Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

No confidence


Keith Richards, Life (2010)

There are several references to Canada throughout this book – not surprising from a member of a band that regularly tours the world, and has also made a habit of rehearsing in Toronto (for tax reasons, apparently).

Rather than cataloguing all those, I’m going to focus on the most interesting reference to Canada: the section that deals with Richards’ arrest for drug trafficking in Toronto in 1977.

The band was waiting for me in Toronto early in 1977. I put off going for many days. They sent me telegrams: “Where are you?” We had a gig at the El Mocambo, which would provide more tracks for our Love You Live album. We needed some days of rehearsal.  (391)

That reference to the El Mocambo will have an undeniable frisson for Torontonians of a certain age.

But finally we [Richards and Anita Pallenberg] flew there [Toronto] on February 24. The gigs – two nights at the club – were scheduled for ten days later. I took a hit on the airplane and somehow the spoon ended up in Anita’s pocket. They found nothing on me at the airport, but they found the spoon on Anita and busted her.  (391)

It has nothing to do with Canada, but I love that “somehow”; how did the spoon end up in poor Anita’s pocket?

They [the Canadian police] went to great effort to prepare the big bust of me in the Harbour Castle Hotel…. Alan Dunn, the longest-serving Stones man, the logistics and transport supremo, discovered later that the regular personnel who worked in the hotel suddenly found themselves working alongside many extra people, who had been hired mostly as telephone and television engineers. The police were setting it up: massive resources against one guitar player.  (391)

There’s something amusing about this picture of the Canadian police – they’re portrayed like small-town cops trembling with excitement at their chance to catch a big-time, big-city celebrity. It’s hard to know how much of this is true and how much is just Richards’ grandiosity.

So the police came straight to the room. Marlon [Richards’ son] would not normally have let in any policemen, but they were dressed as waiters. They couldn’t wake me up. By law you have to be conscious to be arrested. (391)

Well there’s an interesting little nugget of information – did you know you had to be conscious to be arrested? I didn’t. It makes sense when you think about it, since they have to advise you of your rights, and if you’re not conscious you obviously can’t take in that information; I suppose the truth is I’d never really thought about it. The wages of a relatively sheltered life.

It took them forty-five minutes – I’d been up for five days and I’d had a heavy-duty shot and I was out. This was my last rehearsal day, and I’d been asleep for about two hours. My memory of it is waking up and them going slap slap, two Mounties dragging me about the room slapping me. Trying to get me “conscious.” Bang bang bang bang bang. Who are you? What’s your name? Do you know where you are and why we’re here? “My name’s Keith Richards, and I’m in the Harbour Hotel. What you’re doing here I have no idea.”  (391-92)

Ah, those bungling Mounties – no match for the insouciant Richards wit!

Really it’s not a particularly appealing image of our red-coated, brass-buttoned national police force, dragging a drug-addled rock star around his hotel room and slapping him to try to wake him up. I doubt they put that on the recruitment posters.

Meanwhile they’d found my stash. And it was about an ounce. Quite a lot. No more than a man needs. I mean, it wouldn’t feed the city. But obviously they knew their shit, like I knew my shit, and it was clearly not the Canada smack. It had come from England. I’d put it in the flight case.  (392)

It’s encouraging at least to be told the Mounties “knew their shit” – this is the first real indication that they’re not a backwoods version of the Keystone Kops. But it doesn’t last.

So they arrest me, take me to this Mountie police station, and it’s really not my time of day.  (392)

The Richards wit again.

…because of the amount they found, they decided to charge me with trafficking, which is an automatic jail sentence for a very long time, in Canada.  (392)

Oh, they send you to jail for drug trafficking in Canada? How positively medieval.

I said, OK, fine. Give me a gram back. “Oh, we can’t do that.” I said, so what are you going to do now? You know I need it and that I’m going to have to get it. What are you going to do? Follow me and bust me again? Is that your game? How are you going to play this? Give me some back till I figure this out. “Oh no, no.”  (392)

Here Richards comes across as the practical man stymied by the prissy, almost school-marmish attitude of the Mounties, who refuse to give him back enough of his heroin to get him through.

