that the one thing he will need in Oxford is an overcoat. Not just any coat, but one made by the valley’s finest tailor. It will act as Gwyn’s armour against those in Oxford who will undoubtedly look down on him. On the day the coat is finished, Gwyn tries it on surrounded by eager neighbours. They all understand the symbolic importance of getting this coat just right.
A large group assembled to see me put the coat on for the first time, for between the ascension of a local boy to Oxford, and the sight of so much new fabric, the occasion was regarded s pretty glossy
When the garment fell into place, there was silence. My father looked at Mr Warlow [the tailor] as if he were the last instalment in some long purchase of perplexity. The coat came to within an inch or two of the floor. The buttons, of prodigious size, seemed to come down just as far as if afraid to let the fabric make the long journey south on its own. Mr Warlow did not seem to have taken my stoop into consideration and the great hoop of collar looked down at my neck either with contempt or just thoughtfully.
On the morning of my departure for the ancient university I marched down the hill to the coach station feeling like an emperor and looking like a cross between Sam Weller and a shrouded dwarf.
It’s passages like these, and many others, that remind me of the first lines of the poem by Brian Harris.
To be born in Wales,
Not with a silver spoon in your mouth,
But, with music in your blood
And with poetry in your soul,
Is a privilege indeed.
Gwyn Thomas certainly never had the the silver spoon but he most assuredly had poetry and music is his soul.
Another week in which I ‘discovered’ another new author. I say discovered because Maya Angelou has been around for decades. I knew her name, the title of her most famous work (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and the fact she was a leading figure in the African- American freedom cause. But that was it until this week when I read Caged Bird and found a podcast on the BBC World Service where she read some of her poetry. Her career as an actor make her a powerful performer but it’s the message itself that is even more impactful. Now my appetite has been well and truly whetted and I have to find out more about this remarkable woman.
My review of Caged Bird is here. If you want a taste of her poetry, this is the poem she read at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton (she was first woman poet to do such a reading).
On the Pulse of Morning
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.