Those who haven't heard of him wouldn't be
wanting to cross his path on the corner of Edith Grove.
On a wet and lonely night, the only signs of his presence are his footsteps, up until the moment when his imminent arrival is presaged by a hormonal discharge that impregnates the air, a rancid smell that only bodies that have been soaked in liquor for years can emanate. In such a case, your only chance of saving yourself from a fright is if the man about to cross your path shares the same runes as yours and sees a kindred spirit behind your eyes. Suddenly, it's difficult to breathe. You could cut the air with a knife. Your heartbeat accelerates. Painted eyes, a dishevelled bandana, diabolical smile. One, two… One, two, three, four…
Right up to number nine.
The bad luck that a cat can give you if it crosses your path in a dark alley is compensated for if that black cat is one of your own; indeed, some cultures believe that having one in the home is a good omen. God himself sent an extra pair of them to Noah in order to rid him of a plague of rats that were threatening to overrun the ark…
Their proficiency in carrying out such dark deeds sullied their reputation, even identifying them as the alter ego of the witches that the medieval Catholics were so keen on on burning at the stake. The black cat was symbolised with the Devil, with black magic, but also, since ancient Egyptian times, seen as a deity with the power of longevity. Because of its self-sufficient and independent character, its enigmatic and magical aura, in many countries a cat is said to have seven lives. Or nine.
To be born, to grow up, to reproduce, to die… or not. When you fall in with the Devil and a pact is made, it may go on eternally… half a century perhaps? Longer? The post-WWII generation is perhaps the most prolific in popular musical culture, the one from which legends have risen, rising up out of the loneliness and pain of stark, broken families and tormented, shell-shocked fathers, hidden away in their bedrooms, getting out through their guitars what they are incapable of saying through their mouths, the pain of forced maturity and hard living.
This army of children taught themselves how to exorcise their fears. Scraped knees, potato peelings and boiled sprouts, cold nights practicing chords between secret puffs on cigarettes, hidden away. Quiet, pensive grandparents, determined to make their grandchildren tough, testing them, turning a blind eye to their mischievous deeds, even encouraging them. They want strong kids, survivors; they luckily (or not so luckily) survived the first war, but their children didn't manage to come back from the second one - or if they did, only in body, not in spirit. If you don't harden their souls, they see no chance of escape from this living death.
Working mothers with only, lonely children, brought up in the streets, dodging cars, rival gangs, the police, bustles, brawls and bust-ups, lunchbox thieves, post-war kids who grew up surrounded by single mothers and aunties, red marks on their hands or bottoms from when they couldn't do their sums right, who learned to sing with Sunday hymns and the national anthem in the church choir, growing up to be adolescents wanting to create their world with all the things they had learnt to love and hate as youngsters – cobblestones, rats, rubble and unexploded bombs, walking back from school or from bunking it, forming bands whose reputation was often worse than the noises they made, seedlings that would in time grow up to be our legends, hard nuts that won't die even if you dropped a car on them – at least that's the way it seems, because if their lives began in that hell, with who are they going to best sympathise with if it isn't the Devil? The Devil's work for all eternity.
Like the hits of the Rolling Stones. Like the unmistakable sound of Keith, as unreal as the world that brought him up in was. Because who could believe that this old, crooked man, his back bent from the weight of countless wrinkles, slow in movement from the weight of the passing years, the drugs taken, the liquor drunk and the women had, who could believe that this weird, raggedy, spaced-out old man can make a Gibson sound like a wild pack of bluesmen?
Richards defies all logic simply by beating it, creating the atmosphere that Jagger, Watts and Wood breathe. And heaven forbid, we all would love to one day sniff his ashes, just to see if there is some dark alchemy in there that we might be able to imbibe.
Until then, all of us, grandfathers, fathers and grandsons alike, venerate him, to see if we a little of his dark magic might rub off on us. Until one day we may introduce ourselves to him, he laden with riches and exquisite musical taste, ready to show us the secret of his game. Or ready to tell us to take a walk. Who knows?
