by Danny Stout
Keith Richards lived a hard-drinking, drug-abusing life, yielding unequaled rock and roll, blending American blues, jazz, and even country. With the The Rolling Stones, he shaped the character and direction of rock music. When mainstream bands emulated the Beatles, the Stones were edgier and nonconformist; they refused to wear coats and ties. Neil Young says, “There’s two kinds of rock and roll: Beatles and Rolling Stones.” The beat and rhythm of classic rock are there, but with angst and artistic depth folded in. “Under the Influence,” the new documentary on Richards is as easy going as his autobiography, Life published last year, “Second only to the Bible,” he says with a raspy chuckle, the residual of lifelong-chain-smoking. Richards wore out his life for a purpose; this film elucidates that cause.
The hard-living and self abuse is past; Richards is committed to family and reconciled a 20-year estrangement with his father; they have grown close. In the film, producer Steve Jordan chastises him for uttering the word, “retirement,” because like most 72 year-olds, Keith’s energy is waning. But, he fights it off, “You’re never grown up until you’re six feet under. You’re never grown.” His proclivity to music is inherited, he argues, music in the Richards household was something you just did. “Music is the language of the centuries; it’s indefinable.” His insights on the evolutionary role of music makes the film worth watching.
This is a legacy film. Richards aches to have his contribution known. “I’m steeped in American jazz and blues; that’s what America has given to the world, much better than H-bombs.” Richards claims the Rolling Stones introduced Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy not only to British audiences, but “we turned America back on to its own music” making American kids aware of it. In a poignant anecdote, Buddy Guy tells the story of Howlin’ Wolf being rejected by the TV show “Shindig,” but Keith Richards made it happen. Observing this performance is a moving moment in the documentary.
Once the Stones had the blues, it diffused into their rock songs in an astonishing style. “American music derived from Celtic roots so when I hear Lead Belly I felt echoes of my past. It was easy to build a bridge to my ancestry” he said. Like a cab driver, Tom Waits, says, “Keith has all the knowledge.” He learned Spanish guitar as a boy, sought out the blues makers in the American south, and studied reggae in later years.
Richards did something great for America, and the world for that matter. One gets the feeling he’s panicked he’ll be remembered for “Satisfaction” or “Under my Thumb.” He tells his story convincingly, however, earning him a deserved bravado in populist music history. The Rolling Stones is the best of rock and roll, and Richards, as anthropologist, synthesized blues, jazz, and country.
Considering our realm of heroes within the LDS faith community, perhaps “Under the Influence” will implore us to cast a wider net. Keith Richards may or may not regret certain periods of his life. That’s his business. Yet none of us go through life unscathed, and it will be tragic to dismiss this artist as a mere drug user as I’ve heard him characterized in LDS circles. A deep and thorough examination of Keith Richard’s life uncovers greatness where it counts. Hopefully, his legacy will endure in the way he articulates it in this documentary.