Christopher Sandford

Sympathy for the vicar

Christopher Sandford says that Keith Richards — 60 next month — is a secret conservative: he eats shepherd’s pie, loves his mum and even goes to church

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Christopher Sandford says that Keith Richards — 60 next month — is a secret conservative: he eats shepherd’s pie, loves his mum and even goes to church

He doesn’t exactly look like your average squire, Keith Richards, with his piratical swagger and a complexion that’s been compared to old cat litter. But Keith, who turns 60 next month, is emerging as one of the most shockingly normal, and English, of rock stars, as well as one of the most self-aware. ‘I can be the cat on stage any time I want,’ he said some years ago. ‘I like to stay in touch with him.... But I’m a very placid, nice guy — most people will tell you that. It’s mainly to placate this other creature that I work.’

Keith’s paternal grandparents were both well respected councillors in Walthamstow, where his grandmother served as the first female mayor. His maternal grandfather was a first world war hero. Keith’s father was among the first to hit the Normandy beaches on D-Day and was badly wounded as a result. He was later cited for conspicuous gallantry. Some discrepancy, then, between the raised-by-wolves legend of Keith’s upbringing and the reality, with its emphasis on duty, rank and sound traditional values. He enjoyed singing ‘Zadok the Priest’ to the new Queen in 1953 and was a model Boy Scout, as well as a dab hand at sports. Years later in Jamaica, Mick Jagger would challenge Richards — then in his ‘elegantly wasted’ phase — to a game of tennis. Sir Mick appeared for the contest dressed for Wimbledon; his opponent sported ragged jeans and kept a butt end clamped to his lip throughout. Keith won the match 6–1.

Even at his leaden nadir as a smack addict, Keith was unabashedly proud of a past that would be branded imperialist in today’s Britain. His all-time hero was the second world war fighter ace Douglas Bader. He once named his two favourite films as Reach for the Sky and The Man Who Would Be King. Richards’s long-time former minder and friend Tom Keylock calls him a ‘very homegrown sort of rebel’. At no time in his rarefied Sixties existence did Keith ever lose touch with his mum, or with the simple pleasures of sitting in the back room of a pub playing dominoes. Much of his life was spent at Redlands, his thatched retreat in West Wittering, where he still likes nothing more than wolfing a large plate of shepherd’s pie with HP sauce. Just a year or two ago, Keith opened a letter appealing for funds to save his local village hall. The council wondered whether residents might each be willing to donate £30. No problem, said Keith, and wrote out a cheque for £30,000.

At a time when lesser pop stars are content to sprawl in their Californian mansions while flunkeys ferry in Big Macs, Richards cuts a spry figure ambling around this green and slightly prim nook of West Sussex. One local man I met spoke of him as ‘amazingly civil’, while several of Keith’s friends were on territory well beyond that. About the most shocking revelation to emerge from two years’ research was that, beneath a veneer of total self-indulgence, Richards turns out to be something of a softie: he remains close to his 87-year-old mother, gets on famously with animals and kids and quietly donates to dozens of charities. He is also chummy with John Major.

Keith isn’t the first entertainer to put on a good act — Cary Grant used to enjoy gobbling LSD — but he may be the most enduring. For 40 years he’s rarely appeared for an interview without conspicuously toting a glass (and sometimes two or three glasses) of a brown fluid. It’s widely assumed that this is some fiendish grog distilled in the hills of Kentucky, and doubtless it often is. But a well-placed source recently took the opportunity when Keith was out of the room to sip furtively from his host’s vase-sized tumbler. It contained iced tea.

There may be more right-on or pristinely hip rock stars, but the ‘Human Riff’ represents something that we all revere: the good egg. He’s fanatically loyal not only to his mum but also to his various exes, none of whom has a bad word to say about him. He wrote the haunting ballad ‘Ruby Tuesday’ for one former girlfriend, and frequently protests his love for Anita Pallenberg (his partner from 1967 to 1980) in print. Tom Keylock remembers that he snapped at his own wife once while on the phone at Redlands. ‘Keith overheard me and I got a bollocking — it was all about “she’s your lady” and “show some respect”. I admired him for that.’

In similar vein, Richards will sniff at Mick Jagger’s gladiatorial sex life. ‘He doesn’t treat women right,’ Keith has announced. When Jerry Hall was being humiliated by Sir Mick’s serial infidelities, Richards told Vanity Fair, ‘I hope the man comes to his senses. He should stop that now, the old black-book bit. It’s a bit much, a bit manic.’

On occasion, Keith and Mick have also aired that stigma of the artistic conscience, a ‘creative crisis’, most famously in the mid-Eighties when they nearly folded the Rolling Stones. Jagger accused Richards of seeing the Stones ‘very much as a conservative rock-and-roll band ...and as he gets older his ideas have become more conservative.’ Richards accused Jagger of pretending still to be 25. Sir Mick remains physically all over the shop, doggedly trawling the rock clubs of New York or Paris for the latest sounds. Keith only rarely bothers, and most of his recent songs are firmly anchored in the folk or classical tradition. He’s known to enjoy end-of-the-pier types such as George Formby, often unwinds to Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole, named one of his cars after Lena Horne, and thrills to choral evensong. At the very top of a desert-island disc list that he gave Pulse magazine in 1999, Keith chose Beethoven’s third symphony.

It’s been said that there’s a hard streak to Richards, an occasional coldness. And OK, no one would confuse him with the cherubic choirboy he once was. The man has dope convictions in three countries, after all. But he’s also a nostalgic and distinctly sentimental soul — a ‘diamond geezer’, says Keylock — who cheerfully honours his roots in traditional British showbiz. Keith loves dolling up and going to awards shows, for instance, and he is still friendly with the otherwise long-forgotten musicians who made up the British Invasion along with the Beatles and the Stones.

Richards married for the first and only time on his 40th birthday in 1983, and it probably saved his life. His bride was the 27-year-old Patti Hansen, a home-town girl from Staten Island, New York, and a devout Lutheran. His in-laws gave a startling interview in which they portrayed Keith as an ‘enthusiastic disciple of Christ’ and that he ‘embraced Christ as a way of life’. Under Patti’s influence, Richards cut back on drugs, attended church from time to time and even started a gentle exercise regime. ‘She’s a wonderful girl; I ain’t letting the bitch go!’ he confirmed in a speech at his wedding reception. Keith may have written ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ back when, but these days much of his life is spent with a woman who attends a weekly Bible study group and who won’t stand for swearing around the house.

At a time when other great British institutions are crumbling, the Stones and Keith in particular strike a reassuring note of continuity. They’ve already outlasted eight prime ministers. Spare a thought, on his 60th birthday, for this endearing figure — a ‘typically English herbert’, as he’s called himself — pottering around the Sussex countryside with his cats and dogs. As a friend and interviewer of Keith puts it, ‘People say, “Oh , he’s a junkie.” I always say he’s extremely friendly, the sort of guy you can have a laugh with about football or cricket. He has a human quality.’ A prince of darkness, but a prince nonetheless.

Christopher Sandford’s Keith Richards: Satisfaction is published by Headline (£17.99).