Simon Poulter of the always excellent – What Would David Bowie Do? blog on the human riff.
Britain’s Daily Mail, a newspaper you can regard with varying degrees of editorial pointlessness, surmised in June that Keith Richards – the Human Riff, the Human Lab, and a dozen other nicknames reflecting both guitar prowess and indestructibility – was now so broken, so ravaged by arthritic hands and addled memory that he was finding it hard to perform.
Almost in unison, a section of the paper’s permanently seething readership waded in with a barrage of reaction, some berating Keef for even being alive, others suggesting the Rolling Stones had ended their relevance a long time before and should now just give up.
This may go some way to explain why, when the band announced their four 50th anniversary shows, a nuclear mushroom cloud appeared above Middle England as concerned representatives of the Mail’s readership turned apoplectic at news Richards, Jagger, Watts and Wood – with a combined age of 273 – were to roll once more.
Well, today we can make that 274, as Richards chalks up his 69th birthday. It’s an unlikely milestone, even he’ll admit. This apparent freak of nature, who only gave up hard drugs eight years ago, has, for the best part of adulthood, tested human pharmaceutical endurance to its limits while seeing so many contemporaries succumb to rock’s lethal distractions. He is at a loss to explain how he has survived and others didn’t. Perhaps he should just say “pleased to meet you – hope you guessed my name”.
The brilliant autobiography
Much of Richards’ homespun philosophy can be found in his brilliant book Life. A stupendously refreshingly read, Life tells Keef’s story with well managed honesty and little obvious attempt at embellishment, either of the hard truths or the apocryphal tales. It is an engagingly rich story of a boy emerging from London’s bombsite-ridden suburbs to embrace the music of America’s impoverished south, turning such an unlikely affection into the spiritual heart of the most famous – some maintain greatest – rock and roll band of the last 50 years.
That’s an accolade that welcomes challenge: bands have come and bands have gone. “Every generation throws another hero up the pop charts”, sang Paul Simon, and the Stones have faced plenty of competition. They’ve also faced plenty of challenges of their own, not least of which the sibling fractures between Richards and Jagger that have seen them fight, tussle and, seemingly, fall apart irreparably on regular occasions.
Something, however, has always brought them back together again. Richards has always maintained that he and Jagger share a true brotherly love, a bond that occasionally breaks. In his words, Richards has, though, tended to paint Jagger as the more nefarious Glimmer Twin, the posher of the two middle-class Dartford boys, the Stone with the business sense and, now, the knighthood.
Richards, on the other hand, has frequently played up his image as the Stones’ pirate captain, the rock’and’roll rogue: unpredictable and possibly dangerous, like John Belushi’s character Bluto in Animal House, but beneath it all, fundamentally a good guy.
For a while – particularly in the wake of John Lennon’s murder – Richards regularly carried either a knife or a gun, or both. He’s not the Stone to be messed with by any order. Just go to YouTube and find the memorable clip from their 1981 tour, when Keith sees a fan jump on stage and starts charging towards him and Jagger (who deftly takes a swerve), removes his Telecaster by the neck and hacks the fan to the ground before strapping the guitar back on to continue playing. “The cat was in my space,” said Richards, matter-of-factly, “so I chopped the mother down”. That’s why you’ve got to love Keith. Liam Gallagher may have looked like he could do something like that, but you suspect only Keith Richards would.
Immersing myself in Richardsville
Over the last few months I have been immersed in the Rolling Stones. Whatever commercial voodoo they performed around their 50th anniversary has clearly worked. I’ve bought their book and visited the Somerset House exhibition of the book’s photographs; I’ve acquired Blu-ray Discs and DVDs of them in concert in the 70s, 80s and 90s, of them jamming with their great hero Muddy Waters, in the brilliant Stones In Exile documentary, and setting new records on the Bigger Bang tour. And I’ve spent a frustrating 30 minutes attempting to blow what’s left of my life savings on a ticket to one of – any of – their London and New Jersey shows. Somewhere there is a bulldozer with a tongue logo on it shovelling cash into four or five large piles.
While this accumulation will be due in part to Sir Mick Jagger’s assumed stewardship of Rolling Stones Inc. (actually, a Dutch-registered public limited company called Promotone BV which holds its annual company meetings in the curious-to-say-the-least location of Amsterdam), the company’s Chief Riff Officer and CEO Jagger’s fellow Wentworth Primary School, Dartford, alumnus, Richards, might be comfortable with his rewards, but remains at his happiest strumming a blues in an open D tuning.
These last few weeks, the more Stones material I’ve been exposed to, the more I’ve come to appreciate their music, especially its subtlety. That is not a word you associate with the Stones, who’ve often been regarded by music snobs as a Premier League Status Quo for the chugging, thumbs-in-belt-loops-ahoy boogie of Honky Tonk Woman, or the cringeworthy street patois of Miss You, and it’s equally abhorrent disco beat.
But then listen carefully to Sympathy For The Devil, Paint It Black or Gimme Shelter, or some of the live standards like Monkey Man or Tumbling Dice or Midnight Rambler, along with lesser known gems hidden away on their 26-odd studio albums. Why, even more recent fare like Love Is Strong and Doom And Gloom – knocked out in a Paris studio over a couple of days – still deliver the goods as far as Rolling Stones songs go.
You could say that for half their careers, the Rolling Stones have faced calls to quit on the grounds that they’re too old. Keith Richards, at 69, may be today a more avuncular version of his former self, with his clean living and throaty, bronchial laugh (not to mention his parodic turn as Captain Jack Sparrow’s father in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – with Johnny Depp happy to admit Sparrow was based on Richards), but he and his ageing band have endured.
That endurance has come from tampering little with the brand: The Beatles started out as rock and rollers before discovering psychedelia and inventing progressive rock; The Who applied a rock edge to Tamla Motown; Led Zeppelin deconstructed and then reconstructed the blues; but the Stones are and have always been the Coca-Cola of rock.
Sure, like Coke (Classic anyone?) they’ve taken a few ill-advised diversions, but today the Stones remain, pretty much, the same thing enjoyed by each generation that has come across them. Snobs blame this absence of variety on a fairly limited musical spectrum, but much of this is down to Keith. It is, mostly, his songs and riffs that have dictated the Rolling Stones musically.
Richards might have willingly – and at times, to his patent regret – left the running of the band to Jagger, but the spirit of the Stones, the heart and soul of the Stones belongs to him. It was Keith, not Brian Jones who found the triangulation point between the Mississippi Delta, Chicago and London. It was Jagger who then took the concoction and turned it into something more exotic, more 5th Avenue than Dartford High Street, like Levi-Strauss turning workwear into the most enduring fashion item of modern history.
But that’s why we love Keith. If he has pretensions and delusions of grandeur, he keeps them well hidden. He has amassed a fortune, and his properties display copious evidence of his wealth, but unlike the apparent airs and graces of his writing partner, Richards doesn’t overplay the finer things in his life.
To see him on stage today, earnestly toiling away on his collection of Telecasters and other luthiered exotica, is to see a master craftsman at work. He may never be a virtuoso in the manner of a Clapton, a Beck or a Page, but I don’t think he particularly cares. And nor should you. Happy Birthday Keith.
Article originally published here.