Gus & Me
The story behind Keith Richards’s new book for children
My grandfather Gus — God bless him — I owe so much of my love of music to him. I write him notes frequently and pin them up. “Thanks, Granddad.”
Theodore Augustus Dupree, the patriarch of this family, surrounded by women, lived near Seven Sisters Road, with seven daughters, at 13 Crossley Street, N7. And he’d say, “It’s not just the seven daughters, with the wife that makes eight.” His wife was Emma, my long-suffering grandmother, whose maiden name was Turner, and who was a very good piano player. Emma was really a step above Gus — very ladylike, spoke French. How he got his hands on her I don’t know. They met on a Ferris wheel at the agricultural fair in Islington. Gus was a looker, and he always had a gag; he could always laugh. He used that humor, that habit of laughing, to keep everything alive and going in dire times. Many of his generation were like that. Doris certainly inherited his insane sense of humor, as well as his musicality.
We’re supposed not to know where Gus came from. But then none
of us know where we come from — the pits of hell, maybe. Family rumor is that that elaborate name wasn’t his real name.
For some weird reason none of us ever bothered to find out, but there it is on the census form: Theodore Dupree, born in 1892, from a large family in Hackney, one of eleven children. His father is listed as “paper hanger,” born in Southwark. Dupree is a Huguenot name, and many of those came originally from the Channel Islands — Protestant refugees from France. Gus had left school at thirteen and trained and worked as a pastry cook around Islington and learned to play violin from one of his father’s friends in Camden Passage. He was an all-round musician. He had a dance band in the ’30s. He played saxophone then, but he claimed he got gassed in the First World War and couldn’t blow afterwards. But I don’t know. There are so many stories. Gus managed to cover himself in cobwebs and mists. Bert said he was in the catering detachment — from his trade as a pastry cook — and he wasn’t in the front line. He was just baking bread. And Bert said to me, “If he got gassed it was in his own oven.” But my aunt Marje, who knows everything and still lives as this is written, aged ninety-some- thing, says that Gus was called up in 1916 and was a sniper in WWI. She said that whenever he talked about the war he always had tears in his eyes. Didn’t want to kill anybody. He was wounded in the leg and shoulder either at Passchendaele or the Somme. When he couldn’t play the saxophone he took up the violin again and the guitar; his wound aggravated his bowing arm, and a tribunal awarded him ten shillings a week for the wounding. Gus was a close friend of Bobby Howes, who was a famous musical star of the 1930s. They were in the war together and they did a double act in the officers’ mess and cooked for them. So they had a better chance to feed themselves than the average soldier. So says Auntie Marjie.
By the 1950s he had a square dance band, Gus Dupree and His Boys, and used to do well playing the American air bases, playing hoedowns. He’d work in a factory in Islington in the day and play at night, getting up in a white-fronted shirt, a “dickey.” He played Jewish weddings and Masonic do’s, and he brought cakes back in his violin case; all my aunts remember that. He must have been very hard up — he never, for example, bought new clothes, only secondhand clothes and shoes.
Why was my grandmother long-suffering? Apart from being in various states of pregnancy for twenty-three years? Gus’s great delight was to play violin while Emma played piano. But during the war she caught him bonking an ARP warden in a blackout, caught him up to the usual. On the piano too. Even worse. And she never played piano for him again. That was the price. And she was very stubborn — in fact she was very unlike Gus, not attuned to his artist’s temperament. So he roped his daughters in, but it was “never quite the same, Keith,” he would tell me. “Never quite the same.” With the stories he told me, you’d think Emma was Arthur Rubinstein. “There was nothing like Emma. She could play,” he’d say. He turned it into a long-lost love, a yearning. Unfortunately that hadn’t been his only infidelity. There were lots of little rumpuses and walkouts. Gus was a ladies’ man and Emma just got fed up.
The fact is that Gus and his family were a very rare thing for those days — they were about as bohemian as you could get. Gus encouraged a kind of irreverence and nonconformity, but it was in the genes too.
One of my aunts was in repertory, into amateur dramatics. They were all artistically inclined in one way or another, depending on their circumstances.
Given the times we’re talking about, this was a very free family — very un-Victorian. Gus was the kind of guy that, when his daughters were growing up and they’d be called on by four or five of their boyfriends and their boyfriends would be sitting down on the sofa opposite the window and the girls would be sitting across from them, would go up to the john and unload a piece of string with a used rubber on it and dangle it in front of the boys, and the girls couldn’t see it. That was his sense of humor. And all the boys would be going red and cracking up, and the girls wouldn’t know what the hell for. Gus liked to make a little commotion. And Doris said how horrified her mother, Emma, was by the scandal that two of Gus’s sisters, Henrietta and Felicia, who lived together in Colebrook Row, were — she would say it in a whisper — “on the game.” Not all Doris’s sisters were like her — with such a spicy tongue, you might say. Some of them were upright and proper like Emma, but no one denied the fact of Henrietta and Felicia.
My earliest memories of Gus were the walks we took, the sorties we made, mostly I think for him to get out of the house of women. I was an excuse and so was the dog called Mr. Thompson Wooft.
