Keith Richards: The True Superhero of Rock and Roll Excess

Keith Richards has been a totemic figure from the very beginnings of rock music, both for his incredible musicianship ability and the enormous impact he has had on the world around him at the vanguard of a cultural revolution. If this wasn’t enough to secure True Superhero status his reputation for fast living has led to him being mythologised as an almost indestructible figure. Although Keith’s taste for hedonism has diminished in recent years he continues to rock, now pushing past his sixtieth year as a Rolling Stone while doing everything he can to bring positive change to the world around him. 

Street fighting boy

Keith was born in 1943 in Dartford, a small satellite town of London on the south bank of the Thames, to the east of the capital. Dartford used to be an ambushing point for highwaymen looking to hijack cargo traveling from the port of Dover into London, and as Richards describes it in his autobiography, Life, “everyone from Dartford is a thief. It runs in the blood”. During World War II the town had a bigger problem as it was surrounded by munitions factories and other vital infrastructure, and acquired the nickname “Bomb Alley” because of the frequent attacks from the Luftwaffe. Richards was born during an air-raid, and grew up on a street that had been largely destroyed by the bombing.

Keith Richards: The True Superhero of Rock and Roll Excess

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Keith Richards has been a totemic figure from the very beginnings of rock music, both for his incredible musicianship ability and the enormous impact he has had on the world around him at the vanguard of a cultural revolution. If this wasn’t enough to secure True Superhero status his reputation for fast living has led to him being mythologised as an almost indestructible figure. Although Keith’s taste for hedonism has diminished in recent years he continues to rock, now pushing past his sixtieth year as a Rolling Stone while doing everything he can to bring positive change to the world around him. 

Street fighting boy

Keith was born in 1943 in Dartford, a small satellite town of London on the south bank of the Thames, to the east of the capital. Dartford used to be an ambushing point for highwaymen looking to hijack cargo traveling from the port of Dover into London, and as Richards describes it in his autobiography, Life, “everyone from Dartford is a thief. It runs in the blood”. During World War II the town had a bigger problem as it was surrounded by munitions factories and other vital infrastructure, and acquired the nickname “Bomb Alley” because of the frequent attacks from the Luftwaffe. Richards was born during an air-raid, and grew up on a street that had been largely destroyed by the bombing.

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Dartford was a rough place, and Keith would be regularly assaulted by older bullies on his way too and from school. He later would write “I know what it’s like to be a coward. I will never go back there. As easy as it is to turn tail, I took the beatings. I told my mum that I had fallen off my bike again, to which she replied “stay off your bike, son.” While Keith endured the violence of his peers outside the school gates, he also hated being inside them, developing a reputation from an early age as a rebellious child with a temper. He was much happier in the company of his grandfather, Gus Dupree, a musician who had toured Britain with jazz bands before the war. Gus gradually introduced Keith to guitars from an early age, telling his grandson that he could keep the guitar suspended over his fireplace as soon as he was tall enough to reach it. Once Keith had achieved that Gus took on the role of tutor, introducing the boy to legendary jazz records despite the disapproval of Keith’s much more practically minded father.     

The wrong side of the tracks

Meanwhile Keith began to form the friendships that would lead to his later success, although their significance was not apparent at first. Keith first met Mick Jagger while the pair were at elementary school, and they initially lived close to each other in Dartford but they did not remain close for long. When Keith was nine his family moved to a newly constructed housing project on the other side of the town called the Temple Hill estate, which quickly developed a reputation as a rough and deprived area. As it was on the far side of the railway line that split Dartford it was known by locals as “across the tracks”. At the same time Mick’s family moved to the more salubrious area of Wilmington, a leafy middle class village to the south of Dartford. 

