I’ve gotten a few complaints from fellow Keefheads—note the inclusionary construction there—about the piece I posted a few weeks ago on Keith Richards’s memoir, Life. The criticism has centered not on my text, but on the videos I chose to accompany it, because neither of the two clips shows Richards making music. One of them, an excerpt from Robert Frank’s 1972 documentary Cocksucker Blues, captures Richards collapsing into a groupie’s arms, blissed out on heroin; and the other one, a snippet from a more recent interview with Richards for a BBC documentary about the blues, shows him clear-headed but ravaged, physically, by age and self-abuse. A music-writer friend emailed to say, “Good God! Why didn’t you show his work?”
The fact is, both of those videos show Richards at work—and not merely in the sense that he was on the timeclock when the footage was shot. More meaningfully, Richards’s notorious gift for exuding stupefication and ghoulishness has always been part of his art, if not the very essence of his genius. His fucked-upedness—and there is no more precise term for it—provides the content of Richards’s work. It informs his music as deeply as the blues or Chuck Berry do. As Richards acknowledges in his book, “I can’t untie the threads of how much I played up to the part that was written for me. … I think some of it is that there is so much pressure to be that person that you become it, maybe, to a certain point that you can bear. It’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were.”
I’ve always loved Keith, while knowing that my voyeuristic fascination with his decadence is a kind of sadism and, as such, a kind of cowardice. I’ve been too fearful of the likely consequences to dare trying more than an eensy fraction of the things he has done—and I’m referring not only to drugs, but to his pursuit of kicks of all sorts, including the thrill of creative abandon. Like others in the aged nation of geeks who comprise Stones fandom, I have been terrified by Richards’s recklessness at the same time I’ve coveted it. If much of what Richards has done to himself is a crime, my response is a sin.
One of those Keefheads who wrote me is an old friend I used to play music with, and he sent me a link to the video I’m posting here: an excerpt from Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s film of the Stones performing at the Beacon Theater in New York in 2006. It has Richards singing “You Got the Silver” from Let It Bleed, the first song for which he ever sang the entire lead vocal. Straightened out and cleaned up, he is still gloriously harrowing, magnetic in a fucked-upedness that endures, if only in our collective fantasies.