Rock’s Original Pirate is Alive, Well, and Living “LIFE”.
Out of a select few people I admire, near the top is Keith Richards. Yeah, that’s right. He’s a better role model than too many to count. I’d even trust him with the country’s loot- In fact, indefinitely more than I would about 95% of our elected officials. He’s honest, tells it like it is and he pulls no punches. He might take the cash up front, but always delivers without so much a hint of promise. This kind of raw honesty in our culture is rare, and even less so from politicians we elect time after time. Ha…send in the clowns, then try putting them up against the public-spirited character of someone like Richards…especially him. This might be a dude who’s got a charmed existence, but in large part carries an everlasting altruism. Oh yeah, he’s flawed, and he’s got no problem telling you about it. “Yeah, that’s me baby, and lemme tell ya, what you see is what you get.”
He’s enjoyed all the excesses and had no problem talking about it. Like some others who have dove deep in the trenches of various narcotics- he should be considered no less mystical than Dr. Gonzo, Jim Morrison, Aldous Huxley or William Blake. In his new autobiography, “Life”, Keith’s descriptions and recounts are as humorous as they are astounding, fascinating and would be beyond belief if the stories were told by almost anyone else. He builds the detail like some divine religious experiment.
Sometime early on in his life, before it became cool to be in an English band, roll up your sleeves, wear tight pants and dress like a rebel, Keith had already been living such a life. A dyed-in-the-wool, bona fide renegade, he has easily walked the edge, willing to try anything, apologize for nothing, all while keeping his feet firmly on the ground. Year after year, decade after bloody decade, he’s pounded out song after song, album after album, tour after bloody tour, and he’s kept on eating iron, pissing rust and working harder than most who’ve kept blathering about him being too old.
The other half of one of the greatest songwriting teams to date, Jagger and Richards have penned so many hits, it boggles the mind what this band has put out. And after all, with verifiable head counts and no chalk boards isn’t that exactly what a Rolling Stones concert delivers?- Take that, Glenn Beck.
The constant lampooning of Keith’s lived-in look has long been a joke for many a comedian, all the while making fun of celebrities who go under the knife. Richards’ never has carried illusions about his face. “Now, I’ve graduated to them calling me a wrinkly rocker”- talk about reverence. “I have no problem with the truth, which is why I’ve had no facelifts. Can you imagine if life was so smooth and everybody agreed? There’d be no blues”, says Richards. For some 30 years he’s been on the top 10 list of next rocker to die. It’s as if people are so perplexed they can’t dance on his grave and make fun of him like they did Brian Jones, so they make fun of him because he lives. You can’t have it both ways. He’s defied the odds and the joke’s on us. What a guy, I say.
‘Keef’ has also been the brunt of memory jokes throughout the ages. But the undeniable truth is, he’s been paying attention, and he’s got an elephants memory. In his autobiography, “Life”, Richards recounts details of his childhood and beyond, with stunning precision, and transcribed in his own words. Keith’s own words tell the story as only he could do. In many a recorded or filmed interview it can be a task understanding his accent. Indeed, deciphering his diction can be a task, but he makes perfect sense. I’ve yet to read or hear him utter a stupid or trite line like we hear perfectly inundated from so many ‘socially respected’ figures. We watch, listen and hang on every word they say…we even vote for them, and we give them much more money each election season than an entire Rolling Stones tour. We hold these mongrels up so high, but they let us down every time. And these are the people whom we trust our futures to? Everything we hold dear?
I’ll take the guy who’s flawed and awkward, who tells me things I may not want to hear, even in a drug-hazed booze soaked tirade. And so far, though the cat’s never seen me, Keith has always looked me right in the retina. I’ve always been able to trust the Rolling Stones…and they’ve never let me down.
This piece is not so much about songwriting, that’s an astronomical story all its’ own, and there’s plenty about it- you can always go listen for yourself. In fact, you have been for years, whether you know it or not. Keith Richards’ persisting footprint is literally encircled around just about anyone else in the business. It’s important to mention the manner in which he lives really is the music. Much like the way Keith lives his life, his playing style is pretty set and rarely strays from the method. Much like his predecessors, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters, he has avoided fancy fretwork for sheer gut instinct- playing by feel instead of intellect. He makes a constant effort to work in tandem with anyone he may play with. In this realm, Keith has almost singularly kept a stranglehold of harnessing an often lost yet ancient form of playing. It may sound simple, yet is chalk full of sheer virtuosity.
“I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money, or for you. I’m doing it for me.”