But all of this is relatively minor compared to what follows. Any reader who knows anything about Keith Richards would expect him to be conversant in matters of narcotics and dealing with the police, but we now enter into subject area where his expertise may come as a bit more of a surprise: political philosophy:

Yet again someone was seriously after my ass, and the situation was further complicated by Margaret Trudeau, the wife of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, moving into the hotel as a Stones appendage, offering a double-big tabloid story. The prime minister’s young wife with the Stones, and you throw in drugs, you’re looking at a three-month run. In the end it may have played in my favor, but at the time it was the worst combination of circumstances. Margaret Trudeau was twenty-two and Trudeau was fifty-one when they got married. It was a bit like Sinatra and Mia Farrow – the power and the flower child. And now Trudeau’s bride – and this was exactly their sixth wedding anniversary – was seen walking in our corridors in a bathrobe. So then the story was that she had left him. She had, in fact, moved into the room next to Ronnie, and they were hitting it off really well, or, as Ronnie put it so nicely in his memoirs, “We shared something special for that short time.” She flew to New York to escape the publicity, but Mick flew to New York as well, so it was assumed they too were an item. Worse and worse. She was a groupie, that’s all she was, pure and simple. Nothing wrong with that. But you shouldn’t be a prime minister’s wife if you want to be a groupie.  (392-3)

Groupies shouldn’t be married to prime ministers – talk about incisive commentary. (And please note the restraint I’m exercising in avoiding any obvious “Stones appendage” jokes.)

Actually, I found this part of the book exciting: there was Canada, right at the heart of a celebrity scandal. The wife of our prime minister was living in a hotel with the most famous rock band on the planet. Canada was, for a brief, shining moment, cool. Of course we didn’t know it at the time; we were probably embarrassed – or, more likely, horrified.

At another hearing they added a charge of cocaine possession and revoked bail…. I would have loved to have dared them to put me in jail. It was all bullshit. They didn’t have the balls. They weren’t feeling confident.  (393)

Well, there it is: “They didn’t have the balls. They weren’t feeling confident.” Richards is referring to the Canadian authorities, but could any two sentences more succinctly sum up the way the rest of the world views Canada? Our whole national identity seems to be captured there. We’re not confident. We don’t have the balls.

Things brighten a little bit from there:

It was Stu [Ian Stewart] who suggested that I should use the waiting time to put down some tracks of my own – put something down to remember the man by. He hired a studio, a beautiful piano and a microphone. The result has been doing the circuit for a while – KR’s Toronto Bootleg. We just did all the country songs … but there was a certain poignancy because at that moment things looked a bit grim.  (393-4)

So that’s the prize we got out of it – Toronto is forever associated with a Keith Richards bootleg recording. Here’s a sample:

Richards managed to get out of Canada and into the U.S., supposedly into a drug treatment program, and later had the charges reduced, plead guilty and got a suspended sentence; here are the details for those who really want to know.

And here’s a picture of him in the suit he wore for his trial:


You probably can’t read the caption, but it says:

Suit bought with difficulty on a Sunday for my trial in Toronto, October, 1978.

This will no doubt bring up fond memories for all those who recall Toronto’s “Sunday shopping” battles of a few decades ago. Richards is clearly tweaking Toronto as a sleepy, pious city so trapped in a small-town mentality that you can’t even shop on the Sabbath. Whether this look flatters him, or was likely to win over a Toronto courtroom, I’ll leave for others to judge.

In the end, Richards seems to have been left with a positive view of Canada: his praise of Toronto in this video starts at around the 30-second mark:

Interestingly, he remarks that Toronto has always “been good to us,” i.e. to the Rolling Stones, and then goes on to say, “Especially to me. I mean, they got me out of jail.” An odd way of looking at things; since Keith was arrested and tried in Toronto, he might say it was Toronto that put him in jail.

But, ever the optimist, he sees it the other way round.


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  1. Pingback: Montreal Cool, Toronto Uncool (Yawn) | Wow - Canada!

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