Keith Richards / How he became everybody's favourite Rolling Stone
Keith Richards: how he became everybody's favourite Rolling Stone
“That’s all I got,” croaks Keith Richards, stumbling to an abrupt conclusion of light-finger acoustic blues, Crosseyed Heart. But clearly, that is not all. For here he is again with an album of the same name: another warm, swampy and deeply groovy concoction of rock, blues, country and soul, full of romantic tenderness and hard-earned wisdom, delivered in a spirit of pure vintage class.
An accompanying documentary, Under The Influence (exclusively available on Netflix), features Richards dispensing one-liners and whimsical anecdotes with a gruff whisper and chuckle, revealing nothing much except that he’s a happy old rocker. And when he runs out of things to say, he just lets his guitar do the talking.
Watching the old buccaneer in action, you have to wonder how did he become so universally loved? He has been hailed as the Human Riff and anointed the world’s most elegantly wasted human being, the bad-boy pin-up for junkie chic who still wears a lifetime of self-abuse in the lines of his heavily wrinkled face. Surely Richards should be nobody’s idea of a role model: self-indulgent, irresponsible, a star squandering his gifts on drugs and alcohol? Mick Jagger’s former partner, Jerry Hall, warned their children of the dangers of drugs by asking if they wanted to grow up to look like Uncle Keith. So how did such a reprobate survive five decades on the edge to become everybody’s favourite Rolling Stone?
Back when it all began, it was Jagger who was the epitome of sexy, rebellious cool. Richards was his scruffy sideman with a swaggering line in guitar riffs. Aficionados loved him but the dreamy Brian Jones was hailed as the band’s musical genius (not least by Jones himself). As the Sixties wound to a close, though, there was a noticeable shift in the Stones hierarchy. Richards was getting his look together: cigarette permanently attached to lower lip, jagged hair cascading around his head like an electrified mop, ragged gypsy clothing accessorised by skulls, rings and bandanas.
Dark-eyed and lean, even with his piratical flamboyance, Richards took on a very masculine presence next to Jagger’s camp theatricality. It corresponded with his growing maturity as a musician. Coinciding with Jones’s demise in the late Sixties, Richards took the reins for the Stones greatest run of work, from Beggars Banquet in 1968 to Goats Head Soup in 1973, reshaping blues for the modern age.
But at the same time, he was developing habits that have made him the living personification of all the most extravagant myths of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
“My life’s been dedicated to avoiding trouble,” Richards once told me, “so it’s pretty funny how much I’ve run into.” He seemed to have a curiously charmed existence, emerging unscathed from car wrecks, house fires and run-ins with the law. His arrest for heroin possession in Canada in 1977 briefly threatened the future of the Stones, although Richards evaded jail by playing a charity concert.
Whilst Richards spent much of the Seventies in a stoned stupor, it was Jagger who kept the Stones rolling, saving them from financial ruin and leading them on to become a lucrative global live entertainment brand. By the Eighties, Richards had pulled back from hard drugs but was a borderline alcoholic, whose musical powers were much diminished.
Attempts to resume creative leadership of the band led to a power struggle with Jagger that Richards refers to as “World War III” and has still not been satisfactorily resolved. The Glimmer Twins (as they once styled themselves) have barely been on civil terms for decades, with Jagger particularly wounded by injudicious comments in Richards best-selling 2010 autobiography, Life. It took the intervention of others to get the Stones together for their 50th anniversary shows in 2013, and it has taken almost three years of touring for them to reach a point where, according to Richards, they might actually record a new album.
“Don’t know where, don’t know when yet – but it’s definitely in the works.” In a strange way, Jagger has come to be regarded as something of an uptight dilettante because his healthy lifestyle, sense of organisation and discretion doesn’t chime with the band’s original rebellious spirit. It is Richards’s irreverent swagger that the baby boomer generation waxes nostalgic for, even if few would actively adopt his lifestyle. No longer a danger to himself or others, he’s become like a favorite naughty uncle, a harmless reminder of youthful freedoms we have forsaken.
He is celebrated as an unlikely survivor. Former lover Anita Pallenberg once said she thought he would die onstage. “If I had my way, I probably would,” Richards told me. “I can think of worse places to croak.” It helps that, rather than being damaged by hard living, Richards seems to have been enlarged by it. He has an affable, gregarious nature, oozing warmth. Possessed in photos of a death’s-head cool, in person he is smaller, looser, paunchier and softer than you might expect. His exaggerated gestures, drawling speech, laid-back demeanour and rambling anecdotal style are all signs of a system that never runs on empty. When he says he has given up “the hard stuff”, I think what he actually means is there’s a bit more mixer than alcohol in his drinks these days.
I’ll never forget the time I spent with him in LA in the Nineties, when he practically kidnapped me for two days of talking and drinking. His favourite tipple was vodka and fizzy orange, a foul concoction that tasted more of pop than alcohol. There were frequent visits to the bathroom from which he would return curiously refreshed.
He is possibly the least showy guitar hero ever to strap on an axe. You rarely hear him take a screaming solo.
What he likes is something more indefinable, non-standard tunings, unusual chord shapes and droning electric mantras, squeezing every possible nuance and variation out of a two-chord trick. He calls it “the feel”, and says “it’s got to have guts and that almost superhuman capability of projecting itself.”
Richards lights up when he talks about music. “The rock’n’roll is important,” he insists. “The sex and drugs is just something that happened to me along the way.” In an off-guard moment during our long weekend in LA, he told me something that struck true, delivered with a resigned sigh. “The image thing is like a ball and chain. There’s nobody like 'Keith Richards’ that would ever be alive. No way. He’s a one-dimensional thing. But you can’t buck the image. As long as I don’t have to be that guy all the time.”
My most abiding memory is driving through LA after a late-night video shoot, in a limo, gliding down a deserted freeway. There was champagne on ice, a bottle of 100 per cent proof vodka, a bunch of bananas in a fruit bowl and a Motown show on the radio. Richards smoked cigarettes and rhapsodised about every song that came on, summoning up memories and musical associations. When we reached the hotel, he didn’t want to stop.
“Just keep driving,” Keith demanded. “Let’s keep driving all night.”
Keith Richards’s album, Crosseyed Heart, is released today. The documentary 'Keith Richards: Under The Influence’ is available to view on Netflix.