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Keith Richards and Me

I was in Nashville doing a voice over back in the days when I had this very nice bass-baritone voice.  For some reason, the recording engineer wasn’t simultaneously drunk and hungover. This was a first for me. 

This very suspicious sobriety on his part meant I finished all my takes before 10am.  

I had the time so I figured I’d wander around Music City. Nashville was struggling after the recession of the late 70s.  I wanted to walk slowly through the city and imagine how the locals managed their lives and life’s priorities, consider their joys as well as sorrows while wondering how they reconciled the considerable gap between their dreams and their realities. So, off I went for a day of exploration through the legendary city of Nashville, Tennessee. 

That lasted about 20 minutes because in the early eighties, other than music, Nashville sucked. Nothing but a bunch of dirty streets, beat up pickup trucks and used tire stores.  Music Row was filled with homeless guitar players singing their hearts out just to get the loose change from people walking by.

I passed a couple strip clubs with greasy and mostly burnt out neon lights where the proprietors insisted their well-trained, professional staff were quite eager to accommodate any perversion I could possibly come up with.

I couldn’t think of any so I kept waking until I stopped in front of a very seedy strip mall.  On one side was a bar. The complete other side stood a diner that was turned into a Pentecostal church.  The name of the bar was The Bluebird. The church probably had a name, too, but I never found out because I didn’t make it past the bar.  God hadn’t figured in my equation at the moment. 

Besides, it was before 11am on a weekday.  The bar was open. The church wasn’t.  

Inside, The Bluebird was dark and smelled exactly like baby poop only worse.  The floor was covered with some very sticky beer.  The bartender was a Jamaican named Smokey. Smokey’s outfit consisted of a mini-skirt, a bright yellow tube top, red pumps and some heavy fluorescent pink eye shadow.  The place was empty except for one person who was enveloped in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke at the far end of the bar. After schmoozing with Smokey for a few minutes, I asked for a double-shot Jack Daniels on the grounds that it’s 7am somewhere.  Smokey pointed towards the smoke cloud and said that guy purchased the last three full bottles of Jack Daniels.  

“The last three bottles?”

“Woulda been four if we had ’em.”

“Nice guy?”

“Gave me $100 tip.  Makes him a nice guy.” Gives me a shrug.

“Been here long?”

Another shrug.  “Couple hours.”

“Hitting the bottles hard?”

“Sucking ’em down like a $20 hooker at a batchelor party. “

I gave him a slight grimace. “Smokey, that is an image that will haunt me for years to come. No pun intended.”

“Yeah, me, too. Maybe you can hit him up for a couple shots.”

Seemed like a fine idea. I mean, this guy outright bought three full bottles of Jack Daniels from a bar and threw in an extra $100 for the effort. 

I thought this was really someone I should meet.  I walked towards him. 

As I got closer and could see through some of the smoke, I made out a silhouette wearing a black vest, an untucked button-down white shirt, black jeans, snake-skin boots and a very proper, dark grey fedora. He was fully involved reading a very large book. 

He’d poured himself a generous amount of bourbon in an old-fashioned lowball glass.  Presumably, a shot glass was simply not nearly large enough for this guy.

This scored him big points with me.

I approached until he shot me a sideways glance that stopped me at once.  His glare startled me. 

“Uh, yes, hello, good morning or wherever you are in your day.  The nice transvestite behind the bar suggested I seek you out and establish some reasonable common ground that would result in me taking a couple shots of that fine bourbon off your hands.”

He had three lit cigarettes going at the same time: one in his mouth and one each in two separate ashtrays.

He didn’t actually look my way. He leaned forward to the other side of the bar and pulled another lowball glass.  He filled the glass, handed it to me, turned to me and said, “‘ere. Shee-ahs.”

“Ah, thank you, Sir. You’re very kind.  Cheers to you.”

Clink. 

I then looked at him and saw none other than Keith Richards. My all-time favorite guitar player and leader of what you might consider the greatest rock and roll band in the world. At least, I would consider it. 

Keith was my guy and the coolest human being on the planet. Even though he looked like someone who survived a 10 year heroin habit, it didn’t matter. Keith Richards was my hero. 

“Hmmm, you look familiar.  Well, this is a pleasure. Here’s to you and your better-half and your 5-stringed guitar in open G.  Long shall you all three prosper and multiply.”  

“Yeh un kee yer [unintelligible mumbling] arse oo the sunseh, heh,” he replied with a knowing smile before we each tossed back half a glass of bourbon.

“Cheers, again” Clink, again.

My first thought was, “I wonder how many times this guy has flat-lined since he’s been here.” 

My second thought was, “I have no fucking clue what you just said.”

Before I said anything more, he refilled my glass. 

“Oh, um, whoa, okay, wow, yes, thank you, gosh, yeah, thank you for your generosity.  Mind if I sit down on this barstool because it’s closer to the ground so when I fall down it won’t hurt as much?”

“‘Eh, ‘ere’. [Unintelligable], Wha'”

I took that as a yes.  I sat down but wasn’t sure how to start a conversation with someone who, so far, hadn’t uttered a single word I could possibly understand.