As a solo performer his sincere delivery and unbridled passion can bring tears to the eyes and joy to the heart. As a guitarist, his rubbed rawness cuts to the bone, but carries a bandaid–there’s simply nothing quite like watching Keith Richards enjoy himself on a stage. There’s no better example of sheer talent than his solo performance from Martin Scorcese’s 2008 feature documentary film,“Shine A Light”. When he stalks the stage, cigarette in hand and delivers a tear-jerking rendition of “You Got the Silver”. This is a sight and sound to behold. The audience consists of many 20-somethings in the front rows who are absolutely held captive. Keith sports a long jacket, takes long draws on his Marlboro and hits every blessed note with impeccable nuance and pitch as he circles Ronnie Wood supporting him on guitar.
As I sit here writing, I can’t help entertaining the idea of someone in 1976 saying that Keef would write his autobiography in 2010 calling it “Life”. They’d say,’Are you out of your Goddamn tree?’ Ha. What an apt title, and fitting for a man of whom so many think of as walking dead. He has really done nothing but live, and live well considering his choices- which have always consisted of nothing but the highest of quality. Seems his other indulgences include categorizing his vast library by the dewey decibel system, gardening and doing things with his family. How immoral! He has been happily married since 1983 and his kids have not been in the news. What a loser.
While some brag about reading biographies of Nixon, Simon Cowell or books on ‘Republicrat’ take-overs, if Keith isn’t home listening obsessively to Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters records, he’s reading about Native American injustice, world history or Baudelaire Prose. After all, the broken rib years ago happened because he was up on a slide ladder reaching for a book in his vast library. The famous blackened eye? Try directing Chuck Berry in your own feature film! The coconut tree fall? Well, can’t a guy have a little fun? How about a lot? Is he doing something wrong?
Other than that, I don’t think the guy’s ever seen a hospital. Refusing retirement, he’s had the same job since 1962 and prefers to keep on working. He does have more than one home, yet mostly resides in Connecticut in a fairly modest spread, considering his vast wealth.
And really, who cares if he snorted Bert’s (his Father) ashes..I hope he did. The Tibetan’s do that sort of thing all the time as a loving and spiritual tribute to fallen loved ones. What matters is the story of Richards’ eyes welling up as he recounts the incident of a woman who’d patiently waited amongst a gargantuan line of fans for an autograph. The woman plainly stepped up to give him a hug, then said, “Your biggest gift to me was just for being you all these years. Thank you for that.” She then turned and simply walked away. He still has much trouble keeping composure talking about his son dying a crib death years ago and not being present.
Coming under the heels of the release of the DVD, “Stones in Exile”, is news that Disney was actually considering giving Keith the axe for a part reprising his cameo role as Captain Teague in the 4th installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides“. It is well known that Johnny Depp based his character of Captain Jack sparrow almost in full upon Richard’s persona. It is also LONG since known that Richard’s ‘flawed’ lifestyle has been fueled by a plethora of drugs. In this case, let’s get some things straight: The very idea of Pirates and their lifestyles are not the best of examples; rape, pillaging, drinking, stealing, generally bad behavior…all things which revolve around drug taking. And the suppose is that Pirates didn’t ingest drugs…or did they? Come to think of it, Disney has employed many with admitted pasts: David Crosby, Neil Young, John Cougar Mellencamp, David Bowie, Bono or even Britney Spears come to mind. The largest elephant in the room is that Depp himself has long ago detailed his own drug escapades, even intimating wild adventures with the good Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
Drugs don’t always work….or are there just a few exceptions? “I say good luck to those who would emulate me, but they better realize what they’re getting into. It’s really only about music. It’s about the blues. That’s what sustains me,” Keith said some years ago. While most must stop using drugs for health reasons, he stopped in 2006 because “They’re not strong enough anymore”. Hot damn! Despite years of drug taking, Richards said he hopes he has many years left to live: “I love to live. If that’s all I’ve done then I’ve done well…I’m not putting death on the agenda just yet.”
The blessing is for any of us who’ve sat anywhere near the front of his stage over the last 40 years, Keith Richards has washed us all in his poison sweat from every corner of the world- and we’ve all become better human beings from such influential music.
Keith. Thank you for being you all these years, showing up for every gig, telling the truth and surviving to tell the tale. You got my vote.
Keith Richards’ Book, “Life” is now on newsstands EVERYWHERE on Little, Brown and Company
Keith Richards interview Andrew Marr Show Oct 2010:
© 2011 Buko Magazine