Santa Claus, With Keith Richards In Tow, Is Coming To Town

Keith Richards, with brisket gravy dripping down his chin like a Mount Vesuvius lava flow, couldn’t contain himself earlier this week. “Bubala, my kishka’s sendin’ out an SOS. I’m gonna plotz!” he nearly roared, beaming at my wife Sandy. “The potato latkes, the brisket, the roast chicken . . . a magnificent feast! Sandy, my tuches must be three inches wider than it was before we sat down to eat.”

Photo by Mark Seliger

We were at my and Sandy’s dining room table, gorging on a traditional Chanukah dinner. It was the eighth and final night of the holiday. “Keith, we’re glad you’re here with us,” said Sandy, the meal’s creator. “And I have to tell you that you did a wonderful job tonight lighting the candles on the menorah and an even better job saying the Chanukah prayer. Not every goy can pronounce baruch the way it’s meant to be said, with that khhhh sound grinding away deep in the back of the throat. But you, Keith, you nailed it.”

“Thanks, Sandy,” said Keith sheepishly. “I’ve been practicin’ hard.”

“Would you expect otherwise?” I asked Sandy. “I mean, Keith’s a mensch.”

Keith, my longtime friend, liked that comment. He smiled his widest smile at me. Thank you was written all over his face.

It was good having Keith at my suburban Philadelphia home. I hadn’t seen him in a real long time, though we keep up pretty regularly on the phone (you can learn how our friendship came about by clicking here). I was happy to hear from him when he called last week from his Connecticut estate. He said he needed to get away from the spotlight for a while, seeing that his plans to leave the music biz and celebrity game, which I wrote about 10 months ago (click here), had fallen through. And so, the spotlight remained blinding.

“Neil, I’d like to stay with ya for a couple days next week, if that’s all right,” Keith had said. “I can relax when I’m around ya. Your humdrum, vanilla way of living is something I kinda crave, bro.”

“Yeah, Keith-o, that’ll be cool. Come on Wednesday. And brush up on your Yiddish, okay? Remember how you got a 50-point bonus in Scrabble a few years back when you laid out all seven of your letters and spelled schmuck?” I could feel Keith basking in the glow of that memory.

“Oy gavalt!” Keith muttered into the phone. “Patti [his wife] just whispered in my ear that a reporter from People magazine is at the front door. He’s the fifth media person to show up today. One of ’em wanted to know if the Christmas season increases my sex drive. I told him ‘only when my balls are cold.’ He liked that quip. And another asked why The Stones never recorded a Christmas album. You know, that left me tongue-tied. I mean, we shoulda done one of those. We’d have knocked The Little Drummer Boy out of the ballpark. And Mick was born to sing O Little Town Of Bethlehem, don’t cha think?”

“See you soon, Keith,” I said.

The Chanukah dinner over, and Keith’s tuches looking not the least bit rock star-ish, we three retired to the living room. A Scrabble board was open on the cocktail table. We were about to start the game when, incredibly, the roof of the house shook, startling the crap out of all of us. And only 15 seconds later a lot of frantic words began to emanate from the direction of the fireplace.

“Help! I’m stuck! Give a guy a hand, you nitwits,” said the shouter, who was dangling headfirst from the bottom of the chimney. Needless to say, it was Santa Claus. He and I had bonded last year (click here), so I can’t say I was surprised to see him again. Sandy, Keith and I moseyed to the fireplace and pulled the portly gent out.

“Hello, Santa. Great to see you. What gives? Christmas Eve isn’t for another five days,” I said. “Not to mention, in case you forgot, that Christmas isn’t my holiday.”

Santa Claus shot an exasperated look my way. “I know that,” he grunted at me. Then he presented a nice and warm “Hello, Sandy” to my wife and did a double take when he saw our guest.

“Santa, Keith. Keith, Santa,” I said by way of introduction.

“A pleasure, my man,” said Keith, extending his right hand.

Santa grasped it immediately and said to Keith, “What in the world are you doing here?”

“Huh? Ya know who I am, Santa? I wouldn’t have expected that.”

“Are you kidding? Of course I know who you are. Where do you think I live? Siberia? On those long sleigh rides I’m famous for, I’ve got Beggars Banquet and Exile On Main Street playing on repeat on my iPod. I’d never be able to complete my rounds if it wasn’t for you and your bandmates. How’s Mick, by the way? Any chance he’d consider teaching me how to dance? That boy’s got more good moves than Bobby Fischer.”

I glanced at Keith and could tell that he didn’t want to break the news to Santa that the chess champ Fischer is long gone.

