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Nick Lowe talks about the night Keith Richards joined his band Rockpile onstage for Chuck Berry’s ‘Let It Rock’ at The Bottom Line, NYC, Oct. 25 1978 (article originally published in The Word magazine in August 2006)

“Throw another Stratocaster on the fire and I’ll tell ye a story. It was 1979, and Rockpile had just toured for three months supporting Blondie. And we fetched up at the end of the tour playing five nights of our own at the Bottom Line in New York, two shows a night, sustained by the kind of things that sustained rock bands after long and grueling tours. On the last night, we’re backstage before the second show, and there’s a rumour that Keith Richards was in the club. Everyone knew he’d been in Canada on this drugs charge and they’re thinking, “What, so you get out of jail in Toronto and head straight for the Bottom Line to see Rockpile? I rather doubt it!”…

…But you could tell he was there. There was a feeling coming through the wails, a real buzz, electrifying. He was with this nice woman called Barbara Charone and she came backstage and said, “Look, I’ve got Keith Richards with me, can I bring him back to see you?’ And obviously we said yes, but we thought, “The great man has just got out of jail, bit of a narrow squeak there. It’s just too naff to start slinging stuff up his nose, so let’s keep the gear out of sight. He isn’t going to want to do any of that!”

And then, suddenly, there he was. Now Dave Edmunds had known him from way back in the early ‘60s from some gigs his band and the Stones did in the valleys, about ‘62, and he was always very snooty about Keith ripping off Chuck Berry and all that — which seemed pretty rich coming from the guitarist in Rockpile, which was basically a load of old Chuck Berry riffs played faster and a lot louder! Anyway, I said to Keith, “Do you want to do a couple of tunes?” — obviously that’s what people were expecting — and he said, “Is there somewhere we can ‘discuss’ all this?” In between the two dressing rooms was this tiny little broom cupboard — literally a broom cupboard, full of mops and hoovers – and Keith and I squeezed in…

…And much to my astonishment, he produces this enormous flagon of substances, casually tipping piles of it onto the top of his fist, most of it falling on the floor, very generous with it of course. Then Edmunds turns up, so we’re squeezed in like students in a phone box and, having agreed to do Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock,” we all head back to the dressing room where all the hangers-on and groupies have been chucked out and an argument breaks out between Edmunds and Keith as to the precise execution of the opening riff — the old animosity from the valleys breaking out again; they’d obviously had some altercation back then which Dave hadn’t quite got over.

And then suddenly this change came over Keith Richards, presumably to do with the quantity of refreshment he’d consumed. He changed from being a perfectly normal rational lovely bloke and became this caricature of Keith Richards before my very eyes, this sort of shambling individual, just as loveable, but virtually incapable of playing a note. Dave Edmunds said, “Look, he won’t last the distance, he’s had it.” I said, “The punters will go mad if he doesn’t appear.” Edmunds wasn’t happy. “Get him on first. Start with him, don’t end with him, he’s not going to make it.” So I put this thought to Keith and he didn’t seem to think it was a bad idea, so … showtime!…

…We walked out onto the stage, small stage packed with gear with this little amp we’d borrowed for Keith sitting there in the middle of the floor. I had never heard anything like the noise that greeted us. The look in people’s faces. They went absolutely insane, true madness, completely potty when they saw him — and he did look fantastic. There’s a bootleg of all this so you can hear the evidence. Both Edmunds and Keith do their individual versions of the opening riff to “Let lt Rock,” so immediately we’re in trouble. But off we went.

The first thing I noticed — the place jumping — was that suddenly all the bottom went out of my bass guitar. I thought I’d blown a valve or something. Then suddenly it switched to this searing treble, sounding like a mandolin, then the deepest reggae rumble. I looked round and there was Keith fiddling with the controls of my amp. He obviously thought my amp was his amp. A roadie appeared to show him where his amp was — I don’t think he realised it was an amp, he hadn’t seen anything this tiny since he was back in the valleys with Edmunds; as far as he was concerned amps were something at eye-level — but he peered at this thing and tweaked it a bit and eventually got some sort of sound out of it….

…The break comes along so Edmunds goes, “All right Keith!” and this very wonky solo appeared and the song sort of petered out. But people went absolutely crazy — you would honestly have believed it was The Beatles. Edmunds looked narrowly at Keith, turned to us,
shrugged and said, “Right, who’s going to get rid of this c**t?” I said, “Well, I’m happy, the crowd’s happy.” Edmunds says, “OK, we’ll just ignore him and get on with the rest of our set.” So now we’re playing a load of Rockpile songs he’s never heard, but it’s actually starting to sound pretty good; it’s locking together….

…And, encouraged by this, Keith seems to find a little gap in the music and steps forward to take another solo. And it’s sounding great, working up those Chuck Berry lines, the confidence is building, and he’s so astonished he’s been able to do it, he’s sort of lost his balance and teetered backwards on his little Cuban-heeled boots, the amp just behind him at knee height, stumbled into it, the old knees have buckled and he’s sat down quite heavily on it, the rock god pose losing some of its shine in the process. And this hapless roadie came on and quietly ushered him offstage…

…And I remember his slightly puzzled look, slightly hurt, what could he possibly have done wrong? It wasn’t a very dignified exit. But the irony of course, was the show never recovered. We had lost our magnificence. The excitement had peaked, the balloon had burst, the moment had gone, and Rockpile expertly playing a load of Rockpile songs of course couldn’t hold a candle to Rockpile playing Chuck Berry very badly with Keith Richards on guitar. I don’t know if the two things were connected but we never played The Bottom Line again.”

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