Dave McVeigh - ECD KryptoniteDigital.com
He’s stronger than a cockroach. He’s crazy. He should be dead. He’s a drug addict. He’s a maniac. The jokes pile on top of themselves, the longer the man stays alive. Jay Leno alone probably added 2 more mediocre years on his career with “Keef” jokes. In the parlance of marketing speak (which I use and I hate), these jokes are “low hanging fruit.”
But after two cover-to-cover readings of the Keith Richards’ autobiography “Life”, none of this rotting fruit is worth picking. The real story of the man is far more compelling and worthwhile than the obvious tales of debauchery.
I admit it. I read it looking for the same answers anyone who would spend money on that book might want. Answers to the great rock and roll questions. How specifically did he go about stealing Anita Pallenberg away from Brian Jones? Was he mortified about doing time in a Canadian prison? Why did he let his teeth go? And most importantly - did he really have his blood replaced in Switzerland? You know. The deep and burning questions.
And yes, it was all there. The stories, told in a style completely unencumbered by self-doubt or shame, are stunning. But what stunned me more was something I didn’t expect: Keith Richards is more professional than 95% of the people I’ve worked with in the so-called “straight world.” He has a complete commitment to his craft and dedication to his business.
Even more, Keith built his career up using all the traditional steps. He just happens to work in a very non-traditional business. There’s a lot he can teach us about success, and most of these lessons have nothing to do with sex and drugs.
It’s only rock and roll.
The Stones started off as unabashed imitators. They never even pretended to be the real thing. But Keith turned what might have been just a novelty or youthful hobby and took a deep dive, delving into American blues with the zeal of a kung-foo grasshopper. He made sure, when his band toured the US, Chess Records - the Chicago home to some of the greatest blues records ever made - was on the itinerary. Muddy Waters, Keith says in the book, was reduced to painting the ceiling of the studio to supplement his meager income. Meanwhile, merely by executing so-so imitations of him, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddly and
Chuck Berry, the Stones were getting thousands of panties thrown at them every night.
Along with millions of dollars.
To his credit, Keith knew it was unjust and committed himself at least to earn it. He spent as much time as humanly possible learning new licks, experimenting with new ideas and absorbing the culture of the legitimate players. If he was going to sleep well at night, he needed to up his music game. The press stories of the Stones’ scandals, the antics, the wild tours, they were all embarrassing distractions to Keith. He wanted only one thing: to deliver the music of his idols to the masses -- and in the process do right by the gang back at Chess Records.
To be a Pro.
You can argue about the ethics of skinny white Britons making a fortune off the music of generally poor, unknown black blues masters, but you can’t argue how much the Stones revered the blues sorcerers that had inspired them in the first place.
And Keith, even though he was 100 times more famous than his Chess Records heroes would ever be, became their eager apprentice.
It was an old-school, blue-collar, time-worn route to mastery, and Keith respected (and respects) this process with all his heart.
Play to Your Strengths
The great musicians, brands and thinkers all eventually push themselves to take their abilities to the next level. In the 70’s Keith did just that. The drugs were a distraction. Yes, he was hooked on heroin for a time and that was dangerous and stupid. But for Keith it was fuel, a way to keep working, and also a way to shield himself from a level of insanity and adulation he clearly never wanted. As I read the book, I had two thoughts regarding his addiction: 1) ‘he must not drink coffee’ and 2) ‘it always seemed to be about the work.’
I've never had a problem with drugs. I've had problems with the police.
While his finger speed and technical talents never advanced much beyond “Little Red Rooster”, Keith, like all successful creatives, brands and leaders played to his strength. He innovated. He iterated.
He learned a trick from Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers and removed his high E string, tuned to open G and got very, very funky. He then got to work pushing the limits of this new sound and brought in all sorts of new collaborators and sounds, from country, to bluegrass, to funk, to reggae.
The drug stories end up side notes to anyone reading “Life” to learn lessons in success. Horrible cold turkeys and dark spirals aside, in the end his drug habit simply allowed him to live in a weird protective (and yes productive) bubble that drowned out the terrifying shriek of 50,000 fans who would, if allowed, tear him to shreds. Then, when he felt it was safe to peek his head out, he kicked the junk and moved on. That was 38 years ago.
Build the Brand
Somewhere along the line, Keith became very protective of his fans, and like all successful brands and enterprises, served them completely. Anything under the infamous "tongue logo" had to be high quality.
Tours got bigger, stage shows more elaborate and albums took longer to make. While Keith may not have loved the spectacle of the Stones (and Mick’s particularly non-bluesy prancing in particular), he rocked it every night because the fans wanted it. That was enough for him. He was, in another business, the creative director of The Rolling Stones. And in that role, he has always given the people - his customers - exactly what they wanted.
As he and his mates passed through new musical trends, he allowed himself to stay open to almost any idea, even the ones his fancy Glimmer Twin Mick brought home from Studio 54 in the 80's. Yeah, “Undercover of the Night” was straight-up disco and it sucked - but so was “Miss You,” and it was a classic. And besides, they weren’t the only ones giving the disco thing a spin. The Clash did “Radio Clash” and it was awesome. The great creatives keep their minds open and absorb and steal the best from everywhere.
Besides. Even Apple made the Newton.
And now he gives back. Relentlessly touring, playing gigs with all of the legends, young and old. He even financed a documentary in the late 80’s about his hero Chuck Berry called “Hail Hail Rock and Roll.” And he hated the guy. But it didn’t matter. He knew a thing or two about paying back debts. Keith is now the acknowledged heart and soul of the Stones and embraces that role with relish. He plays.
So when people marvel that Keith Richards is still alive, I have to say – read “Life”. The answers are clear as day if you read it with an open and optimistic mind. Keith Richards is alive because he stayed alive. He stayed relevant and vibrant. He’s alive because he has a job to do and a business to run. His job is to put on the gear, sling his guitar down as low as humanly possible and keep dem riffs coming dirty, strong and steady. It’s cool as shit. Maybe even the coolest thing ever.
But make no mistake. It’s still a business.