Keith Richards, about the legend he had undergone a blood change in Switzerland to cure his heroin addiction (1973):
“Someone asked me how I cleaned up, so I told them I went to Switzerland and had my blood completely changed. I was just fooling around. I opened my jacket and said, How do you like my blood change? That’s all it was, a joke. I was fucking sick of answering that question. So I gave them a story…”
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It’s one of rock’s most infamous and tantalizing myths: Keith Richards traveled to Switzerland in the early ‘70s to kick heroin by having his blood completely drained and replenished. Keith says he didn’t; others say he did. Trouble is, everyone’s stories seem to be as full of holes as a piece of Swiss cheese.
“The lifeblood of good conspiracies is that you’ll never find out,” Richards wrote in his 2010 autobiography, Life; “the lack of evidence keeps them fresh. No one’s ever going to find out if I had my blood changed or not. The story is well beyond the reach of evidence or, if it never happened, my denials.”
While he was making the rounds promoting Life, Richards appeared on TV’s CBS Sunday Morning, where he was asked about the story by interviewer Anthony Mason. “I created the myth,” Richards said. “It’s all my own work.” He claimed he was on the way to Switzerland to kick his debilitating heroin habit (presumably in another fashion) and, pursued at the airport by paparazzi who wanted to know what he was up to, made up a story.
“I said ‘I’m gonna get my blood changed,’” Richards said he told them. “I just wanted ‘em off my back. So I just spun a yarn. I’m still living with it.”
(Ref. blood change)
Besides, he concluded with bravado, “I wouldn’t swap this blood for nobody.”
So that’s it, then. The “vampire myth,” bloody good tale though it is, is untrue.
Well, not so fast.
This much is certain: At the time the blood transfusion allegedly took place, the Rolling Stones were about to go on their 1973 tour of Europe. For Richards to survive the rigors of performing – never mind the complications of crossing borders, smuggling drugs, making new connections in foreign lands, etc. – he knew he had to get off of heroin, and in very short order.
The story of how he did it may have initially sprung from his tossed-off line in that Swiss airport, but it got legs in 1979 when Tony Sanchez (a.k.a. Spanish Tony), Richards’ former aid and drug supplier published a notorious tell-all memoir titled Up and Down with the Rolling Stones.
Sanchez claims Richards heard of the controversial cure from Marshall Chess, the son of Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess and the man tapped to run Rolling Stones Records – who was himself a junkie.
Sanchez wrote that Chess told Richards, “There’s a doctor in Florida who can get you off dope in a few days by changing your blood. He did it for me in Mexico a while back, and it worked perfectly.”
Arrangements were made for the doctor – identified as Dr. Denber by Sanchez – to perform the blood change in Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, after the Stones tour left England and hit the continent. Chess, Sanchez claims, would take the cure at the same time.
Sanchez’ tale is incredibly detailed. He has actual figures for the doctor’s fee ($5,000, plus expenses) and how much Richards’ rented villa cost. He claims Richards offered to pay for him to go through the procedure as well, but, frightened by the radical procedure, he declined.
Significantly, though, he left Switzerland and returned to England, and was not actually present when the alleged cure took place. But Richards described it to him, he says, when Sanchez rejoined the tour in Munich.
“It’s quite simple, really,” Sanchez wrote, quoting Richards. “He just changed our blood little by little so that there was no heroin in our bodies after forty-eight hours. There was no pain at all, and we spent the rest of the week just resting and building our strength up.”
Sanchez claimed that Richards was back on drugs immediately after the procedure, regarding its success as something of a safety net. “It doesn’t matter if I get hooked again now,” Richards told him. “I can give it up any time I like without any bother.”
That struck a bad chord with Sanchez. He may have been Richards’ drug supplier and the facilitator of all manner of mischief in the guitarist’s life, but he still knew when a line was being crossed. Sanchez wrote, “I couldn’t help wondering where all this blood was coming from or resenting the decadence of debauched millionaires regaining their health, vampirelike, from the fresh, clean blood of innocents.”
In his 1992 biography of Richards, Victor Bockris describes the “blood clean[ing]” procedure in greater detail: “The treatment involved a hemodialysis process in which the patient’s blood was passed through a pump, where it was separated from sterile dialysis fluid by a semipermeable membrane. This allowed any toxic substances that had built up in the bloodstream, which would normally have been secreted by the kidneys, to diffuse out of the blood into the dialysis fluid.”
Bockris goes on to note that, “From this cure sprang the myth that Keith regularly had the blood emptied out of his body and replaced with a fresh supply. This Dracula notion is one of the few elements of his image that Richards has gone to some pains to correct, but to no avail.”
In “Life,” Richards’ own version of what actually went on in Switzerland is disappointingly sketchy. But then, heroin has a tendency to, let’s say, blur the quotidian details of an addict’s existence. In an earlier passage of the book, Richards noted that that was the best excuse for doing smack in the first place: Everything else kind of falls to the wayside.
Richards did manage to recall that he got massively loaded before making the trip to Switzerland: “Dope me up so I can sleep through as much of the seventy-two hours of hell as possible.” The actual time the cure takes depends on whose version you read.
He also describes Dr. Denber as being American, though he “looked Swiss, close shaven and rimless glasses, Himmleresque. He spoke with a Midwestern twang.”
Ultimately, all he says about the procedure is, “In actual fact, Dr. Denber’s treatment was useless for me. Dodgy little bugger, too. I’d have rather cleaned up with Smitty, Bill Burroughs’ nurse, that hairy, old matron.”
Richards eventually did kick heroin and claims he’s been clean for 30 years. But the transfusion story persists, and you have to wonder at his continued denials, given that any tall tale told about him at this point only increases his legend. Heck, even the story of his falling off a low tree branch in Fiji and surviving brain surgery grew to mythic proportions. In spite of everything that’s been thrown his way – including a good chunk of which he invited – he’s rock’s indefatigable, indestructible man, as steady and persistent as a 4/4 beat.
(Ref. blood change)
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