Second Act

10 Surprising Facts About Keith Richards

Okay, so you thought you knew everything about Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones’ rhythm guitarist, whose skeletal body, Medusa-like coiffure and topographic map of a face are as iconic as the jangly chords he plays on that signature Fender Telecaster.

After all, he’s one of the most fabled figures in rock and roll, not just because of his innovative, influential guitar technique, but also because of a lifestyle so decadent that the dictionary listing for the word dissipated ought to have his picture next to it. He’s so famously flamboyant that Johnny Depp used him as inspiration for his Captain Jack Sparrow character in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies -- an homage that Richards repaid by playing Sparrow’s father in the most recent film.

Nevertheless, you may be in for a few surprises about the dark half of the Glimmer Twins, as he and bandmate Mick Jagger dubbed themselves for songwriting and producing credits. Richards, 66, has a newly published memoir, Keith Richards: A Life , co-authored by James Fox, that already is No. 1 among autobiographies on It’s not only a strikingly candid depiction of the agony and ecstasy of rock superstardom, but also chock full of tidbits that even the most rabid Stones fan might find revelatory. Here’s a sample:

1. While on tour with the Stones, Richards says he once was arrested at gunpoint in Arkansas in 1975, in a van containing a cornucopia of controlled substances -- “all you had to do was pop the panels, and there were plastic bags full of coke and grass, peyote and mescaline.” Somehow, the police missed all of it, and a local judge was persuaded to let Richards and his companions go free after confiscating the guitarist’s hunting knife and having a picture taken with him.

2. Richards recalls that on average, he slept only two nights a week for many years. “This means that I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes,” he calculates.

3. The tough neighborhood where he grew up also was the onetime location of the City of London Lunatic Asylum, where Jack the Ripper suspect Jacob Levy was once confined.

4. Richards says he started listening to music at age 3. Since the Wiggles and Raffi hadn’t yet been born, his favorites as a preschooler were Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Big Bill Broonzy and Louis Armstrong.

5. As a youth, Richards belonged for a time to the Boy Scouts. “It was mainly a chance to swagger around with a knife on your belt,” he explains. Unfortunately, “you didn’t get the knife until you got a few badges.”

6. “For ages,” he didn’t know that Jerry Lee Lewis, whose music he admired, was white, because British versions of American records usually didn’t feature photographs of the performers.

7. As a struggling young musician, he shared a flat with Jagger and Brian Jones. They rigged up an improvised recording studio in the bathroom largely because when the toilet was flushed after a performance, it sounded to them like applause.

8. In the early days of playing small nightclubs, Jagger particularly impressed Richards with his ability to play the maracas. “He played four of them at once while he sang,” Richards recalls. “It’s a long time since I reminded him about the maracas. He was brilliant.”

9. While awaiting trial on narcotics charges in 1967, he says he took a road trip from London to Morocco (via ferry). He left town in a custom Bentley that he dubbed “Blue Lena,” after singer Lena Horne, that had a secret compartment for hiding drugs.

10. The studio recordings of “Street Fighting Man” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” don’t have any electric guitar in them. Instead, Richards created the sound by putting down successive layers of acoustic guitar filtered though a cheap cassette tape player, a technique he’d developed for recording in crummy motels without disturbing the other guests.

BTW, here's a great interview with Richards about the book by The New York Times'  Janet Maslin.