Today Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones turns 80.
For years it’s been impossible to venture onto social media without seeing memes about Richards’ death-cheating immortality: the often gaunt hollowed visage, the legendary drug use, urban legends about recurrent full blood transfusions. Richards’ legendary junkiedom has been decades longer in the myth-making than the reality. As best as the various histories and memoirs inform us, Richards spent about a decade addicted to heroin, from around the age of 25 to roughly 35. There were recurrent clean-ups for tours, relapses, or just decisions to start shooting heroin again. He eventually kicked the habit in stages after a notorious drug bust in Toronto in 1977, which could have sent him to prison for years. In other words, that supposedly central thing about the man actually ended going on half a century ago. Of course, there are drugs and drugs. Richards continued to drink, smoke grass, snort cocaine for years while seemingly weening himself of the vices over time. He even quit smoking at some point during the COVID pandemic.
Richards often makes lists of the greatest guitar players of all time. But at a technical level he’s no particular standout. One-time Stones guitarist Mick Taylor was and is certainly superior by that measure. Even a casual rock fan could easily list a dozen guitarists who top him by that measure. Richards’ genius isn’t technical proficiency but knowing what to play, what not to play — both in the sense of the genius of composition but the role of silence in constructing an unshakeable riff. In interviews he has often spoken of silence as the composer’s canvass. For a man notorious for excess, his music is built on economy and restraint. His obsession with finding just the right sound, just the tonal palette he needs, leads him to start using a so-called “open G” tuning, a way to tune a guitar descended from banjo tuning. It literally involved removing one of the six strings. Most of the Stones’ most distinctive and indelible songs come after that switch. You can’t quite play most Stones songs on a conventionally tuned guitar. Very close. Almost the same, but not quite.
I won’t try to describe or discuss any of the songs. You’ve heard them or you haven’t. I can’t add anything to the listening.
It’s well known that within just a few years the Lennon-McCartney song writing partnership had become a partnership in name only. The two men wrote their own songs under a common label. That never quite seems to have happened in the Jagger-Richards partnership, despite their notoriously rocky relationship. While some songs are associated with one or the other man they’re seldom distinctly one man’s composition. Almost all seem to have gone through both sets of hands. The most common pattern appears to have been Richards devising a basic musical structure and perhaps the core of a chorus and then Jagger filling out the lyrics and the phrasing. But there are numerous variations.
Jagger almost broke up the Stones in the mid-’80s when he wanted to start a solo career. Richards eventually decided to record his own albums too. But Jagger’s solo compositions had a thinness to them. Richards’ contained more of the intensity and originality of the Stones. In his 2010 memoir Life, Richards speaks of them as being bound together, perhaps like a strained but unbreakable marriage, because after that period in the late 1980s both realized — maybe especially Jagger realized — neither could be great without the other. But Richards on his own seemed to have at least a touch more of the greatness.
If you haven’t read Life it’s one of the great rock memoirs. You find a man with an intense, ingrained rebelliousness, hovered over by an impulsiveness, a tough temper and hints of violence. But he’s also surprisingly soft. The Stones was a band chock full of womanizers and philanderers. And Richards had some of that. But his real pattern is serial monogamy. He seemed to lack the carnivorous traits of some of the others. On his own presentation, and consistent with what we know from other sources, is a man who is fundamentally shy and even withdrawing. It’s probably one part of his descent into addiction. The contrast with Jagger is there on every page, the consummate extrovert and social climber, a man of self-presentation.
The vast majority of that founding generation of ’60s rock music — not the origins in the 1950s with Chuck Berry and then the white version with Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins but the rebirth of it from England starting with the Beatles — was born during World War II. Lennon 1940, McCartney 1942, Jagger and Richards 1943, Roger Daltrey and Jimmy Page 1944, Pete Townsend and Eric Clapton 1945. Go right down the list from the greats to the semi-greats to the alsos. The great majority are born in those years. They’re all in their late ’70s or early ’80s. So we’re nearing the end of the line.
The Stones hit the road in the United States for a tour kicking off in April 2024.