“So, what brings you this way, Santa?” I asked. “Do you need some cheering up, just like you did last year?”

“I do, Neil, I do. But I’ve got a more pressing problem that I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me with. Bringing toys to millions of children isn’t easy. The average Jill or Joe wouldn’t in a million years be able to handle my job. But I’m not getting any younger, as the saying goes, and I really and truly could use a helping hand. Neil, if you’ve got nothing better to do on Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning, how’s about you join me in my sleigh and pitch in with the deliveries? That would be heartily appreciated.” And Santa then let rip a “ho, ho, ho” for the ages.

I didn’t want to let Santa down. But what could I do? Sandy and I would be flying south on the 24th for a six-day vacation in Jamaica. I explained the situation, and Santa, though disappointed, seemed to accept it.

“Oh well, just thought I’d ask. You and I got along so well last year, I couldn’t think of a better companion than you for the upcoming big night. No worries. I’ll get by.”

That’s when Keith Richards, who’d been listening to the conversation with mouth agape, placed his hands on Santa’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes.

“Santa Claus,” Keith said, “there is no doubt in my mind that cosmic forces of an extraordinarily wonderful essence are at play here. They brought us together in this unlikely spot tonight, and the reason is obvious.” I kind of swooned at Keith’s unexpected eloquence.

“Santa,” he continued, “you’re lookin’ at your man. I’m a fountain of energy. I’m skinny, so droppin’ down chimneys will be a breeze for me. Don’t worry about my expanded tuches, by the way. It will be back to normal size in 48 hours. And I love to deliver goods. I’ve been deliverin’ the goods all my life. Where, and at what time, do ya want to meet on Christmas Eve?”

Well, ye of good spirits, little more needs to be said. A relative handful of hours after I publish this story, a Stone shall be flying through the air, out of the media spotlight while performing his mission and happy as a lark. Christmas 2017 will go down in history as indescribably remarkable. Who’d ever have thunk it?

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Is Keith Richards About To Become Boring?

Last week a reader took a look at an article that I launched into cyberspace during the first month of this publication’s life. Which was April 2015. I know this happened because WordPress, the genius company that provides the software for my and millions of other websites, gives statistical information to bloggers, letting them know, among other things, which stories have been looked at and how often. The aforementioned reader was the first to have set eyes on the piece in many a moon.

Photo by Cameron Brown
Photo by Cameron Brown

Likewise, the Moon had slid around Planet Earth mucho times since last I’d thought about that story. Weighed down with a way too long title (Are We Just Boring As We Get Older? Jackson Browne And I Say It Ain’t Necessarily So. Click here to read the article), it’s a short contemplation on aging that I was inspired to write after listening to a conversation that Jackson Browne had with a radio host a few months earlier. The interviewer, David Dye, and Jackson are well into their 60s. That sobering fact must have been the reason for David’s asking Jackson “are we just boring as we get older?” Jackson, an amazingly thoughtful and insightful guy, gave some reassuring comments in response to the query. To sum them up, what he said is that being absorbed in music, as a listener or performer, is a swell way to slow down Father Time’s advances.

Well, maybe that’s true in general. But in my case Father Time has been gaining on me, despite my being a music lover, faster than a speeding motherf***er bullet. I was powerfully reminded of this the other day when I forgot not to swallow the pits of the 15 prunes that I down daily to keep my engine lubricated. I should listen to my wife Sandy when she tells me that I need to buy pitted prunes. Next time I’m at the store I’ll pick up the no-pits variety. If I remember.

Anyway, being reintroduced to my April 2015 story made me take a good, hard look at myself.  My physical and mental declines were, alas, a given. But how was I, on the cusp of the big 7-0, measuring up in the boring department? Was the meager supply of coolness that I’d been lugging around all my life on the decline? Just thinking about the possibility that this might be the case started to bring me down. That’s when my phone began to ring.

Photo: Ruven Afanador
Photo: Ruven Afanador

“Matey, how’s life been treatin’ ya?” my longtime friend Keith Richards asked. “Haven’t spoken to ya in ages. I’ve been on the contemplative side lately and figured my chum Neil is who I should talk with. How’s Sandy? How’s your blog comin’ along?”

“Sandy’s fine, Keith. Thanks for asking. And my blog? Man, it’s a struggle. The writing’s going OK, but finding people to read the stories is a battle and a half. Speaking of which, Keith, how come I get the feeling you never take a look at anything I write?”

