“Although it was a shock when it actually happened, nobody was really that surprised. Everybody knows people that you just have a feeling about them that they’re not going to be 70 years old…ever. Not everybody makes it.”
—Keith Richards on Brian Jones’ death in 1969
I recently saw that news clip again of an emaciated, mumbling Keith Richards—dark, dilated eyes sunken deeper by ebony makeup below a wild mane of black, tussled hair, a dangling dagger earring and that signature rotted black hole in his teeth from thousands of cigarettes—waxing poetic about his recently deceased former band member, Brian Jones, who, at 27, had drowned “by misadventure” in his pool in Sussex, England, a few weeks prior. Jones, whom Richards had introduced to LSD two years before his rapid downward spiral of Dionysian drug abuse, was the first victim of trying to keep up with Keith, which this week reaches an inconceivable 70 years.
That’s right, kids; by the time this hits the streets, December 18, 2013, Keith Richards will turn 70.
70 years old.
If there was ever a time to slide the minted acronym WTF into this space, this would be it.
Hell…for Keith’s 70th, I’ll just write it out: WHAT THE FUCK?
I rewound the clip; watched Keith say it again; “Not everybody makes it.” And, of course, they don’t. But for him, the man that has turned “not make it” into an art form for half a century, it is the bedrock of irony that he has indeed “made it.”
This shudder of irony struck me when Michael Jackson died. And I thought, while the prepubescent Jackson was twirling around in front of his teenage brothers on the FlipWilson Show, Keith was comatose on smack and whiskey in a villa on the French Riviera causally firing pistols at local drug merchants and ramming a rented skiff into a gangster’s yacht and spitting at him.
I had a similar experience when vacationing in the Mohave Desert at Joshua Tree State Park in 1999. I ran into a local who told me a story about the young, frail singer-songwriter, Gram Parsons, whose 26-year-old remains were doused with five gallons of gasoline and burned there by “friends” after overdosing on morphine a few feet away in a rented cabin. Parsons hung around with Keith for little more than three years in the early ‘70s and introduced him to country music. Richards reciprocated by turning him onto heroin. Staring out into the long stretch of rock and sand, I could hear the echoes of Richards, who sang a beautiful duet with Willie Nelson of George Jones’ “Say It’s Not You” only a week earlier.
It was always the running joke, you know. A long running joke—over 40 years at least, when people became aware of this death wish river boat gambler with a guitar slung over his shoulder, a weird amalgam of Hank Williams’ doom injected with a Jesse James outlaw fury topped off with the insatiable appetite of the Marquis de Sade, if the Marquis de Sade happened to also be a lion tamer that defused bombs on the weekends. “What is keeping Keith Richards upright?”
It is hard to explain to those who are unfamiliar with the life and exploits of Keith Richards to marvel as I do this week that the man is still breathing. It is an inspiration for those of us who work diligently on challenging our constitution. He is our god. He is our champion.
32 years ago, when in college, there was a horrific snowstorm in New Jersey. I was to unfurl a detailed tribute to Richards’ birthday on my humble radio show at Mercer County Community College. But in the spirit of Richards, I ignored the elements and literally plowed ahead with my shit brown ’77 Plymouth Volare, sans snow tires or front wheel drive, but well-equipped with a badly wired cassette player blasting Exile On Main St. I cruised the uneventful 40 or so miles to the campus before an obviously catatonic woman decided to make a desperate left turn into my lane against a red light and I careened into her. I recall the impact, her alarmed face and soon her bleeding temple, as I crawled from the mangled driver’s side door to scream obscenities at her.
Instead of the aborted musical tribute that day, I settled for a metaphoric one; contemplating the strange karma of it all, as I embarrassingly waited in a garage called the Dragon’s Den for my mother to rescue me—just another victim of trying to keep up with Keith.
Forget the brilliance of the art; forget the Stones and all those ass-kicking riffs, forget “Satisfaction,” “Paint It Black,” ”Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Monkey Man,” “Brown Sugar,” “Bitch,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Rocks Off,” “Happy,” “Start Me Up” and the countless, and I do mean nearly countless, rock and roll defining sonic muggings. What I am talking about here is the sheer brilliance of surviving for decades, almost by the minute teetering on the precipice of total annihilation.
Also, forget the stupefying fact that maybe, all told, Keith Richards has spent a few days in jail, and not consecutively, just a scattered few hours here and there, whether being set-up by authorities or just busted flat out with tons of hard drugs and weapons all over the globe, and in places where either people didn’t give a shit that he was a Rolling Stone or because he was a Rolling Stone.
“I’ve never had a problem with drugs,” Keith has famously said. “I have a problem with cops.”
But that apparently isn’t even true.
And while Keith has left a long line of victims to his “keep up with Keith” axiom, some famous, some not-so, he has managed to do something even more enviable; despite whatever your selective morals might allow, and that is he has apologized for none of it. There were blood transfusions and drying out clinics to get him back on stage, but never any rehab or finding Jesus or sanctimonious after-the-fact anti-mayhem lectures from Keith. Shit, he only jettisoned the toxins he deemed “over,” as in he had bested them and could no longer see the need to belabor the point. This he astutely cites in his 2010 biography, Life, in which he tutors us all in the laughable art of moderation—for normal humans that means whatever it is most of us are doing, not that crazy, crazy shit he’s perpetuated since 1962.
Hell, Mick Jagger turned 70 in August, and except for a private toast around here, this was no surprise. There is a good chance with all the personal trainers and hyper vitamins and continued screwing of 20-somethings, Mick will live to 100. But Keith fucking Richards?
And so I shall leave you with the wisdom of the man that I have told people for years and years that they absolutely must televise his autopsy and then find a way to regenerate his DNA into some super-human machine, if it is possible to dissect the part of the brain that worked so diligently to destroy it. When asked by a French journalist in 1977 what he thought about leading the international underground Death Pool, Keith dragged on a cigarette, guzzled a nip of Jack Daniels from the bottle and then let the smoke waft from his crooked smile. “Oh, yeah?” he croaked. “I’ll let you know.”
Keith Richards at 70.
That is a Christmas miracle.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey,” “Fear No Art,” “Trailing Jesus,” “Midnight for Cinderella” and “Y.”