“Five notes, two strings, two fingers, and one asshole.” That’s all Keith Richards has ever needed to get by. Well, that, and perhaps an indestructible physical make-up from hell, a few hip cats with a thing for the blues by his side, and the blessings of the gods. Drug busts, heartbreak, heroin: there isn’t much the archetypal rock ’n’ roll guitar-slinger hasn’t endured. That he’s managed to emerge from the madness of his misadventures (relatively) unscathed, to the disbelief of lovers and naysayers alike — let alone keep one of the world’s greatest bands charging forth for more than five decades — is cause enough to hail him as the definition of a rake.
There was once a time when the world’s most “elegantly wasted” man (as the critic Nick Kent christened Richards in his heyday) was but a shy and soft-spoken wight with wonky ears. A few miles away from central London, in Dartford, Kent, the young Keith quelled the boredom of the ’burbs with Charles Dickens and grooved to the sounds of the jazz and classical records on his mum’s record player. While spellbound by the guitar that hung on his grandfather Gus’s wall, he was told he’d only be able to strum away on it with his sticky little fingers when he was tall enough to reach it. Rise to the challenge he did — and, boy, did it feel good to get the chords to Malagueña down pat.
Richards had known Mick Jagger as a schoolboy in Dartford, but it wasn’t until happenstance brought them together on a railway platform that the two hit it off. On one auspicious October day in 1961, the erstwhile choirboy who’d once sang for Queen Elizabeth and had ditched school to devote himself to music spotted Jagger carrying Chuck Berry’s Rockin’ at the Hops and The Best of Muddy Waters, and the two struck up a conversation. Like Keith, Jagger also worshipped at the altar of Chess Records, and it wasn’t long before the two found themselves jamming with a golden-haired bluesman by the name of Brian Jones, and later moved into a squalid flat in Chelsea’s Edith Grove with him. “What are you called?” asked a promoter one day. Fortunately for the scruffy bunch, Muddy Waters saved the day. “The Rollin’ Stones,” Jones said, eyeing the track Rollin’ Stone on the aforementioned collection.