Sax, drugs & rock'n'roll

Keith Richards & Bobby Keys onstage in Amsterdam. Picture: Redferns

When it comes to rock'n'roll decadence, it's hard to decide which image of Bobby Keys is most definitive. One legendary bathtub of Dom Perignon so incensed Mick Jagger, the story goes, that Keys was suspended from the Rolling Stones for 10 years.

Then there was the time he and Keith Richards were threatened with arrest at Perth airport in 1973. According to Richards' book, Life, a couple of "outrageous Aussie Sheilas" they'd picked up in Adelaide had made quite a sensation emerging from the toilets topless during the flight.

When all the war stories are pulp and hearsay, however, on any day the sound of the big Texan's horn will still be blasting from some car radio speaker more times than Keef lights a fag.

"It doesn't matter how many times I've played Brown Sugar, I never get tired of playing it," says the de facto Stone of the past 45 years, before the band rolls into Australia later this month on their rescheduled 14 on Fire tour.

"Whenever I'm doing a concert with those cats, it's not like I'm going through the motions. They are about going out there and delivering on every song. You better damn well commit to doing it good or you won't be doing it again."

Keys' signature sax riffs began to embellish the Stones' recordings during their peerless Exile to Sticky Fingers era but he sealed his fate as a rock'n'roller 15 years earlier when he stumbled into Buddy Holly's parents' garage as a young kid in Lubbock, Texas.

Before he was old enough to drink, Keys had played the immortal riffs on Dion's The Wanderer and Elvis' Return to Sender. His resume is vast but, since hooking up with Richards for TV-tossing and other recreational activities, sometimes blurry.

He fondly recalls turning up at the Record Plant in New York one night to blow the scene-stealing solo on John Lennon's Whatever Gets You Thru the Night. Sessions with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton and plenty more followed.

But he's damned if he can remember Paul McCartney being present at that impromptu Lennon and Stevie Wonder jam in LA in 1974. It would go down in bootleg history as the last time the former Beatles played together on tape. But history, for some, is long.

"When I talk about rock'n'roll, to me, that goes back to the beginning of the 1950s," Keys explains. "Blue suede shoes and sideburns, man. Pink and black coloured clothes. Turn your collar up, comb your hair in ducktails. And the music was cool. It was a whole culture then, a different world."

He's literally watched that world change from over Jagger's shoulder, from the marginal subculture of 50s and 60s teenagers to the mainstream juggernaut the Stones pioneered with the stadium rush of the 70s and beyond.

"Stadiums are necessary for a band like the Stones to be able to go there in the first place. That's just testimony to their popularity," Keys says. Even if his liver was still up to it, he adds, the sheer dimension of the operation would leave no room for the Dom Perignon craziness of the 70s.

"The most trouble I get into these days is crossing the road in front of the hotel," he says.

"It's pretty scripted on the road; very organised and compartmentalised and that's the way it has to be with so many people involved in a Stones tour. It's quite a bit different to when I first joined the band and there were only two security guys.

"But I'm not complaining. The music is still good, the cheques still cash and I still enjoy playing."

The Rolling Stones play Perth Arena on October 29 and November 1. Tickets via Ticketek.