Patti Smith and Keith Richards: a study in contrast

With details including his first meeting with Mick Jagger and a look at his well-known attempts to get high, the Rolling Stone reflects on 50 years of rock-and-roll.
By Mark Jenkins
Special to the Washington Post
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 8:20 PM

Keith Richards's autobiography, "Life,'' doesn't allot much space to payback. But it does fling a few daggers, mostly at people who have personally affronted the quick-tempered guitarist. Of the various people Richards derides in the book, there's only one he seems never to have met: Johnny Rotten.

Rotten and the Sex Pistols were a threat - short-lived, as it turned out - to the Rolling Stones' rep as Britain's baddest boys. Raised by socialists and agnostics in a working-class London suburb, Richards by 18 was a rhythm-and-blues purist who considered himself "anti-showbiz'' and his new band "the anti-Beatles.'' Naturally he would have resented the uprising of 1977, the year the Clash proclaimed, "no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones!''

Across the ocean and a little earlier, a young woman was having similarly mutinous doubts about the Stones and their peers. "We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation,'' writes Patti Smith in her memoir, "Just Kids.'' The punk-rock bard who began her hipster makeover by giving herself a Keith Richards haircut decided that '70s rock was "floundering in the mire of spectacle, finance and vapid technical complexity.''

That might sound like a lean new generation's indictment of its potbellied predecessor, and some punk rockers, especially in Britain, did make a point of their raw youth. But read "Life'' and "Just Kids'' together, and the striking thing is how much they overlap.

Richards was born on Dec. 18, 1943; Smith followed three years later, on Dec. 30, 1946. Both are the children of factory workers and grew up with little money and big aspirations. Each loved art, literature and classical music as well as rock-and-roll, and had cultured elders. Richards's grandfather, a jazz-band veteran, encouraged the boy to play guitar; Smith's father read Plato out loud at the dinner table.

Richards's book covers a much longer period - from his birth all the way to 2007 - while Smith's concentrates on the eight years when she was closest to friend, lover and artistic co-conspirator Robert Mapplethorpe. But the two accounts often dovetail, and some of the same supporting characters appear in both sagas.

One explanation for the parallels is that punk rock was not, or at least did not begin as, a generational movement. The early punks were very nearly contemporaries of the rockers they accused of spiritual starvation. The '60s rock generation, Smith writes, "was just a beat before mine.''

Yet the Rolling Stones released their first album in 1964, while the Patti Smith Group's debut didn't arrive for another 11 years - more than just a beat. The gap reflects, in part, the one between Richards's single-mindedness and Smith's dabbling: He was utterly possessed by music, while she pursued art, poetry and (briefly) acting before making the fateful decision to enlist Lenny Kaye to accompany her on electric guitar at her first poetry reading. But there are two other significant factors: Smith was American and, well, a girl.

Ruthless with time-wasters and no-hopers, the 1960s British educational system dumped working-class kids into the job market in their mid-teens. Richards was expelled from vocational school in his home town of Dartford, outside London, but managed to slide to nearby Sidcup Art College. The curriculum was commercial art, preparation for a career in advertising. As at many British art schools then, however, the real course of study was American blues, jazz and rock. Richards had learned a lot of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed by 1962, when he first met pianist Ian Stewart, one of several candidates for "leader'' of the Rolling Stones. Art school was out forever.

Around the same time, Smith won an art competition at the Sherwin-Williams paint store near her southern New Jersey home. She began collecting cheap used folios of the great painters and planning her career as an artist. But her father feared that his gangly, tomboy daughter "was not attractive enough to find a husband.'' So she enrolled at Glassboro State College to work toward a teaching degree and a profession that would guarantee "security.''

What liberated Smith, oddly, was an unwanted pregnancy. And here's one of the places where her life significantly diverges from Richards's. Dismissed from Glassboro, the 19-year-old Smith agreed to a private adoption of her first-born, then moved to Brooklyn with vague notions of studying at the Pratt Institute. Instead, she met Mapplethorpe, and became his supporter and protector. Her role could be described as maternal, especially after Mapplethorpe came out - to himself as much as anyone - as gay.

So it was hardly out of character when Smith, in 1980, began a long sabbatical from rock music to be a full-time wife (to former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic'' Smith) and mother. Her synthesis of the Ronettes and Arthur Rimbaud, Jim Morrison and Antonin Artaud could wait until son Jackson and daughter Jesse grew up.

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