Friday Night with Guitar George: Happy Birthday (again!) Keith Richards

His coat is torn and frayed, it’s seen much better days
But as long as the guitar plays, it’ll steal your heart away
-Rolling Stones
“Torn and Frayed”

On December 18 Keith Richards will be seventy-four years old, a feat poignantly accentuated by the October passing of Tom Petty at the comparatively young age of sixty-six.

I’m not certain of the exact moment when I first became aware of Keith Richards’ presence in my life—some time in my mid-teens— but it was as though he had been there all along, making himself at home.  In the virtual house of my teenage musical imagination, Duane Allman was in the back bedroom painting the Mona Lisa, Eric Clapton was in the den reinventing calculus, Alan Collins and Gary Rossington were riding four wheelers in the back yard, while Keith was in the kitchen cooking eggs and bacon.  His music is fundamental yet essential, and I understood this implicitly long before I was able to articulate it.

Perhaps because of some primal common bond, something buried deep in the human genome, a teenage college dropout in London, England became obsessed with music created thousands of miles away by sons of Mississippi farm hands. Thus, Keith Richards spent the brutally cold winter of 1962 huddled up in a tiny Dartford apartment with fellow Rolling Stones founders Brian Jones and Mick Jagger alongside a stack of records by American blues artists.  In between trips to feed the gas meter to keep the heat on, the lads crouched with their guitars in front of the record player, trying to soak up every ounce, every note, of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson.  This devotion to the Delta blues plus a healthy dose of Chuck Berry is what formed the blueprint of the Stones’ distinct sound.  During the Stones’ early years Richards and Jones shared lead and rhythm guitar duties, but it soon became clear that Keith’s guitar was the musical centerpiece of the band.

During the Rolling Stones’ 1965 American tour, Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night in a Clearwater, Florida hotel room with a riff in his head.  Thankfully he recorded the riff on a cassette player before promptly falling back asleep.  And thus was born the opening to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” probably the most recognized—and possibly best—rock guitar riff ever recorded.  The ambivalent tension it conveys was perfect for 1965 and still resonates as strongly today.  Richards made an entire career out of producing indelible rock riffs, from brash (“The Last Time”) to urgent (“Street Fighting Man”) to sinister (“Midnight Rambler”), to haunting (“Gimme Shelter”), to salacious (“Stray Cat Blues”) to downright visceral (“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”).  While it’s easy to love Keith’s huge, iconic riffs like “Satisfaction” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” just as compelling is his obscure stuff: the appropriately manic opening to “19th Nervous Breakdown,” the folk-country warmth of “Prodigal Son” and “Factory Girl” from Beggar’s Banquet, the drunken stagger of “Slave” from Tattoo You, the playful jabs that punctuate “Monkey Man” from Let it Bleed, the breathtaking subtlety of “Almost Hear You Sigh” from Steel Wheels.  Probably the most obscure, and two of my favorites: the grungy bravado of “Citadel” and the ironic peppiness of “2000 Man,” both from the eclectic 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Keith Richards’ style has never been about finesse or flamboyance or speed.  He has a minimalist approach, taking the core fundamentals he learned from the blues masters and adapting them to his own purposes, favoring musical integrity over flashy showmanship. While never straying far from the blues basics, Richards’ skill manifests itself in countless variations and combinations of blues, rock and country.  Nowhere is this diversity more prominently showcased than on the Rolling Stones’ 1972 masterpiece Exile on Main Street.

Exile on Main Street is both the pinnacle of the Stones’ career and a microcosm of Keith Richards’ greatness.  There are a lot of things to love about this album—Charlie Watts’ drumming, Bobby Keys’ sax, Nicky Hopkins’ piano, Mick Taylor’s fearless lead guitar, the all-in commitment of Mick Jagger’s vocals—but underneath all these layers it is Keith’s rhythm guitar that represents the heart and soul of Exile.  Consider for a moment the sheer breadth of Keith’s contribution to the album: the sly wink that opens “Rocks Off,” the frenzied rush of “Rip This Joint,” the hypnotic groove of “Hip Shake,” the dance hall two-step of “Casino Boogie,” the sublime ache of “Tumbling Dice,” the road weary, yet upbeat jangle of “Sweet Virginia” and “Torn and Frayed,” the exotic heartbeat of “Sweet Black Angel,” the sensual expectancy of “Loving Cup,” the unabashed ebullience of “Happy,” the sweat-soaked claustrophobia of “Ventilator Blues,” the greased diesel of “All Down the Line,” the rusty razor wire of “Stop Breaking Down,” the staccato SOS of “Soul Survivor.”  Exile on Main Street covers a lot of ground musically and thematically, and Keith Richards’ guitar is the common thread that runs through all of it.

Fast-forward fourteen years: after the Rolling Stones released Dirty Work in 1986 Mick Jagger decided rather than take the Stones on tour to support Dirty Work he instead would work on his second solo album.  This did not sit well with Richards, whose indignant response was to by God record his own solo album.  Keith put together a band of talented veteran musicians that he named The X-Pensive Winos. Then, armed with a chip on his shoulder and a guitar case full of ideas, he took the Winos into the studio and recorded Talk Is Cheap, released in October 1988.  The album was well-received by critics and fans alike, and an electrifying performance on a Tom Hanks-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live helped to validate Keith’s solo project.  During Rolling Stones tours, Keith usually sings lead vocals on only two songs each night, but when Richards and the Winos went on tour, Keith proved that he could handle singing lead for an entire concert.  Like his guitar-playing, Keith’s vocals are more about being genuine and unpretentious than being “pretty.”  Richards’ second solo album, Main Offender, was released in 1992, in between the Stones’ Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge LPs.  It did not sell as well as Talk Is Cheap, but it became a personal favorite of mine, especially the song “Eileen,” which was also loved by my two year-old son, who shouted “Eye-yeen! Eye-yeen!” from the back seat when I played the cassette in the car.

Tonight’s featured video is a live performance of the aforementioned “Eileen,” recorded in Chicago in 1993.  Keith opens the song with his trademark up-and-down chord strokes, then sings with an endearing tenderness in his raspy voice.  I have watched this video probably three dozen times because I keep seeing new things: subtle nuances of expression, deft movements on the strings and frets. The honey-and-vinegar tone of Keith’s guitar in this song is a thing of wonder and beauty.

Two and a half decades after this performance Keith Richards is still on the road.  The Stones just completed a European tour with plans for additional live appearances in 2018.  Keith’s seventy-four year old fingers are still working the blues magic he learned in that frigid London apartment over half a century ago.  His coat is torn and frayed, but as long as the guitar plays………………..

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