How Keith Richards’ Drug Bust Opened the Mainstream for Disability Activists

Keith Richard’s 1977 drug bust in Toronto led to the controversial “Blind Date” benefit concert in nearby Oshawa. Many benefited, but not in the way you think.

Blind Date: The New Barbarians & the Rolling Stones
The New Barbarians and The Rolling Stones
Sister Morphine

The verdict was guilty, but the judge concluded, “I will not incarcerate him for addiction and wealth.” He must be freed, said the judge, to get on with his treatment, with a condition. He will perform a concert for the blind. Very intelligent, I thought. The most Solomon-like judgment that had been handed down in many a year. And this was to do with a blind woman who had followed the Stones everywhere on the road. Rita, my blind angel. Despite her blindness, she hitchhiked to our shows. “The chick was absolutely fearless. I’d heard about her backstage, and the idea of her thumbing in the darkness was too much for me. I hooked her up with the truck drivers, made sure she got a safe lift and made sure she got fed. And when I was busted, she actually found her way to the judge’s house and told him this story. And this is how he arrived at the concert for the blind.

– Keith Richards and James Fox, Life, p. 414

Keith Richards‘ appearance in the regional industrial city of Oshawa, Ontario, east of Toronto, was a consequence of a series of circumstances set into motion by the Rolling Stones‘ decision to record material for a live album (not released in its entirety until 2023) in Toronto under the neon palms at the El Mocambo in 1977.  This plan intersected with some of Margaret Trudeau’s early celebrity social capers following her separation from then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (current Canadian Prime Minister Justin’s parents). If we put together Richard’s drug bust for heroin possession at the Harbour Castle Hilton on 27 February 1977,  his subsequent trial by judge the following year (in October 1978 in Toronto), and his alternative sentencing, the outcome of this storyline raises a question: how did he find himself in Oshawa? 

I want to focus on one strand of this event: what it tells us about the political forces at work in the community of the blind and visually-impaired in the Toronto area during the late ’70s. Richards offers a specific and individual explanation of the event through the effective action of his ‘blind angel’ Rita Bedard. He befriended Bedard at a Stones concert and remained in touch with her long after her decisive intervention on his behalf. As long as the issue is personalized, the complexities of the activist community’s response to the event among the visually impaired during this period will remain underappreciated and under-contextualized. 

To rectify this situation, it will be helpful to consider the role of one of the most robust groups, BOOST, Blind Organization of Ontario with Self-Help Tactics. Founded in 1975, BOOST’s public statements against the Richards Benefit Concert for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) were picked up by mainstream media early in 1979 and had troubled the event’s planning and mediatic narration to such a degree that Richards found himself playing in a publicly contested event that slipped precariously from a simple fundraiser for the CNIB to a heavily scrutinized, and widely criticized, act of charity. 

As Mick Jagger once noted of the band’s approach to the CNIB concert to Chet Flippo of Rolling Stone, “we tried to do it as uncommercial as possible.” This suggests a commitment to aesthetic over economic goals, without the typical advance advertising that would announce a Rolling Stones concert. This makes the site of the Civic Auditorium somewhat puzzling. After all, if the goal of a fundraiser for charity is to maximize the potential of the event, then it follows that a venue that met this goal would be preferable to one that did not.

However, the tension between the aesthetic and economic could not be resolved straightforwardly. Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto – which had been “tentatively offered” to the organizers by owner Harold Ballard, according to journalist Nicholas Van Rijn in The Toronto Star) – was significantly larger than Oshawa’s Civic Auditorium; hence,  it would have raised much more money. 

In the search for a venue, the University of Toronto’s Varsity Arena was also considered viable, but nothing materialized, as Daniel Tate and Rob Bowman observed in The Flyer Vault, despite the fact that it was announced in the Toronto press in March, a month before the event, that it would be the site of the concert, with reports hinting at a parade of special guests willing to lend a hand in a super concert.  The Civic Auditorium (4,100 plus floor and standing room) and Varsity Arena (around 5,000) had similar crowd capacities, depending on seating and standing configurations, whereas Maple Leaf Gardens could hold more than 16,000. However, if we reassess Jagger’s comment by taking into account the goal of avoiding the glare of Toronto media, then Oshawa certainly fit this bill. 

Further, if by “uncommercial” we are to understand that Jagger preferred a smaller venue, such a venue limited the amount that could be generated for charity, given that many tickets would be made available free of charge to CNIB clients and their guides. The Civic was no El Mocambo, as this small club of choice on Spadina Avenue in Toronto, where the Stones recorded a handful of songs for their Love You Live release in 1977, held only 300 persons. 

Former CNIB managing director Euclid Herie estimates in his book Journey to Independence, that more than 1,300 such free tickets were made available to clients for both Oshawa shows, leaving approximately 7,400 for public sale, with a limit of two tickets per person. At the end of the day, $50k was raised for the CNIB (tripled in value given inflation by 2022), which was directed into research on pediatric blindness at the Hospital for Sick Children. This concert was hardly an “uncommercial” event, but the funds it raised is not a massive take by any measure. The focus was on “helping young blind people”, according to Herie, through a long-term investment in research on the causes of and prevention of pediatric loss of vision.  

