Keith Richards, once the man who headed the Rolling Stone “Rock Stars Most Likely in the Next Year” list for an entire decade, and said he was ‘disappointed’ when he failed to make the list at all in 2017, is 78 years old today. In a 2016 interview with Anthony Mason, the most surprisingly alive man in rock and roll history was asked about all the music legends that had kicked the proverbial bucket in the last year. Keef wheezed into life, got a twinkle in his eye and slurred in that way he has done since at least the early ’70s, “Natural attrition!” He made himself laugh, the interviewer crease up, and in the most old man thing I have ever heard Keef say, echoing elderly relatives everywhere who always like to point out who is dead now, and commented “Leon Russell went yesterday”. I think Leon would be happy with the irreverent nod to his legend and art, even if it did leave me kinda squeamish. I suppose I will get there eventually, torturing the young ‘uns with tales from the crypt. There was a sense of sad acceptance in his demeanor, laughing in the face of a life well lived. Keith was never about death, his sound, his life, his survival, all point back to a huge and devoted love of life. Even his autobiography, ended up being entitled Life. When it comes down to it, for all of that Sympathy for the Devil, Richards is all about the wild, free, tumbling dice down the road, the rhythm guitar engine of construction of the beat and the groove for the last 59 years.
Keef’s trademark sound of prevarication, trying to find the right word or phrase, the sound of surviving years of falling out of coke-anut trees, Jim and Jack on the rocks, and the most well documented smack habit in rock and roll folklaw, that eternal almost preternatural, multivoiced, ‘mmmerrrrrr” that is as much Keef as his Chuck Berry infused riffs. Talking mortality with Keith seems like an exercise in futility: the man will outlive us all. All those jokes about the end of the world and Keith being the last man standing, might not be so funny after the smoke has cleared and Keith is standing there, a lost boy man-child and his trusty Telecaster, looking for the party. Keith never grew up, he just evolved and kept on changing. Surely it was Keef that Hunter S Thompson had in mind when he wrote, ““There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” From one ex junkie to another, how the fuck Keith, by his own admission in Life, managed to ‘only’ muscle (the needle into the muscle, giving a less intense rush, but allegedly better ‘legs’) his dope for his entire junk career, and never be tempted into mainlining (straight into the vein-brain), in fact culturing a deep and almost hurtful for the Mainliner, I will never fathom. The man has a will of pure stone, and the wasted upper arms to prove his point.
In such a long life in the public eye, Richards has outplayed and outlived the best of them. Keith Richards and his Rolling Stones brought the blues to the masses. They are the most successful blues band to have masqueraded as a pop rock band for their long and illustrious career. Keith’s sound is infused with Motown, Johnnie Johnson, Muddy Waters, and most of all Chuck Berry. He is England by way of Chicago rhythm and blues, and all the way down to the Delta for the deepest shade of blue of them all. Keef is his own creation, something apart from the actual “Mr. Richards” that lives his day to day life as a Yankee gentleman member of the musical royalty in Connecticut, with his wife of 38 years and his guitar and record collection. I would walk over hot coals to sit down with Keef and pick through his music collection with him. I just know he has some real treasure in there. Keith always was grounded in the roots of rhythm and blues, he knew his stuff back when he was a lad who accidentally became famous, and it shows in his songwriting and playing. Richards learnt from the best, and far from merely imitating the sound, grew it and nurtured it, packaged it up for the masses and publicized his heroes with more energy at 78 than I can muster despite being quite considerably younger.
