December's Child At 72: Keith Richards' Roots Are Showing

They come on late at night. You see them all sitting in a row onstage as they do their celebrity rat pack roasts packaged and available on dvd. As Sammy Davis and Don Rickles stand up to deliver one punchline after another, their friend, the singer and actor Dean Martin, recoils under haze of cigarette smoke, clutching his glass of scotch with the self-deprecating smile that belies the willingness to be the fall guy.

Maybe it's just me but I've convinced myself that Keith Richards, who turns 72 on December 18, could hold court at that table. Maybe the guitarist whose band the Rolling Stones were introduced by a younger Martin himself on old black and white television in front of The Hollywood Palace sign, could be a modern day incarnation of Martin with all of his vices and quips.

“It's good to be here,” Richards says taking center stage under a billow of smoke on any of the recent Rolling Stones tours before introducing his standard two songs. “It’s good to be anywhere” he then adds for emphasis, for all the years that are too many to count and sometimes remember.  As Richards takes yet another a drag on a cigarette, the grayness of his wavy hair becomes one with the silhouette of smoke that rises not as much around him but seemingly from within. It’s the line that he has delivered for past actions and exploits that are still told and retold like folk stores through the decades. It’s fifty years and counting for the Rolling Stones and the guitarist commonly cited as the “glue” of the band. We all go along, pretending like we are hearing it for the first time and adding it to the quotable quotes that have become a canon of his shtick.

“I always thought thirty would be about it,” the guitarist says reflectively in the opening of Morgan Neville’s documentary Under The Influence. “Beyond that would be horrible. Then when I was thirty-one, I thought ‘I’ll hang in for a while.’” 

If rumors of his demise have greatly been exaggerated, the author of Life is self-aware of the burden of image he’s created, calling it a ball and chain. “It’s not like a shadow,” he reflects in the documentary. “It’s there twenty-four twenty-four. When the sun goes down it doesn’t disappear.”

But Richards, who says he has long since lost the desire to be a pop star, seems to find some amusement with the image he says the majority of people still have. It’s an image of him smoking a joint, with a bottle in his hand walking down the road—and he adds for emphasis--cursing the fact that liquor store is closed.

Somewhat lost in the discussion is Richard's album Crosseyed Heart which snuck up on us this fall and is his first in over twenty years. In Under The Influence, drummer and collaborator Steve Jordan says he shuddered when Richards broached the idea of a possible retirement following the publication of Life. Then he and Richards cut a few tracks and all the talk went away.

That Richards has a new solo album seems almost antithetic to his own code. The idea of releasing of a solo album still seems jarring to those of us who remember him publicly blasting bassist Bill Wyman who was the first to go outside the band with Stone Alone. Richards had a hissy fit mocking the title and publicy berated Wyman for having the audacity, let alone the need, to step outside the fraternity.

The delights and subtle nuances of Richards' solo work can't be overlooked. “Crosseyed Heart” is what the singer admittedly calls a tip of the hat to a lot of people but is mostly a tribute to the great bluesman Robert Johnson. “Blues In The Morning” began when Richards’ guitar technician left a newly stringed vintage guitar from Richards’ locker for him to play.  When he picked it up, it inspired a spontaneous blues jam recorded in the first take.

When Richards toured behind Main Offender over twenty years ago, we delighted in his ten-minute opening set version of Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” stalking the stage and doing knee-drops timed to his riffs as he as dueled licks with Waddy Wachtel, the guitarist Richards brought on with the sly pronouncement in interviews that it was time for Wachtel to “take off his panties” after years of playing for Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Nicks. In a scene from the documentary shot when the band is tuning up, Wachtel can be seen playing slide guitar. An elated Richards points to him and goes, “Now that’s the shit.”

“’Who The Hell Is Muddy Waters?’”

When Keith Richards saw his childhood friend for the first time in years at the Dartford Rail Station, he spotted him carrying The Best of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry album tucked under his arm. “What have you got there?” Richards remembers of that day thinking he had found a kindred spirt, feeling like he was the only person in Southeast England who knew about American blues.

If the idea of the Rolling Stones was conceived in Richards' mind that day, the band would soon become evangelists for the blues genre. “Our puritanical mission was to turn others on to the blues,” Richards told Neville in the film. “We turned America back on to its own music.”

When Stones guitarist Brian Jones told the television show Shindig they would go on if Muddy Waters appeared, the response was “Who the hell is Muddy Waters?” The Stones ventured to Chicago to record in the fabled Chess Studios on the city’s Southside. “By the way that’s Muddy Waters,” someone said pointing to a man who was standing on a ladder painting the ceiling with white paint dripping on his face. Waters thanked the band for what they were doing, shocking the young guitarist Richards who he thought of as a father. 

