‘Keith Richards: A Life in Pictures’ Makes Addictive Eye Contact With the Living Legend

A lot of rock stars are hard to look at, either because when one gets up close you can see they've got simply too much crazy-eye, or dead-eye, or entitled-eye.

Keith Richards is hot. Yeah, that’s right, go on and ponder my usage of a present tense verb in that sentence while I tell you a little story about a photograph.

On our fridge at home, we prominently display a picture of my wife at age seven. She is wearing a teensy cheerleading costume, complete with pom-poms held high in the air and two long pigtails whipping around in sync with her flash-frozen acrobatics. She’s in her 40s now, having long ago outgrown that long, girly hair. She now considers this brief cheerleading phase a total embarrassment — something to confess only at parties after one too many cocktails.

The reason I bring it up is that we are still very drawn to the photo, magnetized by a rather startling fact: she had the exact same eyes at seven years old that she still has today. When my in-laws visit, they always walk in the door and go right to the picture, remarking how she’s “grown into her eyes”.

That’s my defense of why “Keef” — older than Methuselah and ravaged by a life fully lived — is still hot. “Hot”: possessed of interpersonal chemistry that draws one in closer, where the closeness is either sexual in nature or based upon a feeling of kinship having to do with mutual sophistication or shared philosophical principles.

If you would have been glad to bang a much younger Richards during the Stones’ heyday, if you would happily drink a dozen beers with him upon running into him at your local bar, if you approve of his hat and scarf fashion combo choices or his long ago penchant for muscle tanktops, if you agree that an old man might try to climb a palm tree in search of a fresh coconut, if you hope like hell that you are not going to be wasting your dying breath mumbling a string of useless regrets — well, then you must agree that Richards is hot.

Above all else, he’s certainly grown into his eyes. One need look no further than the excellent new book of rare photos edited by Andy Neill, Keith Richards: A Life in Pictures. A lot of rock stars are hard to look at, either because when one gets up close you can see they’ve got simply too much crazy-eye, or dead-eye, or entitled-eye. Aging rock stars are frequently guarded, vacant, vacantly guarded or guardedly vacant. But never with Richards. Keef’s eyes still twinkle.

“Twinkle” has a lot of diminutive baggage, so I will add: he shoots daggers at his own follies with those eyes, laughs at the human predicament with those eyes, tells the truth of his own hard won lessons with those eyes, relaxes like a cat with those eyes, slowly smokes his own soul with those eyes, communicates on stage to the rest of his band with those eyes, casts spells of a serious intent to party with those eyes, seduces models less than a third of his age with those eyes, befriends all forthright people with those eyes.

This is evidenced on every page of Neill’s new collection in the best possible way. It’s not an exhaustive book, nor a comprehensive one. The blurbs beneath many of the photos are more distracting than biographical. Still, the book comes off in its totality as a charming look at Richards’ many looks, and it will hold up under repeated flip-throughs. You can read it first for timeline and amusing quotations. You can read it again to watch his shoe collection or his guitar collection evolve. You can read it with a variety of drinking games. For example, if you do a shot every time Richards is photographed with a lit cigarette, my best guess is you’ll be drunk by page 23.

There are plenty of photos of the Rolling Stones together — publicity outtakes, backstage candids, onstage antics. There are plenty of photos of Richards bonding with each band member — a stoically sombre Mick Jagger, a wildly cheeky Ronnie Wood, a peacefully smiling Charlie Watts. There are a few pictures of Richards with his own idols — John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, sitting in lawn seats like a plebeian while waiting for Bob Dylan to come onstage. There’s the requisite still shot with Martin Scorsese and one from Pirates of the Caribbean. There are just enough photos with wives and kids to show he’s a real family man, and just enough photos of drug-induced squalor to remind us all that heroin is a messy affair for even the most notable survivors.

On every page where he’s seen the camera coming, he’s looking right at it. Richards might loathe the establishment, the police, the hordes of Keef-thirsty girls blindly wailing their devotion. But of all the things he has to hate as he grows ever more soulfully grumpy, he has always been kind to the camera. Every page you turn, he’s looking right at you. The effect is oddly unsettling at first, then one starts flipping pages more quickly, rapidly becoming a junky for eye contact with the one and only legendary Keith Richards. Whatever else is in the frame, you’ll be drawn right into those kohl-smeared pools of his higher power.

To meet the man in person, I bet it’d be hard to sustain eye contact. But here he is, flat on the page and insensitive to whomever might be flipping these pages. You can look as long as you want. Might as well drink it in, the magisterial glories laid bare in those eyes, a public constancy for over 50 years, now, and still as steady as ever. Richards’ eyes do not reveal any answer whatsoever to his mysterious life — they just make clear that indeed it is a mystery.

The cover image by John Stoddart is alone enough to drive one mad. I do not recommend putting this book on your coffee table. How on earth would you ever direct your eyes anywhere beyond it? Above all else, Keith Richards: A Life in Pictures conveys the hypnotic grandeur of a rock star who remains too foolish and too wise to look away from life.

RATING 6 / 10