The untold truth of Keith Richards

Keith Richards is a revered veteran of the music industry, and quite possibly one of the last true rock stars still walking the Earth. The guitar maestro of the Rolling Stones has been active in the music scene since the 1960s, and has either witnessed or been an active part of a huge chunk of rock history. His personal habits alone are the stuff of legend. At this point, he's survived so many strange situations and drug-fueled adventures that there's a saying: "The only two things to survive a nuclear war would be cockroaches and Keith Richards."

Just about everyone knows Keith Richards plays guitar for one of the most famous rock bands in the world and that he's had some fairly well-documented substance abuse issues. However, there's much, much more to the man behind some of the most recognizable riffs in the history of popular music. This is the real story of Keith Richards.

His relationship with Anita Pallenberg

Actor and model Anita Pallenberg is an influential figure in the Rolling Stones' history. According to the Guardian, she visited the band backstage in 1965 and started a relationship with their non-Keith Richards guitarist, Brian Jones. The relationship soon turned violent, and Pallenberg left Jones for Richards. The two lived together in London, where they had three children. The Guardian also reports that Pallenberg's influence in the band went far beyond being their main guitar slinger's significant other. She performed backing vocals on "Sympathy for the Devil," and Richards was convinced that she had an affair with Mick Jagger when the two shot a movie together. This allegedly inspired the guitarist to write one of the Rolling Stones' most famous and brutal songs, "Gimme Shelter."

Pallenberg influenced the social circles the Rolling Stones moved in, and the way they looked. She was a major factor in sidelining Jones from the band. Her overall presence was so significant that a member of the Stones' inner circle, Jo Bergman, says Pallenberg was as much a member of the band as Richards and Jagger were. However, her relationship with Richards was hardly pure bliss. The couple struggled with substance abuse issues, drifted apart, and finally separated in 1980. Vanity Fair says around the same time Richards met Patti Hansen at the legendary Studio 54. The two eventually got hitched, and their relationship was a markedly more stable one: Their marriage has lasted for almost four decades.

His unexpectedly nerdy childhood

Keith Richards has been around for such a long time that it can be hard to imagine him as a child. Yet, he was one once, and according to the Guardian, young Richards had surprisingly goody-two-shoes hobbies. The rock legend used to be both a choirboy and a boy scout. According to the Daily Beast, his boy scout past as head of a Beaver Patrol taught him valuable lessons about teamwork and leadership. However, it looks like he already had a rock star streak during his time with them, seeing as he was eventually discharged for getting into a fight. 

According to DW, Richards' career as a choirboy was actually quite impressive: He sang soprano and performed for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. It seems to have left its mark on him, too. The Telegraph reports that Richards and a number of his Jamaican Rastafari friends have a group they call Jamaica's Wingless Angels. They have been active since the 1970s and use old choral hymns, chanting, and nyabinghi drumming to create a sparse, repetitive sound.

His difficult relationship with Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards form one of the most famous partnerships in rock history, but the Glimmer Twins have always had their ups and downs. According to the Washington Post, their first great public rift concerned Jagger's first solo album in 1985, and his subsequent refusal to tour the Stones' 1986 album, Dirty Work. This plunged the band into years of conflict that Richards described as "World War III." At the time, it seemed that the vocalist's second solo release in 1987 (and Richards' own solo album in 1988) effectively ended the Rolling Stones.

Although Jagger and Richards managed to patch things up and bring the show back on track in 1989, public barbs (and tactical apologies) eventually started flying again. In his 2010 memoir, Life, Richards admitted that he hasn't visited Jagger's dressing room in decades because he doesn't enjoy hanging out with his old friend anymore. The guitarist wrote that in the 1980s, Jagger started to become an unbearable presence and also had an inflated ego. Rolling Stone reveals that the band also devised a method to stealthily insult Jagger while the singer was present: According to Richards, the other band members nicknamed Jagger "Brenda," or "Her Majesty." That way, they were able to talk about "that b*tch Brenda" while Jagger was in the room.

It probably goes without saying that Jagger wasn't a fan of these revelations. 

His long-running friendship with Tom Waits

Keith Richards has a long-standing bromance with singer-songwriter Tom Waits. According to Rolling Stonethis goes back to Waits' 1985 album, Rain Dogs. Richards has contributed guitar parts and vocals for several Waits' songs, and in 2013, the two recorded a growling version of the sea shanty "Shenandoah." They're so close that Waits once wrote a tongue-in-cheek poem called "Keith Richards…." to honor the guitarist. It compares Richards to a fax machine, discusses the color of his urine (blue, according to Waits), and likens the Rolling Stone to a praying mantis because "he only has one ear and it is located between his legs."