On the wall directly in front of us was a 1950s poster of Buddy Holly singing at the legendary Apollo Theatre located in Harlem, New York.  The Apollo made it’s name in the first half of the century as a showcase for the great black musicians and singers of the time. It was the coolest place on the planet. How Buddy Holly ended up there is beyond me because you couldn’t get more uncool than Buddy Holly.  

This gave me a great conversation starter because the step-father of my girlfriend at the time worked backstage at the Apollo during its heyday. In the 50s, the musicians played a rotating schedule of 20 minute sets every hour and a half all night so you could play 5 or 6 sets in one night which meant you had a lot of time sitting backstage at the Apollo while all the other musical acts did their sets.

Now, one thing is true with any theatre in the entire world and that is if you get a bunch of young musicians, actors and entertainers backstage at the same time then they will mingle. 

By mingle, I mean have sex. Lots of sex. And, they do not clown around.  In five minutes, every green room, office, prop room, utility closet, cubicle, bathroom, catwalk, electric room, snack bar and trash dumpster will be filled with 2 to 6 people having sex. 

I mention all this because, according to my girlfriend’s step-father, when it came to sex, Buddy Holly set the standard.  Raised the bar as it were. Ol’ Buddy could not keep his hands, among other things, off the women. Skinny, dweebie, silly-looking, horned-rim-glasses-wearing Buddy Holly was a completely out of control sex machine.  

I relayed this and a couple other behind-the-curtain stories to Keith.  He enjoyed them and even threw in some witty recollections along the way. For the next couple hours, we talked. A lot about American Blues of which he knew….everything.

He described some of the unique guitar playing styles of Blind Lemon Jefferson, a southern bluesman from the early 1900s, and Robert Johnson. Johnson was a mysterious character from the 1920s whose guitar playing seemed almost physically impossible. It was easy to tell Keith was in awe of him. I remember thinking how amazed I was to be getting a guitar lesson from Keith Richards and that my life was now officially complete.

I asked him about his 5 string guitar tuning. I was expecting a very elaborate if indecipherable response. 

“Eh, jus’, ya’ know, foun’ a 5 s’ring banjo, so [unintelligible] off wen’ th’ low E s’ring and jus’ G, D, G, B, D an’ [unintelligible] voila.”

There’s a key in decoding Keith-Speak.  You have to get drunk. He makes much more sense that way.  And, I was getting drunk in a hell of a hurry because, as we talked, he continued refilling our glasses. 

“What brings you to the home of unemployed songwriters?  If memory serves then you’re already in a band with a record deal.”

“Eh’, [unintelligible] on a track, uh, heh, Scotty, ya know, Moore [unintelligible] haven’t seen in donkey’s years, sooo, heh, heh, laid  down a track er two, ya know, wha’.”

I was drunk enough to actually understand what he said. 

I steered clear of mentioning the Stones. I’m not sure why. 

“You met Howlin’ Wolf, yes?  He looked scary as hell on stage.”

“Fuckin’ sweetheart, e’ was, heh, right [unintelligible] geezer, love th’ man. ‘Ad class. Son ‘bitch. Giant an’ [unintelligable] gentle.”

We ran through some others. Chuck Berry, as it turns out, was a “‘orrendous shirty pain in the arse. Worse tha’ [unintelligible]. Johnnie Johnson duh all duh [really unintelligible] work. Got fuck-all fuh ‘is trouble.”

Muddy Waters was, without question, God.  The mention of Muddy Waters caught him off guard. It was probably the only time he held eye-contact with me.

Waters had been dead for a couple years but he probably meant quite a bit to him.

Keith did a concert tour in the late seventies with a band called the New Barbarians who were probably the world’s most talented garage band. One of the songs he sang lead on was “Apartment Number 9” which was a ballad by a country singer named Tammy Wynette. It’s a lament about her loneliness.

There was bad-ass Keith Richards on piano singing about being alone and broken-hearted. He said, with a little venom, the song was “real” and that’s all that matters. Period. The end.

Clink.

I asked about the significance of his famous skull ring. As far as he was concerned, “tha’s what we all err unnerneath all deh “[unintelligible] bullshit.” He felt that’s about the only thing real with most people. He seemed bitter on that score. Years later, I heard this was around the time Mick Jagger decided to leave the Stones for greater glories as a solo act. It didn’t work out. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been joined at the hip for the previous 25 years. I’m guessing Keith felt betrayed and insulted.

Keith was terribly concerned about Johnny Winter’s excessive heroin use which I found seriously amusing.

If Keith Richards is worried about your drug use then, Brother, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. 

I asked what his dessert island records were. He said they change everyday. He told me about some very old records by Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams and the great Robert Johnson. Those three weren’t shockers. What did me was surprising was the inclusion of records by Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, the Carter Family (traditional southern gospel) and Django Reinhardt. I remember assuring him that I strongly believed “Exile on Main Street” was the greatest record ever made and while Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” had its moments and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was fine in its way, they were both, let’s face it, baby-shit compared to “Exile on Main Street.” Further, anyone who thought otherwise should be immediately sterilized lest they be tempted to procreate.

