Keith Richards is Rock 'n' Roll Royalty In More Ways Than One

By , Contributor
It was a road trip that had catastrophe written all over it. Keith Richards begins his autobiography Life with a story about how he, Ronnie Woods, and two members of the Rolling Stones entourage decided to drive from Memphis to Dallas during the 1975 tour. They did this despite repeated warnings that it was a terrible idea to drive through Arkansas, a state that had recently introduced legislation to ban rock and roll.

When they stopped in the little town of Fordyce, a confrontation with the local authorities and arrest inevitably and predictably followed. Richards says that he himself doesn’t know why they did it, but celebrity autobiographies often reveal more than their authors intended. That's certainly true here.

Growing up in postwar England, Richards had an awful Dickensian childhood. Yet success came soon, and overwhelmed them all. It seemed to Richards that one day he was idolizing Little Richard and the next day he was sharing a dressing room with him.

Success brought out his Englishness in odd ways. He bought a house with a moat (!), and paid for it with cash that he brought in a bag. No realtors, no mortgage.

And something else happened: “Suddenly we were being courted by half the aristocracy,” he writes. And with that sentence Life and the life of the Rolling Stones opened up for me.

The stunning, protracted success of the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band enabled Richards and his mates to punch through—often quite literally—the ceiling of the British class system and come out on the other side. After years of  being screamed at by adoring fans and making huge amounts of money for doing something that they lived to do, they couldn’t help feeling that they were just as entitled, perhaps more so, than their new aristocratic friends.

Their unconscious, unquestioning belief in their privileged status helps to explain the ill-fated road trip. They were no longer proletarians on the way up; they were aristocrats looking down at everybody else. Since they had not been born there, they needed to demonstrate to themselves, more than anybody else, that they could do whatever they wanted to do - even in Fordyce, Arkansas. And since Keith Richards is who he is, and since his solo on “Satisfaction” is what it is, lawyers and PR people rushed to his aid. He walked out of the courthouse a free man, boarded a private plane, and flew off into the night.

In retrospect it seems as though something changed that day. The Stones recorded “It’s Only Rock and Roll” (i.e., it’s only music and not social rebellion). The Rolling Stones had become rock 'n' roll aristocrats, so they could leave social outrage to punk bands.

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JIm Curtis has a background in Russian studies, and is fascinated with both high culture and popular culture. He just finished a book on Dylan, and covers the book beat for The Morton Report.

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