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Recovery Is in the Eye of the Beholder – The Keith Richards Story

Keith Richards' life is the history of drug use in our time.

Keith Richards' memoir, Life, is - as many expected - a journey through the American-British history of drug use. Let's summarize: he took to psychedelics like the rest of the rock-and-roll world, and then inhaled with the in-crowd internationally and in Britain; he branched out to heroin and cocaine, leading to addiction; he quit heroin decades ago, but still smokes, drinks, and uses drugs. The message he offers isn't one endorsed by the Partnership or CASA or the 12 Steps.

Man, what a long, hard trip it's been. Let's identify the five main periods of Keith's drugs use:

1. The impressionable youth. Richards is a little older than the baby boomers - he was born in 1943, and grew up in post-war, post-bombed-out England. He didn't do drugs as a kid, nor did he drink excessively. When the Stones first came to America in the early sixties, Keith was barely out of his teens. The band was regarded as a white R&B or blues group, so that they often traveled with African-American musicians - whom Keith idolized - and who introduced him to pot and to uppers for road trip performances.

Lesson learned -1: Young people imitate people they admire, who are not usually the ones parents, schools, and politicians choose for them.

2. The jet setter. By the late 1960s, psychedelic drugs - and more - were everywhere, and Keith was a member of the international jet set - embodied for him by Anita Pallenberg (whom he stole from drugged and freaked-out band mate Brian Jones). He started regularly taking serious psychedelics, and became familiar with people (burned out hippies, English literary emigrees, society wannabes, rock & roll hangers on) who used every kind of drug available - leading him beyond LSD to heroin, cocaine, et al.

Lesson learned - 2: Richards disproves the idea that seeing other people strung out motivates you to be clean: he performed an intervention for his first live-in girlfriend when she turned to serious drugs before he did, then watched Brian Jones self-destruct (and die) - and yet Keith proceeded merrily on his way to consume ever-larger quantities of ever-more-serious substances.

3. The addict rock star. Of all the complexities in Richards' drug narrative, the biggest is - I'm afraid to say it myself, so let me quote Liz Phair in the NY Times:

Keith's drug habit progresses, but he moves into one of the most prolific writing periods of his career. He and Mick compose most of the songs for "Beggars Banquet," "Let It Bleed," "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street" while Keith is under the influence. Pulled by the poppy and pushed by cocaine, Keith acquires a taste for working unholy hours in the studio that damn near kill his colleagues.

It wasn't just heroin - Keith also used pharmaceuticals copiously. On the Stones' Bacchanalian 1972 tour, he traded women to their staff doctor for unlimited access to his medical bag, which Keith calls "smorgasbording." Along with the cocaine and tequila, he was completely out of control, at one point setting fire to their hotel bathroom, as well as "using guns too much."

Lesson learned -3: Productive people may use drugs - indeed, Richards used drugs to fuel his productivity, and then to bring him down when he needed to cool out - the way other people use psychiatric medications.

4. The family man and professional. There were accumulated drug problems. First, there were the neverending legal hassles. And there was the constant search for the stuff on the road. Plus, Keith - a man who never said no - was distressed that he was hooked. He was guilty taking his son on tour with him (Richards feels worse than his son says he should be about this trip). And, finally, there were darker moments - not only the death of user friends like Gram Parsons, but of his and Anita's (who shared Keith's drug tastes) two-month old son while Keith is away. But, more than anything, Keith became concerned when the serious drugs didn't work for the music any more.

Lesson learned - 4: You need reasons - a life, people you care for, a larger purpose - to get you to quit an addiction. Keith Richards had to quit heroin because it became incompatible with making music. Then he calmed down in general.

5. The old man. The cover photo to Life is of Keith Richards lighting a cigarette, so you know he still smokes, even though he has two impressionable daughters and lives in suburban Connecticut with his wife, Patti Hansen. Indeed, although he quit heroin thirty years ago, Keith has consumed quite a bit of alcohol and marijuana since then. He doesn't seem to be going for Recovery Man of the Year. But that's Keith for you - he follows no movement but his own. (Reminds me of when Marianne Faithfull - who developed her own heroin monkey hanging around with the boys - while later in life interviewing Ozzy Osbourne apologized for not being in recovery since she drank some wine.) Of course, you can never tell with Keith - he might be lying about using. In an interview with NY Times writer Janet Maslin, he asks if he can smoke, and then never even looks at the pack of cigarettes the whole time they're talking.

Lesson learned - 5. Recovery is in the eye of the beholder.