The Rolling Stones lead guitarist, the embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll and the unstoppable force known as Keith Richards, has managed to avoid death many times. Whether it’s from his determined consumption of copious narcotics and substances over the years, his brushes with high-speed mortality or indeed when he tried to snort his Father’s ashes—it’s safe to say there was one time which was more shocking than all of the others put together.
On December 3rd back in 1965, The Rolling Stones were performing to 5,000 wild fans at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, California. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But it was here that Richards would have his closest call with death. In fact, his situation was so fraught that many had thought the guitarist had been assassinated. Luckily, he survived to tell the tale and continue his rock ‘n’ roll mission.
One of the biggest fears for the British invasion bands of the early sixties wasn’t the screaming fans, despite what the countless reams of armed police will suggest. No, the biggest fear they had was being killed by poor stage management. The Rolling Stones were at their rightful place on stage when, during the performance of their track ‘The Last Time’, an ironic choice which isn’t lost on anyone, Richards’ guitar touched his microphone stand and an electrical blast erupted from the axe—Richards dropped to the ground unconscious. Many presumed him dead.
As the guitarist lay motionless, the crowd became increasingly worried that the musician had been shot, a notion which was shared with promoter Jeff Hughson. It wasn’t an inconceivable notion, The Stones had slowly been gathering a reputation as the dark side of rock and roll and there was every chance they were on some conservative lunatic’s hit list. Luckily, that wasn’t to be the case.
Huff Post reported (and brought to our attention by Rolling Stone and Ultimate Classic Rock) that attendee and writer Mick Martin reported: “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. I was horrified. We all were.” With poor electrical safety being in place for many of the band’s early shows, something the Stones shared with much of the music industry at the time, the reality of performing suddenly became a lot graver.
Martin was horrified by the scenes, as were the rest of the audience: “Silence fell over the crowd. They carried him out with oxygen tubes, and he was semiconscious. I patted him on the shoulders and said, ‘I hope you’re going to be okay.'”
Richards had been quite badly burnt from a violent electrical surge that leapt from the mic when it connected with his guitar. Keef, as he is affectionately known to his fans, was dutifully carried off stage and out of the venue with oxygen tubes emanating from his nose and mouth. He was quickly rushed to the nearest hospital and work began on saving the guitarist’s life.
As with every non-sensical occurrence that has ever happened to Keith Richards in his life, he was alive enough to see the funny side of things, despite nearly dying. The guitarist later laughed that he recalled hearing a doctor in the hospital say, “Well, they either wake up or they don’t.” It’s exactly the dark humour that Richards still wields to this day.
Reports of Richards’ shoes and their suede soles providing the only reason he wasn’t killed instantly began to fly around the press room, we’d say the most notable moment of this story happened the next night, however. Richards, without so much as a shudder, took to the stage and performed as effortlessly and brilliantly as he always did.
An unstoppable rock and roller if ever there was one.