Remember When: The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards Almost Died Onstage

Keith Richards, now 80, is often defined as much by excess as his guitar playing. According to rock and roll lore, The Rolling Stones were the bad-boy alternative to the kind lads from Liverpool.

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His 2010 memoir Life is filled with pages of harrowing stories, including the time he snorted his deceased father’s ashes. Of the experience, Richards said, “My dad wouldn’t have cared; he didn’t give a s–t.”

Still, The Rolling Stones, influenced by early American blues, became the world’s greatest rock and roll band. Meanwhile, Richards dodged the reaper multiple times along the way.

Cheating Death

Imagine how rock and roll would have changed had Richards died young. Iconic albums like Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St., among others, wouldn’t exist. Moreover, how does it change someone like Johnny Thunders coming of age in his image?

In an alternate universe where Richards doesn’t have as many lives as a cat, does Brian Jones live past 1969? And without “Wild Horses,” what happens to the legacy of Gram Parsons? Thankfully, music’s greatest pirate survived.

Here’s the story of what Richards called his “most spectacular” near-death experience.

The Last Time

On December 3, 1965, The Rolling Stones played at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, California. In front of 5,000 fans, Richards shocked himself when his guitar touched a microphone stand, and a flame erupted. Reports from the time said the blast sounded like a gunshot.

The band was playing “The Last Time,” and it very well could have been Richards’ final performance. Jeff Hughson, the promoter, thought the guitarist had been shot as he lay unconscious.

Well, I told you once, and I told you twice
But you never listen to my advice
You don’t try very hard to please me
With what you know, it should be easy
Well, this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don’t know

Keef’s Lucky Shoes

Rolling Stone reported a fan in the front row named Mick Martin said, “I literally saw Keith fly into the air backward. I thought he was dead. I was horrified. We all were.” Richards, burned from the electrical surge, was escorted from the venue with oxygen tubes and taken to the hospital. Martin touched Richards’ shoulder as they carried him from the venue and said, “I hope you’re going to be OK.”

The rubber soles of Richards’ suede shoes may have saved his life. Perhaps the universe has a sense of humor because The Beatles happened to release Rubber Soul on the same day—December 3, 1965. Nonetheless, Richards was back playing the following night.

Reminiscing about the time, Richards said he heard a doctor in the hospital say, “Well, they either wake up or they don’t.”

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Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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