Keith Richards: Arise, Sir Keef

Are you taking the Mick? It will never happen. When you've worked as hard as he has to gain the title of the wildest man in rock, you're not going to trade it in for a mere knighthood. Even if you're about to turn 60 this week ...

Sunday 14 December 2003 01:00

It was obvious from the none-too-subtle hints dropped in the TV documentary Being Mick two years ago that Mick Jagger hankered after recognition from the powers that be. Wheels were set in motion, the Rolling Stones's contribution to UK plc's balance of payments was no doubt assessed, and on Friday the cricket-loving 60-year-old tycoon and lothario duly popped round to Buck House to pick up his knighthood. Jagger, who had delayed his visit to the Palace by a couple of days to avoid being upstaged by Jonny "Golden Boots" Wilkinson, was delighted to breathe at last the same perfumed air as Sir Elton and Sir Paul. However, his old umbilically linked twin, Keith Richards, was disgusted.

"I went fucking berserk when I heard," Richards raged. "I thought it was ludicrous to take one of those gongs from the establishment when they did their very best to throw us in jail and kill us at one time." And they managed it, if only fleetingly. On 29 June 1967, Jagger and Richards spent the night in jail after being convicted on drugs charges, Jagger in Brixton and Richards in Wormwood Scrubs. Both were released on bail the following day after some fast footwork by their legal team. Richards's conviction was subsequently quashed and Jagger was given a conditional discharge. The affair provoked outrage and controversy, and proved beyond reasonable doubt that the Rolling Stones did indeed possess a mythic capacity to live outside the law. Richards's comment during his trial that "we are not old men and we're not worried about petty morals" was a moment of breathtaking sang froid from a 23-year-old with the full weight of the judiciary and a malign police force bearing down on him.

Richards still does not regard himself as an old man, even thought he will be 60 on Thursday. He is trying to remain as nonchalant as possible about this unwelcome milestone. "I'm 60, am I?" he asked Uncut magazine, when it was kind enough to remind him of it. "I knew it was one of those with a zero on the end." There were times when it seemed as if Richards would be lucky to reach 30, and a doctor gave him six months to live in the mid-1970s during the worst days of his heroin addiction, but in recent decades the thunder of advancing years merely seems to have cemented the Stones irrevocably into their role of The Last Rock Band. Having survived drugs, deaths, the Altamont festival of 1969, punk rock and Britpop, the band has been given a kind of honorary lifetime pass to do what they like and make more money than ever seemed possible. The recent Licks tour turned into yet another cash-generating juggernaut, with tickets priced as high as $350 (£210). The tour could have grossed even more than the £200m-plus so far accounted for if the band had stuck to football stadiums and not diversified into smaller-scale arenas and theatres along the way. A four-DVD set, Four Flicks, has been unsentimentally designed to plunder the Christmas market with five hours of concert footage and additional documentary material.

The idea that Jagger is the calculating business brain and long-term strategist while Richards is the band's heart and soul seems to hold some sort of basic truth, though Richards is too smart and too pivotal a part of the Stones operation to be entirely innocent of financial wiles. "I don't check every document, but I always am involved," Richards told me last year, as the Licks tour began. "I find that if I know too many details I get lost. I like to take a step back and have a look at it. But in every respect from a business point of view, Mick and I complement each other."

The spat over Jagger's knighthood is a perfect illustration of the "opposites attract" nature of the Jagger-Richards relationship, though we should bear in mind that Richards is shrewd enough to keep the publicity pot boiling by lobbing out a few carefully sharpened barbs, and Jagger was ready with his comment at the palace last week that Richards "was like a bawling child who hasn't got an ice cream". Jagger's selfish and mercenary tendencies have almost destroyed the Stones in the past, particularly during the 1980s when Jagger tried to ditch the band and launch himself as a solo artist. "That was the thing that brought our disagreements to a head," admitted Richards, who responded by going into manic overdrive to keep the venerable brand name operational.

Richards has always had the great advantage over Jagger that he truly is the instinctive rebel he seems. He was never going through the motions of anarchistic youth en route to a comfortable and conservative middle age, but gravitated naturally to the role of the outlaw, hewn from the same rugged timber as his idols such as Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf. When he was still a mere boy of 45, I suggested to Richards that the Rolling Stones were a bunch of old geezers shamelessly cashing in on their past. He took umbrage, albeit in a gentlemanly sort

of way. "I think that's a really shallow attitude," he retorted. "Nobody knows whether you can take this music any further because it's not been there yet. I don't see why you can't have very mature rock'n'roll, that can still relate to young people as well as your own generation."

He never imagined he would see 60, but now that he has, he finds he has acquired the poise and the knowledge that come with it, and rather enjoys becoming part of the classic lineage of blues and R&B that inspired him to pick up a guitar. Despite living a lifestyle that must have seemed like science fiction to his parents, Bert and Doris Richards, in their unprepossessing house in Dartford, Richards has always retained quaint but unshakeable links with his English background. He remains a fan of the comedian Max Miller and will happily slump in front of a stoical Kenneth More war film. As the proud owner of a Sussex estate, Redlands, and a Bentley nicknamed the Blue Lena, he exhibited vestigial leanings towards the life style of an English country gentleman, which still surfaces in his debauched-aristocrat mode of speech.

His friends often mention loyalty as Richards's defining trait, and although he

has wandered the earth like an electric nomad for most of the past 40 years, he is a committed fan of hearth and home. His sixtieth birthday will also be the twentieth anniversary of his wedding to Patti Hansen, with whom he has fathered daughters Alexandra and Theodora to go with his two children from his long-ago relationship with Anita Pallenberg. Johnny Depp, who admits that Richards inspired his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates Of The Caribbean, has talked about the "graceful quality" he sees in Richards, his "beautiful confidence" and "wisdom and wit".

Richards's secret is the way he seems so at ease with who he is and what he does, while Jagger, for all his gifts as singer, songwriter and iconic frontman, has always looked like an actor playing a variety of roles. The contrast between them grows ever greater. In the Four Flicks concert footage, Jagger resembles an underfed chicken jumping across a hotplate, while Richards somehow gets away with his outrageous parade of camp guitar-hero mannerisms. As drummer Charlie Watts puts it, "I don't think Keith will ever stop. He'll always be playing a guitar somewhere, won't he?"

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