Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones
is both an affirmation of, and an exception to, the "rock star" stereotype. He's definitely the guy people think of when they imagine the grimy, longhaired rebel dressed in leather with a guitar around his back, and before they were a corporate-sponsored, family-friendly stadium act, the Stones were considered the most dangerous band in the world. Hell, rumors still linger about whether or not Nixon kept a file on the band among his many public enemies. Richards was the gin-soaked bad boy that sent chills down parents' spines, a true champion of the "live fast, die young" mentality...or, at least, he's great at the first part of that. Despite literally everyone's expectations, and probably throwing off a few decades-long betting pools, Richards has somehow outlived the majority of his drug-fueled peers and is still alive and kicking today.
At 73 years young, Keef has survived all the trials and tribulations that come with living like a madman, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been at death's doorstep before. In fact, he's been face-to-face with death enough times to make you wonder how the hell he's even here with his sanity (mostly) in tact. And no, we're not talking about the usual but unfortunate near-fatal OD on something or other that tends to plague rock stars. Richards has almost died in a ton of really
weird and completely unique ways, making him seem more like an unfortunately clumsy doofus than a rebel with a death wish. We originally were going to discuss only one of those near-death encounters, as it's the 11-year anniversary of a particularly strange brush with the Reaper (more on that in a sec), but there are others that are just too good to leave out. As a tribute to the Human Riff's endlessly fascinating life, let's look at some of the strange ways his life almost ended.
1965: That Time He Was Electrocuted Onstage
Keef's tenure with the Stones almost ended before it really even started on December 3, 1965, when the band was playing a show in Sacramento, CA. Fresh off of playing The Ed Sullivan Show
, the band was just making a dent in the States, but that upward trajectory could've suddenly ended if things had played out differently. While playing the ironically named "The Last Time," Richards almost played his last show when he approached his microphone to sing backing vocals, but the mic was facing the wrong way. In an attempt to turn the mic around, Richards tried to nudge it with the headstock of his guitar, which usually isn't a big deal. However, this particular mic was ungrounded, and the band was already using a huge amount of power that was pushing the equipment to its breaking point. By touching his electric guitar and the mic together, Richards accidentally created an electric surge that sent him flying so far, people thought he was shot. The blast left him unconscious, but Richards claims to remember being dragged offstage and seeing a doctor over him saying, "Well, either they wake up or they don't." Keef fondly described the incident to Huffington Post
as "My most spectacular moment," and credited his survival to the brand-new, rubber-soled boots he was wearing that night.
1970s: That Time He Poisoned Himself With Strychnine
The exact year of this particular cheating of Death is unclear, but it's no secret the 1970s on the whole were some of Keef's wildest years. Having survived the 60s in one piece, Richards doubled down in drugs, drinking, and throwing caution to the wind, which also meant that he occasionally found himself in the company of shady characters. In an interview with NME
, he recalled one specific time in Switzerland where he got high with people he didn't trust, and sure enough, he found out the dope they gave him was laced with Strychnine, a powerful poison usually used to kill rodents. "I was totally comatose, but I was totally awake," Richards remembered, "I could listen to everyone, and they were like, 'He's dead, he's dead!' waving their fingers and pushing me about, and I was thinking, 'I'm not dead!'" He indeed was not dead, and even though Richards only got high with people he trusted from then on, he definitely didn't stop experimenting: Immediately after describing the Switzerland incident in the interview, he went on to talk about how he snorted his father's ashes. Once again, he didn't die from doing so.
1998: That Time He Was Pummeled By Books
Contrary to his "bad-boy college dropout" image, Richards is actually a massive patron of the fine arts, from his collection of paintings to his massive library of heavy, hard-covered, academic books. As it turns out, having too many books can prove to be surprisingly deadly, as Keef learned when he was looking for Leonardo da Vinci's studies on human anatomy. Richards got on a chair to grab the book on the top shelf, but in true "old man" fashion, the then-55 year-old slipped and accidentally brought a bunch of books down on top of him. The mess resulted in a few broken ribs, forcing the Stones to postpone an upcoming tour, but as far as being buried alive by books goes, the man walked away pretty unscathed. "It was one of those moments where you have to make a decision: Take it in the ribs or take a shot in the temple on the desk," Richards said about the incident in his usual nonchalant way, dismissing the near-death experience as "All part of life's rich pageant." No word on whether or not Richards has switched to e-books since then.
2006: That Time He Fell Off A Tree And Needed Brain Surgery
Eleven years ago today, the Stones had to postpone their highly anticipated European tour in order to let Richards recover from surgery. Fans soon found out that the reason for Keef's emergency operation was not drugs, booze, or old age, but was something much less rock n' roll: He fell out of a palm tree while on vacation in Fiji. Expecting the seven-foot drop to be much smaller, Keef was caught off-guard when jumping off the tree and slammed his head on its trunk. Initially, nothing seemed all that serious, and his vacation went on as planned for two more days. Things took a turn, as Richards described in his candid autobiography Life
, when he suddenly had a "blinding headache," which was alarming considering he rarely dealt with headaches. "I never have headaches, and if I do, it's an aspirin and it's gone," he wrote, "I'm not a headache man." Richards was rushed to the hospital, and it turned out he'd fractured his skull when he hit the tree, resulting in an internal hemorrhage and life-threatening blood clots. He went into surgery to remove the clots and patch up his skull, and it luckily went without a hitch. Who knew that after decades of hard living and questionable decisions, the thing that came closest to killing the near-immortal Richards was an unassuming palm tree. But Keef, always the optimist, closed out the story in his book on a positive note: "And actually, I've never had a headache since."
2013: That Time His Neighbor Tried to Blow Him Up
Christ, even when the man's on the wagon and minding his own business he can't catch a break. In probably the weirdest moment in the long saga of Keef and the Reaper, retired chemist Joseph Callahan was arrested after police found a stockpile of homemade ammonium nitrate bombs and over 200 guns in his basement, with Richards being the apparent target. Callahan's $1 million Connecticut mansion was roughly 10 miles from Richards' home, and the bombs only needed a fuse to be complete for the drop-off. Callahan's ex-wife, who grew concerned after not hearing from him for more than a day, tipped off police before things became too crazy, and luckily Richards and his family was completely unharmed. Though his motive was unclear, Callahan maintained that the bombs were merely a gift for Richards, and that he didn't actually intend to set them off with Keef as the target. We all know Richards is crazy, but not that
kind of crazy, so we can safely assume he wouldn't have found much use for makeshift chemical bombs. Besides, death has literally thrown everything is could at the man, yet here he is, living life and playing music like he always has.