Is Keith Richards a 'good thing'?

The Word magazine editor Mark Ellen and Observer columnist Barbara Ellen debate the relevance of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, after the publication of his controversial autobiography

YES – Mark Ellen, editor of The Word magazine

In 1976, the Rolling Stones played to 100,000 people at Knebworth. They were due on stage at about 9.30pm but an unexplained hitch before the last support act, 10cc, meant they didn't show up until nearly 11. By which time the crowd was exhausted, the set preposterously loose and the traffic jams home the stuff of legend.

Three years later I interviewed 10cc and asked them why they were so late. Theirs was a terse, two-word response: Keith Richards.

The Stones' loose cannon had "over-refreshed" himself in the afternoon, they told me. He'd been shipped off-site for a snooze. To buy time, the band's blood-chilling road-crew had apparently severed the multi-core cable to the public address system, requiring 10cc's mob to splice it back together again. I can see Richards now, tottering distractedly down the sloping, tongue-shaped stage to create a cacophonous discord. Chaos, fallibility, suggestions of subterfuge. Failure on an epic scale.

Except to me it wasn't – to a lot of us, actually. We forgive the old boy virtually everything. He embodies the wayward, theatrical spirit that keeps rock'n'roll interesting. Put Mick Jagger on the cover of a newsstand magazine and watch in horror as your copies stay nailed – and glued – to the shelves. Slap Richards on the front, however, and you'll be feeding virgin pine-forest to the presses for nights on end to supply the demand.

Why? Because Keith Richards is a resolutely Good Thing. He attracts envy, appearing to drift through life without effort or responsibility as if frozen in a permanent state of adolescence. The riff for "Satisfaction" came to him in a dream: he awoke for long enough to press "record" on a tape-machine and resurfaced at the crack of noon to discover three bars of lucrative croaks and 29 minutes of snoring. He virtually invented the notion of thick textural slabs of sound that could travel long-distance (the phosphorescent buzz of his amp alone is a thrilling overture to the glorious string-mangling ahead). He co-wrote songs as deathless as "Angie", "As Tears Go By" and "Let's Spend the Night Together". And he smells of purpleness, a powerful scent that's half-booze, half-testosterone and could probably be sold in small bottles labelled "Riff" or maybe "Eau de Keef".

It's not his fault that his fabulously gaunt physiognomy has been so widely adopted by Oasis, the Verve, the Charlatans, Johnny Marr and a million others. It's not his fault that people only an eighth as talented think the fast-track to creativity is to eat a skipful of drugs. It's not his fault that legions of pale imitators listen only to the Stones, when the Stones themselves crackled with colour because of the sheer diversity of music feeding into them – Delta blues, R&B, gospel, soul, disco, dub reggae. And it's not his fault that, at 66, he's forced to publicly inhabit a cartoon of what people expect him to be, based on his 30-year-old self, beneath which a far more complex and calculating character can quietly manoeuvre.

We want him to act a certain way and, obligingly, he does. When I interviewed him in 1999, he flipped seamlessly into his standard slurred and head-scratching buffoonery, this a man we now know visits art galleries and has a library so extensive he once fell off a ladder inspecting it. I asked him how he'd be spending New Year and he cartwheeled into another harmless fantasy intended solely to raise the sum of human happiness.

"I'm going to my bunker," he roared. "I'll get a stash of cash, a few machine-guns, some tinned food, and wait to see if this 'millennium' thing actually happens. Don't wake me until the end of January!"

NO – Barbara Ellen, Observer columnist

Oh, Keith. Or should that be "Keef"? Keef being the cartoon name for the cartoon man, who once oozed threat, menace, magic, and more than earned his rock'n'roll stripes. These days, though, he prefers shambling around, resembling a stale poppadom with a wig on, mumbling about "heavy shit that went down in 1971".

I am weary of hearing how "cool" Richards is, simply because he hasn't died. This has nothing to do with his age (66). One can only respect the way that he and the Stones have continued to prosper in spite of the ageist mockery.

My beef with Keef, as it were, is that he has allowed himself to succumb to the worst fate fame can bestow – that of never growing up, thus becoming just another crowd-pleasing sex-drugs-and-rock'n'roll cliche. He's too easily referenced by any dead-eyed supermodel wanting to look "edgy" – but who, if challenged, would probably cite Goats Head Soup as a Heston Blumenthal recipe.

The Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise obviously bought into this, casting him as Jack Sparrow's dad, with Richards displaying an acting style that could only be described as Crossroads-on-Sea.

However, one has to ask: is Richards really still the poet-prince-pirate of legend, with (by Richards's own account), some Sir Galahad thrown in? While his memoirs have their moments, the relentless sexism ("chick", "doll", "bitch") soon becomes tiring, as well as creepily (Benny Hill-level) immature.

Sleeping with Marianne Faithfull to get back at Mick Jagger he is "nestled down between those two beautiful jugs". The beginning of his affair with Anita Pallenberg is "boinky boinky boinky". On Brian Jones beating up Pallenberg, he muses: "If I were Brian, I'd have been a little sweeter and kept the bitch." Sir Galahad, indeed.

The letter to Tony Blair supporting him over Iraq might not be as bad as it looks – in a befuddled moment, Richards might have thought "Tone, the prime minister cat", was trying to pull off some tricky Middle Eastern hashish deal.

Joking apart, Richards's constant baiting of Jagger, far from being amusing, hints at a snide disloyal side. The new jibe about Jagger having a "tiny todger" is just low – Richards knew this would go all over the world. Why is he dissing his bandmate anyway? It's arguable that without Jagger's business sense and energy "Keef" would have ended up on a "Where are they now?" list – with all the other rock casualties too out of it to make necessary career decisions.

I could end this by rather nastily saying that Keef has become a rambling bore, a human bandanna, who hasn't produced anything relevant for at least 25 years. But I don't want to.

The caveat being that, back in the day – his glorious day – Keith Richards wrote some of the darkest yet most beautiful songs ever. Indeed it seems possible to retain genuine respect for Keith Richards, while at the same time feeling dismayed by "Keef" – his mumbling, sexist, childish, cliche-raddled public avatar. If this is what he's like off the drugs, he should get back on them again.

It doesn't matter that increasingly Richards resembles a brass rubbing of Bubbles the chimp (you try replacing your bodily fluids with Jack Daniel's for more than 40 years and see what you end up looking like). Rather it's that at some point Keef became the uncool person's cool person. Which just isn't cool. The real Keith Richards would know exactly what I mean.

Contributor

Barbara Ellen and Mark Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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