One night in Chicago, I had dinner with Bobby Stovall. He hailed from Stovall, Mississippi, the incorporated community bearing his family’s name and grew up on the same family plantation where Muddy Waters worked as a field hand. One day while sitting on the porch the young Stovall noticed Waters huddled around a recording machine being operated by someone from out of town. It turned out to be Alan Lomax who was interviewing southern musicians as part of a Smithsonian field project. Waters went on Chicago where he recorded for Chess.

When Stovall relocated to Chicago, the two stayed in touch. Stovall said when he heard the Rolling Stones were coming to Chicago, his instinct was to call Waters as a jam would likely ensue. He lamented how he missed the night they played the Checkerboard Lounge but thankfully the jam was preserved on film. Waters led what became an eleven minute version of “Baby Please Don’t Go,” never stopping until he coaxed Jagger to come to the stage, followed by Richards and then Wood. Sadly, Stovall passed away as did Muddy Waters and Alan Lomax. 

In Under The Influence, Richards remembers that night at the Checkerboard Lounge, saying he and Ron Wood fretted about what they would wear, something they never worried about in the Rolling Stones. We see Richards as he takes us to Waters’ abandoned and locked-up house in Chicago, only recognizable by a sign acknowledging it was his house, as it sadly in need of repair along a street of row houses. “I think Willie Dixon brought me over,” he remembers. “It’s leaving I don’t remember. I crashed here but woke up in Howlin’ Wolf’s house. I don’t know what happened. I got carried away. The party continued and I went with it.”

Country Honk

Across the country and two decades earlier, the Stones road manager Phil Kaufman set up a record player in a Los Angeles hotel room. Gram Parsons and Keith Richards sat there as Parsons instructed Kaufman to put on one country record by Buck Owens and George Jones after another. Richards as concentrated intently so he could learn the licks.

Kaufman had flown in fiddle player Byron Burlein to play on “Country Honk,” a campy, countrified version of “Honky Tonk Women.” As Burlein laid down his track on the streetoutside Elektra Studios, a car came down La Cienga Boulevard honking its horns on cue for the record. Kaufman got Burlein back on a flight to Oklahoma City the same day but the track became forevermore part of Let It Bleed.

Although he is not credited with playing, it’s hard not to feel Parsons’ karmic transference when listening to the Stones seminal Exile On Main Street.” Parsons made a gorgeous version of the Stones’ ballad “Wild Horses” and Keith Richards befriended Parsons, citing his enormous influence. Two years later Parsons died before the release of Grievous Angel, the album he made with Emmylou Harris and is another landmark reference whose influence on country music endures to this day. By the time Richards sang “Hickory Wind” at a tribute concert to Gram Parsons twenty-something years later, it seemed he had come full circle.

 “I love my country shit,” Richards says in the documentary as he picks out the chords to “Sing Me Home” on piano. Country is a genre he first heard on pirate radio as he moved the antenna around the room to catch a signal from dodgy reception. Richards’ has fallen in love over the years with the pedal steel and his country canon is rich. It includes “We Had It All,” a cover of the Donnie Fritts and Troy Seals song recorded during the Some Girls sessions and “The Worst” off of Voodoo Lounge. His rich  singing with Jagger is a signature part of the cover of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.” On the new album, "Robbed Blind" is pure mastery as Richards narrates a classic tale of intrigue that could be the soundtrack or inspiration for a modern day Western. 

On a tour with Ronnie Wood and the late Ian McLagan as part of The New Barbarians, Wood and Richards huddled revealing Richards’ country leanings and latent desire to be a country crooner.  In the most raggedy version of a country song you’ll ever hear, we can find footage of Richards behind the electric piano, Wood on pedal steel and MacLagan on organ as Richards lumbers his way through Tammy Wynette’s “Apartment #9.” Another chestnut is the outtake of “Girl From The North Country” in which Richards muddles his way through to do his best Bob Dylan impersonation.

It took Richards another decade or so but he found himself singing with George Jones on the title track of Burn This Playhouse down, an album of unreleased duets that finally surfaced in 2008. Richards and Jones also sang on the Dallas Frazier song “Say It’s Not You,” part of the Bradley Barn Sessions.

“That was quite a trip seeing George and Keith in the same room,” said the late saxophonist Bobby Keys talking to the Scene’s Adam Gold in 2012. “They hit it off right away, although they were like two old dogs sort of walking around in a circle, seeing who was going to do what first.”

“Let’s Make This Thing Grow Up”

If the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll, the convergence of country and blues into something even more mystical has fueled Richards’ lifelong obsession and profession.

