Patti Smith and Keith Richards: a study in contrast

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.

This was not Richards's approach. While taunting both death and the cops, the guitarist sired five children - three with model-actress Anita Pallenberg (one died as an infant) and two with model Patti Hansen. There are pictures of the four surviving kids in "Life,'' and they seem to be doing fine. But it's hard to read the book and not fear for the older two, Marlon and Angela. Their father was a junkie when they were born, and for years after that. So, by the way, was their mother.

Incredibly, Marlon became his father's "road buddy'' at 7. The boy navigated as Richards drove to gigs on the Stones' 1976 European tour, and was designated to awaken his father when he nodded off before a show. That's because Richards kept a "shooter'' under his pillow, and the road crew decided that Marlon was the member of the entourage least likely to get plugged for awakening the zoned-out guitarist.

"He was a great minder,'' Richards writes of Marlon, with no apparent irony.

Angela soon became the responsibility of Richards's mother, still living in Dartford. Marlon later joined a Long Island rock-and-roll household headed by the guitarist's father. (Richards's parents had split as soon as their only child left home.) Eventually, Marlon sent himself to school in Britain.

Despite his routine references to "bitches'' and "old ladies,'' Richards doesn't seem to be a woman-hater. He insists he's not a soulless seducer like longtime bandmates Jagger and Bill Wyman, or a batterer like the late Brian Jones, another "leader'' of the Stones. He claims to prefer cuddling to sex and to "have never put the make on a girl in my life.'' His affection for early love Veronica Bennett - later Ronnie Spector - seems genuine, and he's been married to Hansen for 27 years.

But many of the people on "Life's" enemies' list are there because of the brief period in 1968 when Pallenberg slipped from Jones to Richards to Jagger and then back to Richards. If the guitarist underestimates Jones's contribution to the Stones, it's at least in part because Jones abused Pallenberg. (Actually, most of Richards's stories about this mistreatment involve Jones's failed attempts to hit his then-girlfriend, often injuring himself in the process.)

Among the many injuries sustained during Richards and Jagger's long working relationship, one that still festers is the singer's alleged fling with Pallenberg on the set of "Performance.'' Richards continues to seethe at Donald Cammell, the movie's co-director, calling him "a twister and a manipulator'' for casting Jagger and Pallenberg as lovers in the film. The guitarist is clearly pleased that the director (who also has a cameo in "Just Kids'') ultimately "topped himself.''

Although Richards says he "never put the make on a girl,'' he responded to Jagger and Pallenberg's supposed dalliance by bedding Marianne Faithfull, Jagger's girlfriend at the time. He crows about it in one of "Life's'' most discussed passages, where he calls Jagger (or some part of him) a "tiny todger.'' But the betrayal didn't really bother him, Richards protests, and besides, his distress inspired him to write "Gimme Shelter.''

"Just Kids'' has a gentler tone, but it's not free of jealousy. When Mapplethorpe first started having sex with men, he kept his exploits secret from Smith, who was shocked and hurt to learn of them. (Although a devotee of Genet and Rimbaud, she was initially unprepared to learn that her real live boyfriend had this desire in common with her poetic crushes.) Later, Mapplethorpe regarded Smith's lovers with suspicion. That's not unreasonable, since she had a string of affairs with men who made no commitments.

"Just Kids'' and the first part of "Life'' each recount their authors' apprenticeships, but much of Richards's education was pursued from a position of strength: He was male and a rock star. He may not have been a great guitarist when he first started encountering such musical heroes as Waters, Don Everly and Elvis Presley sideman Scotty Moore, but he was somehow on their level. An ingenue who lucked into a spot in the Chelsea Hotel scene, Smith lacked that status. She was fed and supported, educated and encouraged by such lovers as poet Jim Carroll (who turned tricks on the side), playwright Sam Shepard (who was married at the time) and Blue Oyster Cult keyboardist Allen Lanier (who lived the promiscuous rock-star life on the road). But she wasn't their peer.

As a woman in the late 1960s and early '70s, Smith was limited by other people's expectations, but also by her own sense of possibilities and responsibilities. She wanted to be an artist and a poet, but her exemplars for those vocations were mostly male. Often she looked to famous wives and lovers as role models. She prayed for "the mistress of Jules Laforgue,'' identified with the "mutinous spirit'' of Zelda Fitzgerald and constructed a poem "from the perspective of Jesse James's girlfriend.'' She writes that "the girls interested me: Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Amelia Earhart, Mary Magdalene.''

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.

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