Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bad Boy Bios

Life, the autobiography of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, reached bookstores almost simultaneously with Decision Points, the memoirs of George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States. Richards, two years older than Bush, has written a memoir almost 100 pages longer (564 pages, excluding the “About the Author” page) that gives readers an almost exhaustive account of his days since birth, but dwells on the nights in whose dark shadows most of his waking hours were spent. “Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten any of it,” he scrawled in cursive on the front jacket flap, right above his indecipherable signature. In his introduction, Bush says “I decided not to write an exhaustive account of my life or presidency. Instead I have told the story of my time in the White House by focusing on the most important part of the job: making decisions.”

Those of us who have read any of the unauthorized biographies of Bush 43 might be tempted to wonder if his story, had he decided to write that “exhaustive account” that Richards favors, might bear more than a striking resemblance to the life of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

“I have a habitual personality,” he tells us as a way to explain his nine year cigarette habit, broken only by switching to snuff which he quit by turning to chewing tobacco before finally settling for cigars. Bush’s biggest habit, however, was drink. “Can you remember the last day you didn’t have a drink?” Bush recalls wife Laura asking him. On Mondays it was a “few beers with the guys,” on Tuesdays it was Benedictine and brandy after dinner, on Wednesday “I’d have a couple of bourbon and Sevens after I put Barbara and Jenna to bed,” while Thursday and Friday were once more devoted to drinking beer. On Saturday night, there was more beer, as well as martinis and more B&Bs (Benedictine and brandy).

Bush makes a brief mention of the incident in which he drunkenly drove over a neighbor’s trash can which led to an angry confrontation with his father, but Oliver Stone made more of the encounter in his film, W, than Bush does. On Labor Day 1976, Australian tennis star John Newcombe “introduced me to the Aussie tradition of drinking beer with no hands. You put your teeth on the edge of the mug and tilt your head back, and the beer goes down your throat. We had a great old time, until the drive home.” Police saw Bush driving “about ten miles an hour” with “two wheels on the shoulder.” Bush pleaded guilty to DUI and paid a $150 fine.

Bush doesn’t dwell on his moral failings because, as a former president, he represents law and order, even if he has been lax in adhering to either in his private or public life. Richards is a rock and roll star, and, it could be argued, an artist. In detailing his misadventures with drugs and alcohol (mainly drugs), there’s no need for “spin.” He’s not running for office. As Bob Dylan said, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Richards also had a run in with police following a mishap with a motor vehicle. In 1969, in a period when the Stones were working on their Let It Bleed album, “I turned over the Mercedes with Anita (Pallenberg) in it when she was seven months pregnant with Marlon (their son).” After a visit to the hospital, Richards was questioned by police. “They suspected drugs,” he writes. “Of course, there were drugs involved.” Drugs are in his system throughout many pages of Life, and not just alcohol (Jack Daniels being his drink of choice, as it was for Frank Sinatra), but heavy duty substances like heroin and cocaine.

Bush beat his demons through prayer, or so he says. “Faith showed me a way out. I knew I could count on the grace of God to help me change . . . Prayer was the nourishment that sustained me.” Apparently, prayer was not an option for Richards. Growing up in Dartford, England, “the church, organized religion, was something to be avoided. Nobody minded what Christ said, nobody said there wasn’t a God or anything like that, but stay away from organizations.” Though continuing to indulge in other drugs, Richards got off heroin shortly after making headlines in Toronto where he was charged with drug trafficking for entering Canada with an ounce of heroin in his possession. He got clean with the help of a doctor who treated him with electrodes “attached to your ear (which) released endorphins, which, theoretically, cancelled the pain.” Even if prayer didn’t enter into it, the Lord was present through the doctor’s family, who, according to Marlon Richards, were “right-wing Christian American” with a “white-picket fence and skateboards, and I started going to an American school where you had to say prayers every day. That was really shocking.”

Shortly after 9/11, which was to the Bush presidency what the albums Beggar’s Banquet through Goat’s Head Soup were to the Stones (“backbone stuff,” says Richards), Bush passed out in his study after he supposedly choked on a pretzel. Sadly, Bush the author didn’t choose to elaborate on that incident in his book. It might have been a nice companion piece to Richards’ account of how he fell off a ladder in his library, puncturing a lung. Some people doubted Bush’s pretzel story, convinced something more ominous led to his blackout, and Richards also had to deal with a skeptical public. “Nobody believes that I was looking for a book on anatomy by Leonardo da Vinci,” he writes. Then there was the infamous fall from a palm tree while trying to pick a coconut. Well, that’s what the media reported. Richards corrects that in his bio. “Forget any palm tree. This was some gnarled low tree that was basically a horizontal branch.” It was a more serious accident than believed at the time, and it required brain surgery. He now has a steel plate in his head.

They move in different circles, or so you’d think, but George W. Bush and Keith Richards know some of the same people. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first foreign leader Bush invited to Camp David. “The more time we spent together, the more I respected Tony,” Bush writes. After his fall from that tree, Richards received a letter from Blair that opened with “Dear Keith, you’ve always been one of my heroes. . . “ Bill Clinton, Bush’s immediate predecessor in the White House, also sent a get well note, and don’t forget he took to the stage of the Beacon Theater in New York to praise the Rolling Stones during a performance captured on film by Martin Scorsese. Bush and Clinton are now warm buddies, always quick to praise each other.

Bush and Richards are bad boys, one reformed (or so Bush wants us to think), and the other as unrepentant as he is unapologetic. “I can rest on my laurels,” Richards writes just before concluding his autobiography. “I’ve stirred up enough crap in my time and I’ll have to live with it and see how somebody else deals with it.” Bush stirred up enough crap in his time, too, from phony wars to banker bailouts, and the United States will be dealing with it for decades to come. At least Richards has given us some great music.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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