For someone who was in the Top Ten Rock Stars Most Likely To Die for ten straight years, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones shows remarkable resilience, considering his rock-star lifestyle.
The music magazine New Musical Express (NME) put Keith Richards (or “Keef”) on this list way back in 1973. They finally removed his name when, after ten years, the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist showed no signs of slowing down, either in his music, or in his work-hard-live-hard way of life.
1973 is forty years ago; it’s 2013, and he’s still about, and had just finished a 50th year anniversary (!) tour with his band, The Rolling Stones—arguably the greatest rock and roll band there is today.
Keith Richards may be among rock and roll’s greatest guitarists, and the undisputed King of the Guitar Riffs, but he (and the rest of his band) did not start out at the top.
In his memoir Life (written in collaboration with James Fox, published 2010), Keith Richards recounts that he started out as a blues fan, trying to emulate the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, and other old time blues legends. The Stones were among the first true “rock stars” (with all that title implies), but they also put in a lot of hard work to hone their skills, scrounging around for what gigs they could find, and to learn, learn, and learn some more. Talent and desire helped Keith Richards get started, but hard work carried him the rest of the way—along with all the drugs and alcohol he can ingest. Which was the reason why he was in that list, for ten years—apparently, the amount of drugs and alcohol that passed through his system was enough to kill any other mortal; but of course, Keith Richards is not an ordinary mortal.
|Keith Richards (2006)|
When the Stones get to tour in the USA (their first, in 1964), and get to meet their idols, Keith Richards have this to say:
“We’d been playing this music, and it had all been very respectful, but then we were actually there sniffing it. You want to be a blues player, the next minute you fucking well are and you’re stuck right amongst them, and there’s Muddy Waters standing next to you. It happens so fast that you really can’t register all of the impressions that are coming at you. It comes later on, the flashbacks, because it’s all so much. It’s one thing to play a Muddy Waters song. It’s another thing to play with him.”
The Stones’ music is deeply rooted in the blues. The band was initially formed by the members’ mutual passion for the blues in its purest and rawest form. Keith Richards lived and breathed the blues; he listened to every blues record he could find, him and Mick Jagger, until he absorbed their mighty teachings. Adding his own, he created something new and wondrous. This is what makes the Stones’ music distinct—Keith’s guitar riffs, along with Mick Jaggers’ vocals.
Keith Richards in his early years tried to emulate the playing style of one his blues heroes, Jimmy Reed. His description of how he tried to emulate his hero sounds very much like hard work:
"But to dissect how he played, Jesus. It took me years to find out how he actually played the 5 chord, in the key of E—the B chord, the last of the three chords before you go home, the resolver in a twelve-bar blues—the dominant chord, as it’s called. When he gets to it, Jimmy Reed produces a haunting refrain, a melancholy dissonance. Even for non–guitar players, it’s worth trying to describe what he does. At the 5 chord, instead of making the conventional barre chord, the B7th, which requires a little effort with the left hand, he wouldn’t bother with the B at all. He’d leave the open A note ringing and just slide a finger up the D string to a 7th. And there’s the haunting note, resonating against the open A. So you’re not using root notes, but letting it fall against a 7th. Believe me, it’s (a) the laziest, sloppiest single thing you can do in that situation, and (b) one of the most brilliant musical inventions of all time."
The book also recounts the bands’ touring days, from touring in a van to a major commercial endeavor, a massive corporate machine involving private jets, a small army of roadies, technicians, engineers, lawyers, reporters, hangers on and other personnel.
And groupies, as well as all sorts of drugs and booze to cope with the demands of being on the road. To hear Keith tells it, it is extremely difficult for a band on a tour with just coffee or soda and enthusiasm powering them up.
Johnny Depp, a long-time fan of Keith Richards, has stated in interviews that he modeled Captain Jack Sparrow after the Stones’ legendary guitarist.
|Keith Richards as Captain Teague Sparrow, Captain Jack Sparrow's father in the film franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean"|
In the book, the Stones’ guitarist says that Johnny Depp was just this timid, quiet friend of his son, Marlon, who always hangs around their house. He mistook him for a drug dealer. When his son explained things to him, he exclaimed to the famous actor, when he next saw him, “Edward Scissorhands!”
It turns out that Johnny Depp has always been in awe, and has always idolized, Keith Richards. He had just finished a documentary about the life of his idol, a film four years in the making.
Speaking of Marlon Richards, it is quite remarkable that the son of a rock and roll god and a famous model, brought up in a household with two heroin-addicted parents with an unorthodox lifestyle, could grow up as normal as he did. While other people in similar situations self-destructed, Marlon Richards grew up with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Growing up, he was often left alone, which he did not mind, “…because it was exhausting with Anita [Pallenberg, his mother] and Keith.” Marlon, a father of three, is a gallery curator, graphic artist, and a photographer. He lives quietly in a farmhouse with his family, a life vastly different from the days when he, as a six-year-old kid, accompanied his father on tours.
Keith Richards is for many years now sober, and has given up hard drugs. He is grandfather to four kids, a rock legend, with a body of work that would be remembered for as long as humanity listens to music.
|Wih wife and two daughters|
The autobiography is extremely entertaining, with enough anecdotes and vignettes from various stages of Keith’s life to make rock fans happy.
The tone of the book makes you feel as if you are right there with him, drinking beer, you listening slack jawed, while Keith Richards, strumming absent-mindedly on his guitar, rambles on about his life, his music, his band, the people he loves (and has loved), and what it means to be Keith Richards.
“It is impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were,” he says.
Now go read the book.