It was back in 1959 when an adolescent lad with a prominent jaw registered at Sidcup Art College. He had gone there driven by his ability to express himself through drawing and the small detail of having burnt some dustbins trying to cover up a petty theft at school. A mate of his from the Dartford area also went there and in his spare time played various instruments in a band with a name that today is quite ridiculous, but back in the 1950s was de riguer: Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys.
Although Mick Jagger was also out and about at this time, it wasn't until a year and a half later that Keith and Mick would bump into each other on a train and started reminiscing about their days in primary school, before life separated them – but that the Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters records that the boy with the thick lips and lascivious eyes had under his arms would bring back together, the hot-headed guitarist inviting him for lunch that same day. That was in the spring of 1961, when the stones started to roll…
Keith Richards has never let life dictate what to do. Sick of his life at home, at the age of 19 he packed his bags and moved to Edith Grove, a neighbourhood a fair way beyond Chelsea, a cold, hard dive of a place, where he preferred the company of his friends, sweaty from always being on the lookout to play (with guitars and women), than the bland warmth of his family home, where he felt suffocated. At home, there was not a penny to be had, but he took with him a great inheritance.
A descendant of French Protestants that fled to England in the 18th Century, grandfather Theodor August Dupree, played several instruments and his seven daughters, one of who was Keith's mother, Doris, sang and also played some instruments. Young Keith had learnt to sing when he was just two years old and when he was four he was already correcting his mother whenever she sang out of tune…
Adolescents are wont to try out whatever crosses their paths, to go with the flow, follow a something or a somebody and when the time is right, to lead a group of people with the same interests. This has never been the case with Keith Richards. In a way, still an adolescent at 70 years old, all he breathes is the Rolling Stones, the reason why he has been able to miraculously escape death so many times. The kohl-eyed guitarist, fourth-best in the world according to the magazine with the same name as the group that he quite literally lives and breathes for, has forever been a hardened, skin and bone man, scuppering all possible attempts to reign him in or settle him down. The most that you can do with him is accompany him along the way, as did Gram Parsons, that American guy who came onto the scene towards the end of the 60s with his Byrds to show him the secrets of white folk and the southern harmonies to be found with wind and strings, understand his syncopated, off-beat riffs, show him the way towards the creation of his very own chords in open G tuning and accept that he, and only he, can play the song of his life, And yours, if you want to stay close.
Before, on 9th May 1965, after squeezing some late-coming spots in the bathroom mirror of a Tampa hotel (Florida, USA), Keith had shown Mick an idea as yet in its embryonic state. Neither men at that moment nor once the birth came about four days later at Chicago's Chess Studios were over the moon with their creation, but Brian Jones, who was back then just about lucid, Charlie Watts, forever the thinker, Bill Wyman, the eternal Ian Stewart and their current manager Andrew Oldham, all gave it the nod. 'Satisfaction' had it all; it would be a winner.
And a winner it was. Just two months after the song came out, it was already an anthem all around the world: the song's eternal riff, according to Richards, was based on something he heard in 'Dancing in the Street' by Martha & The Vandellas. This would be the very same song that would motivate Mick to turn his back on Keith during one of his many resurrections, giving as an excuse a project in which his alter ego would have another opportunity to massage his ego – this time, bathing in the glory with Bowie.
The song had a sound that hit you square in the face, with rebellious, generational lyrics sang by misunderstood inheritors of an alien world, by youngsters that wanted to take control of their world, all the world. And then there is the name. It may or may not be a coincidence, but the song, although the lyrics are negative, has a title that is expressed positively, within the central message of being fed up, there is hope. If there is no satisfaction in your life, become a Stone, sing it with us. Let's make this hell at least our hell. Maybe this is the secret of being born, growing up, having a romp and not dying. Be crafty, be tough, rule your own destiny, beat time at its own game, get up from under that fallen car and stroll on, an eternal smile on your lips, a guitar on your back.
