In July 1974, a music journalist named Nick Kent, in the New Musical Express, tagged Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones co-foundation and guitarist, as “The World’s Most Elegantly Wasted Human Being.”
Richards had already emerged as a friend piper in rock, as a magnet for youth searching for a role model who could compete with them in the disaffection department. In the UK and the US, they took to his flippant disregard for authority, and the codes governing the usage of black market narcotics and illicit substances.
As a college freshman in 1988, I latched on to Richards as something of a role model. I dug his disdain, delivered with slurry confidence in press conferences, and shared his distaste for powers that be, who seemed to me to be enforcing rules merely because they could, with a foolish and pathetic consistency. Kids often gravitate towards people who shouldn’t be a role model for anything, frequently finding themselves entranced by adults — who are supposed to know better, right? — that mirror and bolster their own negative traits. So a Richards, who flaunts his indifference to laws, and order, and a boring old straitlaced existence, appeals to a rebellious youth who is looking for guidance on his journey out of adolescence. And if that youth tends to be easily wounded by the inevitable slings and arrows life aims at you, is acutely sensitive to psychic pain, and seeks to dampen the sadness and uncertainty with a pill, some powder or a puff, well, a Richards is a veritable GPS of a man.
‘Follow me, I have the map, I know the mechanism for coping. It’s not cheap, but it is easy, and trust me, you’ll feel nothing on the way.’
‘Follow me,’ easily led youths, like myself, tippable kids who didn’t need much of a nudge to pick the wrong methods to cope, heard Richards say when he flippantly assessed his use of heroin and cocaine and such, and made it seem like an acceptable, even sexy, choice of lifestyle to pursue.
Sure, he might throw in a disclaimer, but a tippable kid wouldn’t process the disclaimer when the rocker would answer, “It was a damn good feeling for starters” after being asked why he took heroin. An at-risk kid with a not-fully-formed brain, and a belief in his immortality, eats up the boasting of staying up for five nights.
He marvels at and wishes to replicate the badass buccaneer of rock’s ludicrously hardy constitution, and spits out, or glosses over the acknowledgement that Richards did overdo it, that use of heavy drugs is “probably not the best solution,” as he stated in 1999.
Now, at 41, with a brain closer to fully formed, I hoped when I heard Richards’ autobiography, Life, would be released that The World’s Most Elongated Adolescence would come to a halt. I hoped that at age 66, Richards have finally grown up, and refuted his former propensity for the glorification of hard drugs.
Shoot, I still like to be entertained, I wasn’t hoping that he’d share his exploits and anecdotes for 25% of the book, and then spend the rest of the time telling us about his experience in sobriety. Sobriety has worked for me, allowed me to traffic in reality, and be a fairly high functioning adult, with a wife, and two kids. But the day to day happenings of a Sober Joe who is simply trying to do the right thing isn’t probably the stuff of an autobio, LOL. I just hoped that Richards would finally realize that people, especially impressionable kids, do indeed look up to him, and some mimic his ways or the life he led in the 60s and 70s.
I hoped, but as I read Life I found myself disappointed.
The rocker still seems to miss the deadly seriousness of substance abuse, the catastrophic toll cocaine and heroin use, especially, take on users—and knock knock Keith, will you ever really wrap your brain around this?—the family and loved ones of users.
He uses that pet nickname for heroin, calling it “smack,” and that indicates to me that he’s still deluded on the issue. “Smack” is a pet nickname, and you use a pet nickname for your kid, or your wife, maybe. “It (heroin) is a seductress,” he says, through co-writer James Fox. “You can take that stuff for a month or so and stop.” And, then he allows, you could become “truly hooked.”
I dare say the number of people who can just dabble some, take it for a month and walk away, and never look back, are the exception. For Richards to even allude to that dabbling as being a possibility for anyone, is irresponsible.
He uses another nickname, “mainline,” when referring to the usage of a hypodermic needle to inject heroin.