Gus had never had a boy in the house, son or grandchild, until I came along, and I think this was a big moment, a big opportunity to go for walks and disappear. When Emma wanted him to do household chores, he invariably replied, “I’d love to, Em, but I’ve got a hole in my bum.” A nod and a wink and take the dog for a walk. And we’d go for miles and sometimes, it seemed, for days. Once on Primrose Hill we went to look at the stars, with Mr. Thompson, of course. “Don’t know if we can make it home tonight,” said Gus. So we slept under a tree.
“Let’s take the dog for a walk.” (That was the code for we’re moving.)
“Bring your mac.” “It’s not raining.” “Bring your mac.”
Gus once asked me (when I was about five or six years old) while out for a stroll:
“Have you got a penny on you?” “Yer, Gus.”
“See that kid on the corner?” “Yer, Gus.”
“Go give it to him.” “What, Gus?”
“Go on, he’s harder up than you.”
I give the penny. Gus gives me two back. The lesson stuck.
Gus never bored me. On New Cross station late at night in deep fog, Gus gave me my first dog end to smoke. “No one will see.” A familiar Gusism was to greet a friend with “Hello, don’t be a cunt all yer life.” The delivery so beautifully flat, so utterly familiar. I loved the man. A cuff round the head. “You never heard that.” “What, Gus?”
He would hum entire symphonies as we walked. Sometimes to Primrose Hill, Highgate or down Islington through the Archway, the Angel, every fucking where.
“Fancy a saveloy?” “Yer, Gus.”
“You can’t have one. We’re going to Lyons Corner House.” “Yer, Gus.”
“Don’t tell your grandmother.” “OK, Gus! What about the dog?” “He knows the chef.”
His warmth, his affection surrounded me, his humor kept me doubled up for large portions of the day. It was hard to find much that was funny in those days in London. But there was always MUSIC!
“Just pop in here. I’ve got to get some strings.” “OK, Gus.”
I didn’t say a lot; I listened. Him with his cheesecutter, me with my mac. Maybe from him I got the wanderlust. “If you’ve got seven daughters off the Seven Sisters Road and with the wife it makes eight, you get out and about.” He never drank that I can recall. But he must have done something. We never hit pubs. But he would disappear into the back rooms of shops quite frequently. I perused the merchandise with glowing eyes. He’d come out with the same.
“Let’s go. Got the dog?” “Yer, Gus.”
“Come along, Mr. Thompson.”
You had no idea where you’d end up. Little shops around the Angel and Islington, he’d just disappear into the back. “Just stay here a minute, son. Hold the dog.” And then he’d come out saying, “OK,” and we’d go on and end up in the West End in the workshops of the big music stores, like Ivor Mairants and HMV. He knew all the makers, the repair guys there. He’d sit me up on a shelf. There’d be these vats of glue and instruments hung up and strung up, guys in long brown coats, gluing, and then there’d be somebody at the end testing instruments; there’d be some music going on. And then there’d be these little harried men coming in from the orchestra pit, saying, “Have you got my violin?” I’d just sit up there with a cup of tea and a biscuit and the vats of glue going blub blub blub like a mini Yellowstone Park, and I was just fascinated. I never got bored.
Violins and guitars hung up on wires and going around on a conveyor belt, and all these guys fixing and making and refurbishing instruments. I see it back then as very alchemical, like Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I just fell in love with instruments.
Gus was leading me subtly into getting interested in playing, rather than shoving something into my hand and saying, “It goes like this.” The guitar was totally out of reach. It was something you looked at, thought about, but never got your hands on. I’ll never forget the guitar on top of his upright piano every time I’d go and visit, starting maybe from the age of five. I thought that was where the thing lived. I thought it was always there. And I just kept looking at it, and he didn’t say anything, and a few years later I was still looking at it. “Hey, when you get tall enough, you can have a go at it,” he said. I didn’t find out until after he was dead that he only brought that out and put it up there when he knew I was coming to visit. So I was being teased in a way. I think he studied me because he heard me singing. When songs came on the radio, we’d all start harmonizing; that’s just what we did. A load of singers.
I can’t remember when it was that he took the guitar down and said, “Here you go.” Maybe I was nine or ten, so I started pretty late.
A gut-string classical Spanish guitar, a sweet, lovely little lady. Although I didn’t know what the hell to do with it. The smell of it. Even now, to open a guitar case, when it’s an old wooden guitar, I could crawl in and close the lid. Gus wasn’t much of a guitar player himself, but he knew the basics. He showed me the first licks and chords, the major chord shapes, D and G and E. He said, “Play ‘Malagueña,’ you can play anything.” By the time he said, “I think you’re getting the hang of it,” I was pretty happy.
My six aunts, in no special order: Marje, Beatrice, Joanna, Elsie, Connie, Patty. Amazingly, at the time of writing, five of them are still alive. My favorite aunt was Joanna, who died in the 1980s of multiple sclerosis. She was my mate. She was an actress. A rush of glamour came into the room when Joanna arrived, black hair, wearing bangles and smelling of perfume. Especially when everything else was so drab in the early ’50s, Joanna would come in and it was as if the Ronettes had arrived. She used to do Chekhov and stuff like that at Highbury Theatre. She was also the only one that never married. She always had boyfriends. And she too, like all of us, was into music. We would harmonize together. Any song that came on the radio, we’d say, “Let’s try that.” I remember singing “When Will I Be Loved,” the Everly Brothers song, with her.