Andrew Martin: Come clean, Keef, you're a closet teetotaller

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The Independent Online

Last week, Keith Richards abandoned his lordly habit of not deigning to notice bad reviews, and demanded an apology from two Swedish journalists who suggested he was drunk and barely capable on stage in Gothenburg.

If Keith Richards ever tried to sue someone for saying he was drunk, then... well, he'd need a pretty sympathetic jury. His reputation for manfully withstanding intoxicants is such that the rock journalist Nick Kent said that if he ever met Keith Richards again, he'd tell him, "Look, I don't want to talk to you, I want to interview your liver", and all discussion of the Rolling Stones has now come down to the question: "How long can Keith keep it up?" (Being alive, that is.)

Sometimes, in the stomach-churning silence that occurs between the chime of midnight and the start of the final Radio 4 news bulletin of the day, I have a horrible premonition of the words, "The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was found dead today at...". Well, where would it be? On stage somewhere during one of Ronnie Wood's guitar workouts? Behind the cocktail bar of a Learjet, the ice tongs still determinedly gripped in his gnarled hands? The health and safety lobby can't wait for that day, and unfortunately it doesn't work the other way round. The defenders of our right to smoke and drink as much as we like can't say, "Well, look at Keith Richards, he's still alive", because at any moment he might not be.

Or so it appears.

Let's look at all those interviews, which begin ritualistically. "Richards cracks open miniatures of vodka and sloshes one into Mojo's glass, topping it up with Orangina..." That was written by Tom Doyle in this month's Mojo, and if I'd been him at that point I would have checked my rush to describe Keith's superhuman resistance to normal ailments, and said, "OK, Keith, it's 4.30 in the afternoon. At what time did you start drinking vodka and oranges, and when do you plan on stopping?" because it has occurred to me that he is to some extent pretending.

We know he likes playing games with journalists – witness all that nonsense about snorting his dad's ashes – and the one time that I myself saw him close up (backstage at a gig in Belgium) he looked suspiciously well co-ordinated and businesslike. An acquaintance of mine who knows the Stones says, "He's just very shy, so he tries to look out-of-it when a stranger walks up." It seems an odd social strategy, but Keith has never had to give up boozing, unlike Ronnie Wood, and his liver was found to be in perfect shape by the doctors who examined him after he fell out of that tree last year. Or so he says. There again, even if he drank only every time he was photographed doing so, that would still be a hell of a lot, and he did apparently fall over on stage in Helsinki recently.

I'd appreciate the introduction of a few facts into this endless cycle of mythologising. I once interviewed Ron Wood about what he did on a typical Saturday (not that Saturday differed from any other day in his life), and I remember that his breakfast/lunch (because he got up at midday) consisted of "bacon and avocado in a doorstop of brown bread, black coffee, bottle of red wine...". He gave me the full, death-defying routine and I now demand a similar audit of Keith Richards' day, and, furthermore, that it be made a pre-condition of any further coverage of the man.

Andrew Martin's latest novel is 'Murder at Deviation Junction' (Faber)