Whammy Bar: Keef Print
Sunday, 01 April 2007 17:26
Image By Larry Dobrow
Keith Richards is one of the coolest individuals ever to walk the face of the earth. He is a pioneer in the simultaneous self-accessorizing of headbands, beads and rubber bands in one’s coif. He is inimitable, incorrigible and, based on his ability to ingest copious quantities of substances of dubious legality, 600 times more likely to survive a nuclear holocaust than a cockroach.

He is also an overrated guitar player, bordering on minimally competent. I say this as somebody who digs the Rolling Stones, as somebody who counts the ominous wheeze that opens “Gimme Shelter” asMazur_07 one of the five greatest riffs of all time, as somebody who can find moments of musical mirth even on Bridges to Babylon (“Too Tight,” y’all). But as somebody who fancies himself a guitar aficionado, I’m at a loss to comprehend the bouquets consistently thrown in Keef’s direction. Just because we love the guy and what he stands for – the purity of the rock-and-roll spirit, even while bleeding one’s fans for $175 tickets to stadium shows – doesn’t mean we have to delude ourselves into thinking he can play worth a damn anymore. That is, if he ever could.

I haven’t caught the Stones play live in quite some time, owing to my distaste for bands who don’t bother to challenge themselves musically. Nonetheless, the last time I saw Keith in concert, he didn’t seem particularly engaged. Sure, he prowled around the gargantuan stage with his usual Cheshire-cat grin, sharing many a giggle with Ronnie Wood (helllloooo, underrated) and occasionally contorting himself into guitar-god poses (crouch, wince, thrust strumming arm violently downward, repeat). His playing was barely audible, however, and I’m about 85 percent sure he spent 90 percent of the concert in easily managed open tunings. I don’t care if you’re playing material by Muddy Waters or Puddle of Mudd; that gets filed under “barely trying.”

Mikio_02 As for his recorded output, Richards lacks a true defining guitar-hero moment. His angular “Sympathy for the Devil” solo certainly underscores the song’s sense of menace, but it loses points for sloppiness. He gets props for any number of memorable rhythm figures – the alternately bright and murky bursts of chords that herald “Rocks Off,” “Little T&A” and “Happy” – but the most heroic and inventive guitar moments in the Stones catalog belong to Mick Taylor (“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Moonlight Mile”) and Brian Jones (“The Last Time,” the slide guitar that snakes through “No Expectations”).

And please, don’t try to persuade me that the opening riff to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by itself elevates Keith into the guitar pantheon. It’s three notes and a fuzz box. Is it that much more memorable than the “Life in the Fast Lane” opening volley? Holy lord… I think I just compared the Rolling Fuckin’ Stones to the Eagles. Ignore those last few sentences, if you will.

(Apropos of nothing: I know that I’m constitutionally mandated as a U.S. citizen to list Exile on Main Street as one of the five greatest rock records of all time, right alongside London Calling and Astral Weeks. Does it make me a musical Visigoth to suggest that Sticky Fingers holds up considerably better? Sticky may not hit the Exile highs of “Rocks Off” or “Loving Cup,” but it also doesn’t scrape the generic-blues lows of “Shake Your Hips,” “Ventilator Blues” or “I Just Want to See His Face.” Somebody needs to investigate this.)

Back to Mr. Richards. I remember years ago, when Circus or some similar magazine decided toMazur_04 assemble a “dream” rock band. For rhythm guitar, the mag chose Pete Townshend over Keith, a decision that one, made little sense (Pete would no sooner play in a two-axe band than share songwriting royalties with Roger Daltrey and/or the Entwistle estate) and two, enraged Stones fans newly invigorated by the reclaiming-the-throne propulsion of Tattoo You. (More apropos-of-nothing-ishness: All you need to know about the delicate state of rock music at that point in time was the mag’s appointment of Foreigner’s Lou Gramm as lead vocalist.)

The pissy/prissy fans were right: Keith is perhaps the only “legendary” guitarist best relegated to a rhythm role. As a secondary player, Keith slashes and jousts with the best of ‘em; as a lead guitarist, he falls way short of even the preliminary requirements for Hendrixian beatification. The phrase has become way overused, but it’ll have to do: Keith Richards is merely a rock star.