Perhaps the greatest birthday gift Keith Richards will receive this year is that the Rolling Stones are said to be recording again. Richards has spent his entire career in his own words trying to “make this thing grow up” and now the Rolling Stones has made it past the band’s fiftieth anniversary. These days Richards has earned wisdom that comes with time and provides a telling footnote to his mission statement. In the documentary he philosophizes: “You’re never grown up until they put you six feet under.”

When reflecting on the exile of his “lost years,” John Lennon scolded The Rolling Stones for fronting a band as a guise for a boys club whose members had never grown up. If the fraternity named after a Muddy Waters song is still counting after fifty years, it can't be said that Jagger and Richards are the mates they once were. All you have to do is look to the stage. You are unlikely to ever see the two sharing the same mic as they did during the fabled tours of early Seventies. These shows provided the backdrop for some of the most iconic photographic images in rock and roll.

Richards would publicly call the singer “the greatest front man ever” but behind closed doors he had his own inside nickname for Jagger, referring to him as ”Brenda” or “that bitch Brenda,” The name was borne out of their epic years of feuding, the period he refers to in the documentary as World War III. It was an inside joke first revealed in Bill German’s book Under Their Thumb and later referenced in Life. Today Richards downplays it all as quarrels among “brothers” which would only be expected for partners who have been together this long. Prior to the Rolling Stones 50 and Counting Tour, an apology was required to which Richards Road wrote in Life, “I'll say anything to go back on the road with the Stones.”

Since meeting during the Let It Bleed sessions, Keith Richards hasn’t known a December birthday without his "best pal" Bobby Keys. Keys died last December, just a few days after the passing of keyboardsman Ian McLagan who played with the Stones and was there with Keys watching Jagger and Richards jam with Waters at the Checkerboard Lounge. In one of those karmic co-incidences, Bobby Keys was born the same dayas Richards, December 18, 1943, something the two accidently realized when they were traveling together and pulled out their passports. The two were born a few hours apart and Richards quipped in his tribute in Rolling Stone that the two never sorted out who was born first.

Keys’ saga began in Lubbock, Texas where as a teenager in the late Fifties he would sneak out of his bedroom window to go to the Black and Tan Café to see blues legends like Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters when they would come through and play. Keys, who knew Buddy Holly when he was starting out, started playing with the country band called Tommy Hancock and the Roadside Playboys and later toured with Bobby Vee.

I remember Keith Richards once saying that he never worried about the toll of hard living and age. As long as Bobby Keys was doing well, he reasoned, he would be okay because they came into the world one in the same. Watching the late great blues guitarist Muddy Waters at the Checkerboard Lounge, I found myself mesmerized as the Stones walked into the Chicago club, Jagger and Richards flanked by the indispensable sidemen Keys and MacLagan who are no longer with us.

These days I’m likely to unwind on a Friday night by opening a bottle of red wine and start trolling YouTube to fuel my insatiable thirst for vintage Stones outtakes, demos and unreleased treasures. Chuck Leavell, the de facto bandleader and musical director, can be heard calling out the counts before songs. Leavell was once interviewed on 60 Minutes and oversaw a songbook that, at the time, had four hundred songs in it.  My treasure hunts have yielded gems like the cover of the Penguins’ "Precious Love," the ten minute reggae jam of “Jah Is Not Dead” and the stunning nine minute “Invitation” as Mick proves himself a great soul singer trading falsettos and verses and urging on the immortals Bobby Womack and Don Covay. It will leave you speechless. And then there’s a delightful demo called “You Can’t Cut The Mustard” built around Keith’s homage to Chuck Berry and Leavell invoking the ghost of Berry’s great piano player Johnnie Johnson.

“I’m Not Getting Old, I’m Evolving”

There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about Keith Richards. But it’s always fun to remember some of the guitarist’s great one-liners.

“Keith,” a reporter asked, “why did you call the album Some Girls?”  “Because we couldn’t remember all of their fucking names,” he said smirking. Of the documentary Shine a Light directed by Martin Scorsese “I think Marty wanted to show what a pain in the arse Mick could be.”

In the year 2015, Keith Richards has been holding court and waxing philosophical one liners and everything from Led Zeppelin to rap music and taking on Justin Bieber. “Rap,” he said, attracted a lot of “tone-deaf people.”

“Rap. So many words, so little said.”

On age? “I’m not getting old. I’m evolving.”

Sitting at the piano which he was inspired to learn from boogie woogie player and original Stone Ian Stewart, Richards is apt to pick out Buddy Holly or Otis Redding and see where it takes him.

“You think you’ve played something that’s wrong and then you realize it’s the start of a new song,” he tells documentarian Neville.

 “Music is something that binds people together through centuries, through millennium,” he reflects. “It’s undefinable and nobody’s ever going to have the answer. But it’s great fun exploring.”