We couldn’t talk about Mick Jagger without talking of his dark twin, soulmate and nemesis … wait a minute, we’ve done this before, haven’t we? Still, maybe the comparison is inevitable. It is the very essence of rock ‘n’ roll, the electricity that only arises from friction — from the creative interaction of two or more people who either love each other, hate each other, or (as is often the case) both.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. You see, kids, when Keith Richards isn’t playing at pirates, falling out of trees, snorting his father’s ashes, or flying to Switzerland to get his blood replaced, he makes his living as a musician. And when he’s not playing with the Rolling Stones, he will seemingly play with anyone else. Indeed, so promiscuous and indiscriminate did things get that by the early 1980s many clubs and venues had special barriers installed specifically to prevent Keith Richards from leaping onstage and jamming uninvited with whoever happened to be performing at the time.
Like many among his cohort of English guitarists, Keef idolized American bluesmen, and has paid homage at the feet of the masters by performing with the likes of B.B. King and (in company with Mick) Jimmy Rogers. And advanced students will remember his stint as musical director for his hero Chuck Berry, as immortalized in the documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll! But Keith Richards has shown up in the liner notes of some odd an unexpected projects, and that’s where we’ll turn our attention this week…
Tom Waits, “Big Black Mariah” from Rain Dogs (1985)
In the 1970s, Richards had knocked around doing sessions primarily with Stones friends and associates like Billy Preston and the Faces — fun stuff, but nothing outside of his comfort zone. It took that renowned gentleman crooner Mr. Tom Waits — the Ol’ Lonesome Hobo Hisself — to find new and unexpected contexts for that unmistakable guitar. This was the first of their collaborations, a leg-iron two-step shot through with bluesy wails.
Of all those who have tried to elucidate the Keef mystique, Waits has perhaps come the closest. “He stands at ten after seven, if you can imagine that. Arms at five o’clock, legs at two o’clock, with no apparatus, nothing suspended. He’s all below the waist,” Waits told an interviewer. “When he plays he looks like he’s been dangled from a wire that comes up through the back of his neck, and he can lean at a forty-five-degree angle and not fall over. You think he has special shoes. But maybe it’s the music that’s keeping him up.”
Bono, “Silver and Gold” from Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid (1985, out of print)
This song was written in a hotel room in New York City… yeah, you know the one. The injustice is that U2’s later (and rather hamfisted) re-recording is so much better-known than the original. Purely from a historical perspective, it’s a fascinating document — a Rosetta Stone giving the key to latter-day U2. The voice we know now as Bono’s — with its growls, its whispers and moans and whoops — begins here, and Keith Richards (with some help from Ron Wood) is midwifing it into being.
Phantom, Rocker and Slick, “My Mistake” from Phantom Rocker and Slick (1985, out of print)
Fans of Dave Steed’s Bottom Feeders series may remember these guys — the rhythm section from rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats teamed with session cat and Bowie mainstay Earl Slick — and their Modern Rock top ten “Men Without Shame.” This follow-up, with Richards (who is heard but not seen here) joining Slick on guitar, keeps the raunch of the former but boosts the energy. High-Eighties glam ahoy!
Feargal Sharkey, “More Love” from Wish (1988, and — you guessed it — out of print)
This one seems awfully unlikely, at first blush — an honest-to-gawd Rolling Stone moonlighting with this weird-chinned pop idol and onetime Undertone — but it works. Richards adds a little grit to Sharkey’s lovelorn quaver, keeping him from collapsing under the weight of his own sensitive soul. (Not to mention his floppy hair.)
Wingless Angels, “Keyman” from Wingless Angels (1997)
Like Jagger, Richards has long loved the music of Jamaica; he joined Jagger on Peter Tosh’s Bush Doctor, and on his own has recorded with Lee “Scratch” Perry and Toots and the Maytals. The Wingless Angels are a group of local musicians, disciples of the Nyabinghi sect of Rastafari, who for years have gathered near Keith’s home in Ocho Rios for sessions of African-inflected drumming and devotional chant. Richards first met them in 1972, and after twenty-five years of on-again, off-again jams, hit upon the idea of recording the ensemble, producing the sessions and fleshing out the drums and voices with subtle bits of bass and guitar. The end result is strange and wondrous music — a blend of churchy harmonies and ancient loping rhythms, nothing like the blues in its sound, but possessed of the same primal magic.
Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, “Deuce and a Quarter” from All the King’s Men (1997)
The 1990s found Keef paying tribute to the bluesmen and early rockers who inspired him, playing with Johnnie Johnson, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Bo Diddley, among others. Projects of this type, where younger players line up to pay their respects to their elders, can take on a solemn, dutiful air; but this rockabilly session featuring guitarist Moore and drummer Fontana, both of whom cut their teeth in Elvis Presley’s band (“the King’s men,” geddit?) is a romp from start to finish. This cut, with Keith trading off lead vocals with Levon Helm, kicks off the album in high spirits.
Hubert Sumlin, “Still a Fool” from About Them Shoes (2005)
It’s not quite accurate to call Hubert Sumlin and unsung hero of the blues; those with ears to hear have always known what a remarkable guitarist he is. But Sumlin had the extraordinary luck to spend his career backing Howlin’ Wolf, a performer of such overwhelming presence that he tended to overshadow everyone else in the room. Hell, when Wolf was in full voice, you tended to forget that there even was anyone else in the room. Sumlin finally got a chance to shine with a series of late-in-life solo albums, and Richards was there to help him make the most the opportunity.
Marianne Faithfull, “Sing Me Back Home” from Easy Come, Easy Go (2009)
The Grande Dame of the Gutter began her association with the Stones back when she was young and fresh, and their history is long and tangled. But it was not until just a few years ago that producer Hal Willner thought to pair the ruined beauty of Faithfull’s voice with the beautiful ruin of Keith’s for this heartbreaking death-row ballad written by Merle Haggard. If you have tears, dear friends, prepare to shed them now.
Sheryl Crow, “Eye To Eye” from 100 Miles From Memphis (2010)
Richards has been guesting with this pretty bird on and off since the late 1990s, and here the script is flipped: When they perform together, he’s the elder statesman and she the worshipful acolyte. I guess that will happen, if you manage (against all expectations) to live long enough.
With his guitars and vocals locked into that solid, skanking groove, ol’ Keef may look like Death on a cracker, but he still sounds just like Keith Richards — not standing tall, exactly, but still standing, nonetheless. Maybe it’s the shoes after all.