Keith Richards, captured in a moment of calm


Sometimes, a picture is worth however may words long this story turns out.

Keith Richards, March 28, 1972

On March 28, 1972, photographer Jim Marshall was present at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles while the Rolling Stones put the finishing touches on the tracks that would become the classic Exile on Main Street. One of those moments became this image of Keith Richards.

Ignore, if you will, the classic blunder of the band member wearing a t-shirt of his own band (he pulls it off well enough here). Richards in the early 1970s was as volatile a human being as we’ve seen in the spotlight of music stardom. Drug abuse was beginning to consume him, and the scene in his French villa outside Nice, which saw the bulk of the Exile sessions, was reportedly one of constant heroin use. Add to that the life of a touring musician in what was inarguably the most popular band in the world at that point, and there had to be stress.

But, here’s Richards, kicked back in a chair, Les Paul in his lap, eyes closed, cigarette dangling from his pursed lips, lost in a moment of creation. Given his ridiculous public persona, it’s not hard to overlook his extreme musical gifts, which were at their height in 1972. Some of the Stones’ most tender moments, such as “Wild Horses” or “You Got the Silver,” were driven by Richards before being turned over to Mick Jagger for final refinements. Richards’ songs, especially during his late ‘60s, early ‘70s heyday, have an abundance of soul and groove, a world-weariness lying just beneath the surface.

In this stolen moment, I can see him playing a passage of “I Got the Blues” or “Salt of the Earth” quietly to himself. I see him channelling an old Jimmy Rogers tune, or reliving one of Robert Johnson’s classics. I hear him working his way through a new phrasing for “Let it Loose.” I envision him completely free of turmoil, lost in a moment of pure peace.

It takes almost no effort to see the Stones, and Richards in particular, as cartoon characters, parodies of themselves. But listening to the records is a reminder of the power they had as young men, and catching glimpse of a picture from that time brings the music flowing back.

So, once in a while, I like to bring it back up on my screen, and remind myself of when the old Gods were young deities, still searching for the right note, still exploring the as-yet uncharted waters of their own groundbreaking catalog. And when I do, I like to thank Marshall for being there to catch Richards in a moment of inner calm. Record companies, touring rigs, deadlines and drug charges are off in the ether. The music, the re-channelling of all those worries, is all that’s present.

And, if it’s powerful enough, sometimes an image in itself can become as immortal as its subject.

Aug. 26, 2010

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