I have never seen Richards ever be anything other than in respectful awe of the source of the sound and the Life he gets to live so well. He remains devoted to promoting those artists that were ignored because white America preferred to hear their blues from a bunch of white boys from England. Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, the Chuck Berry/Keith Richards rockumentary, that documents two 1986 concerts held to celebrate Chuck’s 60thh birthday, in retrospect looks like as much as a love letter to Berry from Richards, as it does Richards attempt to right to the wrong that is The Stones being so successful when the source of the fountain of success does not get rewarded nearly as handsomely. Keith was happy to give Berry the spotlight and watching them together was an almost painful experience, as Chuck was not nearly as enamored of Keith as Keith was of Chuck. That is taking nothing away from the Stones, their dedication to finding blues albums, being aware of the genius that had been brewing in the musical scene of black America since Robert Johnson first picked up a guitar and walked down to the crossroads to make a deal, and Dink sang her sad song of longing by the river only to have it appropriated by the likes of Dylan and Van Ronk, with only an approximation of her name remaining, or Elizabeth Cotten’s Shake Sugaree was downright stolen by the Grateful Dead. I wonder if she received a cent from them? I never found anything to say she did.
Fucking hippies. There is one thing Keef and the Boys are not and never were, and that is ‘hippy’, with the exception perhaps of Brian Jones, who was a great musician, but by all accounts not much of a human being. The tales of him beating Anita Pallenburg up, and getting beaten in return by the Teutonic blonde force of nature, before Keith rescued Anita and ran off with her to Morocco, made for a tough read. Keith once said that he was strongly influenced by Chuck Berry, and that is certainly the truth, Berry was as close to a hero as Keith ever had, I suspect; and that Brian Jones was Elmore James to the core. It was powerful alchemy, that ‘ancient form of weaving’, as Keith describes it, between the two traditions and their apprentice’s renderings of the sound, between their guitars and the strut of Berry and the groove of Elmore. They shook their money maker and the gold rolled in, and never stopped rolling.
That isn’t to say the Stones got it right all the time, as I have said before, Brown Sugar should never have been written, let alone performed in some horrific marathon of ‘just not getting why it is so offensive’, before finally being retired to the sound of much ree-ing by a bunch of racists and supremacists. Free speech has its consequences. Say what you want. Live with the consequences. I unreasonably blame the oversexed and out there Mick.
Keith was a legend even in his own band. Much as Syd Barrett inspired a whole Pink Floyd genius oeuvre, Keith didn’t have to die to be lionized by his own band. Let’s face it, as much as Mick is a loud mouth with pneumatic hips, it is Keith that is the cool behind the Stones. Mick was never cool, he was just confident. I am writing this whilst listening to my favorite Stones album, and the one I think that showcases the Richards’ sound the best, the much maligned and under-appreciated Exile on Main Street. This is not an album of egos, there is no Mick outshining and thrusting his way into the spotlight, Charlie and Keith are the stars of the show. The swish and stutter of Watt’s percussion, melting with Keith’s most authentic sounding rhythm and blues guitar work of his entire career. Exile has the coolest vocals Mick has ever sounded, his American southern drawl ringing an authentic note, instead of the unique almost parody he regularly falls into, that still works magnificently. Exile, with the band thrown out of their motherland by drugs charges and taxes, into a genteel exile in France, transforms the boys from English blues enthusiasts with their own pop rock twist on the genre, into stone cold bluesmen who come on like Mowtown on smack, and an edge whetted sharp on toothsome success and some time on the road. Exile is a grown up album, where they have fully moved on from Brian Jones, shrugged off his flower child turned bad boy psychedelic ramblings, and found their way back into ‘ripping the joint’ up with the coolest boogie woogie since Johnnie Johnson’s got those blue hands rocking that left hand shuffle and that right hand trip and wiggle.
Billy Boy Arnold and his rock and roll hard edged harmonica call and return sexy heavy blues, Eddie Taylor’s kicking ‘bad boy’ rhythm guitar and dirty longing lyrics (he is just a bad boy, a long long way from home…), Howling Wolf’s growling back door man history lessons about the blues and authenticity – the gatekeeper of the fountainhead of blues creativity, Little Walter’s Keys to the Highway beat legend lessons in how to manufacture a truly intelligent groove, Jimmy Reed’s percussive genius that always moves a song along and keeps that forwards propulsion and energy going, all got put into that ‘Voodoo Brew’ in Richard’s head, melted together, and transferred to his soul and hands, transforming him from a snotty kid from Dartford, UK, into a rhythm and blues legend in his own right.
