Monday, December 19, 2016

Cheers, Keith! Keith Richards, born December 19, 1943

"I'm gonna booglarize you baby ... "
(Captain Beefheart, 1972)

As difficult as it is to believe in the 21st century, rock music was once a dangerous and provocative force in the booglarizing of America. The age from Elvis through the Rolling Stones were years and years of sheer terror for parents and politicians throughout the land, and even if the floor-shaking noises coming from the upstairs bedrooms of America were the sounds of a consumer-driven teenage market finding its voice (and its feet), the music was definitely something most of its listeners had never heard before.

And that was just the threat in the pounding, amplified beat -- the words were a whole new scare. The Beatles may have wanted to hold your hand, after all, when they could be understood above all that racket, but before that Jerry Lee Lewis was shouting about great balls of fire, and not necessarily about getting burned in the hellfire of damnation. And the Rolling Stones! Prancing about like ... like ... well, who knows like what, exactly, parents weren't sure, but inexplicably, obviously, bad-for-you, do you understand?

As it turns out, for the Rolling Stones time really is on their side after all. Determined to grow older -- if increasingly wrinkled -- with some dignity intact, Keith Richards' autobio, disarmingly titled Life, is filled with stories that somehow amaze with how different the world seemed back then. Now, when the only parental outrage Katy Perry can generate is her outfit on Sesame Street, tales of the Rolling Stones in America seem positively other-worldly.

Why did we stop at the 4-Dice Restaurant in Fordyce, Arkansas, for lunch on Independence Day weekend? On any day? Despite everything I know from ten years of driving through the Bible Belt. Tiny town of Fordyce. Rolling Stones on the police menu across the United States. Every copper wanted to bust us by any means available, to get promoted and patriotically rid America of these little fairy Englishmen.

It was 1975, a time of brutality and confrontation. Open season on the Stones had been declared since our last tour, the tour of '72, known as the STP. The State Department had noted riots (true), civil disobedience (also true), illicit sex (whatever that is), and violence across the United States. All the fault of us, mere minstrels. We had been inciting youth to rebellion, we were corrupting America, and they had ruled never to let us travel in the United States again.

It had become, in the time of Nixon, a serious political matter. He had personally deployed his dogs and dirty tricks against John Lennon, who he thought might cost him an election. We, in turn, they told our lawyer officially, were the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world.

As much grief as aging boomers get about their increasingly passe memories, rock music remains, if not exactly a threat, at least a thread of connection between generations. The music of the not-quite-greatest generation can still thrill, even if the cultural meaning doesn't quite grab as it once did. The lessons are learned, and age has its privileges: every few years, there's talk of another tour, and the Stones rock machine gears up for another assault on the wallet -- and still (still!) remains the biggest rock show on earth.

The Stones, gentlemen all, are grandfathers these days, but they are attempting to go old gracefully without the albatross of a young man's "hope I die before I get old" lyric in their book. (As far back as 1978 Keith contemplated the wisdom in the words "I'm going to walk before they make me run.") Mick Jagger has always played at the continental charmer, and even Keith seems content to retire most of he bad-boy stories, at least for this (book) tour. Will Mick and Keith play on stage again? As long as there is a five-pound note in The Bank of England's vaults.

Keith-the-estate-gardener may have retired most of his well-told war stories, and in the book de-fuses many of the more outlandish tales, but not all of them. And then there's this, which should give hope to bookworms everywhere: "When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equalizer."

The rock star who played the Pirate King to Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow must maintain some wickedness, certainly, if even for press junkets: it seems he did actually snort some of the old man's cremated ashes that had fallen out on the coffee-table. Then again, Keith has given up drinking now, at the age of 66, and a man must surely be allowed at least one vice.

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