Culture

Uncovering the real Keith Richards

We all know the tales of rock'n'roll debauchery, but it turns out it's really all about the music for The Rolling Stones guitar legend, writes filmmaker Oliver Murray.

Keith Richards

Photo: BBC/Mercury Studios

My Life as a Rolling Stone turns the lens on the legendary band’s final line-up, one by one. But, distilling a Rolling Stone from The Rolling Stones is a difficult task. Like trying to handle a volatile compound, it could explode in your face if handled incorrectly. This is especially true with Keith Richards, half of one of rock music’s greatest ever partnerships. Jagger and Richards are the original dynamic duo, the perfect musical yin and yang. As I headed to meet Keith, I wondered how I might distinguish him from the band with which his life has become inseparable. 

Keith Richards is an emblematic figure of rock’n’roll fantasy. We meet at Electric Lady Studios in NYC and seeing him in the flesh provokes a powerful reaction. Telling stories on screen about artists I admire is how
I make a living so I am far too invested to remain impartial, but are The Stones the greatest rock’n’roll band there has ever been? I think so. Where would popular culture be without The Rolling Stones?  

Before we even begin to discuss Keith’s music, his mere physicality says so much. Looking halfway between a tribal warlord and a weathered sea captain he is equal parts hellraiser, poet, troubadour, guitar slinger and raconteur – the embodiment of rock’n’roll. He sits quietly, like a swami, possessing an otherworldly wisdom and answering questions with both poise and passion. Yet although the flamboyant mythology that surrounds Keith enchants, it’s his enduring passion for music that fascinates. After the stories of excess and anti-establishment behaviour fade away, his legacy will be one of unique and brilliant artistic endeavour.  

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
Richards onstage at The Palladium, NYC with Mick Jagger in 1978 Photo: Sheri Lynn Behr / Alamy Stock Photo

 If there’s one man who has given every bit of his mind, body and soul to the study of the guitar and the players who came before him it is Keith Richards. Keith’s guitar style, while not always technically proficient, drips with swagger. His sense of rhythm, signature sustained chords, open tuning and his capacity to ingest the blues guitar styles of Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed created something entirely new and genre defining. While the band continue to explore how big a rock band can grow, Keith is an anchor of authenticity. He makes sure they don’t lose sight of their mission – to shine a light on the music they fell in love with in the first place.  

 Celebrating Keith as a musicologist may not grab the headlines but it’s my hope that if I’ve done anything at all for his legacy it’s to remind people that the man is first and foremost a musician and that music comes first. Keith’s life will be admired and emulated for many reasons, but for me he is a lesson to any passionate kid that it pays to dream if you can focus, work hard and want it for the right reasons. When the band hang up their guitars for the last time it will be the end of an era, and with them may pass the rock’n’roll mores of the decade that spawned them, but the music that Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones created will live forever. 

My Life as a Rolling Stone is on BBC iPlayer.

Oliver Murray is a British filmmaker known for his documentaries on The Rolling Stones and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. He is currently working on a film that explores the life of photographer Terry O’Neill and a collaboration with Quincy Jones on the Montreux Jazz Festival 

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