Sunday, October 9, 2011

Keith Richards - Toronto Tapes

1976 was a dark time for Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones. They hadn't released a great record since Exile on Main Street (1972) and their last attempt in the studio, Black and Blue (1976), was the worst album they had made to date. The Stone's have a long history of drug busts, deportation, and operating in exile, but by the late seventies the joke was getting old. Keith Richard's severe heroin habit was getting in the way of his creativity. Mick Jagger, who felt that Richards had lost it, had taken over most of the creative control of the band. This lowered the overall quality of their performances and put strains on rock and roll's most famous songwriting duo.

During this turbulent time The Stones had been recording a Live double-album: Love You Live. This album only featured a few of their current songs. It was mostly made up of old blues numbers or Stone's originals from their glory days.

During this time Keith Richards relationship with his long time lover, Anita Pallenberg was stressed as well by the obligations of fame and dark nature of Heroin addiction. Anita was an actress and a model. She had originally been Brian Jone's girlfriend but she ended up with Keith. She gave birth to three of Keith's children. Their youngest child died on June 6, 1976 at less than three months of age. That night after finding out about the death of his youngest son, Keith Richards performed in Paris. Some of the performance from that night were used on Love You Live. Both Anita and Keith had been very strung out on cocaine and heroin, before during, and after the pregnancy of their third child. When the baby died things only got worse.

A few months later in March of 1977 Love You Live had still not been completed. The Stones decided to finish off the long overdue album with a few club dates. At the time they were only playing large stadiums and they thought it would be good to get back to their roots by playing somewhere small and intimate. They chose the El Mocambo Tavern in Toronto because Keith didn't need a visa to get into Canada and most other countries would not have him.

The Canadian shows seemed like a good idea but trouble started immediately. Keith showed up four days late and missed a number of rehearsals. Upon entering the country customs found a chunk of hash and a blackened spoon in Anita's purse. The couple was permitted to enter the country but the spoon and hash were held as evidence.

On February 28th, 1977 fifteen Canadian Mounties busted Keith Richards in his hotel room. Less than 24 hours after entering the countries Keith had procured an ounce of heroin and five grams of cocaine. Even though he had gotten the drugs in Toronto the Canadian goverment was charging him with trafficking. All of a sudden Keith found himself in jail looking at a potential sentence of seven years to life.

Keith got out on bail shortly after his arrest. He pulled things together enough to make it to rehersal and on March 4th and 5th the Stones recorded the final shows for their live album at El Mocambo. Afterwards Keith still needed to stay in the country to attend his upcoming court dates. The rest of the Stones, freaked out to find that Keith was still holding drugs, promptly fled the country and tried to distance themselves from Keith as much as possible.

On the night of March 12th 1977 Keith found himself alone in Toronto's Interchange Studios. The next day was his final court date where he would receive his sentence. On that long night, abandonced by his band and thinking about spending the rest of his live in a Canadian prison, he decided to record a few songs. These are the first recordings ever of Keith as a solo artist. He recorded five extremely somber and poignant old country songs. Keith had learned all these tunes from Gram Parsons, a fellow musician and country music enthusiast, before his untimely death in 1973.

The first track, "Worried Life Blues" is an Old Traditional song originally recorded in 1941 by "Big Maceo" Merriweather on vocals and piano, and Tampa Red on guitar. It is a sad song about loss but it may be the happiest song on this record because it hints at slightly better days ahead. "Worried Life Blues" was covered by countless blues artists and then later by rock musicians. It has often been heavily embellished both musically and lyrically, but Richard's rendition is surprisingly faithful to the original tune.

"Sing Me Back" home was originally recorded by Merle Haggard in 1968. This is a fitting tune for Keith to sing while awaiting trial. The song tells the story of a death row inmate on his way to the chair. His final request is to have someone sing him the same song his mama use to sing him as a child. The Prisoner seems to feel that if he can here that song one more time that it would take him back to his childhood and by listening to the song he could tranced his imprisonment and impending death. Keith's rendition of this song actually sounds more sorrowful and depressing than the Merle Haggard version.

"She Still Comes Around" was a song written by Country songwriter Glenn Sutton and first recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1969. It's about a drunken fuck up who is always disapointing his wife. But despite his flaws his wife is always there to love him and take care of him when he is at his lowest.

"Apartment #9" was a Johnny Paycheck song about a rejected man who sits alone in an apartment shrouded in darkness hoping his ex-lover will forgive him and come back home.

The final track "Say It's Not You" was written by country songwriter Dallas Frazier for George Jones in 1968. It's about a heartbroken man. He's heard rumors of a wild woman in town who would go home with a diffrent man every night. After hearing about her the man realizes the other men are describing the woman he loves. In 1994 Keith Richards recoreded this song again as a duet with George Jones on the "The Bradley Barn Sessions".

There is a common theme of regret and remorse over failed opportunities and a wasted life that runs through these sessions. Every track is written from the perspective of a man who has pissed away the best days of his life in a drunken, strung-out stupor. They are poignant lamentations for Richards to be singing the night before he his sentencing. These songs could have been written by Richards himself if they had not already been written by generations of country and blues-men years before him. 

With his firm repuatation as an ultra-heroin addicted rock mega-star it's hard to remember that Keith Richards was once an awkward teenage choir-boy who just wanted to play rock and roll and meet girls. His vocals on this whole record are surprisingly angelic. Beneath the years of excess and regret you can almost hear that choir boy crying out. These tapes were made on the other side of addiction and stardom, but through the haze you can you catch a glimpse of Keith at his most raw and vulnerable.

Keith Richards - The Toronto Tapes
DATE: March 12th, 1977
Location: Sounds Interchange Studios, Toronto, Canada
Source: Demo
Duration: 16:06
Size: 37.04 MB

1. Worried Life Blues            
2. Sing Me Back Home        
3. She Still Comes Around    
4. Apartment No. 9                  
5. Say It's Not You                  


  1. "... rock and roll's most famous songwriting duo ..."

    Lennon and McCartney might disagree ...

  2. Thank you for these songs, which are absolutely beautiful as you say - and for the commentary. I am a huge KR fan and had never known about these recordings until now - much prefer them to the XPensive Winos stuff. Jem Keen, UK