The people that I relate to, that I respect and admire, are the survivors of the variances of this life. Courage with character has always appealed to me. These relatable figures are the people that have struggled with various issues, losses or who have survived public failures. Their survival instincts intrigue me. Lessons to be learned.
Yet, despite those struggles or their scars, their dignity and integrity seem to remain intact. That is why I respect these folks. They are the comrades and influences on this path of life. One of the people that I have respect for is Rolling Stones composer, guitarist and singer, Keith Richards.
My respect does not stem from the fact that he is a “rock star” or any such nonsense. What garners my respect is that he survived the vagaries of fame with his humanity and humor well in place.
As Keith Richards turned 80 today, December 18, 2023, I thought it would be fun for my readers to write a literary birthday card to Keith. At Politichicks, I have previously written about Keith Richards in the context of two Rolling Stones related articles. The first was the June 7, 2019 article, “The Blues and The Rolling Stones.” The second, published on November 6, 2021, was a posthumous tribute to Rolling Stone drummer entitled, “Charlie Watts: Gentleman Drummer of Rock and Roll.”
As I described in the 2019 “Blues” piece, The Rolling Stones are a crucial part of my DNA as a musician. In conjunction with my listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues band, the Stones honesty about their Blues roots was one of the the foundational motivations, in my pursuit of the Blues as both a muse and as the form of my own musical expression.
Keith Richards has always been direct and honest about his continued love for the Blues. That love for music has led to live and/or recorded performances with major figures in Blues and Roots music. Keith, sometimes in the company of the other Stones, has played in concert or recorded with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Toots Hibbert, Peter Tosh, Honeyboy Edwards and Hubert Sumlin, among others.
When Hubert Sumlin passed in December 2011, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger paid for his funeral. One of the many examples of the quiet generosity of the Rolling Stones. When there is a musician that needs assistance or an issue that needs addressing; the Stones have been there with an open wallet, with no public fanfare attached.
Keith Richards has gone through a variety of transformations, from the 1960’s thru today. With the death of fellow founding member, Brian Jones, in 1969, Keith transformed from an anonymous figure in the shadows to establishing his own, very real presence.Mick Jagger, admirably, comes from the James Brown school of performing with his own innovations, a master performer. Keith Richards focus remains quite down to earth, tied to the roots of the music. Keith, and the late Charlie Watts, were the heart and engine of The Rolling Stones.
By my perception, it was always the music that mattered to Keith, above any hedonistic badge that has been attached to his, at times, “arresting” behaviors. The early eighties came, and Keith switched his libations from opiates to alcohol. No substance was ever more important than the music. More important, than an intoxicant change, was Keith’s relationship and eventual marriage to model/actress Patti Hansen.
Without any doubt, love has saved many a musician and Keith is no exception. As Keith got married at 40, on his birthday on December 18, 1983, this December anniversary/birthday marks 40 years of a stable marriage and a productive life for Keith Richards. He has had two children with Patti and two children from his previous relationship with actress Anita Pallenburg.
What interests me is not the Keith Richards of the late 1960’s through the early 1980’s. The addict–the drunk practicing alcoholic dexterity. Don’t want to know the guy they said who was the most likely to die, the rocker with the perpetual Marlboro hanging from his lips and a bottle of Jack Daniels on top of his amplifier. None of the aforementioned references or images are important to my appreciation of Keith Richards. I would fancy to say those nasty habits are no longer important to Keith either. Appropriately, to paraphrase him, he has “deleted those items” from his personal inventory. He no longer does any hard drugs, drinks minimally and no longer smokes, cigarettes. His enjoyments are far more innocent these days.
What is most interesting to me, as a fan, is the Keith Richards of today. The one that I appreciate is a well-spoken and a well-read person. A loyal family man. The grandfather, whose grandchildren adore him. The best-selling author. The Keith Richards that I respect is a musician who has created a unique guitar style that makes use of open tunings that were originally established by Delta Bluesmen, like Son House and Robert Johnson. In open tunings, the guitar is tuned to a functional chord. Unlike, House and Johnson, Keith uses these tunings for playing mainly rhythm guitar, as opposed to using a slide. He uses a series of guitars that make use of only five strings. The fifth string is the tonic note or the root of the key. A challenging style to play in.
Utilizing a series of inventive chord shapes, Keith makes great use of these open tunings and his, specially maintained five string guitars are the tools. These are the instruments and techniques that have established many of the distinct riffs of several classic Rolling Stones songs, like “Start Me Up.” You cannot realistically play like Keith Richards if you do not use these tunings and techniques. His influence on Rock and Roll guitar playing is immense. But many guitarists try to play like Keith in a standard guitar tuning, to their eventual peril.
Despite being the creator of countless memorable Rock and Roll songs, Keith’s special talent is as a writer of ballads. Songs like “Slipping Away, You Got the Silver,” among many, tug at the audience’s heartstrings and reveal the open soul of Keith Richards. Despite his previous image, Keith Richards is a romantic at heart. His ballads reveal the inner workings of that heart. Fellow guitarist Ronnie Wood speaks of Keith’s profound sense of right and wrong. I get that, his morality and courage are noteworthy.
In recent months, it has felt like a trip back to the 1960’s, with the final single of the Beatles released, which includes contributions by deceased members, John Lennon and George Harrison, and a new Rolling Stones record.
The 2023 Rolling Stone album “Hackney Diamonds” is one of the greatest albums of the Rolling Stones storied career. For the purposes of this article, and my own personal tastes, “Tell it to Me Straight,” showcases the cigarette-free voice of Keith Richards, continuing his tradition of writing poignant ballads.
Both he and Mick Jagger are performing at the the peak of their powers. The writing of this album is as rich and as varied as many of their classic albums like “Let it Bleed and Exile on Main Street.” Great, great songs on this record. In addition, some notable guests appear. Beatle Paul McCartney plays bass on “Bite My Head Off,” a serious rocker. Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga contribute to the Otis Redding-like ballad,”Sweet Sounds of Heaven.” The new album also features some of the last recorded performances of original Rolling Stones drummer, Charlie Watts. They close “Hackney Diamonds” with the song that inspired their name, a version of the Muddy Waters Blues, “Rolling Stone Blues. Just as they started, Keith and Mick playing the Blues.
So, in closing, happy birthday Keith Richards. Thank you for the lessons in survival and the workings of the human heart, in your songs and in your life. I greatly appreciate the joy you continue to communicate. I look forward to your 90th birthday.