It’s hard to imagine that the healthy crop of children’s books by celebrities have succeeded because pre-schoolers are clamoring for stories, poems, or alphabet books penned by the likes of Jenna Bush, Madonna, John Travolta, Amy Carter, Julie Andrews, Bill Cosby, Katie Couric, Sarah the Duchess of York, Queen Latifah, Jerry Seinfeld, Brooke Shields, Will Smith, or Steve Martin (who, incidentally, does win the prize for best title: The Alphabet From A to Y With Bonus Letter Z!).
When they were small, my children never showed any interest in books of this sort. For that matter, they never seemed too fond of anything adults liked in the way of books, movies, or music. (My daughter did go through a strange phase when she was around 2 and fell in love with Lawrence of Arabia, demanding at least once a day to watch “Desert.”) The big exceptions were Beatles songs. I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t like The Beatles. But even though there is a kids’ book of Yellow Submarine, why bother with that if you can get your hands on the movie or even just the song?
I don’t think children’s books by celebrities proliferate because kids demand them so much as the names on the covers appeal to the people who buy children’s books: mom and dad and especially grandma and grandpa. (“I remember when you had to walk five miles through the snow to watch The Cosby Show on the neighbors’ TV.”)
So perhaps it was inevitable that Keith Richards would publish a children’s book. He is, after all, the ultimate boomer poster boy—still a working rock and roller at 70, still smoking and drinking—but lean and active—and with more lives than a cat. And lately he’s even sort of cuddly looking. He could pass for character in a children’s book, bearing as he does a startling resemblance to Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter. Indeed, there are whole generations who only know him in his slurry buccaneer phase from Pirates of the Caribbean. My daughter, now grown, was astonished when she recently stumbled across pictures of mid-’60s Keith: “My god, he was handsome,” she said. “Now he looks he was run over by an eyeliner truck!”
Richards’ book, Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar, lifts a wonderful section from Richards’ autobiography, Life. It’s been cleaned up a bit, omitting the bits about Gus’ amorous escapades and his fractious relationship with his wife. But it keeps the best part—the best part of the whole autobiography, for my money—the part about little Keith’s relationship with his grandfather and their adventures together.
Gus & Me kicks off with a killer sentence: “Theodore Augustus Dupree lived with seven daughters near the Seven Sisters Road, in a house that was filled with instruments and cake.” If I was 4 or 5 and someone was reading that story to me, I’d want them to keep going, if only to find out more about that cake.
Gus Dupree had been a “soldier, a baker, and the leader of a dance band,” and his house contained a piano, a violin, a saxophone, and a guitar. “There was nothing like visiting Gus,” Richards writes. “The closer to his house I’d get, the bigger my smile would grow. By the time I landed on his doorstep, I was all teeth.”
Before long, it was the instruments, not the cake, that lured Keith. On long walks together, he’d listen while Gus whistled tunes, marches, “whole symphonies.” Gus and Keith tramped for miles, once even sleeping under the stars. And then came the day when they walked into the London workshop of a musical instrument emporium. “And right then, right there,” Keith says, “I fell in love with instruments.”
The grail in this story is the guitar that Gus kept on top of his piano, too high for Keith to reach. “When you’re tall enough, you can have a go,” his grandfather promised. It was the beginning of a passion, and knowing how this story is ultimately going to end doesn’t spoil it in the least. Indeed, knowing or not knowing who Keith Richards is doesn’t matter. What counts here is the love between an old man and a boy and their shared passion. Richards nails that friendship in language so simple and true that any child could understand it.
Gus & Me is ably illustrated by Richards’ daughter Theodora, whose loose ink-and-wash style is sort of the artistic equivalent of her father’s trademark open tuning. Both of them make something look easy even when it isn’t.
I’m cynical enough that when I first heard about this book, I winced. I was appalled at the idea of another rich rock star—especially a hero of mine—slapping his name on a kids’ book to make a buck he surely doesn’t need. In retrospect, I needn’t have worried. This is a real book with a real story, ably told and ably illustrated. If it has a fault, it’s that it’s not long enough. Put another way, like every great song Richards has ever written, and he’s written more than his share, it left me hungry for more.
Write another one, Keith.