However, Herie exposes the event’s contentious politics in the visually-impaired community and CNIB regarding the event:

“…. what could have been a potentially lucrative opportunity with spectacular media implications took on a very different life. Vocal blind people viewed the event as gratuitous and condescending,  and as for the CNIB, council members expressed concerns ranging from liability issues to the damage that could be done to the CNIB’s image by its association with a pot-smoking rock star.” 

Keep in mind that the concert was imposed on the CNIB by a judge from York County Criminal Court, Lloyd Graburn, following the suggestion by Bedard, and it is hardly surprising that it opened up debate within many of the communities it impacted. The fact that the Stones appeared was not a given and certainly not part of the conditions for fulfilling Richards’ sentence. Although the Stones had a Braille program printed up for distribution at the concerts, it was not released due to negative feedback about such a “patronizing” gesture, explained Rob Chapman in his book, New Barbarians: Outlaws, Gunslingers, and Guitars, on Richards’ supergroup, the New Barbarians, whose tour kicked off in Oshawa.  

In January 1979, BOOST Chairman John Rae is quoted in a Maclean’s story:

“BOOST would like to establish a working relationship with CNIB but so far, says Rae, the institution’s reactions have been ‘frosty.’ As CNIB Public Relations Coordinator James Sanders says, “We may have mishandled things because we have no experience with an activist group.”

Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards’ court-imposed impending benefit concert at Maple Leaf Gardens — CNIB administered with all proceeds going to the CNIB — almost proved the proverbial last straw. No one, says BOOST, consulted the blind themselves.

“The handicapped are always being done to or done for but are rarely encouraged to do things for themselves,” Rae asserts. “Maple Leaf Gardens is being turned into a gigantic tin cup for the purposes of the blind. We want a hand-up, not a handout.” 

The deployment of the figure of the “tin cup”, together with the lack of consultation with representative organizations, turned the promise of the concert into disempowerment. The Gardens was in use in April due to a playoff appearance by the national hockey league team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were swept by their arch-rivals, the Montréal Canadiens, on the night of the concert, April 22nd

The question of why the concert didn’t stick at the University of Toronto campus, where it had migrated, is intimately linked to Rae’s public campaign against it. One month before the concert, a short unsigned story ran in the student newspaper, The Varsity, under the title of “Keith and SAC” [ the Students’ Association Council). The student organization issued its “ask” for 400 tickets to be set aside for the University of Toronto students as part of the rental contract and made it clear to the University administration that, as a student-owned facility, Varsity Arena was at least partially under its control and subject to its terms. Thus, amidst the Margaret Trudeau cartoons and letters to the editor, one by the aforementioned Rae decrying the prevailing “handout mentality”, The Varsity and SAC had weighed in on the matter in a manner that, without putting too much of a fine line under it, ensured its failure on campus. 

Thus, while Richards portrays Bedard’s intervention as the work of a brave individual, which is undoubtedly correct, the activist backlash against the perceived handout, lack of consultation, and real opportunities for participation, which caught the CNIB off-guard, is the political and cultural context for the shift of the concert to an available Oshawa venue outside of Toronto. Although little mention was made in the media coverage of the blind DJ, Cliff Lorimer of CKDK FM in Woodstock, Ontario, who welcomed the band on stage, his contribution should not be neglected. A seasoned disc jockey and interviewer, Lorimer knew many musicians during his heyday in the late ’70s and ’80s, joining the station in 1975 after graduating from Humber College the previous year. 

Mentored during high school by music journalist and Canadian correspondent for Rolling Stone Ritchie Yorke, Lorimer joined comedian and actor John Belushi onstage in Oshawa following an invitation to MC both shows from event promoter Michael Cohl, President of Concert Productions International (partner of Bill Ballard, Harold’s son, who ensured CPI’s dominance over live music at MFGs). Lorimer explained the Braille writing system to the musicians, and to some of their children and entourage. While political pressure was successfully applied to prevent the distribution of the Braille program, Lorimer worked behind the scenes on what can only be called an educative mission.  

Jagger commented that protests by an “unspecified group” (as noted above, undoubtedly BOOST) about the “patronizing” program were “like illiterate people complaining they’re being discriminated against because a program has words on it and they can’t read.” Perhaps the context for Jagger’s comment is a historically significant decline in Braille literacy – a study released by Jernigan Institute, The Braille Literacy Crisis in America, Report by the National Federation of the Blind, indicated this trend – which might entail the inability of even blind concertgoers to read it.

