The real story of that time Keith Richards fell out of a palm tree

Keith Richards photoshopped onto a beach
(Image credit: Beach: Alexis Rosenfeld | Keith Richards: Timothy A Clary)

It's a story that bounced around the world. "Keith Richards treated in hospital after fall from palm tree", screamed one headline. "Richards concussed after fall from coconut tree" announced another. "Keith Richards and the Fiji fall: The mystery deepens" proclaimed a third. 

One thing's for certain: when Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards fell out of a tree while on holiday in Fiji in May 2006, it was very big news indeed. But as Keith later revealed, it wasn't a very big tree.

"Forget any palm tree. This was some gnarled low tree that was basically a horizontal branch," he wrote in his Life, his 2010 biography. "It was obvious that people had sat there before because the bark was worn away. And it was, I guess, about seven feet up."

Having rested upon this branch after going for a swim, Richards was called in for lunch, which is when the fall that shocked the world occurred. 

"There was another branch in front of me and I thought I’ll just grab hold of that and gently drop to the ground," he wrote. "But I forgot my hands were still wet and there was sand and everything on them and, as I grabbed this branch, the grip didn’t take. And so I landed hard on my heels, and my head went back and hit the trunk of the tree. Hard. And that was it. It didn’t bother me at the time."

Within a couple of days, it was bothering him. During a sailing trip out into the Pacific, the guitarist received another jolt as the boat rode a swell, and started to experience painful headaches. Back on dry land, he went for a scan, which showed an acute cerebral hematoma. His brain was bleeding, and his life was in serious danger.

1700 miles away in New Zealand, neurosurgeon Dr Andrew Law took the call.

"They rang me from Fiji," said Law, "where I do work for a private hospital, saying they had someone with an intracranial haemorrhage, and it was quite a prominent person, could I cope with that? 

"And they said it's Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. I remember having his poster on my wall when I was at university, so I was always a Rolling Stones fan and a Keith Richards fan."

Richards flew to Auckland, where Law monitored his progress, waiting to see if the guitarist's blood clot would dissolve before electing to operate. But the situation deteriorated. 

"After he'd been here a week, I went for dinner with him and he was just not looking good," said Law. "The next morning he rang me, saying, I've got a headache. I said, we'll arrange a scan on Monday. And by Monday morning he was much worse, very headachy, starting to slur his words, starting to have some weakness."

"It was quite a big clot, about a centimetre and a half thick at least, maybe two. Like thick jelly. And we removed it. There was an artery that was bleeding. I just corked that artery, washed it up and put it back together. And then he woke up straight afterwards and said, 'God, that's better!' He quickly had relief of pressure and felt much better after surgery, immediately, on the operating table."

A nervous Richards returned to the stage in Milan in July, the European leg of the band's Bigger Bang tour rescheduled to accommodate Richards' recovery.

"We were all worried," said Law, who had joined the band's entourage to keep an eye on his patient. "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."

"It was what I needed to do," wrote Richards. "I was ready to go. Either you become a hypochondriac and listen to other people, or you make up your own mind. If I felt that I couldn't make it, I'd be the first one to say so. 

"The audience were waving inflatable palm trees, bless their hearts. They're wonderful, my crowd. A bit of a smirk and an in-joke. I fall out of a tree, they give me one."

Richards' bond with Law wasn't a temporary affair. The surgeon ended up travelling with the Rolling Stones legend, living with Richards and his family in Europe and the United States, and enjoying the full benefits of the celebrity lifestyle. 

"We go out and have fish and chips and a beer," he told the Sunday Star-Times, explaining their unlikely friendship. "I don't think he's run into too many neurosurgeons, and I haven't run into too many rock stars."

Keith Richards leaves hospital after brain surgery

May 11, 2006: Keith Richards leaves hospital after brain surgery (Image credit: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.