Much has been made of Keith Richards’s reputation as rock’s ultimate bad boy; his weathered face and checkered past are legendary. As the guitarist and primary musical force behind the Rolling Stones, one of the most influential bands in rock and roll history, Richards may have been less visible than flamboyant frontman Mick Jagger, but he provided an example of cool that other musicians have imitated for decades. In the words of author Mark Leyner, who interviewed Richards for Spin, “Any one of a thousand Keith Richards photographs could serve as the defining totemic image of the rock ‘n’ roll life.”
Yet Richards’s drug history and onstage demeanor have frequently overshadowed his remarkable focus and seriousness as a musician. Inspired by a variety of roots-based musical forms, primarily the blues, he has helped the Stones branch out continually as a vital creative unit. Since 1988 Richards has released two critically acclaimed solo albums with a versatile backup band called the X-Pensive Winos; though he long avoided recording apart from the Stones, his work without them indicates he has lost none of his fire. As he noted in one of many candid interviews with Rolling Stone, his intention has long been to “grow this music up”—to leave behind the teen appeal and theatricality of rock’s past and invest it with maturity and honest feeling.
Richards also demonstrated in the wake of his renewed solo effort that he had reached a state of happy grace in his life. “The impression Richards gives is of someone perfectly content to be who he is and do what he does with no evident regard for external judgments or objections,” noted Ira Robbins in Pulse! The guitarist confirmed this perception in numerous interviews: “To me, the main thing about living on this planet is to know who the hell you are and be real about it,” he told Rolling Stone. “That’s the reason I’m still alive.” Content in his second marriage, the father of several children of various ages, he indicated that he’d put aside the youth-obsessed sentimentalism exemplified by a classic line in “My Generation,” a 1960s standard by Stones contemporaries The Who: “Hope I die before I get old.” People quoted an interview in which Richards declared, “Getting old is a fascinating thing. The older you get, the older you want to get.”
From Black and White to Technicolor
Richards was born in 1943 in Dartford, England. His father, Bert, worked in a factory, struggling to feed the family. “We just about made the rent,” the guitarist recalled in a Rolling Stone interview. “The luxuries were very, very few.” Keith knew early on that he didn’t have
his father’s discipline—”That’s the hardest work of all, bein’ lazy,” he quipped to Kurt Loder in 1987, as quoted in the rock scribe’s Bat Chain Puller—and he was expelled from the Dartford Technical School for truancy at age 15. He spent some time at art school before discovering the guitar and the blues. Rock and roll was brand new in the late 1950s, and its arrival, Richards told Loder, signaled the advent of “a new era. Totally. It was almost like A.D. and B.C., and 1956 was year 1, you know? The world was black-and-white, and then suddenly it went into living color. Suddenly there was a reason to be around, besides just knowing you were gonna have to work and draggin’ your ass to school every day. Suddenly everything wentzoom—glorious Technicolor.”
Richards always understood—and is at pains to explain to contemporary rock fans—that rock and roll derived in large part from the blues, an African-American art form. And the work of black artists in ensuing years, from soul and rhythm and blues to the pioneering rock of Richards’s idol, Chuck Berry, would provide basic musical compass points for the guitarist and his band. Richards met Mick Jagger in 1960; the singer was then attending the London School of Economics. They shared a love of R & B and ended up jamming together with a handful of other musicians. The Rolling Stones—named after a song by blues legend Muddy Waters—were formed in 1962 and featured a shifting roster of musicians as they coalesced, though Jagger and Richards were constants. The rhythm section of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts stabilized the band’s sound, and they released their first single, a Chuck Berry cover, in 1963. Although they were often touted as “London’s answer to the Beatles” and at first sported a clean-cut look, the group’s gritty, sexually charged sound and attitude offered a unique appeal. Their 1965 single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was a monster hit that became one of the defining songs of the era. Newsweek later called Richards’s signature “Satisfaction” guitar riff “five notes that shook the world.”
The Stones unleashed a string of hit singles—among them “The Last Time,” “Time Is on My Side,” “19th Nervous Breakdown” and “Get Off My Cloud”—before the tide of the decade turned to “album-oriented” rock. Late-1960s and early-1970s Stones LPs such as Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street have become hallmarks of committed, adventuresome rock. The Stones also experienced a tragic watershed of the hippie age: at a 1970 concert at California’s Altamont Speedway, members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club—the band’s erstwhile security force—fatally stabbed an unruly fan as the Stones played their hit “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Poster Boy for Excess
Richards, during this tumultuous period, became something of a poster boy for excess. While many rockers—including Jagger and the Beatles—championed mysticism and psychedelia, Richards was laying low and shooting up. He admitted to Bryan Appleyard of Vanity Fair that during his heroin days in New York, he carried a gun, and he recalled, “I got used to getting shot at.” At the same time, however, his notoriety often bestowed a strange immunity upon him; would-be muggers waved him through and “cops [gave him] lifts when [it was] raining.” In Toronto in 1977 he was arrested on a serious possession charge and—faced with stringent penalties—agreed to undergo drug treatment and perform at a 1979 charity concert. Rock lore has it that Richards periodically had his blood changed in order to curtail various bouts with addiction.
Living on this particular edge, he told Spin’s Leyner, was in part a way of dealing with stardom’s distorting effect on one’s self-regard: “I’ve tried to keep my feet on the ground—sometimes almost six feet under—in order not to stay up there in that stratosphere [of fame]. Maybe the whole dope thing was some way of negating that—’cause that put me down in the gutter. One minute I’m operating as a superstar and the next I’m shooting up with some guys on the Lower East Side. I’ll never know really what that was all about—just an experiment that went on too long, I guess.” Richards explained to Loder in Rolling Stone in 1981, “The problem is not how to get off of it, it’s how to stay off of it.” By 1980 Richards’s long-term relationship with Anita Pallenberg had come to an end, and in 1983 he would marry actress and model Patti Hansen. Jagger served as best man at their wedding in Mexico; by the time Richards and Hansen had their two daughters, his two children by Pallenberg, Marlon and Dandelion, were in their teens. In 1982, the guitarist was reunited with his father, whom he had not seen in many years; their newfound closeness became another constant in Richards’s life.
