KEITH RICHARDS: DEFINITIVE ROCK 'N' ROLL STAR
There are millions of people around the world who play in rock and roll bands, who have huge record collections, everyone of them would be suicidally miserable if Keith Richards hadn’t picked up a guitar when he was 12 and started playing. He hasn’t stopped.
Keith didn’t intend to make our lives worth living, he just wanted to play guitar.
He’s always looked it, lived it, played it. No one has ever personified rock and roll, its joyous highs, its grievous lows, as has Keith Richards.
Music has always been in his life, from his grandparents, to him being a boy soprano at Westminster. Mum bought him a guitar and he played and played and got on a train one day and saw his childhood mate, Mick, with a bunch of records. Hey, let’s form a band, could be fun.
While we’re at it, let’s change the world.
The Rolling Stones defined an image, an attitude of rock and roll. No-one has ever come close. No Stones? No garage bands, no punks, nothing. No rock and roll, not as we know and love it. Who of the Stones defined it best? Keith.
It’s the nature of any collective enterprise that you need the best support you can get. Mick is pretty much the archetype rock and roll frontman, Charlie is the perfect drummer for Keith, his beautifully subtle sense of rhythm complements Keith’s guitar like no-one else ever could. Bill got to join the band cos they wanted his spare amp and he had just the right rhythm. And Brian…
He put the band together, named it, got them all their gigs when they were just a bunch of kids that no-one wanted to know about. Keith learnt a lot from Brian, about playing guitar, picking up women, doing drugs, living the life, and when the time came, he shafted Brian.
Not that Brian didn’t deserve it by then. Keith has always had a streak of the English gentleman about him, he was never going to take well to Brian thumping Anita. So he stole Brian’s girlfriend and he stole Brian’s persona with it. If you’re gonna hit the peak of your chosen endeavour, you gotta be ruthless, and Keith was ruthless.
He was also unutterably cool. Not to start with, but he took that from Brian, too. By ’66, dig the photos of Keith in Morocco, he has that ‘Keith’ look
He’s always had the Keith look. All credit to him, he’s just looked like himself. Most rock stars make an inadvisable effort to look 24 when they’re 44 or 54 (cf, Steve Tyler) but, at 66, Keith looks like a well-lived 66 and he looks like himself.
Hey, when you’re Keith Richards, you don’t have to try too hard, hey? Still, a lot of people could learn something from his dignity in the face of the inevitable decline of age.
Being an only child and a musician, Keith has always been indulged. It may not have been much fun going to a restaurant with someone who lined up cocaine on the table, and insisted on doing so repeatedly, but that’s Keith. Blessed with a strong constitution, he saw out many who tried to keep up. But Keith just did it, he never made a glory of it, and when the time came, he just stopped. It took a potential trafficking bust in Toronto to get him to stop heroin and, just lately, it was Ron Wood’s continual drunken idiocy that caused him to stop drinking.
Good on you Keith, for doing everything and not fucking up (not as far as we know) and good on you for stopping when it’s run its course.
For all of looking cool, acting like we’d all want to, the inherent Keith is a guitarist. The Scorsese concert flick is not much to listen to, not without a time machine to bring the 1972 Rolling Stones to the theatre and Martin’s cameras, but there’s a brilliant piece on the extras. Keith huddled on a stool, fingerpicking some classical stuff on a nylon-string guitar. It’s very much against what we’d imagine of him, but when you see it, it’s so redolent of the musician that we rarely notice behind the image.
Looking the part of a rock and roll star, acting the part, living it, none of these would mean a thing if he didn’t do the work. He always does, he just plays and plays and he played in a great R&B covers band that became the great rock and roll band, the definition thereof.
The way they lived it, the way they looked, moved, and most of all, the way they sounded! Always, inside and behind, driving it on, there was Keith Richards, locked in tight with Charlie Watts, playing the song.
We don’t know Keith for Hot Licks – and, by fuck, aint Hot Licks overrated? No, we know Keith for being the rhythm guitarist, five strings, two fingers, one arsehole, as he put it, completely him unto himself, yet redolent of all he’d heard.
How can you not dance to Brown Sugar, Start Me Up, Jumping Jack Flash, how can Gimme Shelter not open you up?
Because without the Rolling Stones, nothing of what we know and love would ever have come to pass.
So you gotta take Keith and all he's done, just by being himself, and bring it down to us, the fans whose lives became worth living, to guitarists who formed bands that we loved, to everyone who's ever dug a rock and roll song and thought "Yes, we can stand up tall and say "fuck you all" because we don't want the life we've been handed but we still want a life worth living."
A kid living in a small house in London started playing guitar at the top of the stairs in 1955, cos it sounded good up there, and he hasn’t yet stopped playing yet. That kid has made our lives immeasurably better. I’m not one for heroes, but I’d nominate Keith Richards as the closest I’d ever get to one.
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