Keith Richards: No Regrets

As Richards enters middle age — and the Stones release ‘Tattoo You’ — the guitarist talks love, fallen rock stars and the band's future

November 12, 1981
Keith Richards Rolling Stones
Keith Richards on the cover of Rolling Stone
Photo by Annie Leibovitz

"I've just been closeted with Napoleon," Keith Richards said, tilting his wine glass in mock salute. "Mick's been sick. Got the flu, I think." It was exactly one week before the start of the Rolling Stones' first U.S. tour in three years, but Richards seemed unfazed by the loss of a much-needed all-night rehearsal. Looking very teenage-wasteland in a black bomber jacket, black T-shirt and black jeans, with blue-suede boots scrunched down around his ankles and a dark green scarf knotted at his waist, he nevertheless appeared healthy and in high spirits.

We were standing in the big country kitchen at Long View Farm, a remote but luxurious recording compound in rural Massachusetts where the Stones had been whipping their act into shape for the past month. It was nine p.m., and the kitchen buffet was groaning with roasted meats, steaming lobsters and crocks full of fresh, buttered vegetables. Over in the dining alcove, Charlie Watts was panning his portable video camera across a large corner table where Bill Wyman and the two auxiliary keyboardists, Ian Stewart and Ian McLagan, sat lingering at their plates. I noticed that the famous heads are going gray now, the faces beginning to sag like trail-weathered saddlebags. "Look at your face, baby," Mick Jagger sings on the Stones' new album. "Look at you and look at me." For a moment, I caught myself looking into that mirror, too.

The upcoming Stones tour would be the most testing of their nineteen-year career. A law unto themselves in the past, they were now old beyond argument, and so found themselves in the position of having to go out once more and prove, in public, that they could still do it. That they still had the creative goods was not in question: Tattoo You, their new LP, showed all of the old power still surging, and the lyrics were informed by a rich new emotional complexity. It was the act that needed spiffing up.

Keith Richards was determined that all would be okay. At thirty-seven, ravaged by all the wild years of drug busts and screaming court headlines, he had begun to perceive an emerging order in his life. His longtime relationship with Anita Pallenberg, the mother of his two children, Marlon and Dandelion, had fallen apart in an ugly, public way, but his ongoing romance with Patti Hansen, a young model, offered hope of renewal. And even in middle age, he found, rock & roll still made a kind of perfect, powerful sense. So, once again, he gathered the Stones around him.

Out in the barn, a gleaming polished-pine stage had been constructed high up across the 100-foot width of the loft. A dozen or so feet below was a small living area that contained a fireplace, an expensive stereo system and a side-board filled with good wines and spirits. Keith strolled in and slipped a cassette into the stereo. He announced it as "the best album of the year." It was the Neville Brothers' Fiyo on the Bayou, an exhilarating feast of rolling, New Orleans-style R&B. Keith poured himself a tumbler of Jack Daniel's, I grabbed a bottle of wine, and we settled at a table to soak, in Aaron Neville's breathtaking rendition of the ancient doo-wop classic "The Ten Commandments of Love." Still suckers after all these years. Can the Stones cut it in 1981? All you had to do, said Keith, was start 'em up.

What's it like rounding up the Rolling Stones after three years and trying to play together again?
Um, surprisingly easy. Getting them over the idea of workin' on the road, that's the hard bit. You know, they're going, "Ohhh, I don't wanna go on the road." And I'm tryin' to hustle them, because I know that it's the only way to keep 'em together. They always feel good about it once they do it; maybe I kind of crystallize that feeling or focus it or whatever, because everybody feels the same way as me, but not at the same time. But if the band wants to stay together, then we do have to go on the road and we do have to work. And once we get up there and start rehearsing, it's great. And it only gets better and better, you know? The problem is — this has been one of my favorite gripes for years — that because of the way we work, doing a blockbuster tour every three years, we find ourselves on this cycle of working our way up to a certain point where we can say, now we're breaking, now we're taking off into somewhere else. And then, because the tour stops — boom — we're never able to get past that point, to push it when it's still getting better. And three years later, we have to start again from scratch', going over the same ground to find out what we already know. That's the one thing that bugs me. I've always wanted to find out what would happen if we just kept going.

Judging by Tattoo You, it seems like the band could keep going, creatively at least, for another twenty years. Hope so, anyway.
So do I, because nobody else has done it, you know? It's kind of interesting to find out how rock & roll can grow up. I mean, there are other examples, obviously, but on the sort of scale the Rolling Stones are on, and have been on for so long, it still seems that if we do our best, they respond to it immediately — the audience, the kids, whatever you want to call it. Some of them are not so young anymore. Nor are we.

The punks were fond of pointing that out during their moment in the spotlight.
That's like punks. They always come and go.

Did you find anything worthwhile in punk rock?
Yeah, there was a certain spirit there. But I don't think there was anything new musically, or even from the PR point of view, image-wise. There was too much image, and none of the bands were given enough chance to put their music together, if they had any. It seemed to be the least important thing. It was more important if you puked over somebody, you know? But that's a legacy from us also. After all, we're still the only rock & roll band arrested for peeing on a wall.

Apparently, the punks weren't impressed. They really seemed to hate bands like the Stones.
That's what we used to say about everything that went before us. But you need a bit more than just putting down people to keep things together. There's always somebody better at puttin' you down. So don't put me down, just do what I did, you know? Do me something better. Turn me on.

When and where did you write the material on Tattoo You?
A lot of it was done in Paris. One of the tracks, "Worried about You," was done for Black and Blue. The rest were done in Paris between 1977 and last year. I mean, we cut over forty tracks for Emotional Rescue, but at that time it was a matter of picking out the tracks that were the nearest to completion, because we had a deadline that didn't allow us much time. On this album, we took longer. We started to think about this one soon after the last one came out, and we chose the songs a lot more carefully.

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Rolling Stones, Tattoo You

Will we be seeing more songs from those sessions in the future?
Oh, yeah, there's still loads. I mean, we could get another album out of that bunch. But that's an advantage you don't think about, really, with a band that goes on for a long time. One way or another, you end up with a backlog of really good stuff that, for one reason or another, you didn't get the chance to finish or put out because it was the wrong tempo or too long — purely technical reasons, you know? Sometimes we write our songs in installments — just get the melody and the music, and we'll cut the tracks and write the words later. That way, the actual tracks have matured, just like wine — you just leave it in the cellar for a bit, and it comes out a little better a few years later. It's stupid to leave all that great stuff just for want of finishin' it off and gettin' it together.

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