The Rolling Stones sustained their success through the 1970s—releasing such hit albums as Goat’s Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, and Some Girls—and played in more and more massive arenas. By the 1980s, their tours had become events of elephantine proportions, and though he still felt firmly committed to the band, Richards was keenly aware of the intimacy and directness lost in the fanfare. In 1985 Mick Jagger decided to release a solo album, She’s the Boss, and he announced in 1986 that he would not tour with the Stones in support of their recent record, Dirty Work. Richards and Jagger traded barbs in the press; “To me, twenty-five years of integrity went down the drain with what he did,” the guitarist told Anthony DeCurtis in Rolling Stone. Speculation about the band’s imminent dissolution flew about and were not quelled by Richards’s decision to ink a deal with Virgin Records and put out his own solo album.
Birth of the X-Pensive Winos
In addition to assembling a band, Richards served as musical director for Taylor Hackford’s Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’Roll, a film biography of Chuck Berry. “He’s a loner,” Richards told DeCurtis of the senior rocker. “That’s why I could work with Chuck Berry, because he’s very much like Mick.” But not working with Mick—or rhythm guitarist Ron Wood or Wyman or Watts—was Richards’s imperative for the moment. He decided to collaborate with drummer Steve Jordan, who had played in the World’s Most Dangerous Band on television’s Late Night With David Letterman, and assembled a stellar ensemble that included bassist Charley Drayton, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and keyboardist Ivan Neville.
An air of mutual admiration and camaraderie pervaded the sessions for Talk Is Cheap, the first album by Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos. “Every drummer’s dream is to play with Keith,” Jordan declared in Newsweek. “He’s the Time Machine, right?” Jordan wasn’t referring to a nostalgia trip; Richards’s rhythmic accuracy as a guitarist—what musician’s call “time”—is legendary. Wachtel confirmed this, adding, “It’s due to his right hand. Magic. When he plays rhythm, it’s like a room full of the best drummers in the world.” Talk Is Cheap featured guest musicians like funk superstars Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker and soulful vocals from Sarah Dash. Yet Richards’s own singing, only an occasional feature on the Stones’ records, was the biggest surprise for many listeners and critics. Guitar Player rated the album the best by the Rolling Stones—even though Richards was the only Stone on it—in nearly two decades. Richards and his group also released a live album taken from a performance at the Hollywood Palladium in December of 1988.
The Stones reassembled for the hugely successful 1989 album Steel Wheels, which spawned a tremendous tour. “The songs just tumbled out,” Richards told the New York Times of the recording sessions in Barbados. “First, we just screamed and yelled at each other. We needed to clear the air, which, as old mates, we’re very good at. Then, when we got into that room and sat down with our guitars, something entirely different took over.” That year, the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In a 1992 Guitar Player interview, Richards noted that the imbalance produced by frenzied playing and idle downtime had been a root cause of the tension within the group. “And that’s what the Stones had to live with from the early 70s until the middle ’80s: constant work for a year and a half, and then nothing for two years. And that stopping and starting was fraying. That was the underlying force of what all of that shit was about.”
1992 saw the publication of Victor Bockris’s largely panned Poseidon Press tome Keith Richards: The Biography, which Gene Santoro attacked in Pulse! as a collection of “recycled press clips” interlaced with pretentious analysis and pop clichés. More importantly, late in the year Richards released his second solo studio album, Main Offender. Once again employing the versatile X-Pensive Winos—who traded instruments during the sessions—Richards explored more emotional territory this time around. Entertainment Weekly awarded the album a B+ and closed its review with a cheeky “Your move, Mick.” Echoing Guitar Player’s assessment of Talk Is Cheap, Spin’s Leyner called Main Offender “the finest ‘Rolling Stones’ album in years,” elaborating, “It’s stripped down and full of gorgeous songwriting—sinewy and poignant.” Musician was a trifle more critical, suggesting that Main Offender was “the best mediocre album of the year,” perhaps because it conveyed a pleasantly raw feel with no obvious effort: “Exile on Easy Street.” For his part, Richards revealed in an interview with Rolling Stone’s Kim Neely, “This band is very new and fresh for me. In a way it reminds me of working with the Stones in the early days.”
The Stones were set to regroup for a new record in 1993, despite the departure of bassist Wyman, which apparently had been in the works for some time. Richards had joked about scaring Wyman into remaining by threatening to replace him with a woman, but this macho gambit presumably failed. Richards told Neely, “I think there’s a possibility of another golden period in the Stones somewhere,” this projection ostensibly undimmed by Wyman’s exit. As to his own future, Richards told Rolling Stone’s DeCurtis in 1988, “I played with Muddy Waters six months before he died, and the cat was just as vital as he was in his youth. And he did it until the day he died. To me, that is the important thing. I mean, what am I gonna do now, go for job retraining and learn to be a welder? I’ll do this until I drop. I’m committed to it and that’s it.”
In both his role as a Rolling Stone and as that of a solo artist, Keith Richards has demonstrated that it is possible to “grow up” in rock and maintain the spark and intensity required to keep it fresh. “To me, it’s important to prove that this isn’t just teenage kids’ shit and you should feel embarrassed when you’re over forty and still doing it,” he remarked to DeCurtis. “That’s not necessary. This is a job. It’s a man’s job, and it’s a lifelong job. And if there’s a sucker to ever prove it, I hope to be the sucker.”