There’s no shortage of ways to pay tribute to Keith Richards as he celebrates his 75th birthday on Dec. 18. You could simply listen to the Rolling Stones. Try revisiting “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Gimme Shelter” or all of “Exile on Main St.” Bask in Keef’s legendary abilities as a guitarist and songwriter.
You could also check out some of his heroes, iconic musicians like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, or other artists off Chess Records. If you want to switch to a visual medium, you could watch “Shine a Light”, “Crossfire Hurricane,” or “Under the Influence,” the latter of which is a 2015 Netflix documentary exclusively on Richards. If you want to see Keef do the work of a saint when up against a giant pain in the rear, watch “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Taylor Hackford’s superb concert-documentary about Berry.
If you’re looking for less conventional methods to celebrate the birthday boy, you could take a dig at Mick Jagger, sleep next to your guitar, develop an amazing smoker’s laugh, or beat those pesky drug charges against you. Or you could just keep on living and continue being awesome. Any of these would honor the incomparable, inimitable, impossible Keith Richards.
My final suggestion is the one I want to emphasize: Read Keef’s 2010 memoir, “Life.” If you’re a fan of the Stones, rock ‘n’ roll in general, or music history, it’s a no-brainer. Everything that makes Richards such an improbably lovable figure is on display in the book— the humor, the irreverence, the “elegantly wasted” charm, the sincerity, the self-awareness.
It’s a very intimate and entertaining read, as Richards takes you deep into his fully lived (and ongoing) time on Planet Earth. It’s a book about survival, friendship, creative striving, freedom, and the hard work of staying just sane enough. I couldn’t give it a higher recommendation.
Below you’ll find a number of memorable excerpts from the book, as well as some punchy one-liners and snippets. They provide a strong flavor of the tone and feel of “Life.” As you’ll see, the book isn’t lacking for laughs, “you can’t be serious” moments, and flourishes of impassioned music worship.
Appreciating “the band”
As impressed as I was with Elvis, I was even more impressed with Scotty Moore and the band. It was the same with Ricky Nelson. I never bought a Ricky Nelson record, I bought a James Burton record. It was the bands behind them that impressed me just as much as the front men. Little Richard’s band, which was basically the same as Fats Domino’s band, was actually Dave Bartholomew’s band. I knew all this. I was just impressed with ensemble playing. It was how guys interacted with one another, natural exuberance and seemingly effortless delivery. There was a beautiful flippancy, it seemed to me. And of course that goes even more for Chuck Berry’s band. But from the start it wasn’t just the singer. What had to impress me behind the singer would be the band.
On his sartorial eccentricities, as influenced by his former longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenberg
Anita had a huge influence on the style of the times. She could put anything together and look good. I was beginning to wear her clothes most of the time. I would wake up and put on what was lying around. Sometimes it was mine, and sometimes it was the old lady’s, but we were the same size so it didn’t matter. If I sleep with someone, I at least have the right to wear her clothes. But it really pissed off Charlie Watts, with his walk-in cupboards of impeccable Saville Row suits, that I started to become a fashion icon for wearing my old lady’s clothes. Otherwise it was plunder, loot that I wore – whatever was thrown at me on stage or what I picked up off stage and happened to fit. I would say to somebody, I like that shirt, and for some reason they felt obliged to give it to me. I used to dress myself by taking clothes off other people.
How he created that awesome guitar tone for “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man”
‘Flash!’ Sh-t, what a record! All my stuff came together and all done on a cassette player. With ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’ I’d discovered a new sound I could get out of an acoustic guitar. That grinding, dirty sound came out of these crummy little motels where the only thing you had to record with was this new invention called the cassette recorder. And it didn’t disturb anybody. Suddenly you had a very mini studio. Playing an acoustic, you’d overload the Philips cassette player to the point of distortion so that when it played back it was effectively an electric guitar. You were using the cassette player as a pickup and an amplifier at the same time. You were forcing acoustic guitars through a cassette player, and what came out the other end was electric as hell. An electric guitar will jump live in your hands. It’s like holding an electric eel. An acoustic guitar is very dry and you have to play it a different way. But if you can get that different sound electrified, you get this amazing tone and this amazing sound.
On that time he hadn’t slept for five days and crashed in a recording studio that another act was using
… when we were finally finished, I fell asleep under the booth, under all the machinery. I woke up eventually, how many hours I never counted, and there’s the Paris police band. A bloody brass band. That’s what woke me up. They’re listening to a playback. And they don’t know I’m under there, and I’m looking at all these trousers with red stripes and ‘La Marseillaise’ going on, and I’m wondering, when should I emerge? And I’m dying for a pee, and I’ve got my shit with me, needles and stuff, and I’m surrounded by cops that don’t know I’m there. So I waited a bit and thought, I’ll just be very English, and I sort of rolled out and said, ‘Oh, my G-d! I’m terribly sorry,’ and before they knew it, I was out, and they were all zut alors-ing and there were about seventy-six of them. I thought, they’re just like us. They’re so intent on making a good record they didn’t bust me.
On the tragicomic measures he undertook to satisfy his smack addiction
It was difficult in the ‘70s to get hypodermics in America. So when I traveled I would wear a hat and use a needle to fix a little feather to the hatband, so it was just a hat pin. I would put the trilby with the red, green and gold feather in the hat bag. So the minute James (his dealer) turned up, I got the sh-t. OK, but now I need the syringe. My trick was, I’d order a cup of coffee, because I needed a spoon for cooking up. And then I’d go down to FAO Schwartz, the toy shop right across Fifth Avenue from the Plaza. And if you went to the third floor, you could buy a doctor and nurse play set, a little plastic box with a red cross on it. That had the barrel and the syringe that fitted the needle that I’d brought. I’d go around, ‘I’ll have three teddy bears, I’ll have that remote-control car, oh, and give me two doctor and nurse kits! My niece, you know, she’s really into that. Must encourage her.’ FAO Schwartz was my connection.
- “I don’t think John (Lennon) ever left my house except horizontally.”
- “You realize, some guys you can spend a day with them and basically you’ve learned all you’re ever going to know about them. Like Mick Jagger in exact reverse.”
- “There’s somebody in a suburb in Melbourne who doesn’t even know I wiped his -ss.”
- “Mick’s album was called ‘She’s the Boss,’ which said it all. I’ve never listened to the entire thing all the way through. Who has? It’s like ‘Mein Kampf.’ Everybody had a copy, but nobody listened to it.”
- “By law you have to be conscious to be arrested.”
- “I can improvise when I’m unconscious.”
- “And then Eric [Clapton] left the Yardbirds and went away on a sabbatical for six months and came back as God, which he’s still trying to live down.”
- “I think I’ll stand on my head, try and recycle the drugs.”
- “But I also have an incredible immune system. I cured myself of hepatitis C without even bothering to do anything about it.”
- “[NME’s rock star ‘death list’] was the only chart on which I was number one for ten years in a row… I was really disappointed when I went down the charts. Finally dropping down to number nine. Oh my G-d, it’s over.”