Keith Richards is shooting heroin into his eyeballs and still touring… I’m getting mixed signals. I picture nuclear war and two things surviving: Keith and cockroaches. “Where did everybody go-o? I saw a bright light and thought we were on …” – Bill Hicks.
As with many things in life, I’m with Bill Hicks on this one: Keith Richards is the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll survivor. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and brushes with the law: he’s done it all and to flamboyantly spectacular excess over the years. Richards is, as described in a Guardian article earlier this year, quite simply
… a human shrine to bad behaviour; a living reminder there’s more to life than being healthy.
And now the man who probably would come through a nuclear holocaust alive, guitar and bottle of Jim Beam still in hand (of course), has finally written his autobiography, to be entitled simply Life. By any reckoning, that’s guaranteed to be some read, particularly if the typically outspoken quotes picked up on by some of today’s papers are representative of the published book as a whole.
It is in the nature of any great creative partnership that the creative partners fall out once in a while. Tension can be oxygen to creativity, and this was certainly the case for Richards and his songwriting partner Mick Jagger for many years. They still occasionally take half-hearted pot-shots at each other in interviews, but Richards is quoted today with a literal low blow aimed towards the Rolling Stones singer:
Marianne Faithfull had no fun with his tiny todger. I know he’s got an enormous pair of balls – but it doesn’t quite fill the gap.
Ouch! With friends like that, Sir Mick…
It’s not surprising, then, that Richards claims he hasn’t been into Jagger’s dressing room for twenty years:
I love the man dearly – I’m still his mate – but he makes it very difficult to be his friend
Something Jerry Hall might agree with, I suspect!
On the subject of drugs, Richards claims to have been clean for thirty years now – but that, unsurprisingly, no-one believes him. He may not take Class A’s any more, but he still appears interested in mind-expanding substances:
I’m just waiting for them to invent something more interesting. I’m all ready to road test it.
I dread to think… Perhaps Keith could get a job on the side working for the controversial ex-government drugs expert Professor David Nutt – when the Stones aren’t on yet another mammoth world tour, that is? It could work…
And, oddly enough, it was because of drugs (although not entirely in the way you might expect) that Keith didn’t realise that Johnny Depp, who later went on to base his Captain Jack Sparrow character on the guitar legend, was actually a regular visitor to the Richards’ home for a couple of years:
It took me two years before I realised who he was. He was just one of my son Marlon’s mates, hanging around the house playing guitar. I never ask Marlon’s mates who they are because, you know, ‘I’m a dope dealer’. Then one day I was at dinner and I’m like, ‘Woah, Scissorhands’!
Despite the fact that I’m absolutely gagging to read Life, all this sniping, scandal and excessive rock ‘n’ roll behaviour detracts from the simple, unadorned truth that Keith Richards is one of the greatest and most influential guitarists this country has ever produced. His style, although clearly influenced by his many guitar heroes, is unique and utterly distinctive; there is no-one else who plays like Keith. Seriously.
Don’t believe me? Listen to his distorted, dirty riffage as it weaves its way around Jagger’s vocal on Jumpin’ Jack Flash (“I was born in a crossfire hurricane…” – Jagger and Richards at their unadulterated best). Or check out the way his wobbly, echoing guitar line on Gimme Shelter just makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Or hear him play the blues with a distorted precision on Tumbling Dice (actually, just check out the whole of Exile On Main Street while you’re at it). You may just change your mind.
Keith will always be equal parts guitar legend and international rock culture icon – even now, in his 60s, he doesn’t just play rock ‘n’ roll. He lives it. And the very fact that he’s still with us and he’s still living it, even after a life quite unlike that of any other rock star, is little short of miraculous.
(Incidentally, if you’re interested in a different perspective on the Stones’ history, I would very much recommend you pick up a copy of Marianne Faithfull’s highly readable 1994 autobiography Faithfull, which offers an interesting and very honest take on her relationships (both business and otherwise) with various Stones and their management)