Exile on Dad Street

What Keith Richards can teach us about being parents.

A good father

Keith Richards probably isn’t the first person you’d turn to for parenting advice. (If he is, there are a few people with the County who’d like to have a word with you). Among the many harrowing tales in Life, Richards’ new memoir, are one childrearing disaster after another, beginning with the active heroin addition through which his wife Anita carries their first son Marlon to term. During the recording of Exile on Main Street at Richards’ Côte d’Azur estate, “going upstairs to put Marlon to bed” serves as shorthand for “disappearing to shoot up; return highly questionable.” While living in Jamaica, the Richards’ sketchy lifestyle leads to yet another drug bust; left behind by the police, four-year-old Marlon and two-year-old sister Angela are scooped up by the local Rastas, who care for them in the hills until Keith, out of harm’s way in London, can get Anita released. In 1975, as her addiction and behavior both spiral out of control, he decides that the safest place for seven-year-old Marlon is on tour with the Rolling Stones; only the following year does he finally set foot in a real school—with predictably disastrous results. Meanwhile, little Angela is shipped off to be raised by her paternal great aunt.
On the parenting scale, our Keef appears to fall somewhere between Otis the drunk and a pack of feral dogs. And yet …
Amid the chaos, we catch glimpses of a different nature as well. Before being recast by Mick to refer to Marianne Faithful, “Wild Horses” had begun as a Keith’s lullaby to the newborn Marlon, expressing his heartbreak at having to leave his side. The delicately beautiful “Angie” emerges in a post-withdrawal haze during the birth of his daughter, who would be too young in 1975 to share her brother’s adventures with the traveling circus. While on that tour, Richards puts Marlon to bed with Tintin and Asterix; only many years later does the boy realize that, unable to read French, his father had improvised entire book-length stories to match the pictures. The partnership he develops with Marlon during this time, if not as illustrious as the one with Mick, becomes still more functional and durable. “The more the shit hit the fan, the more I kept the boy with me,” he writes. “I’d never had a son before, so it was a great thing to watch him grow up, to say, I need your help, boy. So Marlon and I became a team.”
During the day, Marlon fends off groupies and hangers-on while dad sleeps; later in the afternoon, it falls on him to wake the guitarist in time for shows, being the only person Keith can be trusted not to shoot with the gun under his pillow. “I don’t remember too much bacchanal, really,” he recalls for dad’s book. “We shared a room with two beds. I’d wake him up and we’d order breakfast from room service. Ice cream for breakfast or cake.” As they drive back and forth across Europe, Marlon, map in hand, alerts his father as they draw near border crossings so he can get one last fix before ditching his stash. It’s also his job to nudge the driver in the event he nods off (not always successfully, as attested by the dent left one day by his nose in the Bentley’s dashboard).
Yes, Keith is far from the stereotypical modern dad. (That would be me, reading rock ‘n’ roll memoirs at Starbucks with the Volvo parked outside while the kids are in class with Carmelo the Science Fellow). “It was very difficult to be one of the Rolling Stones and take care of your kids at the same time,” he notes drily. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and the most criminally incompetent father can love his kids dearly even while putting their lives and well-being at risk on a regular basis. Just as Marlon gives Keith a tender refuge from the hard-hearted life of a rock star, Keith manages to shield his son from the worst of his world, and the world in general, until he’s old enough to make his own decisions (and return to England to complete his education with straight A’s.) Somehow both reach the 21st century more or less intact. I suspect neither would have made it without the other.
So what’s the moral of the story? “Don’t try this at home” goes without saying. For every Marlon Richards, there are far too many like Billy Burroughs, whose early alcoholic death broke the heart of his legendary outlaw father William S. “It’s better to be lucky than good” comes to mind, but that’s not particularly useful as words to live by. Maybe it’s just that, even when every other part of your life is spinning out of your control, or you’ve just escaped a close shave you’d be crazy to tell your partner about, or your kids pay the price for your own poor judgment (again)—even when “The men in the blue suits are downstairs,” as Marlon used to alert his dad—the bonds you form with your kids, and the moments you share, are yours alone.