I’m old enough to remember seeing the first Rolling Stones album placed in the window of Regina’s Woolworth’s store, the place where all we local hip teens bought all our records.
It was 1964 and while I liked “Not Fade Away”, their first hit in my neck of the woods, I had already taken umbrage with the Tigerbeat and Teenbeat magazine insistence that they were the guys who would knock The Beatles off their perch.
In those days you took sides. Not necessarily in a Tupac/Biggie Smalls way. But you just didn’t buy the records of anybody who threatened your icons.
My ambivalence toward The Stones continued through at least the first decade of their career. While I’d been devastated by the deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin, the overdose/murder of Brian Jones had been of little consequence.
I liked more of their stuff by then, but they were still on my musical fringes, the kind of band you associated more with the darkness of Altamont than the warmth of Woodstock.
Then in February of 1977, Keith Richards was arrested in Toronto, charged with possession of heroin for the purpose of trafficking. His passport confiscated, he was forced to hole up in the city for a few weeks until a legal way could be found to get him home.
It was a bitterly cold winter and I was doing some play at the time that left me dashing for a streetcar I’d have to wait an hour for the next one if I missed it. One Saturday night, worn out from two back to back shows, I missed it.
Seeking shelter, I wandered into a small restaurant to get a drink and a bite. There was one occupied table at the back, a half dozen folks who’d clearly been there a while.
My food came, followed shortly by a froggy voice with a British accent calling from the table, “You eating by yerself, mate?”. It was Keith Richards.
He waved me over with a cigarette, instructing the gathering of wives, lovers and friends to make a place.
He was emaciated, clearly strung out and you got the feeling the others were more dedicated caregivers than acquaintances, making sure he was both protected and –- handled gently.
I missed a couple more streetcars that night, listening to astonishing stories, addled rants and enduring long silences where the looks among his companions telegraphed “Should we take him home now?”, “Is he taking a turn?” etc.
I left first, appreciative of our time together, but haunted by the feeling that the guy was not long for this world, no matter how adept and compassionate his entourage might be.
Keith weathered that crisis, returning to England for rehab a short time later. My next close encounter with him was more than a decade later when I went to see the IMAX Rolling Stone feature “At The Max”.
Two obviously long-time Stones fans sat in front of me, almost as high as Keith had been during our brief encounter. But even they were as astounded as I by the film’s first shot of the band in the wings prior to taking the stage.
The first thought that went through my mind was “My God, how many German sheep hormones have these guys been shooting?”.
Like many of those who have had the pleasure of that amazing concert film, the high point was the Keith’s performance of “Happy” before the Intermission. One of the guys in front of me was so moved, he turned to his buddy and said, “Keith’s so good they should give him TWO songs”. I’m not sure if his pal nodded or simply nodded off.
But again, I departed with the feeling that Keith could not last much longer.
I’m so pleased my diagnostic skills are so sadly lacking.
Keith turned 70 today and threatens to verify the belief of some that after the human race disappears, the planet will be inhabited by two life forms, the cockroach –- and Keith Richards.
And if that’s the case, I for one will be enormously “Happy”.