The Loss of Bobby Keys, The “Sixth Stone,” Can Still Be Felt

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If it seems about 100 years ago to quote the song, maybe it’s because it was. Or at least close to 50 if you’re counting. That’s when The Rolling Stones released Goats Heads Soup and now have declared what’s old is new with an elaborate reissue series. Goats Head Soup 2020 anyone?

As a young teenager reading Stereo Review, I was introduced to the album reading Steve Simels’ monthly  column. The whole article was about a phone conversation he had with his friend Cindy in which they reacted in real-time  to the follow up to Exile on Main Street

“What do you think?” he asked.

“It’s different,” she said trying to make sense of it. 

In fact the whole article focused on the theme that “it’s not Exile.”

With ballads like “Angie” and sweeping strings on “Winter,” the album cast the band in a different sense. The funky rhythmic underpinning and groove of “(Doo Doo Doo) Heartbreaker” also mirrored the times.

Many new albums are not immediately embraced. With its gritty blues and country jumbo, Exile drew plenty of mixed reviews upon release. As Keith Richards  has pointed out to his amusement , the lukewarm response turned to accolades six months later when it was hailed as the band’s masterpiece.

The mid-Seventies are looked upon as the beginning of decline of the Stones from their pinnacle beginning with Beggars Banquet through Exile on Main Street. But time has rewarded the band with kindness around the creativity and gems the band made during this period which began with Goats Head Soup. Now Seventies haze of “Can Your Hear The Music” and the brooding “Dancing With Mr. D” seem more endearing than the markers of decline they first appeared to be.

Richards who once quipped he never had a problem with drugs—only the police—was in legal trouble during the making of the album. He made a full confessional in “Coming Down Again.” When Richards appeared on radio host Dan Neer’s syndicated “Goats Head Soup All Access” program to promote the re-release, he was hazy on memories but knew he wrote “Angie” in a clinic, not revealing anything about who it was written about after years of speculation relating to Angie Dickinson, his daughter and perhaps nobody in particular. 

In an unreleased but widely bootlegged outtake “Criss Cross” that’s part of the reissue, Jagger seemed to enjoy poking fun at the band’s decadence, exclaiming in a hilariously comic moment “I need a blood transfusion!,” a reference to the subject first broached by Richards assistant Tony Sanchez that his boss had changed his blood to overcome addiction in a Swiss clinic.

“(Doo Doo Doo) Heartbreaker” with the horn section and turbo-charged guitars of Richards and Taylor make it perhaps one of the band’s most enduring timeless songs. In a distant mirror to the past, the commentary on police violence  holds a candle to the present. 

“What validity do you have to express yourself?“ Jagger was asked at the time by a journalist, a timeless issue that always plagues songwriters when they weigh in as commentators. “I’ve got as much a right as anyone,” Jagger replied.

There’s nothing particularly revelatory on the reissue. “Scarlet,” an infectious outtake from a session attended by Jimmy Page has surfaced. Page’s complementary guitar pairing with Richards is less of a virtuoso excursion than a harbinger of the future dual interplay of Richards and Ron Wood. 

Mick Taylor reminisces not remembering playing “(Doo Doo Doo) Heartbreaker” in set list until a fan had given him a cassette of their live set in Brussels. Now the live album from October 1973 is packaged with the deluxe reissue of Goats Head Soup. If history is any guide, the October 1973 shows may have been the pinnacle of live shows,  “peak Stones” in a way that have never been eclipsed, perhaps just as fans of the Grateful Dead point to the band’s live shows at Cornell University in May 1977 as their apex. On “Tumbling Dice,” Jagger delivers an enthralling performance doing his best Temptations sing-along impersonation. Rarely has “Midnight Rambler” been eclipsed in all of its dramatic fury. 

Ironically none of these songs included longtime sax player Bobby Keys whose signature sax, along with trumpeter Jim Price, give Goats Head Soup its distinctive horns sound..

