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Sunday 19 February 2017

Sympathy for the ol' devil -- when johnny met Keef

Nick Kelly

Published 13/02/2010 | 05:00

The news that Johnny Depp is directing a documentary about Keith Richards will be music to the ears of Rolling Stones fans everywhere. Depp is the second Hollywood A-lister to pay homage to Richards, with Martin Scorsese having helmed the Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light in 2008.

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But where Scorsese mostly concentrated on capturing the guitarist in action on stage, Depp's film will apparently delve into Richards's colourful past, with archive footage interspersed with a modern-day face-to-face interview. So, it seems that we can expect a rock-doc along the lines of Scorsese's peerless Bob Dylan homage, No Direction Home.

Depp and Richards make a good fit: the actor has gone on record as saying that he based his most successful character (commercially speaking) -- Pirates Of The Caribbean's Jack Sparrow -- on the man who whose emergence as a pinhead of the '60s counter-culture was met with the famous newspaper headlines 'Lock Up Your Daughters, It's the Rolling Stones' and 'Would You Let Your Daughter marry A Rolling Stone?'

The wheel came a full circle when Keef, as he is affectionately known by his fans, took a cameo role in the third Pirates Of The Caribbean film, At World's End in 2007, playing Captain Teague, the father of Depp's character Jack Sparrow.

The programme notes on his character described him as "once the most feared pirate in the world ... who firmly believes that the pirate code is law and will kill anyone who claims otherwise. Despite his gruff demeanour, he does have a sense of humour as well as musical skill ... He also seems to have a knowledge of immortality."

This last joke on Richards' perceived indestructibility gets to the heart of why the world is still fascinated by the musician. Though creatively his best days are behind him, Richards remains an enigma. If rock'n'roll is supposed to be about the adoration of the cult of youth, Keef turns this maxim on its head. Although he turns 67 this December, Richards, in the popular consciousness, seems to have been around forever. It's difficult to ever imagine a time when he was not snaking across the stage with his yellow Fender Telecaster hung low, louchely holding a cigarette, effortlessly trumping Mick Jagger as the coolest member of the Stones, despite the latter's maniacal, hysterical attempts to hog the limelight.

While Jagger these days embarrasses himself by pretending to still be a 21-year-old Lothario, Richards has eased into his role as rock's craggy-faced old codger. It would be no surprise if his improbably lined visage one day gazes down from Mount Rushmore.

Richards' seeming immortality is the subject of a famous Bill Hicks' joke: "What two things will survive a nuclear Armageddon? Keith and bugs." And I remember a headline on the front cover of the NME back in the '80s, describing him as "The Creature from the Jack Lagoon". This may look like a prescient foretelling of his role as Captain Sparrow's old man but what they were actually getting at was Keef's famous predilection for consuming industrial amounts of Jack Daniels, with the unspoken suggestion that his enormous appetite for drink and drugs marked him out as an almost otherworldly figure.

Richards's reputation goes before him: he was charged in court five times with drug offences, spending a night in the cells at Wormwood Scrubs for his trouble. At one point, his heroin addiction was said to be so pronounced that he had to "clean" his blood with a complete transfusion.

Then there was the time he fell out of a hammock while chilling out on the island of Fiji in 2006, requiring emergency cranial surgery in New Zealand. This time, Keef was literally out of his tree. And who could forget his claims, later retracted, to have snorted the ashes of his dead father?

In an interview with Q magazine in 1994, Richards said of this image: "It's something you drag around behind you like a long shadow. . . Even though that was nearly 20 years ago, you cannot convince some people that I'm not a mad drug addict. So I've still got that [image] in my baggage."

No doubt Depp's rockumentary will discuss his personal life, too. The great loves of his life were Italian-born actress Anita Pallenberg and current spouse Patti Hansen.

Although they were never walked down the aisle, Richards and Pallenberg were a couple from 1967 to 1979 and had three children together (the third one, a boy called Tara, died after only three months). Later, in 1979, Richards met future wife Patti who was working as model at the time. They married on December 18 1983 -- Richards's 40th birthday -- and have two daughters, Theodora and Alexandra, born in 1985 and 1987 respectively.

Of course, the man behind the riffs to Satisfaction, Paint It Black and Sympathy For The Devil is already guaranteed immortality -- but now with Johnny Depp's doc, it's a case of never the mind the hammock, we may finally get to know the flesh-and-blood man behind rock's most celebrated pirate.

nkelly@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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