There was a moment of silence on the other end. Then Keith, who is 73, spoke. Somehow his voice was even lower in pitch and growlier than usual. “Sorry about that, pardner. It’s true. But that’ll be changin’, along with a lot of things. Neil, I’m gonna start cuttin’ back soon. Downsizin’. Once I get my life all nice and streamlined I’ll have time to read your stories. Don’t ya worry about that, bro.”

“Downsizing? You, Keith-o? What are you talking about? You’re ageless, man. You’re the guy the rules don’t apply to. Keith, what’s going on?”

Is this where Keith plans to move?
Is this where Keith plans to move?

“Neil, I gotta tell ya I wouldn’t have believed any of this even a month ago. But I’m gettin’ tired. I don’t feel like makin’ records no more. Don’t feel like tourin’ with The Stones no more. Don’t feel like stayin’ up all night partyin’ and gettin’ stoned, for the love of Mike! Yeah, I’ve had enough of fun and games and complications. I’ve got houses all over the world and I’m gonna sell ’em. Too much upkeep and bother . . . who needs it? Patti [Keith’s wife] and me, we’ve given this a lot of thought. We’re gonna move into a 55-and-over retirement community in Connecticut. Not sure which one yet. Life’ll be easier. A lot easier. That’ll be good for me, and it’s what I want.”

“Holy crap, amigo. Are you kidding? This is ridiculous. The world needs heroes and idols, Keith. You’ll be letting millions of people down.”

“My mind’s made up, chum. My perspectives have changed. Neil, I wanna live simply and quietly, just like you do. Describe one of your typical days for me. I’m takin’ notes.”

I heard the sounds of pen upon paper as I did what my pal had asked. By the way, I went into the genesis of our friendship in a previous article that you can read by clicking here. “Well, I get up around 7. In the morning, needless to say. I tidy up in the bathroom, put on some clothes and go outside to pick up the newspaper from the front lawn. Then I drink juice and coffee, eat 15 prunes, read the paper, do the crossword puzzle, take a nap on the couch. Keith, before I know it it’s one o’clock and time for lunch. After lunch I turn on the tube to watch The Bold And The Beautiful and General Hospital. Wouldn’t miss them. Then another nap and before I know it it’s dinner time. After dinner I lay out my clothes for the next day, play a few rounds of Go Fish with Sandy and work for a while organizing my collection of empty cereal boxes. By then it’s 8 PM and I’m ready to turn in. I’m busy, Keith. But simply and quietly, as you mentioned.”

“My man! Neil, you’re livin’ the dream and I’m gonna join ya in it. People will laugh, but I won’t care. ‘Booring!’ they’ll say, but screw ’em. You and I know better, don’t we, pal?”

“Keith, when you and Patti move into your new place, let me know. I’ll drive to Connecticut and we’ll hang. We haven’t done that in years, what with you flying all over the globe with The Stones. It’ll be nice. And maybe that’ll inspire me to write a story about you for my blog. The New Keith Richards is what I’ll call it.”

“Yeah, man, it’s a deal. Gotta go now, Neil. The laundry needs to be done and the trash needs takin’ out. Patti’s gettin’ me trained for my new way of life. Peace out, brother.”

Indeed, indeed.

 

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Stoned Again And Again (A Semi-Obsession With The Rolling Stones)

jumpin-jack-flash-coverIn the summer of 1968 I did a stint as a counselor at a boys’ sleepaway camp nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. It was a good gig. I liked the kids in the bunk that I oversaw. And for some reason they seemed to like me. The air up there in the mountains was fresh, the water in the camp’s lake was clean and inviting and the female counselors in the nearby girls’ camp were cute. Like I said, a good gig. The best thing of all during that summer, though, was completely camp-unrelated. It was a tune that I heard for the first time ever while lying one evening on my bunk cot. A new song, it exploded from my teeny-weeny radio, and for the rest of my Berkshires sojourn I flipped that radio’s dial as often as possible each day, seeking out the music that had blown me away. Whenever I found it, which was pretty often, I shook my head in disbelief and let it rock me anew unmercifully. And you know what? To this day, a mere 48 years later, the tune has just about the same effect upon me. We’re talking The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash, birthed in the era when those British lads were idolized, really mattered and were flabbergastingly creative, writing and recording amazing new songs prolifically and seemingly with ease.

Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP -- Getty Images
Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP — Getty Images

In 2016 the Stones are still idolized, at least by some. But really mattering and in possession of creative zing? Those days passed the Stones by long, long ago. Sure, the boys, who range in age from 69 (guitarist Ronnie Wood, a longtime but not original Stone) to 75 (drummer Charlie Watts) haven’t broken up, and for each of the last five years they’ve toured a decent amount, rocking ferociously on stage (meaning, they remain fairly active and haven’t lost their chops). Problem is, though, in concert they are nothing more than rehashers of their own well-worn classic material. And that’s because, when it comes to composing and then recording new songs, they’re plenty constipated. Guys, I’m going to ship 20 cases of prune juice to your manager’s office. You need it.