Richards is authentic. Richards is real from his winklepicker boots, to the top of his pharmaceutically enhanced head, and the best hair in rock and roll. Keith studied the legends and somewhat accidentally and organically, I think, became one himself. Watching the evolution of Keef from shy guitarist foil to Mick’s insatiable need for love and adulation, into the coolest most together junkie since William Burroughs hit the streets running, all the way into grizzled old bluesman is one of the most satisfying spectacles in rock and roll.
The band might sing I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, but the rest of us listening fans (Richards is one of the few artists that I will drop the act and just flat out call myself a fan, as uncool and adoring as can be), can when Keef is swaggering onto the stage and holding the rest of the band together with his magnificent warp and weft weaving that gold thread through the songs, that keeps it all together. Richards famously wrote the most recognizable and meaty riff in rock history in his sleep. He wrote in Life:
“I wrote ‘Satisfaction’ in my sleep. I had no idea I’d written it, it’s only thank God for the little Philips cassette player. The miracle being that I looked at the cassette player that morning and I knew I’d put a brand-new tape in the previous night, and I saw it was the end.”
In his ‘sleep’, on the nod, in some rock and roll opiate reverie to rival Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s laudanum fueled Kubla Khan, I don’t think even Mary Whitehouse, rest her judgmental soul, would care about the ‘morality’ behind Keith’s genius. If Keith could create such treasure, I say give him his smack and sit back and listen to perfection. His weaving of that iconic motif with Brian Jones’ rhythm guitar, the shuffle of Watt’s percussion and Mick’s 60-minute-man-esque boasting of his sexual conquests and prowess forms a whole even greater than the sum of its parts, and that is the genius and glory of Keith Richards, the best popular white boy blues/rock/pop legend band guitarist of modern times.
Forget Peter Green, as great as he was, he was always heading up a covers tribute band more than he was forging new ground. Step aside Jimmy Page – way too much ‘fru-fru’ twiddly and overblown rock ego. Sit down Pete Townshend and cool the windmills, you might have the moves like Jagger, but you don’t have the depth or the soul of Richards, Old Slowhand can be as precise and dully technically perfect as he wants to be. Richards is the best of the absolute best. The cream of the crop is Keef: he remains the perfect leadman mixture of inspiration, swagger, strut, soul, talent and ability.
Keith is not just a superhuman constitution, a musical showman with deep roots in a culture and a country that he was not born into, a stunning guitarist, an integral part of the best and biggest band ever (The Beatles can go slink off into the corner of history reserved for the terminally clichéd and hokey), he is also apparently a tender hearted sot. His serial monogamist hopeless romanticism shines out from the pages of Life, he is a devoted one woman kinda guy, a Byronic switchblade wielding old skool romantic hero of the underground. If I ever want to feel like there is love and hope in the world, I put on a tender little recording of Keith Richards and Norah Jones, singing Love Hurts at a memorial show for his dear friend, the cosmic cowboy, Gram Parsons. Gram and Keith were inseparable, even to the point of allegedly making Jagger jealous of their closeness. These boys wrote together – rumors swirl around about Gram being involved in writing Wild Horses, hung out together, got high together and kicked in the same bed. In a sweet tribute to his friend, a cutely innocently flirtatious duet with Norah J, with Keef takes center stage in all his piratical glory, his tender hearted playfulness, his guitar wielding beauty and infinitely cool Keef-ness. I would give up listening to Marquee Moon forever more (Verlaine was clearly a Keef acolyte with all that weaving), to stand in Norah’s place! What a beautiful performance from a truly beautiful man, appreciating the mellow beauty of the song and his musical partner in crime.
Keef is a gentleman, a pirate, a rock guitar god, a bluesman and a constant source of pleasure, fun and inspiration.
Happy Birthday, Keef….and may there be many many more.
…and a small apology for appropriating the name “Richards” as a nom de plume..just paying homage to my hero….