Keys had endured a painful exit from the band he had been a part of since laying down a scorching solo on “Live a with Me” and the defining thirty seconds in “Brown Sugar.” When Keys was discovered by Richards in a bathtub with a girl amidst bottles of Dom Perrignon, he missed the next gig and many more thereafter. “You’re gonna pay for this,” Richards told him and Keys wouldn’t return to the road for sixteen years. 

Keys, who Richards dubbed “the sixth Stone,” passed away in 2014 but his life story is told in “Every Night’s a Saturday Night,” a documentary by Jeff Stacy that became available this year on Prime. Stacy doesn’t gloss over the trials and tribulations of Keys and his battle with addiction. In fact the film provides Keys with a forum to to deal with all of life’s things that had pained him most.

In one of the film’s most emotional moments, the director addresses Keys’ departure  from the Stones, prompting Keys to painfully say that no, he didn’t want to talk about it. He then proceeds to open up about the life changing moment that forever haunted him. Save for some of Richards’ solo efforts and the New Barbarians tour with Ron Wood, Keys was exiled from the Stones until Richards snuck him back into the band for the dress rehearsal of the Steel Wheels tour nearly two decades later.

“The life of Bobby Keys,” keyboardist and Derek & The Dominos alumni Bobby Whitlock reflects early in the film. “It must have been a hell of a ride.” 

Keys grew up outside Lubbock in the small town of Slaton. In the documentary Keys revisits his house and points out he laid in his bedroom at night before sneaking out of the window to hear Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed. When Keys woke up one morning, he jumped in a willow tree still in his pajamas to see Buddy Holly & The Crickets playing on a flatbed truck at a gas station near the house. “He said ‘Okay, I’m gonna be a rock and roller,” Crickets’ x J.I. Allison reminisces. It was Allison who became Keys’ guardian when the teenager went out on the road.

Keys got out of Lubbock and saw the world. He played on Elvis Presley’s “Return To Sender,” backed Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishman and anchored the great Delaney & Bonnie & Friends that featured George Harrison and Eric Clapton. His signature sax defined George Harrison’s “What Is Life” and John Lennon’s duet with Elton John “Whatever Gets You Through The Night.” 

By the time he left Stones, Keys had fallen to earth. He’d later join Joe Ely’s band and went from traveling by private jet between shows to now being in a van tracing hundreds of miles to gigs. But for Ely, no one told better stories than Keys. The two men from the flatlands of Lubbock developed a strong bond.

There’s an underlying sadness to the film. In one scene Keys goes to his high school reunion only to stay in his car outside unable to go in and see his old classmates. In another scene, Bobby Whitlock encounters him years after they shared the stage with Delaney & Bonnie only for Keys to not be able to remember who he was. Whitlock is genuinely devastated recalling the moment.

Toward the end, Joe Ely goes on camera where he suspected something was indeed wrong when Keys couldn’t make the Stones tour in Australia. Ely’s tone and the way he looks away from the camera can’t conceal the emotions of his longtime friend, a  reminiscence is in stark contrast to his earlier memory of Keys regaling his band on the road with his endless stories.

If you go on You Tube, there’s footage of Bobby Keys and his band playing downtown outside of a library in his adopted town of Nashville. It’s likely probable that passers-by didn’t know he had once stood before 80,000 screaming fans as he nightly played one of the most memorable solos in rock history. There he was, just out on a sunny afternoon in the village square regaling passers by with stories of his life.

As Charlie Watts observed in the film, Bobby Keys wasn’t the best tenor saxophone player. But he was the best rock and roll sax player. And when you hear his Texan drawl and catch a glimpse of the boyish face he still maintained  to the end, sadness comes over all he left in his wake. 

The world feels a lot emptier without Bobby Keys no longer here to grace us with the warmth of his sax and his wit.  As heartbreakers go, the loss of Bobby Keys is one that still pains.  


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