Hey, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, all of whose tree rings number about the same as those of the various Stones, continue to gift the world with albums of original material. But the Stones? Nah. The only album of new bonbons they produced this century was 2005’s A Bigger Bang. And in 2011 they managed to record and release two more original songs. The well dried up after that. They do have a studio album coming out next month, but it’s filled strictly with cover versions of old blues numbers. Apparently they had entered the studio to try and crank out an album of newbies, but got nowhere with that. Trying to salvage the sessions in some way, they fell into a blues groove, jamming on numbers composed by Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and other blues guys, and ended up with enough material for an album. I bet the record (Blue And Lonesome) will be good. But me, I’d much rather have the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards songwriting team on fire like they were looong ago. Who knows? Maybe it’ll happen again. Prune juice works.

Right, it’s kind of weird that I know about all of this Stonesy stuff. But I do. And the reason is that, in my wondrous dotage, I am, as I’ve been for nearly forever, a dopey fanboy of the Stones, though far less fervent than I used to be. I rarely play their albums at home anymore, something I once did religiously. But I keep my Stones jones alive by regularly checking up on their musical and other escapades on Google News. Did you hear, for instance, that Wood became the father of twins earlier this year? Or that Jagger will become a dad for the eighth time, at age 73, when his decades-younger-than-him girlfriend gives birth soon? Ah well, small news items like those fit comfortably into my small brain cavity. Decades ago I probably wouldn’t have thought my semi-obsession with the Stones would continue this far into eternity. Similarly, Jagger, when he was in his twenties, used to say that he couldn’t imagine performing rock and roll beyond age 30. So I guess I don’t feel too goofy about following him and his bandmates on their continuing trip. We spit at Father Time’s wrinkled face!

the-rolling-stones-we-love-you-london-3My best Stones moments in a while came recently courtesy of WXPN, a Philadelphia radio station adept at playing just about every style of music you can name. The morning DJ announced that she was spinning songs that originally had come out together on seven inch 45 rpm vinyl singles. In other words, she was playing sides A and B from a bunch of singles. When I heard her offer up the Stones’ Ruby Tuesday/Let’s Spend The Night Together something sparked in my head, turning my thoughts to another Stones 45 that I’ve always thought of as one of the ultimate singles, and whose two tunes I hadn’t heard in at least a few years. Released in 1967, during the Stones’ brief foray into psychedelia, We Love You and Dandelion found their most meaningful home on that single, as neither ever was part of a regular studio album. They did, however, eventually take up space on some of the greatest hits and compilation discs that the band is talented at issuing unnecessarily often. Great, great songs they are, despite being among the group’s lesser-known efforts.

I used to own the seven inch We Love You/Dandelion single. No more. My collection of 45s, unlike that of my vinyl albums, long ago found new abodes and/or an assortment of landfills in which to reside. Therefore, thank the stars above for YouTube, to which I turned to please my ears soon after the tunes popped into my mind. They sounded as good as I remembered them. Blessed with catchy-as-hell melodies, swirling and cascading vocals and pulsating instrumentations, We Love You and Dandelion set my head a-boppin’ and my mind a-floatin’. As always, shivers ran up and down my back as the songs’ high harmony vocal interweavings kissed the sky.

We Love You arrived in the wake of Jagger’s and Richards’ 1967 drug bust, short-term jailings, trials and, in the end, very light sentences. It was both a thank you to Stones supporters and a poke at the British legal system. Dandelion is less heady, a harpsichord and drum-driven relative of children’s songs aimed at anyone who likes to smile and groove. Both songs swell with musical daring, panache and beauty. I can’t recommend them enough. Such being the case, clicking here is what you’ll want to do to listen to the former, and here for the latter. I accept your thanks in advance.

 

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OJR Will Tour With The Rolling Stones (Keith Richards Assured Me Of This)

My cell phone rang in late afternoon on a recent Sunday. I answered and an unmistakable phlegmy voice said to me: “Yeah mate, how ya doin’? I’m OK. Just sittin’ here in my hotel room watchin’ the telly. Drinkin’ milk, munchin’ Oreos. They go good together, ya know?” It was Keith Richards calling from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where The Rolling Stones had played a show the night before.

“I know, Keith, I know. Every time you call it’s the same old thing. Milk and Oreos. Milk and Oreos. Come on, amigo. Switch it up once in a while. Didn’t you ever hear of Chips Ahoy? Vienna Fingers?”

