Keith Richards has been interviewed too many times. Watching Keith Richards: Under the Influence, a new documentary about the Rolling Stones guitarist out today exclusively on Netflix, one gets the sense that when he tells tales of his life in music, he’s told these stories hundreds of times. By now, it’s almost as if he gets as much pleasure from retelling those moments as he did living them.
The film is ultimately a promotional tool for his new album released today on Universal, Crosseyed Heart. It’s his first solo studio effort since 1992’s Main Offender, and there are behind-the-scenes glimpses of the recording sessions, clips from songs, and some lip service from Keith on just what he was going for. They even trot out his old pal Tom Waits, who vouches for Richards’ encyclopedic knowledge of music.
But the title is more than just a cheeky reference to Richards’ legendary lack of sobriety. The Rolling Stones were nothing if not conduits for music born on our side of the Atlantic: blues, country, and reggae. To call the effect that Muddy Waters, Hank Williams and Gregory Isaac had on the Stones mere “influence” is to understate their role significantly. In fact, the Stones’ very existence is due to Muddy and Chuck Berry, the artists who cut the records Mick Jagger was carrying when he spotted on the bus by an art-school bound Richards. Kindred spirits, Jagger and Richards bonded over a shared love of American music.
So for most of the film, Keith traces his musical roots back through Chicago, Nashville and Jamaica (with some New York City b-roll thrown in for good measure), stopping along the way to pay tribute to his musical idols. For a second, you really believe Richards when he says that “the Stones, in the early days, all we wanted to do was turn people onto this [music].” And indeed, when Richards is drinking “corn liquor” and playing pool with Buddy Guy, Guy recalls how he had never seen the likes of Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf on TV before the Stones ostensibly forced the TV program Shindig to feature the old blues legends. When he thanks Keith on-camera, he seems genuinely grateful. “They were in awe that we’d heard of them, we were in awe to meet them,” Richards explains. “A mutual admiration society.” It’s a stark reminder than even if the Stones were legendary appropriation artists, they really were in the minority when it came to supporting black music in any way.
Richards’ trip down country music’s memory lane starts with Hank Williams and leads him straight to Nashville and “The Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman Auditorium. Standing on an empty stage, Richards looks up at the stained glass windows of the most famous building to host the Grand Ole Opry, and one can get the sense that he’s used to the adulation that comes with performing on such hallowed ground. And when he says “we all come to worship the best,” it’s clear he’s talking about himself. If it wasn’t, just wait a few moments until he declares himself the “King” of mixing the blues and country music.
It’s at about this time when Richards offers a glimpse behind the curtain, showing us his ballyhooed technique for getting his acoustic guitars to sound like electrics on the Stones hits “Street Fighting Man” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” A simple trick that has been undoubtedly dissected by classic rock scholars for years, it’s a brilliant creative anecdote nonetheless, and impressive to see it performed.
Prominent in that bit is Keith’s gear nerd, who manages his insane collection of hundreds of guitars. He searches the globe far and wide for select pieces, like a 1928 acoustic model “that Robert Johnson would have played.” When it came time for Richards to show off his acoustic guitar trick, his man hands him a recorder, and tries to explain why it’s significant: “It’s a 1967 Norelco, the same one you would carry around with you,” he says. “I found it.” One can only imagine the hours this poor bastard spent tracking down the specific model of a 50-year-old tape recorder, but Richards sure didn’t — he barely even registered his presence.
Richards has led an incredibly charmed life. No matter what, he’s never too far from a smile, and why not? He’s got a face with more wrinkles than a shar pei, and a blonde wife without a single one. When he records with his buddy Tom Waits, he brings along a SEMI trailer with 300 guitars and a fucking valet for all the gear. He fancies himself as a guitar god, worthy of worship, and most people tend to agree. It’ s good to be Keith Richards.
But is another Keith Richards album good for us? It’s refreshing to see him heaping such effusive praise and recognition upon the artists that faved the way for his seemingly unending success, even if it can seem like he’s congratulating himself for his own enlightenment at the same time. But how long will he continue to play the same tune? For his part, he’s maintained he’ll keep going until the jig is up. “I’ll play as long as I can get away with it,” he says. “It’s all I can do”