We get it, you speak the language, you are in the private club, you know the secret password to gain your entrance Keith.
“The whole delicacy of mainlining was never for me,” he sniffs.
Not sure what human pincushions he was hanging with, but there is nothing “delicate” about that habit. To someone not in that sad, sick milieu, watching a bunch of folks plunging needles into their arms, and then nodding off, spurs a wave of sadness, and maybe horror if you are needle-phobic.
I do realize I could be accused of parsing, of nitpicking, of being a killjoy buzzkill. But every word, said or written by such an icon is of vital importance. I go back to that tippable kid, that youth searching for answers, who might go the ‘Richards during the 70s’ route. I simply wish Richards and Fox were more in my camp than in the business of dressing up, sexing up, what is always a starkly grave matter. He can chuckle while talking about setting a bathroom on fire with a fellow user, as they both nodded off, but God forbid, what if the hotel went up in flames? Consistently, Richards leaves out the reactions, the anguish, of those caught in his wake, and it leads one to believe that like a teen, he is still caught up in his own head, believing the planets orbit around him, for his amusement.
Richards even touts heroin, saying it in “certain cases it helps you be more tenacious about something and follow it further than you would have.” If one single person is reading this and is tippable towards sobriety, please disregard this “heroin as tenacity builder” theory. Pure hogwash from Richards, who tells readers that he probably didn’t succumb to an OD because the stuff he scored was of the highest quality.
He does, to be fair, write that he is not trying to dress up the life of the drug addict. “(This is not) a recommendation…the life of a junkie is not recommended to anybody.”
After two steps forward, though, he hops a step back when he adds, “The key to my survival was that I paced myself.” That’s all well and good; he is entitled to his version of the truth. But forgive my repetition…what about the kid who doesn’t have a posse of handlers and bodyguards to dunk their OD’d ass into a tub of ice cubes to revive them, or bring them to a witch doctor to scrub their blood? A susceptible kid likens himself to Keef, and thinks “I too can pace myself” like Richards. I speak as one former fool who would pick and choose nuggets like this, and twist them to suit my own needs and whims.
The guitarist tells readers that, “I can improvise when I’m unconscious. This is one of my amazing tricks, apparently,” and I couldn’t help but be unimpressed. Listen, I have a couple greatest hits anecdotes from my stupid, self indulgent period, and I trot them out every now and again. Smoking up with Willie Nelson, for one. But I basically draw the line at weed tales; when you start boasting about your romance with heroin and cocaine, you aren’t sharing, you are fondly reminiscing, for effect and to score coolness points.
Keith, you are 66. Drug use fish tales cease being symbols of cool when you exit your teens, man.
“Most junkies become idiots,” Richards admits in “Life,” as he talks about his exit from the heroin hamster wheel. Then he erases his points for self awareness, as he tells us he only gave up cocaine because docs prescribed him blood thinners when he needed cranial surgery after he fell out of a tree in 2006. Sigh. And back in 2008, he told a writer that he “still smokes weed all the time.” So if anyone is thinking that Richards is a model of sobriety, or a success story, because he left heroin behind, I’d ask them to reconsider.
Keith Richards is a gifted guitarist, who quite likely, as was posited by former colleague Bill Wyman, suffers from considerable insecurity. He seems to be unable or unwilling to face life on life’s terms, without the aid of a dulling agent. And that’s his business, it’s not for Michael Woods to counsel the man on how to live. But when the man spins his yarns, and puts a cool sheen on substance abuse, and neglects to truly get what a toll it takes on poor souls, and the people who care about them, then he steps over a line. Like it or not, rock guitarists function as role models to kids. I’m not asking Richards to quit the Stones, and go on the road doing Just Say No speeches. But I’d love to see him, in the coming years, respect the power he has to influence kids who are searching for answers, and might look for them in a powder. He might find a deeper satisfaction in being a voice of reason than than in being the pre-eminent fried piper of rock and roll.