He guffawed. “I’m hooked, son. I can’t switch. I won’t.”

“Okay, Keith,” I said. “So what’s the scoop? How was the show last night?”

Keith Richards. (Photo by Mark Seliger)
Keith Richards. (Photo by Mark Seliger)

“Cool, man, cool. We had fun. Ya got a minute?” As though I didn’t. Before the phone rang I had been cutting coupons for half an hour. And before that, working on a story idea about celebrities’ genomes that I plan to pitch to Science Magazine, I’d spent 90 minutes meticulously plotting the Kardashians’ family tree. I was pooped. I was ready to have a relaxed phone conversation. “Spill your guts, partner,” I said to my old friend, whom I’d met and instantly bonded with in 1978. This was at a Bingo parlor in Philadelphia the day after a Stones gig in that fine city. Keith’s a Bingo man. He has wandered into Bingo halls all over the world.

“What’s the Stones’ signature song?” Keith asked me. “Ya know, the one we’ve played ten thousand times. The first letter is an S. Here’s another hint. It starts like this: dum dum da da dah da da da da da.”

“Let me guess,” I said “Is it Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?”

“I wish,” my friend said. “I’d like to play that one. I’ll run it by Mick. But I got a problem here, bro. No joke. Every show we hafta play Satisfaction. Last night I almost couldn’t do it. I f – – kin’ hate that song. If I hafta play it again I’m gonna plotz.”

“Relax, chum, relax,” I said. “You’ll get through this. You’re a pro. Drink some more milk.”

“C’mon, pal. I need a boost. Talk to me. What’s good? What’s new and happenin’? Clue me in.”

Oliver John-Rodgers. (Photo by David Salay)
Oliver John-Rodgers. (Photo by David Salay)

“Okay, laddie,” I said. “There’s something really good that I checked out the other day. Great music by a young guy named Oliver John-Rodgers. Calls himself OJR. His YouTube videos have gotten about as many views as my blog articles, which means that just about nobody ever heard of him. But I think that’s going to change. For him, I mean. Not for me. His new album is fantastic. I ain’t Nostradomus, but I predict that he’s going to be big.”

“Hold up, Neil. Someone just tapped on my door. It’s Mick, no doubt. I can tell by the secret knock . . . dum dum da da dah da da da da da. You heard that, didn’t ya? He’s been doing that to me for the last 50 years. Gotta go, compadre. Send me an email about OJR. Peace, brother.”

With that, Keith hung up. Before I’d forget I sat down and composed my message to him. Here’s what I wrote:

Hey, boyo. Thanks for calling. OJR’s new album, Nashville Demos, rocks like a mother lode. Catchy melodies, nifty lyrics, guitar licks that wrap themselves around your brain. He recorded the album in, believe it or not, bedrooms all over the world. I guess he’s sort of a vagabond. Played most of the instruments himself. I found out about him from WXPN, a Philadelphia radio station I listen to sometimes. OJR has a song called Numb, and it’s in XPN’s rotation. The song’s a monster. OJR put the whole album up on his website (Keith-o, click here to listen to the album). And I found a primo YouTube video of OJR and his band playing Numb in a slowed-down head-warping version (Keith, my man, click  here to watch it). That’s all for now. It’s almost 7 PM, my bedtime as I’m sure you remember. Talk soon, matey. Oh wait, one more thing. Please ask Charlie, Ronnie and Mick to look at my blog. There’s a chance they might like my stuff. Peace out.

A few days later, at 8 PM, my phone rang. I’d been asleep for an hour. Thanks, Keith, for waking me up. He was calling from his hotel room in Lima, Peru. The Stones would be on stage in Lima the next night. “Yo, what’s up, cool guy?” he asked. “You were right. OJR is the friggin’ bomb. Best rock and roll I’ve heard since the end of the Ice Age. Or maybe it was the Cold War. I forget. Anyway, the boys and me had our managers get in touch with him. OJR’s a sweet dude, they said. And you know what? . . . We’re gonna have him open some shows for us later this year. Thanks for the tip, Bingo Boy.”

“No problem, Keith. Glad to help. How about my blog? What did Ronnie, Mick and Charlie say?”

There was a long pause. I knew the news wasn’t going to be too good. “Well, buddy, I sent them the link to your blog. Sorry mate, let me tell you straight — slow and snoozy are a couple of the words they used about your articles. What can I say? But I’ve got a great idea for ya. You’ve never written a story about Bingo. I think ya should.”

“Thanks, Keith. Maybe I will.”

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