Keith Richards still living large at 80 2

Keith Richards still living large at 80

The hard living, guitar licking spearhead of the Rolling Stones sound for 60 years has defied the odds to reach his ninth decade.
Deutsche Welle | Dec 18 2023

Since his rise to global stardom as lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones in the 1960s, Keith Richards has remained the poster boy of drugs and rock 'n' roll.

In 1973, UK music magazine New Musical Express ranked Richards the most likely rock star to die within a year. Fifty years later he's still here, and unlike guitar god contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix or former band mate Brian Jones — who were both dead at 27 — Richards has both reached 80 and is still rockin'.

Keef, as he's known, is off the hard stuff but still likes the occasional drink, he says. Through it all he's never stopped playing music, laying down his inimitable blues-rock licks for yet another Rolling Stones album in 2023, "Hackney Diamonds."

A bad boy made good

Keith Richards was born in Dartford, Kent in 1943. His mother bought him his first guitar when he was a child and he was inspired by the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

While attending Dartford Technical High School for Boys, he was recruited to the school choir where he sang soprano and even performed for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. But he soon developed a rebellious streak, preferring the music of Chuck Berry. He was ultimately expelled from school for truancy.

Previously neighbors during childhood, Richards became reacquainted with Mick Jagger at a train station in 1961 and soon joined his amateur covers band, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. This band subsequently merged with Blues Incorporated, featuring Brian Jones, and by 1962 it had turned into the Rolling Stones.

Twenty-four British studio albums later and with record sales estimated to be in excess of 200 million, the Stones are generally regarded as one of the most influential bands ever.

Between 1968 and 1973, Keef was instrumental in a string of seminal rock albums, including "Sticky Fingers," "Beggars Banquet" and "Exile on Main Street."

With Mick Jagger, he wrote the bulk of the Stones' catalog, forming a collaboration as highly-regarded as that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

But drugs threatened to end his career — and his life — long before Richards reached rock immortality.

'Dealing with fame and pressure'

Heavy heroin use in the 1970s led to a catalog of possession charges, including one for drug trafficking in Toronto in 1977 that might have landed Keith Richards in jail for seven years.

In a 2022 BBC documentary, he said that he indulged in the narcotic — along with liberal portions of mescaline, LSD, cannabis and much else — "to deal with fame and pressure."

But by the late '70s he was off heroin. Richards says he gave up smoking in 2019 and cocaine in 2006 — after he infamously, according to his own account, sniffed cocaine mixed with his father's cremated ashes.

But he once said that "fame has killed more very talented guys than drugs."

He told The Telegraph on September 23 that he often needs to escape the limelight, and not always through drugs.

"I've always got a book on the go," he explained. "It keeps me sane. And, you know, its possibly somewhere I hide. I'm not cut out to be a pop star, and I have to deal with it, but it is a pain in the ass sometimes, quite honestly. And so, now and again during the day, I just retreat into books."

Through it all, there was of course the music. In addition to the Stones, there has been numerous solo records and side projects, including his band The X-Pensive Winos.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, while Rolling Stone magazine ranked him fourth on its list of 100 best guitarists in 2011.

The rocker also turned up in three "Pirates of the Caribbean" films as Captain Teague, father of Jack Sparrow, with a look that was inspired by Richards himself.

Not ready to sell Stones catalog

Richards has always maintained a wry sense of humor, and a kind of fatalism that allows him to accept ageing with grace, and to celebrate his surprising longevity.

Asked if going back into the studio to record "Hackney Diamonds" was like getting on a bike, Richards deadpanned in an interview with CBS on October 15: "Pretty much, but you're not sure if the tires are pumped up."

In 2022, Richards confirmed that, while fellow ageing music luminaries like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Sting were selling off their catalogs, he and Mick Jagger had no plans to sell up.

"The only thing about selling your catalog, that's a sign of getting old," he told CBS Sunday Morning in 2022, adding that the band might "put some more stuff in it."

"So far, I have no real problem with getting old," he told The Telegraph. "There are some horrific things that you can see in the future, but you've got to get there. I'm getting along with the idea of being 80, and still walking, still talking. I find [ageing] a fascinating process."

Edited by: Brenda Haas