TBT – Why Keith Richards Matters

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Editor’s Note: Keith Richards will celebrate his 73rd birthday this Sunday. As he himself would probably say with a smile, “Bet ya didn’t see that coming.” Sure, we are all familiar with his accomplishments with the Rolling Stones, but this week, we look at what it is that makes him so important to music, so much so, that he has attained an almost mythical status.

Some people think I’m a mythical genius, others think I’m a junkie madman.

He’s been called “The Human Riff.” He’s a founding member of the Rolling Stones, and Rolling Stone Magazine lists him as number 4th on its list of 100 best guitarists. He is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having been inducted into the hall as a member of the Rolling Stones in 1989. He and his childhood friend Mick Jagger are among the greatest songwriting partnerships in rock and roll, alongside Lennon and McCartney, and Daltrey and Townshend.

If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.

From the day on the train when Richards met Jagger, who was carrying that Chess Records album containing the music of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, and their friendship began in earnest, they have always been about the blues. Sure, they may have taken a side trip into rock and roll (“I know, it’s only rock and roll, but I like it!”), but for these two stalwarts of music in the modern era, blues has always been the bedrock that everything else was built upon.

For the Glimmer Twins though, those forays into rock and roll have been magnificent, and for the most part, they have enjoyed them immensely. Over the years, as a group, the Stones have made folk music rock, country music rock and shake, and certainly, they have made blues rock the rafters as well.

Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life.

Over the years, Keith himself has performed and/or recorded with the likes of The Beatles, The Dirty Mac, Billy Preston, Faces, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Peter Tosh, Tom Waits, John Lee Hooker, The Chieftains, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Bobby Womack, Bernie Worrell, Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, and Jerry Lee Lewis. He has also produced Ronnie Spector, Aretha Franklin, Johnnie Johnson, and of course, his own solo albums.

You can’t go into a shop and ask for a ‘lead guitar’. You’re a guitar player, and you play a guitar.

Richards has not issued an abundance of solo material over the years. Main Offender arrived in 1992, Talk Is Cheap in 1988, and Crosseyed Heart just recently, in 2015. And of course, there’s his cult-classic, Live at the Hollywood Palladium, December 15, 1988, issued in the United States in December of 1991. As great as seeing the Rolling Stones was, witnessing the short lived X-Pensive Winos tour that was actually in support of Richards’ Talk Is Cheap album, was an experience in Existentialism, without restraints or boundaries.

The X-Pensive Winos were Richards, Steve Jordan, Charley Drayton, Ivan Neville, Waddy Wachtel, Sarah Dash, and natch, Bobby Keys nails things down on the saxophone. The spontaneity, vigor, and playing here while at times borders on post-punk, is just a sheer joy to take in. These folks are on the wire, without a net, and clearly, they are enthralled, having the time of their lives, and so is the audience. The set included the hits, “Take It So Hard,” and “I Could Have Stood You Up,” and Stones classics “Happy,” and “Too Rude.”

Now, many would argue that this is not the best of Keith Richards, and while that is a discussion that could be had, one thing is certain: This is exactly what is best about Richards and why he is so important to modern music, still, five decades on. It is precisely that “I don’t give a fuck about the rules” attitude that has worked so well for Richards. No constraints, preconditions, and nothing is off the table. All this doesn’t mean that he wasn’t still going to be a consummate musician.

If you’re going to kick authority in the teeth, you might as well use two feet.

Folks can argue to their hearts’ content that “The Stones haven’t made a good record since blah blah blah, yada yada yada.” Whatever. There is a reason that Richards has been called “The Human Riff.” Time after time, he has done for guitar what “Hoagy” Carmichael, and Count Basie did for piano; create catchy hooks that served as foundations upon which compositions could build standards of excellence, popularity, and emotional satisfaction.

… I don’t think you stop growing until they start shovelling the dirt in.

While it is still true today that “The Stones in a club is still the ultimate rush!”, Keith Richards has been a pioneering force for music to constantly expand its boundaries, continuing to grow and move ever forward. Fearless, inspired, always willing to try something new, what he is most concerned with is that the music is genuine, and says something real.

Thanks for the last five decades of music you have shared with us Keith!


Keith Richards

The Rolling Stones

Live at the Hollywood Palladium, December 15, 1988