He liked that. “Weah, boss yer unckuh den, ain’ ee.”

“Couldn’t agree more.”

What did I just agree to?

Another clink.

“Odd question but if there was no Bill Wyman [the Stones bass player at the time] around then what bass player would you want in your band.”

Without hesitation, Keith rattled off six or seven very obscure names. The only one I recognized was James Jamerson who played bass on most of the big Motown songs. I had to break it to him that James Jamerson died a couple years earlier.

“Oh, de-ah. Prawley outta scratch ‘im off duh fuckin’ [unintelligible] list, yeh?”

I asked about guitar players he wouldn’t mind having as handmates. He immediately responded with about ten names.

“Drummers?” It seemed like the next natural question to ask.

This time, he hesitated, stared at one of the numerous lit cigarettes in front of him before finally responding, “Charlie Watts.”

I wondered if Keith was drunker than I was because Charlie Watts was already in the Rolling Stones. He’d been there since 1961.

Uh, Keith you might be more of a big picture guy and don’t really get caught up in the details but, jeepers, after 25 years, I’d have thought you’d know the name of your drummer. Shall I arrange an introduction?

I thought that. I didn’t say it.

“Charlie Watts? Never heard of him. Anyone else?”

He stared at his most recent glass of Jack Daniels for a moment and said, “Nah.”°

“To Charlie, then.” Clink.

I know this sounds like an interview and not a conversation but Keith did ask me questions along the way, such as what I did to make the rent. I told him my main source of income was from singing the National Anthem at street fights. He felt my conservative appearance belied my complete irreverence for almost all American institutions.

“Yes, guilty as charged,” I replied. “I just took a job in the Human Resources department for the Gambino Crime Syndicate and I’m here at a job fair. Job openings tend to pop up rather suddenly. Are you interested in joining? The benefits are fantastic. The trick is not to get killed. That’s really the key to the benefits program.”*

Keith actually found that statement hilarious.

We talked about the hallowed musical ground of the Ryman Theater (located in Nashville) and the musicians who planted roots there: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, just to name a few. Hell, Helen Keller did a gig there. I’m not kidding. Sold the place out.

My memory gets cloudy at this point because I was approaching the “I love you, Man” stage of inebriation.  This was due to the fact that, for the past couple hours, I had been keeping up with Keith Richards drinking shots of Jack Daniels. 

This is something you must never do.

It was at this precise moment I knew, thanks to the ridiculous amount of bourbon I’d thrown down, I was in serious trouble and it was best I leave before I descended into the “Let’s crank up the fuckin’ Enola Gay” stage. So, I thanked him profusely for the booze. We shook hands. He said he enjoyed the chin wag and even claimed he was glad I stopped by. I assured the pleasure was all mine and would, someday, include our interaction in my autobiography. He went back to his book. 

As I staggered past Smokey, I asked for a glass of water as though that was going to undo any of the damage. 

“Uh, um, yeah,  Smokey. Wondering if you can help a brother out.  Do you know when the next flight to Western China leaves?  Because, after two minutes of careful consideration, I’ve decided it’s best for all concerned for me to immediately become a Tibetan Monk.  I see no alternative. I’m in deep and I think I could very well sober up in a Buddhist Monastery in, oh, I dunno, ten years. More water?”

Smokey smiled and gave me a refill. 

“I’ve always been interested in Buddhism.  Is that the one with Vishnu or something? No?  Maybe that’s Judaism. I always get those two confused. Anyway, off I go to become a Buddhist Jew. Could you tell me where the door is?”

I plopped down $20 on the bar and walked off singing, “I’m a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”

How the hell I ever made it back to my hotel room is anyone’s guess. I have no recollection.  I woke up on the floor. The room was very neat. I figured the housekeeping person worked around me. It took a week for my head to stop feeling every air molecule hit it. 

To this day, I consider having a conversation with Keith Richards a significant resume item. He was very nice, elegant, extremely well-read and very British.  And, he wore his heart directly on his sleeve.

I saw the Stones recently in concert. Keith had on a woman’s blouse, a red and yellow bandana, black jeans and green sneakers. His hair was thinning, tangled and grey. 

The Stones opened the show with “Sympathy for the Devil.” Jagger stepped on to the stage and, behind just the percussion and piano, sang the first verse. Keith then sauntered to the front of center stage. As Jagger got to the refrain, Keith let loose with six riffs that knocked the audience back five feet. When done, he casually walked to the drum riser and lit a cigarette before picking up the song again.

He played better than ever.

And, he looked so cool. 

———- THE END ———-

* Those are lines from a Peter Falk movie. They sound lame. They look lame on paper. But, they’re fall-off-your-chair funny when Peter Falk says them.

° [03/23/2022] This was written before Charlie Watts died. It was easy for me to see Keith thought the world of Charlie. He adored him and must have been devastated by his passing. The Stones are carrying on with a new drummer, Steve Jordan, who’s fabulous. But, he ain’t Charlie Watts. And, the band ain’t the same.

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