GARY PIG GOLD
I love Keith. You love Keith. We ALL love Keith Richards. In fact, very personally speaking, if it wasn’t for my first encountering the hallowed words “Chuck” and “Berry” on some extremely early Rolling Stones record, and then seeking out “No Particular Place To Go” in particular, I probably never would have ventured past the second fret up my own childhood guitar.
Which leads us, quite logically and musically, to Morgan Neville’s Keith Richards: Under the Influence, right there alongside the main offender’s grand new Crosseyed Heart album …if they’re still called that, that is. Needless to say both – and we would never expect anything less from these guys – provide a much-welcomed, not to mention sorely needed blast of stark, December’s air across an otherwise milquetoasted season/year/decade of showbiz mediocrity (I’m being polite here).
So! Strictly cinematically speaking if we may, Under the Influence opens not in spotty, smoky pirate black-and-white, but awash with stately timbered blues and greens as we find The Man Himself strolling barefoot yet regally through his lush lower forty or so. Keith similarly skulks – remember, even when this guy walks he looks like he’s cradling the nearest Telecaster – through the remainder of this superlative documentary, engaging along the way mentors (Buddy Guy), idols (Mr. Berry) pals (a typically articulate Tom Waits) and adversaries (yep, Chuck again) as Neville’s camera wisely takes a fly-on-wall approach to all splendid proceedings. Thankfully we’re spared most of the usual backstory clichés [cue grainy WWII London blitz newsreel] as it’s assumed, quite correctly, we already know the tale …hopefully via Keith’s very own Life. Much better, you see, to take a look behind, beside and yes, under just what makes this man, his music, and even his long and often inexplicable existence still so utterly fascinating and somehow inspirational.
Where better to start, I ask you, than in loving stylus-on-vinyl close-ups of Rockin’ at the Hops and Best of Muddy Waters as our journey unspools from a Dartford railway platform to St. Louis, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, the Ryman Auditorium and beyond. And speaking of Music City, USA we’re soon treated to a nice little glimpse of Crosseyed Heart’s passionate lead-off single (if they’re still called that) “Trouble,” being Keith-crafted on six purely non-electrified strings …and sounding quite “country” indeed. Also, we feast eyes and especially ears as a vintage-’68 portable cassette recorder with condenser microphone is plopped onto a tabletop and Keith savagely strums into it the bargain-basement – “production”-wise, that is – origins of none other than “Street Fighting Man.” Of course that song, and that guitar foundation, basically paved the way for countless killer riffs, man, which propelled the Stones etc. into arena-rocking Seventies to come.
Throughout all and then some, Morgan ensures Keith’s trusty confidant and right-hand wrist Steve Jordan is never too far from the action …nor should he be, as from Talk Is Cheap onwards Steve has expertly facilitated some of the very best Rolling Stones records they never made. Fellow X-perienced Wino Waddy Wachtel pops in and out of the proceedings too; always wise to have an old Cowsills associate on board, yessir. Nevertheless, and not surprisingly at all I guess, several of Keith’s Greatest Myths (e.g.: spotting a whitewashed Muddy Waters painting the Chess Records ceiling when the Stones first arrived there in 1964) are spun into their second half-century of fictional service. But at least one, um, influence upon the subject matter is given due screen time …finally: While for some reason Gram Parsons seems to forever be AWOL from the The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band’s own documentaries (Stones in Exile most obviously), at least Keith now seems to have no reservations citing the source for, oh, “Dead Flowers” for starters.
However – and, dare I say, this is a MAJOR however – is the next to zero mention, credit, or even significant name-check given whatsoever to the young man who, with all apologies to the late, exceptionally great Ian Stewart, put the Rolling Stones together, gave them their name, gave them their mission and, lest we ever forget, gave our very subject matter himself his first-ever job as a professional musician (and a place to live in London when he finally plucked up the courage to leave home and art college, truth be told). Sure, we do briefly spot him blowing “I Just Want To Make Love To You” harmonica into Dean Martin’s face at The Hollywood Palace, and then most eagerly introducing Howlin’ Wolf to us young suburban North Americans on a long-ago Shindig. But we should ALL try to remember, as Morgan Neville seems to have neglected to, that there but for the grace of Brian Jones went… Keith Richards. Among others. To say the very, very least.
That gargantuan quibble aside, Under the Influence should be considered absolutely Required Viewing for not only all students of rock ‘n’ roll archaeology, but for those cranky remaining folks out there still too often overheard making such quips as “rock is dead,” “there’s nothing left worth listening to anymore,” or “Keith Richards? THAT guy’s still ALIVE??!”
Well. Not only alive, but as happy, productive, insightful, witty, personable, charming and downright entertaining as always. Why, he may even outdo Chuck Berry in at least several of those just-mentioned criteria. So there!
P.S.: and the man is a great pianist as well. Ian Stewart, and even Johnnie Johnson I bet, would be proud.