Keith Richards: The True Superhero of Rock and Roll Excess
Richards and Jagger on stage in 1965

The train tracks that divided them would eventually bring the pair together again when they met by chance as teenagers on a train station platform. Mick was on his way to London to attend college classes, and the armload of Chuck Berry records he was carrying provided a shared interest that helped to rekindle their old acquaintance. Keith joined Mick’s band, and before long, the pair had moved to London along with fellow guitarist Brian Jones, and formed the Rolling Stones in 1962. They were deliberately set up by their manager, Andrew Moog Oldham, as an edgier, sexier alternative to the besuited and clean cut Beatles. The band had some early chart success in the UK but did not replicate the teenage hysteria of their Liverpudlian counterparts immediately, at least in part because the songwriting partnership between Jagger and Richards took time to find its legs. At first they were mainly a covers band - their second single in 1963 was a cover of the Beatles I Wanna Hold Your Hand -  and while they found chart success with covers of blues and soul classics such as It’s All Over Now, Time Is On My Side and Little Red Rooster, the leap to global superstardom would not come until 1965, when Richard’s unleashed one of the most iconic guitar riffs in music history at the start of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

The Stones were no longer a covers band; suddenly the blues and soul artists who they had idolized were covering them, with Otis Redding recording a version of Satisfaction three months after its initial US release. Suddenly The Rolling Stones were as big as the Beatles, and causing considerably more consternation thanks to their overtly sexual lyrics and live performances. As one of the earliest - and certainly the most prominent - exponents of the new libidinous rock and roll, they scandalized the staid, conservative societies of Britain and the United States and were at the forefront of the sexual revolution that dominated the latter half of the 1960s. 

An unbroken butterfly

The Stones also enthusiastically embraced the psychedelic revolution that was being spearheaded by contemporaries such as Pink Floyd, and by 1967 Richards and Jagger found themselves on the wrong end of the British judiciary’s crackdown on this phenomenon. Police had raided a party at Richards’ recently acquired country estate, and Mick and Keith were arrested. Jagger was sentenced to three months in jail after being found in possession of four amphetamine tablets, while Richards was sentenced to one year for allowing cannabis to be smoked on his property. These swingeing punishments were intended as a deterrent to others, but had the opposite effect, with The Times famously decrying the judgment with a headline quoting Alexander Pope: “who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” A month later the Appeals Court overturned Keith’s sentence on the grounds of lack of evidence, and Jagger was given a conditional discharge. 

It’s hard to overestimate the impact this incident had on British society, with a clear schism opened up between hardline conservatives who wanted to crush the burgeoning youth movement, and more liberal - and influential - establishment figures who advocated a more lenient approach. Although Keith and The Stones had sparked this schism, they did not choose to participate in the debate, preferring instead to celebrate the new code of sex, drugs and rock and roll through their actions. Richards famously pursued this hedonistic creed harder than most. Over the next few decades he was rarely seen without a trademark bottle of Jack Daniels close to hand, and was involved in four more well-publicized arrests for possession of various drugs throughout the 1970s (although none of them resulted in a prosecution). His legendary reputation for excess grew to the point where his continued survival became - and remains - a byword for extreme hardiness, but Keith has now finally slowed down, announcing in 2018 that “I pulled the plug on it [drinking]. I got fed up with it… Just like all the other stuff.” For many years it had seemed that Keith would break himself on the wheel of his lifestyle, but he and the Rolling Stones continue to pack out stadiums around the world, with 2022’s Sixty tour - celebrating the band’s sixtieth year together - selling over 700,000 tickets. 

Keith Richards: The True Superhero of Rock and Roll Excess
Keith as Captain Teague in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Keith hasn’t finished rocking, and he also hasn’t finished agitating for change. He may no longer be able to cause schisms in society through his public hedonism, but his tremendous success has allowed him to help in other ways, and he is known not just as a generous philanthropist but someone who is willing to donate his time as well as his money to important causes. He has been particularly active in promoting environmental projects, including donating his artworks to support La Mer's Blue Heart Ocean Fund and Project 0, a group who aims to clean up the ocean and restore coral reefs, a particularly apt cause for the man who played Captain Jack Sparrow’s father in Pirates of the Carribean. He’s also an enthusiastic patron of the arts, working closely with the charity Musicares to support struggling musicians and other artists, while on the global stage he and his fellow Rolling Stones have made substantial donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee's (DEC) Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. It seems that as long as this True Superhero continues rocking, he’ll also continue to give back to the fans who he has inspired for over six decades.

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