According to Ultimate Classic Rock, Waits reveres Richards but describes the dynamic between the two as one that needs an adult in the room. The musicians once got together to cowrite some songs for Waits' Bad As Me album, but the process proved to be less than fruitful. Richards would suddenly yell "Scribe!" When Waits wondered what was going on, Richards said it again, now pointing a finger at him. At that point, Waits realized that Richards was looking for someone to write down the music they had been improvising into existence for an hour … and that someone was Tom Waits. 

Richards didn't end up receiving any cowriter credits on the album. He still played guitar on a few tracks, and Waits dropped a reference to him and Mick Jagger on the lead single, "Satisfied."

He had a Batmobile named Blue Lena

In 1965, Keith Richards purchased a luxurious Bentley S3 Continental Flying Spur. According to Boston.com, he nicknamed the car Blue Lena after jazz singer Lena Horne. Richards owned the car for over a decade, and it witnessed many strange adventures. After a drug bust in 1967, Richards drove the car through Europe to Marrakech, Morocco, a fateful journey that started his relationship with Anita Pallenberg … in the back seat of Blue Lena, of course. In 1976, Richards fell asleep at the wheel and crashed the car into a tree. His face hit the dashboard so hard that his nose left an indentation. In 1978, Richards finally sold the car, and it changed hands several times until resurfacing in 2015, when the fully restored car was put up for auction. 

Auction house Bonham's described Blue Lena as a vehicle that Richards used to drive the whole band in to various concerts, parties, and adventures. He even had the car fitted with a special secret compartment where the Stones could hide their drugs. Richards himself has described the Bentley as a car that was "meant to be driven fast at night." According to him, the very act of his owning the rare, limited-edition vehicle was an anti-establishment act and asking for trouble. After all, it was a car he was "not born into."

He once rented a Nazi mansion

In April 1971, Keith Richards rented a luxurious property called Villa Nellcote at the French Riviera. According to the Telegraph, this was a backup plan: The Rolling Stones were originally looking to record their Exile on Main Street album at a farmhouse in the hills, but when they couldn't find one, the task to find a suitable location fell on Richards. Villa Nellcote had a pretty bad history, as it had been the Nazi headquarters during their occupation of France. There were still swastikas painted in the basement when Richards rolled in and turned the place into a curious mix of a backstage and a partially wrecked hotel room.

Along with Villa Nelcote's Nazi history and the continuous stream of drug dealers, hangers-on, and famous visitors in its palatial rooms, the heat, dripping walls, and bad air circulation on the basement level all contributed to the building's "weird vibe." According to the Star, this reflected on the finished double album's "swampy" sounds. Today, Exile on Main Street is one of the band's most esteemed works. However, Villa Nellcote is unlikely to become a popular pilgrimage for fans, despite its importance in the annals of the group's history. On top of being a remote location that's quite hard to reach, the villa's current owner does not welcome the fans who make the trip to visit the property.

His own, peculiar musical tastes

Keith Richards may be a rock legend whose music is loved by millions, but his own taste in music holds a few surprises. According to Billboard, Richards likes both Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga. He also respects singer Tony Bennett enough to say that if he likes Gaga, that means she must be great. BBC says that Richards is a fan of old music such as blues, gospel, jazz, and reggae but isn't above lavishing praise on individual, even modern artists. Florence and The Machine, James Bay, and reggae singer Gregory Isaacs have all received positive mentions from Richards. He also seems to like Ed Sheeran. Richards has seen Sheeran play live more than once and enjoys his one-man-band style … though he does appear to think that the younger artist's name is "Ed Sheenan."

On the other hand, Richards doesn't particularly seem to enjoy artists who are closer to his own genre. He has been known to dismiss Led Zeppelin as "a little hollow" (though he does respect Jimmy Page), the Grateful Dead as "boring sh*t," and harder acts like Black Sabbath and Metallica as "great jokes." However, his ultimate pet peeve is rap, which he think is a tone-deaf musical style: "So many words, so little said."

His signature look: Borrowed women's clothes

Keith Richards is famous for his extravagant style that features loud jackets, scarves, and accessories. According to the Telegraph, his style is actually incredibly simple and not even entirely his own: He just raids the wardrobes of the women in his household. The man whose style inspired the costume of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies has worn women's clothes for decades. In 2016, he said the majority of his clothes are actually just borrowed from his daughters and his wife, Patti Hansen. Richards insists that however outlandish his clothes might seem, they're just things he likes to wear, not deliberate costumes. His daughter Alexandra has backed up this claim, saying Richards just has the ability to wear anything — including his wife's pajama pants — and make it look great. 

