Keith Richards: The Human Riff

By Hans Ebert

What is it about Keith Richards that draws us to him- this bandit, pirate, Rolling Stone, sole survivor, Bluesman, Rock star, Keefster, Midnight Rambler, cornerstone, Stone Alone, sideman, The Human Riff?

When the Rolling Stones first appeared on the scene to be the yang to the Beatles ying, it was mainly about leader Brian Jones with his angelic blond looks and impish smile while playing his Vox Teardrop guitar before falling from grace and being a fragile passenger of the Rock and Roll circus and ending up being dumped by the band he founded, and then found dead in his swimming pool.

Yes, there was the singer in the band pretending to be the King Bee and the Little Red Rooster, but it would take a couple more years before Mick Jagger became a combination of Jumping Jack Flash, a strutting peacock showing off its plumage and Tina Turner in the throes of the Thunder Thighs Dome. In the background and keeping that backbeat rock solid were Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts with a spotty faced Keith Richard (sic) being the “George” in the band- The Quiet Stone playing variations of the Chuckles Berry Chord Book.

It wasn’t until that opening riff to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” blasted through airwaves- Keith wanting his guitar to sound like Stax/Volt horns- that the world first heard the second coming of The Human Riff. Chuck Berry was the first, and the strange relationship between the Scorcerer and The Apprentice is one that still remains a mystery- equal parts respect, anger, resignation and resentment.

Keith Richards is also an enigma and mystery- Rock and Roll’s Man Of Mystery who has flown too close to the sun, gone past the dark side of the moon, and is still standing, still rocking, and reeling in the years comprising some of the world’s greatest Rock riffs- “Honky Tonk Women”, “Jumping Jack Flash”, “Street Fighting Man”, the eerily brilliant sound of impending danger in “Gimme Shelter”, “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll”, “Miss You”, “Brown Sugar” etc.

Whereas George Harrison articulated the music of the Beatles with incredible creativity through his gently weeping guitar that worked on a dimension of it own, giving every track its own personality, Keith Richards gave- and continues to give- the Stones that starting point to tumbling dice thrown across the table of a Beggars Banquet made up of exiles on Main Street. He keeps Sir Mick honest- and he keeps the Glimmer Twins shining and the band intact.

Through osmosis, personal triumphs over career-ending adversity, various drug busts, Mars bars, and fighting off Mr Jitters, because you can’t always get what you want, but, sometimes, you get what you need, Keith Richards has found that internal fortitude- that resilience and mental strength and agility that, sadly, Brian Jones failed to come to grips with and, instead, became a liability to those around him, but mainly to himself.

From being a student and flag bearer for all those Bluesmen whose music was often left with the devil at those crossroads- Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and, especially, Robert Johnson, Keith Richards is today seen as being forever young, and the epitome of Cool in an increasingly uncool world.

It’s why everyone from Johnny Depp to Norah Jones are drawn to him- and him to their talents. whether in music or otherwise. Norah Jones and Keith Richards might seem an odd combination, but then so was that of Chuck Berry and Keef- and one-time model Patti Hansen and her husband of over thirty years who she’s stuck with through thick and thin and falling off coconut trees in his late Sixties.Opposites attract as much as those cut from the same cloth.

Whatever cloth Keith Richards was cut from, well, that tinker, tailor, soldier has folded shop and gone home with John Le Carre. There is now just one Stone standing. He will never be Sir Keith, but he’ll always be Keef, and inspiring us to take chances, be true to ourselves, and to know where and when to draw the line, and be thankful for the past lives led, and to make the most of the time we have left right here and now.

He’s an inspiration, man. He’s what so many of us wanna be when we finally grow up- owing no one anything and being our own person.

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