It’s said that only cockroaches will survive a nuclear event, but I’d suggest cockroaches and Keith Richards. Keith is 75 and seems about double that; He doesn’t look to have been merely touched by father time, he looks like father time gave him a nasty beating. But against all logic this Stone is still rolling and doesn’t seem to be slowing down a bit. Mick Jagger has always been the Rolling Stones’ preening peacock out front, but Keith’s guitar has forever been the foundation of the Stones sound. Not on lead, where his playing is largely undistinguished, but of course with his unrivaled riffs – Rolling Stone (the magazine, that is) actually designated him as “rock’s greatest single body of riffs” (never mind riffs, maybe he’s just rock’s greatest single body, for having survived such notorious debauchery).
Yet his unquestioned greatness churning out rhythmic chords owing much to Chuck Berry, doesn’t necessarily correlate to his singing voice, which might more accurately be described as a croak. Somehow its brittle tenor meshes completely naturally as Jagger’s backing singer when Richards leans in to share a microphone, but left alone his vocals often sound most like a badly wounded animal. But, in an endearing way. Over all these years most Rolling Stones albums have provided Keith the chance to step up solo for one song, often odder sounding compositions than typical Stones tunes, yet still among the band’s grittiest and greatest: ‘Happy’ from Exile On Main Street, ‘You Got The Silver’ from Let It Bleed, ‘Little T & A’ on Tattoo You, ‘Coming Down Again’ from Goats Head Soup, ‘Thru And Thru’ on Voodoo Lounge, as well as the poignant opening verse of ‘Salt Of The Earth’ on Beggars Banquet.
My own Richards-sung favorite, though, is his contribution to 1978’s landmark Some Girls, the peppy and still pragmatic ‘Before They Make Me Run.’ The record is specifically about Keith’s heroin bust in Toronto in 1977, and his unapologetic reflection on the rock and roll lifestyle that led him there. But more generally, I just love the simple wisdom contained in the chorus: “After all is said and done / Gotta move while it’s still fun / Let me walk before they make me run.” It’s a sentiment easily applied to many of life’s thorniest situations. I quoted it myself not long ago, in negotiating a favorable exit from a long-term job situation that had soured irreversibly. And back in the day, I also recall my friend Redman invoking it not infrequently when his drunken shenanigans in a bar would occasionally (or inevitably) meet up with the wrong antagonist. I think Keith would’ve approved. One more reason he’s still around to try to outlive the cockroaches.