Keith Richards documentary stirs memories

In September 1989 I committed a grave sin. Sins, as you know, require atonement equal to the severity of the offense. As Catholics we were required to take our confession with the parish priest every Saturday to confess our sins for the week and ask for forgiveness. I don’t know why we were required to ask to be forgiven because according to the church teachings all we needed to do was confess our sins and renounce them and voila! God forgave us.

Well at any rate, once we had confessed and asked to be forgiven, the priest would hand out our penance, the punishment if you will, for having committed these grievous acts. Three Hail Marys and four Our Fathers and if you were especially bad they would throw in the Apostle’s Creed and if a mortal sin was involved, as opposed to a collection of just venial sins, then a rosary or two was in order.

Keith Richards in his early days with the Rolling Stones (Wiki Commons) Keith Richards in his early days with
the Rolling Stones (Wiki Commons)

That was the Catholic way.

This sin, in September 1989, was an offence of a different sort. It was an insult — a blasphemy — against the Rock Gods. This was a sin so unforgivable no amount of penance could wipe away the stain.

The Rolling Stones, one of the greatest rock’n’roll bands of all time, was on their Steel Wheels Tour of the United States and from September 8-11 they were doing three shows at Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, WI. Three shows: Friday, Saturday and Monday. The Rolling Stones was — is — one of those rare bands that could sell out a venue as large as Alpine Valley for three nights. The Grateful Dead did it every year back then and an all star blues and rock show with Stevie Ray Vaughan headlining did it the following year.

Three shows with the Rolling Stones was a big deal. If you had tickets to one of those shows the thousands of others who didn’t were either envious or jealous. As the jealous reasoning went: some people didn’t deserve tickets because they weren’t going for the music, they were just going for the party scene. Those posers should be forced to relinquish their tickets so true Rolling Stones fans could attend.

The Stones were not giving away any tickets to music journalists, but their opening band, Living Colour was so another writer and I secured two for the Saturday show.

Keith Richards in December 2012. (Wiki Commons) Keith Richards in December 2012.
(Wiki Commons)

We lived in Milwaukee, WI, just about 43 miles away from Alpine Valley, a trip that took just under an hour to make by car. It was the Rolling Stones and Living Colour, quite a show by every standard.

Getting to the sin: we thought Living Colour put on a great set, about 45 minutes of scorching hard rock’n’roll. You may recall their one hit, “Cult of Personality.”

After the usual wait the headlining band took the stage: The Rolling Stones. There they all were: Keith, Mick, Charlie, Bill and the “young” upstart, Ron.

The Stones had put on some great concert tours in the past but Steel Wheels was considered, at the time, the biggest and most elaborate Rolling Stones extravaganza of all time. The big screens meant the people in the general admission lawn area could see the individual performers, which included a collection of back up musicians, one of those being the great singer, Lisa Fischer.

It ended up being Bill Wyman’s last tour with the Stones. When he quit the band in 1993 he said he didn’t want to embarrass himself trying to be a rocker in his old age. He was 53 at the time of the Steel Wheels tour. But we didn’t know he would be quitting.

So after a few songs I noticed something peculiar about the show: Keith Richards barely played his guitar. He chain-smoked, laughed and joked around, strummed a few chords and went back to smoking and cutting up like a schoolboy. It was pretty damn annoying. Keith Richards created some of the best-known riffs and hooks in rock’n’roll and he was barely playing them.

Ron Wood was doing his part and he sounded great, Mick Jagger strapped on a guitar now and then and sounded pretty good for a lead singer — D’OH! But Keith Richards, what a disappointment.

As a music journalist for the Shepherd Express, it seemed vitally important to call him out on this brazen disregard for the purity of the performance. When our next issue was published that following Wednesday it was right there: my criticism of Keith Richards for slacking through a concert in which patrons had paid up to a hundred dollars for tickets. I figured people would applaud me for taking this rock star to task for cheating his fans.

Well, no.

The letters came pouring in, “How could you criticize one of the great rock geniuses of all time!” “Keith Richards is a god! How dare you criticize him!”

A recent meme going around Facebook A recent meme going around Facebook

It was really that dramatic. For a number of Keith Richards’s fans I had committed a mortal sin — blasphemy — by calling him out for his poor performance. You just don’t criticize Keith Richards — ever — for anything. Lesson learned. Keith Richards is a rock god and therefore above all criticism. Who’da thunk?

This small incident in an otherwise undistinguished career came to mind because a few days ago I watched the Netflix documentary on him: Keith Richards: Under the Influence. If you don’t have Netflix it is worth one month’s streaming fee just to see this movie. He really could be a god. The way he abuses his body, the way he has abused it for the past 55-plus years, it can be only divinity keeping him alive.

In it Richards pays tribute to his roots, which, some might be surprised to learn, is more than just the blues and early rock’n’roll. There’s actually a clip of him and Chuck Berry arguing about how Chuck should plug in or something. There was the influence his parents had on him and then his years recording and touring with the Stones.

But now I’m really pissed at Keith Richards. In the documentary you see, and hear, Keith is a really good guitar player. And a fair piano player too.

Which is why I thought of that September 1989 concert at Alpine Valley Music Theater — we was robbed. Keith should have spent a big chunk of that show wowing the crowd with his guitar, instead of chain-smoking and goofing off.

YouTube YouTube

Okay, Frank Zappa and Eddie Van Halen proved you can chain-smoke and shred at the same time, but still, we fans deserved better from Keith, especially the ones who paid for their tickets.

Sure, it was 26 years ago and maybe it’s time to let it go; we have this great documentary on the guy, but dammit!

Now more than ever I stand by my review of the Rolling Stones from the September 14,1989 issue of the Shepherd Express. Yes, Keith Richards is a great songwriter and guitar player, but he owes me.

Great documentary though — gonna watch it again.

Rest in Peace, Kenny.