It seems that the Internet doesn’t remember everything. In 2006, when Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards fell from a palm tree while on holiday in Fiji, I distinctly remember hyperbolic coverage speculating that Richards was close to death, or that his injuries were so extensive that he’d never perform again. Now, while the event is a part of the Keith Richards legend, the story is told very soberly. The wild speculation, it would seem, has been lost down the memory hole. It’s surreal now to think that the world held its breath a little more than fifteen years ago, believing that the notoriously immortal Keith Richards would die.
It was April 16th when I saw The Rolling Stones in Auckland, New Zealand. I was a 21-year-old fanatic, and I couldn’t believe my luck to have heard "Tumbling Dice" and "Midnight Rambler" live. Two nights later, The Stones played another show in my former hometown of Wellington, completing that leg of their massive A Bigger Bang world tour.
Before embarking on the next leg, they took a break in Fiji, where the fateful fall happened. At the time, the tabloid The Mirror reported that he’d fallen from a height of 25ft, but in his autobiography Life, Richards said that it was closer to 7ft. Over the next few days, Richards experienced headaches, and a scan showed an acute cerebral hematoma.
He was flown back to New Zealand, where his condition was monitored for about a week before doctors decided to operate. There was a possibility that the blood clot would dissolve on its own. It must’ve been during that week that all the wild speculation occurred. By neurosurgeon Andrew Law’s own account, the situation was severe. Though a year later, in a Rolling Stone interview, Richards denied that it had been a near-death experience. He would also say that he told the anesthetist, ”…let me tell ya, I’m really difficult to put out.”
Keith Richards proved he can't be kept down
Law joined The Stones' entourage on the next leg of the tour to monitor his patient. When The Stones took to the stage in Milan a few months later, Law said, "We were all worried… He might not remember how to do it; he could have a fit onstage. We were all very tense that night, everyone. Keith didn't let on, but he came off the stage euphoric because he'd proved he could do it."
After that night in Milan, as the more drastic rumors were shown to be demonstrably false, all concerns, both legitimate and based on rumor, ended. Only the more accurate accounts have survived, although I know that I am not crazy for remembering the unverified alarmism, as there are second-hand references to “the tabloids” reporting the worst. Among them is an article from the New Zealand Herald reporting that Richards had left the hospital; The Herald remarked that this was at odds with claims from the British tabloid The Sun that the “aging hellraiser was not likely to play live again and may have suffered brain damage and partial paralysis.”
Though, of course, the report from the Sun that the Herald was referring to is gone, leaving us to wonder if it really ever happened. Did we ever actually believe that Keith Richards could die?