That's how you can get over Oxford Street's Marquee banning your group just when you need to make a name for yourself in the most important London club of 1962, and that its owner reports you for vandalising his property and trying to make him swallow your Harmony Meteor. It's the only way to bear the rivalry imposed by the fans, the managers and the press with the fabulous four from Liverpool, who, by the way, you go out drinking beer with after the gigs to talk about the inner secrets of the Epiphone Casino. Only by letting it go with the Les Paul can you deal with the fact that your girl, Anita Pallenberg, has gone to bed with your best friend and the whole world can see on the big screen how realistic those oh so 'rehearsed' scenes are.
In this way, you can keep on your feet after drinking such a quantity of vodka, bourbon and God knows what else that it would put the millions of people waiting to see you strutting out with your Flying V onto the Hyde Park stage of 1969 on their backs.
Only a tough character like yours can recover from the death of your one-month old daughter, Tara, while in the middle of an American tour and even carry on gigging, playing your G with five black strings. For a hard man like you, having eleven of your prized collection of Gibsons, Ampers, Telecasters and Guild Bluesbirds - valued at $40,000 back in 1971 - doesn't bring you to your knees; in fact you couldn't care less.
Without your Strat and your SG, how could you have gotten through your dad Bert's absence for nearly two decades? Without them, it'd have been impossible to forgive and forget after reuniting in 1982, (in a bar, naturally), accepting him as one of your drinking buddies…
It's this attitude that has resulted in the endless mayhem of fights, bust-ups, arrests and trials for illegal arms possession, public disorder, aggression against authority and drugs trafficking serving as an inspiration for the world's best luthiers like Ted Newman Jones. An attitude that has ensured that all these accusations, every single one of which would in time be confirmed, did not end up with you rotting in a prison cell like any other mortal would. A personality like that is what allows you to climb out of the abyss admitting in a moment of passing insight in June 1993 the merits of Ronnie Wood, who managed to take care of things when you needed it, playing lead guitar on your Firebird when you could not play more than rhythm on the Black Beauty and giving you the space and time necessary to sort yourself out, climb out of the darkness, while the other half of the Richards/Jagger duo wiped your name of his projects and gave you the cold shoulder, wishing out loud that you got back to taking smack. The same man that, when you have spent more lives than the devil himself could offer you, and it looks like there's just this one left, gets you to send the world and his wife packing, and you pour a drink for the man and say, "ah, what the hell"… and Mick understands you. And you're both laughing again.
And that is the essence of the Stones, the only group where the drummer admits that he, Charlie Watts, is not the man who sets the rhythm, but in fact everyone is following Keith Richards, that crazy looking guy whose war-weary veins are guitar strings, who has in him all the qualities necessary to be a person who breaks boundaries, travel new ground. In fact, it's just the one quality: that of not trying to do more than to go your own way. I'll go where I want to, I'll do it with whomever I feel like and I'll only stop at places where I can give and get a little pleasure.
The women that gave him some love could only do so because they limited themselves to walking with him down his road (and helping him along the way). Among his great hits as a rocker, there are also some tender ballads full of love and others defiant against the cold world into which he was born.
Over the last 50 years, up on the stage, under the bright lights, the pedals and strings of Keith Richards have conjured up real wizardry, alternating between rhythm and lead like a magician, mixing it up the most diverse styles imaginable. He is an enigmatic player, creating riffs inspired by the fans' choked screams on recognising them, and also an independent and self-sufficient one, knowing when to take the lead and when to go walkabout to exorcise his miseries. This eternal spirit of the Rolling Stones was lucky to have been born in England, where the cats have nine lives. And also those that congregate to see his sorcery, too. Material spirits that have been rewarded with untold riches from the practice of sympathising with his exquisite charms, bewitched by his magic.
One, two… One, two, three, four.
Only God knows if he is already on number nine.