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Patti Smith and Keith Richards: a study in contrast
That might seem an odd list, but it's characteristic of Smith, who prized equally glamour, bravery and suffering. As a child, she was intensely religious and often ill, and found herself "privileged with a new level of awareness'' when she suffered such routine ailments as measles and chicken pox. Then she met Mapplethorpe, a lapsed Catholic whose work used poetic images of martyrdom. Anguish and death were among the things that united them.
"Life'' and "Just Kids'' are both books of the dead. Smith's memoir is explicitly a tribute to Mapplethorpe, who succumbed to AIDS in 1989. It also pays tribute to other casualties of the era, only some of whom Smith actually knew. One of her most cherished ghosts is Brian Jones, the pretty-boy martyr of the Rolling Stones. Hearing of his death in 1969, Smith "laid my drawing pencils aside and began a cycle of poems to Brian Jones, for the first time expressing my love of rock-and-roll within my own work.''
Richards's reaction to Jones's demise was less flowery. He calls him a "whining son of a bitch.''
While he doesn't mourn Jones, Richards does pay tribute to Ian Stewart, another lost Stone. And to his infant son, Tara, and his parents. (Did the guitarist actually snort his father's ashes? Well, kinda.) One loss that hit Richards hard was that of Gram Parsons, a close friend and crucial influence on the Stones' forays into country music. It doesn't make much sense in retrospect, but at the time of Parsons' s death in 1973, Richards was convinced that he had to pay tribute to his departed comrade by driving from Innsbruck, Austria, to Munich to see a German model he barely knew. (His explanation to her: "I don't know why, a friend of mine's just died, and I'm pretty [screwed] up. I just want to say hello.'')
Irreverent and unchurched but respectful of loss, both Richards and Smith sought fresh rituals to mark life's great changes. It's fitting that this quest recalls the cultural improvisations of the Beats. If '70s punk was just a twist on '60s rock, many of hippiedom's enthusiasms were handed down from the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They too loved "Negro'' music, and chanted mash-ups of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu incantations.
In the early 1960s, Richards struck bluesman poses at posh parties in suburban London, and enjoyed appearing exotic and dangerous. "I love to be treated as black,'' he writes. Once the guitarist had time and money to travel, he was drawn to places populated by wise primitives with mind-altering rituals. In 1967, in the wake of Richards and Jagger's first big drug bust, they headed to Morocco, the Beats' hashish-perfumed 1950s playground. Later, Richards was proud to be accepted in Jamaica's Steer Town, a ganja-fogged Rastafarian enclave where few white people tread.
The Beats were still around, of course, to score walk-ons in "Life'' and "Just Kids.'' William S. Burroughs counseled both Richards and Smith, at different times, and Ginsberg tried to pick up Smith at a Horn & Hardart automat, thinking she was a he. Even when the Beats are not there, they sort of are. Richards's globe-trotting "outlaw'' phase reads like "On the Road'' with an unlimited expense account.
All that money bought Richards "pure pharmaceutical'' heroin and cocaine, which kept him, he writes, from being a "pop star.'' It also paid the attorneys who saved him from ever doing a long stretch in prison. But the cash helped tame him. After the guitarist kicked junk in 1978, he was left with pop - okay, rock - stardom and even a sort of respectability. For decades, his home base has been that casbah of the Northeast Corridor, Westport, Conn.
Richards didn't go so far as to be knighted, and says he counseled Sir Mick to decline that honor. Yet he likes his private library, his country homes and a good cup of tea. (No wonder he usually refers to himself as "English,'' although when feeling ornery he's a "Celt,'' or even "Welsh.'') "Life'' has some OMG moments, but its outlook often seems old-fashioned. As his references to "bitches'' and "poofters'' reveal, Richards hasn't updated his mid-'60s attitudes. He's a reprobate with a strong sense of heterosexual-male privilege.
In the 1970s, the bitches and the poofters claimed bigger and better roles for themselves, a history "Just Kids'' tells in miniature. But it was an evolution, not an insurrection. Punk turned out to be a reform movement, and one thing it mellowed was the fetish for self-destruction. Some punks flamed out, but others practiced moderation or "straight edge,'' cool in their uncoolness. At least one got married and quietly raised her kids.
The life goes out of "Life'' after the 1970s, and the three decades since claim only about 100 of its 564 pages. The beat goes on, but the adventure is over. Much like the music he plays, Richards grows up to become familiar, assimilated and manageable.
If Smith knows she's no longer a kid, Richards is still nurturing his adolescent defiance. "I'm not in show business,'' he asserts toward the end of his autobiography. But that's beyond his control. The Biz proved capable of expanding to include junkie-pirate-bluesman as just another specialty act.
Mark Jenkins is a freelance writer.