It can be said without any hesitation whatsoever that no one individual better epitomizes the image of the outlaw rock star than Keith Richards. No one! Keith turns 68 today, December 18, a remarkable accomplishment, not only for the fact that he's a senior citizen and as irrepressible as ever, but also because he's still alive. Indeed, one of the most astonishing things about him is that for all his many harrowing encounters with mortality --- and morality, for that matter -- he's not only managed to cheat death, but to actually continue to function like most normal human beings. Yet, the fact is -- Keith Richards is not an ordinary human being. Despite drug use, run-ins with authority and even a fall from a tree in 2006, which necessitated life-threatening cranial surgery, somehow our man Keef has not only managed to survive, but to actually thrive.
The Stones celebrate 50 years of outrage next year, but in large part, it's Keith that's kept them rolling. He and Mick Jagger have written some of the greatest songs of the rock 'n' roll canon -- "Satisfaction," "Start Me Up," "Paint It Black, "Get Off My Cloud," "Beast of Burden" and literally scores more -- while fronting concerts that rank among the most celebrated shows of all time. Their tours that are legendary for their sheer decadence and disruption. Consequently, two new releases share part of the story -- an expanded reissue of Some Girls, the band's best album of the '70s, and a remarkable blu-ray of the same name that captures the Stones live in Texas in 1978 highlighting songs from that album.
Still, for all the great music, it's the antics that make him the stuff of legend. The numerous drug busts and his insurgent stance are of course well known -- Keith's surprisingly articulate autobiography, Life
, fills in many of the gaps. But the full story has to also include the exploits captured in the widely circulated bootleg film Cocksuckers Blue
s, his bewildering admission that he actually snorted his father's ashes, his reckless romantic tryst with longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, his oftentimes adversarial relationship with Jagger and the as yet unfounded rumor that he once underwent through a complete blood transfusion in Switzerland to help clear his system of heroin abuse.
Indeed, the establishment hasn't been kind; just last year, one person described him as "a capering streak of living gristle who ought to be exhibited as a warning to the young of what drugs can do to you even if you're lucky enough not to choke on your own vomit."
No greater homage has a rock star ever received.
I remember my own personal encounter with Keith and crew when I happened to run into the band on the beach in the Virgin Islands during a break from their '72 tour. There was Keith, resplendent in streaked blonde hair, leopard print bathing briefs and an attitude both fierce and indignant. "What have we here?" he asked, seeing me shyly observing his entourage and hesitant to intrude. "A Pinkerton guard?"
"Yeah right," I answered, hoping to fend off any kind of cruel comments."
"Yeah sure!" he replied, making mockery of my lame retort. It took Charlie Watt's assurance that I wasn't any kind of threat to put Keith in check.
Still to fully understand the man, it's probably best to turn to his book of proverbs, 2009's What Would Keith Richards Do?: Daily Affirmations from a Rock 'n' Roll Survivor, for a real clue as to what makes Richards rock. Herein are a few examples of the nuggets of wisdom from the improbable book of Keith:
"I would rather be a legend than a dead legend."
"Whatever side I take, I know well that I will be blamed."
"I've never had a problem with drugs, only with policemen."
"Altamont, it could only happen to the Stones, man. Let's face it -- it wouldn't happen to the Bee Gees."
"There's nothing wrong with the gun. It's the people who are on the trigger. Guns are an inanimate object. A heroin needle's an inanimate object. It's what's done with it that's important."
"That Adolf (Hitler). What a piece of work."
"Cheese is very wrong."
"I've never turned blue in someone else's bathroom. I consider that the height of bad manners."
"When I was a junkie I used to be able to play tennis with Mick, go to the toilet for a quick fix and still beat him."
"I looked upon myself as a laboratory."
"I reckon our style came direct from the Three Stooges."
"Mine is a very nebulous spirituality."
"It seems strange that we do the same thing with the same boys all these years later. But it's like when you get drunk at a bar and wonder later how you got home. You know where you are -- you're home -- but how did you get there? That's the mystery."
As regards that last quote, there's also a great mystery surrounding Keith Richards. It mostly comes down to a single question: How has he survived? And a single response: who knows, but we're so glad that he has. It's not only the mystery, but the mystique that makes the man who he is. So happy birthday, Keith, you crazy kid; we hope you continue to cheat fate and have many more to come.