Keith Richards has been the subject of many lurid rumors; most of them turn out to be understatements. But a few days ago the website Worst Previews ran the oddest bit of gossip: that the Disney Company was considering axing the Rolling Stones guitarist from playing Captain Teague in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film because Richards, in his new autobiography Life, reveals that he has used drugs. He what? Somebody call the cops and arrest this man! (Sorry, that's been done, over and over.) And Disney, don't think of replacing Richards with Elton John: we've heard he's gay. Or with Mick Jagger: why, the man has slept with women to whom he wasn't married.
Life does contain enough drug tales to fill Thomas de Quincy's Confessions of an English Opium Eater from Richards' description of a 1972 bust in Arkansas, where dope was concealed not just in the folds of his cap but also in his car's side panels, through his helpful delineation of barbiturates ("the sensible drugs in the world are the pure ones"), to his awed evocation of LSD: "There's not much you can say about acid except, God, what a trip!" Richards declares that he never succumbed to the rock-star stereotype of early death because he used only "the finest, finest cocaine and the purest, purest heroin." He is at pains, though, to deny the story that he snorted his late father Bert's ashes with a line of cocaine. Here's the truth: "And as I took the lid off the box, a fine spray of his ashes blew out onto the table. I couldn't just brush him off, so I wiped my finger over it and snorted the residue. Ashes to ashes, father to son."
For all the groupies who pressed their attentions on the rock star, heroin was often his true muse. "They don't call it heroin for nothing. It's a seductress." In the '70s, during Richards' deepest addiction, his need for hypodermics inspired some truly creative criminality: "When I traveled [to the U.S.] I would wear a hat and use a needle to fix a little feather to the hatband, so it was just a hat pin." But where to find a clean syringe in New York City? "I'd go down to FAO Schwarz, the toy shop right across Fifth Avenue from the Plaza. And if you went to the third floor, you could buy a doctor and nurse play set, a little plastic box with a red cross on it. That had the barrel and the syringe that fitted the needle that I'd brought. I'd go round, 'I'll have three teddy bears, I'll have that remote-control car, oh, and give me two doctor and nurse kits!' "
The Evel Knievel of illicit substances, Richards wears his 66 years with a jaunty gauntness. Sinewy and haggard, he could be the poster child for a "This is your face on drugs" campaign, or he might just be a grizzled coal miner who was never allowed to come up for daylight. The grimacing-skull ring he wears on the fourth finger of his right hand could be a self-portrait; sometimes, throughout whole decades, it's looked more lifelike than he has. Even playing live, thrumming the intro to "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" that came to him in his sleep 45 years ago, he can seem the coolest extra in Dawn of the Dead. He still plays up a storm onstage including when a lump of white phosphorous from a fireworks display burned through his finger and he kept on performing ("I'm watching white bone for the next two hours") yet he leaves not just the strutting showmanship but most of the talking to Jagger. Have the drugs left him incommunicado?