Rock and Roll Saxophone

Bobby Keys died this week. I only learned his full name a couple years ago when I read Keith Richards’s autobiography, in which he features prominently as Keith’s drinking buddy and just about the only guy who can keep up with him. But I’ve known his sax playing ever since I wore out two copies of the Stones’ Sticky Fingers (on which he is credited as “B. Keyes”) as a teenager. Here he is on the record’s centerpiece, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking:

The first thing you notice about the long instrumental section is how the sax blends in just right, sliding in perfectly between the two guitars. But as you keep listening, you realize that the instruments play against type as well as blending: guitars take on what might have been a sax part, and vice versa. The guitars sound rough and bluesy, but also jazzier, more like the sax. As they play together, the instruments find new voices, new possibilities in each other, and the texture of the sound that results is unforgettable. It’s pure rock and roll, but also something more than that.

After hearing Keys on Sticky Fingers and the Stones’ other early 70’s records, I always kept an ear out for how a sax could add depth and texture to a rock and roll song. Here are two of my favorite examples, from the punk era. I’m not sure either of these songs could be as rich, could grab you and demand your attention the way they do, without Keys’s work as a precedent.