The beginning of the new semester has kept me from posting recently. Well, that and the excellent distraction provided by Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life. So much fun to read, and so much food for thought for someone who’s admittedly not the world’s biggest Stones fan.

One theme that emerges loud and clear is his cosmopolitanism. Raised as an adventurous but not particularly distinguished boy in suburban London whose iconic celebrity is thrust upon him by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, historically speaking, Keef enjoys the ride with eyes wide open. He’s “the stranger” ofGeorg Simmel’s 1908 essay, who “is not radically committed to the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group, and therefore approaches them with the specific attitude of ‘objectivity’… composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement.” As an anecdote from the Stones’ first US tour in 1964 illustrates:

Most towns, like white Nashville, for example, by ten o’clock were ghost towns. We were working with black guys, the Vibrations, Don Bradley, I think his name was. The most amazing act, they could do everything. They were doing somersaults while they were playing. “What are you going to do after the show?” This is already an invitation. So, get in the cab and we go across the tracks and it’s just starting to happen. There’s food going, everybody’s rocking and rolling, everybody’s having a good time, and it was such a contrast from the white side of town, it always sticks in my memory. You could hang there with ribs, drink, smoke. And big mamas, for some reason they always looked upon us as thin and frail people. So they started to mama us, which was all right with me. Shoved into the middle of two enormous breasts… “You need a rubdown, boy?” “OK, anything you say, mama.” Just the free-and-easiness of it. You wake up in a house full of black people who are being so incredibly kind to you, you can’t believe it. I mean, shit, I wish this happened at home. And this happened in every town. You wake up, where am I? And there’s a big mama there, and you’re in bed with her daughter, but you get breakfast in bed. [pp. 161-2]

If Keith goes everywhere with the Stones, at the same time he goes nowhere. He shows no particular connection to a particular place. Music, culture, friends, and family influence him deeply, but he doesn’t seem to carry a particular city in his head throughout his life.  True to the band’s name, Keith is the proverbial rolling stone that gathers no moss, the rootless cosmopolitan that enflamed Stalin’s fevered brain (or, in the case of Life, two-bit police across the western world). His roaming lifestyle resurfaced recently when this 1977 missive from William Burroughs to Brion Gysin showed up on the internet:

Of course, the influence of place needn’t be sentimental, the “hometown” of memory. (Indeed, among other things Life adds to the growing body of 20th-century literature that conveys what a miserable country post-WWII England could be, a place truly worth escaping.) Place can have a less visible, more practical effect on our consciousness, as urban sociologist Ian Michael Borer writes: “The ways that people make sense of the world they live in, once lived in, or hope to build are tied to the places where they practice their culture.”

From this perspective, at least one place does leave its stamp on Keith: the British art college. This is an institution that has intrigued me and so many other Americans, first, because it has no real U.S. counterpart; it isn’t (or at least wasn’t) the MFA-granting art college that American students apply to today. From what I can tell, the British art school thrived as a secondary educational destination for non-academic-minded British students from the post-WWII period through the 80s, when its curricula and its credential system was integrated into the conventional academia of university education. Instead, at 16 years old British kids like Keith could follow this third, less routinized path between traditional college and the “secondary modern” (an analogue to the American BOCES), presumably to gain skills in design and advertisement. In fact, most of the cultural training that art school students received occurred outside the formal classroom, as Keith attests:

I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t been expelled from Dartford [Tech] and sent to art college. There was a lot more music than art going on at Sidcup [Art College], or any of the other art colleges in south London that were turning out suburban beatniks—which is what I was learning to be… It was a pretty lax routine. You did your classes, finished your projects and went to the john, where there was this little hangout-cloakroom, where we sat around and played guitar. That was what really gave me the impetus to play, and at that age you pick up stuff at speed. There were loads of people playing guitar there. The art colleges produced some notable pickers in that period when rock and roll, UK-style, was getting under way. [pp. 67, 68-9]

The heyday of British art schools over roughly three decades coincided with the explosion of cultural production in Britain associated with “Swinging London,” among other things. And of course, it yielded too many British rock musicians to count, Keith Richards being possibly the first one of significant note. Here, maybe, is a formative setting for cultural practice and status attainment—an urbanism for the placeless, peripatetic British rock star.