Bobby Keys embodied the rock’n’roll spirit

bobby-keysWhen Bobby Keys died last week, aged 70, Keith Richards said he’d “lost the largest pal in the world.” Keef got that right: the sax player was larger than life itself.

Even if you’ve never heard his name you’ll have danced to his tunes. He’s on the best Stones records, blowing his heart out on ‘Rip This Joint’ and giving ‘Brown Sugar’ its signature solo. Originally that song had a guitar part until Keys jammed on it at his own birthday party with Keith, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. Mick Jagger and producer Jimmy Miller were watching. They realised on the spot they needed Keys on the record.

Aside from his defining work with the Stones, Keys also played on a pile of great records by the likes of John Lennon, Harry Nilsson and Warren Zevon. That’s him you hear wailing on Lennon’s ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’, recorded in one take.

Not bad considering he’d once feared rock’n’roll would end his career. When he first saw The Stones in 1964 he said he “saw the death of the saxophone unravelling before my eyes” because none of the new bands used one. It was Keys’ playing that helped it become part of rock’n’roll’s sound. He made sax cool.

It didn’t hurt that he and Keith got on famously. Shortly after they met they realised they’d been born on the same day: December 18, 1943. “Bobby, you know what that means?” Keith told him. “We’re half man and half horse, and we got a licence to shit in the streets.”

And shit in the streets they did. Together they basically invented the myth of the rock’n’roll star. Anyone who ever fills a bath with Dom Pérignon and dives in with a model will know that Keys got there first. It cost him all the money he made on that tour. “Kind of dumb,” he said later, “but, you know, man, I’d do it again.”

Or picture the most archetypal rock’n’roll image of all: throwing a TV set out of a hotel room window. It was Bobby and Keith who invented that, giving inspiration to decades of rock stars and extra work to generations of TV salesmen when documentary director Robert Frank asked them to provide a bit more chaos for his film Cocksucker Blues.

Keys’ drink and drug consumption was prodigious, and he was there along with Nilsson, Starr and Moon during John Lennon’s infamous ‘lost weekend’ which ran from 1973-75. Keys went to prison several times throughout his life, usually for crimes he didn’t remember committing. He was once caught with heroin and syringes while attempting to fly out of Hawaii and avoided a serious stretch behind bars when he was bailed out by a local pineapple magnate, who just happened to be the father of a girl he’d just slept with.

So while his death is sad, Bobby Keys will live on. Not just through his music or the tall tales told about him, but through the debauched spirit of rock’n’roll that he helped to mould. Every time a young band trashes a hotel room or empties a can of lager into a bidet, they’ll be carrying a small part of Keys’ monster spirit with them.

Originally published in NME, 13 December 2014.