Growing up, my house was filled with music. All day long, my mother would put on her best records from the sixties, seventies and eighties, and crank up the volume while she was cleaning our living room or doing the laundry, singing along. I learned all about blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and I would ask my mom about all these cool people that were posing on the covers of those gatefold sleeves. And so in a way, The Rolling Stones came to feel like part of the family, regularly visiting our house through the speakers, adding this great soundtrack to my childhood along with the whine of the vacuum cleaner. As I grew older I started plucking the strings of my mom’s old pound shop guitar, figuring out my own way to play music. I refused to go see a teacher; I was sure Keith Richards could teach me all I needed to know.
Now, twenty years later, imagine my delight as I learn that Keith Richards has written a children’s story book. Looking back on his life at 71, the granddad of rock ‘n’ roll has put pen to paper to share the story of his own discovery of music as a child, in Gus & Me.
Richards takes us back to forties’ Dartford, to a house filled with music and cake, where his granddad Theodore Augustus Dupree, or Gus, lived. A one-time soldier, baker and bandleader, Gus now takes the time to enjoy long, winding walks with his adoring grandchild, to see all the marvels of the towns surrounding London. One day, young Keith went with Gus for a trip to the music shop to buy some new strings; an event that put him on the track that would be the rest of his life. Looking at his granddad’s old guitar with intense curiosity, the boy couldn’t wait until he would be big enough to reach it. And once Gus handed it to him, he never put it down again. And the rest is history.
Reading this simple story in his own words is an oddly humbling experience. First off, Richards’ trademark earnestness is undeniable and authentic even in writing. Secondly, with this book being so lovely adorned with hand-drawn illustrations by his daughter Theodora – based on old childhood snapshots – you really get the sense that you’re invited to look into a family history. This is strengthened by Richards’ note about wanting to write down this story for his own grandchildren, so they’ll know where he’s coming from. Touching, really.
My advice would be to get the version that includes the audio CD, which features the entire story narrated by Keith Richards himself. Reading along to his familiar smoky, velvety baritone adds so much character to what is already a very personal affair. On top of that, it features a short recording of Richards dinka-plinkin’ a few lines from Malagueña, a classic flamenco piece Richards learned from Gus, which plays an important part in the story. Simply wonderful.
Gus & Me is a wonderful piece of writing, which instantly captures Richards’ clear love of music, and extends a feeling of gratitude toward his granddad that is profoundly relatable and heart-warming. Theodora’s magical, star-spangled drawings turn her dad’s memories into something else, making the book feel like a Greater London fairytale – artfully blurring the line between biography and children’s fiction. It’s a great story for every music aficionado and a great tale to share with children. I’m sure I’ll have it lying around the next time my little nephew comes to visit. Anyway, I’ve already caught him plucking the strings of my guitar when he thought I wasn’t looking. I’m sure I’ll let him try out the thing one day – when he’s old enough.