Media put skepticism aside for Richards' drug remark

He now says he was joking about snorting his father's ashes

April 05, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

While not as fevered as the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's passing, the claim this week by Keith Richards that he snorted some of his father's ashes "with a little bit of blow" stirred up a storm of news coverage, very little of it skeptical.

Major media organizations -- including The Sun, the BBC, Forbes.com and The Washington Post -- ran the story and quoted its source, the British weekly New Musical Express.

Representatives for the 63-year-old Rolling Stones guitarist rushed to douse the controversy by saying Richards had been joking.

"It is not true," Bernard Doherty, a spokesman for the band, told the Associated Press yesterday. "File under `April Fool's joke.'"

The music paper, however, asserted that the remark was "no quip, but came about after much thinking" by Richards during his interview with NME reporter Mark Beaumont.

"He didn't offer the information," Beaumont wrote on the NME site. "I had to ask him a couple of questions to get the information out of him. He didn't come straight out with that."

Later, Richards posted a statement on the Stones' Web site that blamed the media for the ruckus: "The complete story is lost in the usual slanting! The truth of the matter is that I planted a sturdy English Oak. I took the lid off the box of ashes and he is now growing oak trees and would love me for it!"

Richards maintained that he was "trying to say how tight" he was with his father, Bert, who died in 2002 at 84. The famously sybaritic guitarist, who suffered a concussion a year ago when he fell out of a tree in Fiji, wrote that he "wouldn't take cocaine at this point in my life unless I wished to commit suicide."

His retraction followed several frantic episodes of public backpedaling last year, most notably those of actors Michael Richards, Mel Gibson and Isaiah Washington, as well as U.S. Sen. George Allen, all of whom had spouted racist or bigoted slurs.

But Al Tompkins, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., noted that Richards' statement did not specifically retract his comment that he had snorted his father's ashes. Neither did it say he did not use cocaine at the time of his father's death -- only that he does not do so now.

Tompkins said the media's job "is to report," and that rather than agonizing about whether to run a correction of Richards' initial comments, "I would just explain what he said."

Kurt Loder, a former editor of Rolling Stone magazine, accepted Richards' explanation without question. In a posting on MTV.com, Loder wrote, "Clearly, this is one of the all-time great rock and roll stories. Unfortunately, it's not true. It seems to have been either a joke -- one that sailed right over the NME interviewer's head -- or a misunderstanding of Richards' famously hard-to-parse verbal style."

Loder wrote that none of the "horde of newspapers, wire services and TV and online outlets on both sides of the Atlantic" that ran the story "attempted to confirm the story" with Richards' camp.

Rory O'Connor, a former rock critic who co-founded media channel.org, was equally dismissive of Richards' initial claim, calling it "an obvious joke by a perpetually stoned rock-and-roller who fell on his coconut climbing after coconuts not too long ago."

O'Connor compared Richards' initial comment to John Lennon's assertion in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, a statement that drew outrage in the Bible Belt and for which Lennon later apologized.

In the NME interview, Richards seemed to be answering a question when he referred to inhaling his father's ashes.

"The strangest thing I've tried to snort? My father. I snorted my father," he said. "He was cremated and I couldn't resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow. My dad wouldn't have cared."

Richards also recounted his worst experience with drugs, when "someone put strychnine in my dope" in Switzerland.

"I was totally comatose, but I was totally awake. I could listen to everyone, and they were like, `he's dead, he's dead!' waving their fingers and pushing me about, and I was thinking, I'm not dead!"

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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