The missing social contexts must include, however, the struggle for employment equity for the disabled in Ontario and elsewhere in the context of a critique of the mixture of reciprocity and exploitation, an unequal custodial relation, if you like, between the CNIB and the group for whom it advocates and provides services, as well as controlling access to these. Measured against the politics of the de-stigmatization of disability, however, and the emergence of alternative technologies (primarily audio, but later digital assistive devices), the Stones’ creation of a Braille program was in tune with CNIB literacy messaging, but not to political trends in the broader activist community of the visually impaired seeking self-determination and enshrined rights, as well as decision-making roles beyond passively receiving acts of charity. 

Rae’s letter to the Editor of The Varsity, published in the 28 March 1979 edition of the student paper, speculates about Richards’ sentence. Clearly, very little was known at the time about the background to the sentence, and Rae can first find no obvious purpose for it that answers to typical “motives for any court sentence”; and second, he can’t understand why an event, specified in the court record to be held at the CNIB auditorium, but transformed into a “public spectacle”, has not gone back to the court. The CNIB concerts could not be accommodated in Toronto at the Institute’s modest auditorium at its headquarters on Bayview Avenue. Rae’s third point asked: 

“Why is so much of the media calling Richards’s ill-conceived concert ‘a concert for the blind’ when, in reality, it is a concert for CNIB, which may indirectly benefit some blind people?” Finally, Rae, without the benefit of subsequent revelations, asks: “Why are blind people even being involved in the conditions surrounding Richards’ probation?”

The “hand-up” versus “hand-out” positions the charity concert as an act of “out-dated … custodialism”. The wedge that Rae firmly drove between BOOST and the CNIB sought to stage a confrontation between the former activist consumer organization offering trenchant and progressive criticisms of the latter established, indeed, establishment, service organization. He also chastised journalists for suggesting that the CNIB and the blind were somehow synonymous.

Beyond Richards’ event, Rae garnered in-depth national media exposure in BOOST’s 1980 report, written by himself and Mike Yale, titled “Self-Help and Government Commitment: A Call to Action, Developing Alternative Service Models” (DASM), in which it was recommended that the “CNIB … be phased out in ten years and replaced by provincial, government-run commissions of the blind”, as reported by Dave Greenfield of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), in his study of early activist organizations in the visually-impaired community. The calculated schism between BOOST and CNIB created dissension within the ranks of BOOST as it struggled to achieve national organizational status within the terms of its own decentralizing vision, and the question of whether the CNIB “sewed seeds of division” within BOOST fueled rank and file paranoia in the activists ranks but also resulted in some degree of cooptation of activists by the larger, much older, and well-heeled CNIB.

As the bootleg recording of the evening benefit concert attests, the opening words of Lorimer’s introduction, “Hello, good evening, Toronto,” mislocates the event while underlining just how easily locality can be marginalized in the recorded versions of history despite the event’s unique parameters. The Richards’ and Rolling Stones’ concerts were events in Oshawa, with all of their resonance in personal and public memorialization that continues into the present, but they were not of Oshawa, being simply a tour date, a mandated benefit concert, that finally found someplace to take place, as the first three options on the table had run out. Oshawa was fourth time lucky: it was impossible to accommodate the concert in the auditorium at the CNIB headquarters; Maple Leaf Gardens was booked; students nixed the Varsity Arena plan; by fishing around, the promoters finally found a nearby venue, about 50 kilometers away.  

The bootleg recording, known pejoratively as “Blind Date”, is recently cleaned up for online listening on YouTube. At least it has the virtue of alerting listeners to the politics of disability. The concert provided an opening for the foregrounding of issues of custodialism, consumer, and labour activism. It also gave Oshawa’s musical heritage a retelling and mainstreaming disability politics in Toronto and beyond.   

Works Cited

Brissenden, Constace and Tarnow, David. “The blind speaking for the blind“. Maclean’s. 14 January 1979.

Chapman, Rob. New Barbarians: Outlaws, Gunslingers, and Guitars. Voyageur Press. 2017.

Flippo, Chet. “Stones Serve Out Keith Richards’ Sentence“. Rolling Stone. 31 May 1979.

Greenfield, Dave. “The Organizations that Tried: Predecessors of the AEBC”. CBM Vol 32: 9-12. 2012.

Herie, Euclid. Journey to Independence: Blindness – The Canadian Story. Dundurn. March 2005.

Lepofsky, David. “In Memory of John Rae: An Unmistakable Voice for Equality Has Gone Silent”. AEBC. 9 April 2022.

n.a. “Keith and SAC”. The Varsity. 21 March 1979.

NFB Jernigan Institute. “The Braille Literacy Crisis in America, Report by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB)”. 26 March 2001.

Rae, John. “Letter to the Editor”. The Varsity. 28 March 1979.

Richards, Keith (with Fox, James) (2011) Life, New York: Back Bay Books.   

Rijn, Nicholas van. “Rolling Stone here in April”. The Toronto Star. 19 March 1979.

Roocroft, Richard. “Cliff Lorimer: Conversations with a Blind Man, Pt 2″. Rusty Microphone. 2010.

Tate, Daniel and Bowman, Rob. The Flyer Vault: 150 Years of Toronto Concert History. Dundurn Press. October 2019.