Despite Richards' tendency to borrow clothes, he and Mick Jagger have never really swapped outfits. He does mention one notable exception, though: At one point in the 1970s, everyone in the band wore similar jackets, so it didn't really matter who owned which one. Unfortunately, this got Richards in trouble with the authorities. Once, when he was wearing one of the random jackets, one of its pockets contained drugs that he didn't know were there. Richards ended up getting caught and had to take the blame for them.

His numerous brushes with death

Keith Richards has been through so much that it's generally regarded as a miracle that he's still alive. Sober or not, the man seems to be a magnet for life-threatening situations. Ultimate Classic Rock says the guitarist's tribulations started during the London bombings in 1944, when a Nazi V-1 bomb hit the infant Richards' cot. Fortunately, Baby Keith and his mother had already evacuated the area. In 1965, his microphone gave him an electric shock during a performance, burning the strings of his guitar and knocking him unconscious. In 1971, Richards fell asleep while smoking in bed. The cigarette lit the bed on fire and almost burned him and Anita Pallenberg to a crisp. In 1973, another fire burned down Richards' Redlands estate, though he insisted that a wire-chewing mouse was to blame rather than a passed-out rock star. At some point in the 1970s, he had the worst drug experience of his life when someone laced his drugs with poisonous strychnine

Later in life, his incidents have become more mundane but no less dangerous. In 1998, Richards slipped and fell while reaching for a book in his library, and broke several ribs when heavy books fell on him. In 2006, he fell from a palm tree while foraging for coconuts on vacation in Fiji, and cracked his skull so badly that he needed brain surgery. 

The palm tree incident actually had some lasting effects. It convinced Richards to quit cocaine.

His extremely strange sleep habits

As his autobiography describes, Keith Richards has a very strange relationship with the concept of sleep. He estimates that he has spent several years where he only slept twice a week, on average. According to him, this means he has been awake for "at least three lifetimes." Not all of those waking hours were spent partying, either. As his drug habit grew deeper in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the double effects of heroin and cocaine led Richards to work "unholy" hours in the studio, to the point where his colleagues could barely keep up. Richards got his energy from his drugs, worked pretty much around the clock, and had a hard time accepting that other people couldn't. 

This period was one of the most creatively prolific ones in his career, but he doesn't recommend his methods. However, it's not because he's grown to disapprove the drug-fueled diet. It's because the particular caliber of narcotics that he preferred is no longer available, and he says very few people have the constitution and self-restraint to deal with the appropriate doses of what's available now.

His incident at the Playboy Mansion

It's probably no surprise that the Rolling Stones have visited one of the most notorious temples of debauchery: the Playboy Mansion. What may come as a surprise is that Keith Richards once nearly set it on fire. 

According to NZ Herald, Richards says when they were visiting the mansion, he and the band's saxophone player, Bobby Keys, stole their tour doctor's bag (and, more importantly, the multitude of drugs it contained). They locked themselves in one of the Playboy Mansion's bathrooms, and started sampling everything. Suddenly, they heard a fire alarm. People were running down the corridor, so they left the bathroom, at which point, it burst into flames. They had accidentally started a fire. 

Richards tells another version of the story in his memoir: As he and Keys were busy dealing with the array of drugs, they suddenly noticed that the room was getting quite smoky. The drapes of the bathroom were already smoldering and everything was "just about to go off big-time," when they heard banging on the door. A bunch of waiters and men in black suits stormed in, carrying buckets of water. The two musicians sat on the floor with their pupils constricted to pinpoints, annoyed at the way their private celebration had been interrupted. 

His relationship with his father (and the ash-snorting incident)

Let's just get it out of the way here: Keith Richards really likes to tell the story about him snorting his father's ashes. He has told NME that he couldn't resist mixing some of the ashes with his cocaine, and that his father wouldn't have cared. The version he told GQ paints the incident as a semi-accidental one in which he intended to spread the ashes to fertilize an oak tree, but when he pulled the top off the box that contained his father's mortal remains, some of the ashes landed on the table. After that, he just had a "line of dad" because it felt right. 

Even before the snorting incident made them truly inseparable in a "part of you is always with me" way, the father and son were close. According to the Irish Mirror, Richards and his father, Herbert, spent 20 years without contact after Richards' parents separation, until the guitarist finally reached out in the early 1980s. Their reunion was successful, and over the next two decades, Richards introduced his father to the lifestyle of a Rolling Stone. In turn, he discovered that his father could drink them all under the table. At the time of Herbert's death, the two got along so well that Richards evidently felt comfortable with the ash-snorting. In fact, he wants to make it a running theme in his family: When he dies, he wants his daughters to do the same to his ashes.