Keith Richards is surely one of the most indestructible rockstars on the planet. Throughout his long and varied life, he’s been bombed, shot at, set on fire, and electrocuted on numerous occasions. And yet, he’s still – quite inexplicably – standing. When you take into account the fact that this is a man who spent many years harbouring a pretty potent heroin addiction, it seems self-evident that he’s something of a mortality anomaly – and yes, you’re right, that would make a great name for a heavy metal band.
Richards’ consistent evasion of Death’s clammy grasp has made him one of the most mythologised men in recorded music. How he’s managed it, I don’t know. I’m tempted to say that some people are just born with more survival instincts than others, but I don’t think I’d describe anyone with Richards’ habit of falling asleep with a lit cigarette drooping from his lips as having much of a sense of self-preservation.
So what has allowed Keith Richards to survive everything from drug overdoses to falling from the uppermost portion of a Fijian palm tree? His life has been one hell of a wild ride, and anyone else would have fallen by the wayside long ago. Well, this comprehensive list of every time the Rolling Stones guitarist has cheated death might give us some clues as to how he dodged so many bullets. Survivalists take note.
Every time Keith Richards cheated death:
The Blitz (1944)
Richards’ earliest scrape with death occurred when he was barely a year old. The would-be guitarist was born in 1943 when London was under the shadow of the Blitz. In 1944, at the height of the raids that saw countless homes and factories decimated by the Luftwaffe, Richards’ mother decided to leave the city for the refuge of the countryside.
It was a decision that saved young Richards’ life. On their return to London, his mother found that her neighbours had been killed and that the whole street was reduced to rubble. Walking into the shell that had once been their home, she discovered Keith’s cot blown to smithereens. “He [Hitler] was after my ass, you know that!” Richards’ would later recall.
Electrocution at Sacramento (1968)
In 1968, during a show in Sacramento, Keith Richards’ was in the middle of a performance of ‘The Last Time’, when he noticed his microphone was facing the wrong way. With his backing vocals coming up, he attempted to pivot the mic stand by hitting it with the neck of his guitar. Bad decision. The microphone wasn’t properly grounded, so when the guitar made an impact it acted as a lightning rod, sending an enormous electric pulse down the steel strings and into his body.
Someone who was at the concert later recalled witnessing the moment Richards was electrocuted: “I was right there in the front row, in front of Keith, I saw the blue light. I literally saw Keith fly into the air backwards. I thought he was dead.” Indeed, even the paramedics who wheeled Richards into an ambulance as he slipped in and out of consciousness weren’t hopeful. “Well, they either wake up or they don’t,” Richards remembered overhearing. Thankfully, he was one of the lucky ones.
The shooting at Altamont (1969)
Widely considered to have marked the end of the ‘peace and love’ era, the anarchy that erupted at The Rolling Stones’ infamous concert at the Altamont Festival nearly cost Richards his life. In many ways, the slapdash day-festival was doomed from the start, with a dozen or so members of the Hells Angels acting as informal security staff for an event that was open to anyone and everyone.
The Stones were aware of the tensions in the crowd and were forced to stop and start their set in order to calm people down on a couple of occasions before the inevitable happened. As Richards and the band moved towards the final portion of their set, a fight broke out between a gun-wielding fan and Alan Passaro, a Hells Angel, who ended up stabbing the fan to death just 20 feet away from where Richards was playing. The Stones fled in a helicopter, apparently only learning about the murder later.
Fire at Redlands (1973)
The fire at Redlands wasn’t the first time Richards’ had evaded being turned into a small lump of charcoal. Deep in the throes of all-consuming heroin addiction, Richards nearly met a fiery end while staying at villa Nellcote in Southern France when The Stones were recording Exile On Main Street. Having fallen into an opium-induced slumber with a cigarette still in his mouth and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, beside him, he woke up to find his bed wreathed in flames and quickly made a dash for the french doors.
Then, in 1973, clearly having learned nothing from his last brush with death, Richards managed to fall asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth again, this time while staying in his grade II listed property, Redlands. Richards blamed the cause of the fire on a mouse, which he claimed had chewed through some electric cables, but I’m not so sure. Either way, the fire quickly spread to the property’s thatched roof, at which point Richards, Pallenberg (probably feeling royally pissed off), and the children managed to escape.
Strychnine poisoning (sometime in the ’70s)
Richards’ addiction to heroin made him vulnerable to more than just fire. In the ’70s, for example, he was admitted to hospital after unknowingly ingesting Strychnine, a highly toxic pesticide used for killing agricultural pests.
The spiking happened when Richards was in Switzerland. He was getting high with a group – some of whom he knew, many of whom he didn’t – when he passed out with a needle still hanging out of his arm. “Someone put strychnine in my dope,” he later said. “I was totally comatose but I was totally awake. 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!’”. It is this experience that likely led to the much-mythologised story of Richards undergoing a full blood transfusion, in which he is reported to have traded his tainted blood for a fresh supply.
Death by literature, 1998
Even after putting his wild days behind him and settling down, Richards still managed to find ways of tempting death in the most domestic of environments.
In 1998, Richards was innocently persuing the shelves of his library when, grasping or a hard-to-reach book about Leonardo Da Vinci’s explorations of human anatomy, he was struck on the head by a bundle of hefty tomes. He stumbled from his perch and wound up with three broken ribs, which forced The Rolling Stones to postpone their upcoming tour. “It was one of those moments where you have to make a decision,” Richards later said. “Take it in the ribs or take a shot in the temple on the desk.”
The palm tree incident, (2006)
In 2006 Richards was holidaying in Fiji with Ronnie Wood and his family. One day, Richards looked up at one of the matchstick thin palm trees that lined the nearby beach and presumably thought ‘hell, I could shimmy up that.’ And shimmy he did. Within a few minutes, he’d managed to get a modest seven feet up the body of the tree, at which point he lost his grip and came tumbling down, smacking his head on the trunk.
The initial reports claimed that Richards had fallen from a monstrous 40-foot tree in the pursuit of some lofty coconut. When it transpired that he’d actually fallen a mere meter or so, the whole incident didn’t seem quite so dramatic, with Richards’ blaming the fall on having wet hands from swimming. But when Richards was taken into hospital, it turned out he’d managed to fracture his skull and had to undergo brain surgery. I imagine the words ‘There goes another tour’ passed his lips as he was wheeled into the operating theatre.