THE LATE, GREAT KEITH RICHARDS: an early obit

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The Rolling Stones: You Got the Silver (live, 2006)
THE LATE, GREAT KEITH RICHARDS: an early obit

When Keith Richards fell out of that palm tree -- or fell off a stump as we later heard -- he was hospitalised in Auckland and underwent brain surgery. Given the seriousness of his condition and his age it was widely anticipated at the Herald that he might not survive, so in addition to having the "official" obituary ready to go I was asked to write something personal about the guy. And fast.

He lived of course and my very obit wasn't published. It was one of the very few examples of my work I was delighted not so see in print. I didn't even ask for a "kill fee".

But I thought it was a nice piece so . . .

Graham Reid pays a personal tribute to Keith Richards.

It is no great pleasure to realise I was among the last to interview Keith Richards.

Unlike almost every other interview I have done, I haven't recorded over the tape. So I listened to it again before I wrote this and what comes through in that hoarse, rattling voice is his humour and informality.

Richards, speaking from Tokyo, started with " 'Ello, 'ello" and ended by inviting me backstage at their Western Springs show with a cheery, "Come round the tradesmens' ".

It was an invitation I didn't pursue -- you don't like to impose and being backstage isn't that interesting in truth -- and even now I don't regret it.

I, like millions of others, was just happy to be in an audience watching Richards work his magic.

Richards became emblematic of the rock'n'roll spirit which these days has been codified and sanitised. Because of that, combined with his humour and intelligence, he achieved a kind of ragged, iconic status.

In the course of his long career as a Rolling Stone he took the band from playing blues covers, then into pop music and finally building the bridge to rock. This wasn't easy and sometimes he looked like he'd struggled as the lifestyle took an intolerable toll.

But the lines on his face, made much of by commentators who should know better, never troubled Stones fans and certainly not Richards himself, although in 2003 he bristled a little.

"The wrinkled rocker bit -- so what? When you get to my age you'll get wrinkles, too. We're in this game called rock'n'roll, predicated on the fact you can't play it after you're 18 or 20. We've broken the rules again. But when didn't we?"

And in his personal life Richards broke more rules than most. His heroic intake of drugs and alcohol was legendary.

But at the heart of it all he was a musician, and as Stones drummer Charlie Watts once observed, "there is something about music that likes being around Keith."

Richards' guitar playing and songwriting etched his name into the canon of rock and popular music. He came up with more riffs -- memorable chord sequences -- than anyone has a right to: there must be few who haven't heard or been moved by the opening chords to Satisfaction, Start Me Up, Jumping Jack Flash, Honky Tonk Woman and dozens of other Stones songs.

And, if we believe the story, Richards wrote the signature riff to Satisfaction in his sleep. Or at least while he was nodding off.

Yes, he probably nodded off one or two times too many and we will never know how often in the Seventies he might have overdosed and been rescued.

Death was his constant companion: he wore a skull ring.

But he also enjoyed life, and that was evident whenever he occupied his natural home: the stage. Yet when he sang his croaky ballads there was a fragility in his voice and every note was a tightrope walk. When he finished he looked relieved to have survived the moment, and the wash of applause seemed to embarrass him.

That he will never hear that sound of love and affection again, that thousands will no more applaud his buccaneer attire, crinkled grin and armoury of music is sad indeed.

It is said that Keith Richards died once before, way back in December 1965 on stage in Sacramento when his guitar touched a microphone and he was electrocuted.

He fell to the floor and was apparently dead for a full minute.

Maybe, maybe not. But if you believe it then someone up there has a sense of humour and knew Keith had more work to do, and pleasure to give, in this world.

Keith Richards was singular. And this world is emptier today.

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