Credit: Jim Marshall

The life-affirming moment Keith Richards fell out of a tree

Guitar player and ex-pirate junkie, Keith Richards, is no stranger to death. Throughout the majority of The Rolling Stones’ career, it was a daily miracle to find out that Richards had woken up that morning to fight another day. He is very well known for his penchant for drugs and alcohol, but there was one moment that confirmed he needed to knock it on the head. 

Throughout a large part of the 1970s, he struggled on and off with heroin addiction — coupled with a consistent diet of whiskey and cigarettes, it is really quite amazing that he is still alive. Well, it is amazing until you find out about all those alleged blood transfusions in Sweden, which in a way, makes him even more vampiric than before. 

Of course, drug addiction should never be glamorous, but still, we speak about Richards’ issues with disbelief and laugh it away with a remark like: “he’ll be dead soon.” But then, Mick Jagger had a heart attack first, the athletic one of the Stones who, up until recently, ran eight miles a day and ate a diet that would put the most militant vegans to shame.

Some speculate in half-seriousness that, like the Delta blues player Robert Johnson, Richards sold his soul to the devil. In 2006, however, Richards had a close call with death, which convinced him to change his ways. 

We’re marking the anniversary of when he fell out of a tree and bashed his head while on a private island off Fiji, during a holiday with fellow-Stones member Ronnie Wood. It would accelerate Richards life in more ways than one.

When it happened in 2006, amid newspaper reports of Richards’ close-call with death, there was a lot of speculation as to what really happened. When Richards released his 2010 epic autobiography, Life, he cleared the story up. Richards was hanging on a “gnarled low tree that was basically a horizontal branch,” according to Ultimate Classic Rock. He was drying off after having gone for a swim; when he went climbing down, his hands were sandy, and he couldn’t get a proper grip on the next branch down.

“There was another branch in front of me, and I thought, ‘I’ll just grab hold of that and drop gently to the ground,'” he wrote in Life. “But I forgot that my hands were still wet and there was sand and everything on them, and as I grabbed this branch, the grip didn’t take. And so I landed hard on my heels, and my head went back and hit the trunk of the tree. Hard. And that was it.”

The story didn’t end there. Even two days later, he seemed to be okay, but when he went out to sea, he was knocked back by a boat swell, which caused Richards immense pain, in fact, the worst headache he’s ever had, which was unusual as he has never had serious headaches — not ones that cannot be sorted out by aspirin, at least.

He was subsequently rushed to New Zealand to be operated on. It turns out he had intracranial haemorrhaging and the doctor who treated him, Dr Andrew Law, happened to be a massive Stones fan. He has since been on a prescribed medication that prevented Richards from ever using cocaine again.

So while this was, ironically so, one of his closest interactions with death, perhaps we’ll have Richards for a little longer than we anticipated. Only Keith Richards would come so close to death only to be reborn.