Having explored every other avenue of cinematic representation, the new documentary series My Life As A Rolling Stone dedicates a single episode to each member of the so-called “Greatest Rock N’ Roll Band in the World.” Airing through August on Epix and Amazon Prime, its debut episode featured legendary frontman Mick Jagger. It makes sense then that episode two picks up with his creative partner and spiritual foil, guitarist Keith Richards.
“Every guy I’ve ever met in my life wants to be Keith Richards,” says Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde at the top of the episode. It’s a good introduction, if hyperbolic (I mean, EVERY guy she EVER met?). No less hyperbolic though pretty accurate, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash says, “He is the model that all of us rebellious rock n’ roll guitar players followed from.”
There were rock guitarists before and since, many of them better, some more dangerous, but Keith is the original gypsy pirate outlaw, a cigarette in one hand, bottle of booze in the other, and a 6-string slung over his shoulder. He’s faced down Hells Angels, law enforcement agencies of various national origin, and Chuck Berry, and lived to tell the tale. As accolades fall about him like leaves off a tree, a photo montage shows Richards throughout the years with an array of awesome haircuts and his teeth in different states of decay.
In contrast to Jagger, who, despite the lines on his face appears unnaturally young, Keith now looks like a dapper grandpa, a baby blue cap keeping his head warm, wearing what look like medals from an army he never served in. Much like the band, his myth precedes him. Richards discusses the “delusions” people have about him while Jagger ponders whether he’s trapped by the character he’s created around himself. “It’s just part of the gig,” Keith ultimately concludes.
Born in 1943, Richards grew up on the edge of London, country on one side, suburbs on the other. His rebellious streak started early. He missed the placement tests that would determine his future professional vocation and was later expelled from school for truancy, both incidents in their own way foretelling the rest of his life.
His musical ambitions were encouraged by his grandfather, who gave him his first guitar. Amazingly, he still has it and cradles it like a kitten or broken doll. Like many of his generation, the gray winter of post-World War II England was made glorious summer by the sounds of American rock n’ roll and blues. After bumping into boyhood chum Jagger and finding him in possession of rare Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry records, they hatched a plan to be the best blues band in London, pretty cheeky for a bunch of emaciated teenage white boys copying music made by grown ass black men and women in the Deep South.
The blues made Richards want to be a musician but the Beatles made him want to write hits. The hysteria the group generated “was not quite what I had in mind,” he says with a laugh. Jagger says despite his reputation as a musicologist and blues aficionado, he’s far from a purist. Archival footage of them writing “Tell Me” in a hotel room in 1964 is revelatory; Richards strumming and picking out the basic structure of the song on his guitar while Jagger conjures words and melodies out of thin air.
Naturally shy, Richards claims the pressures of fame drove him to drug use. “I guess my refuge was heroin,” he says matter of factly. I’m not sure I buy it. After his addiction nearly derailed the band in the late ‘70s, he kicked the hard stuff. “It probably ain’t worth the ride,” he says of his pharmacological adventures though a pregnant pause following his pronouncement seems to suggest otherwise.
Besides his biographical data, the episode tries to explain what makes Keith one of rock’s most revered musicians. There’s a million players out there that play guitar faster and cleaner but few that can make a song rock as hard with so little. One of rock’s greatest rhythm guitar players, Richards explains, “Solos come and go. A riff lasts forever.”
His minimal approach to maximum rock n’ roll extends to his guitar, which is tuned to an open G chord with the bottom string taken off. As he’s explained on more than one occasion, “five strings, three notes, two hands and one asshole.” His roadie shows us his famed ‘50s Telecaster, the wood worn away where the neck meets the body from his relentless right hand attack.
As with its predecessor, the episode ends with an examination of his 60-year creative partnership with Mick Jagger. Where Jagger is the extrovert whose ability to hold the crowd’s attention is rivaled by his focus on the band’s financial bottomline, Richards is in many ways the Stones’ musical soul, more “concerned with the sound,” according to Tina Turner, than clothes or the trappings of fame. “The perfect yin yang,” as Sheryl Crow describes them.
Of course this is all part of the myth of the Stones, something Jagger told as an episode earlier was “bullshit.” Still, myths are hard to dispel, especially when they’ve been told for a long time. Though not as in-depth or satisfying as Keith Richards: Under The Influence, episode two of My Life As A Rolling Stone gets at the heart of Richards’ impact and allure. While the series is off to a good start, I’m actually more excited to see the next two episodes, which profile Ron Wood and Charlie Watts, musicians who seldom garner as many headlines but who’s musical contributions are just as great.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter: @BHSmithNYC.
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