As Richards enters middle age — and the Stones release ‘Tattoo You’ — the guitarist talks love, fallen rock stars and the band's future
"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.
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.
Think of all the potential hits that might be lying around.
Yeah, and we probably don't even recognize half of them. I mean, you just don't know after a while. I'm the guy who said "Satisfaction" wasn't a single. That's what I know.
I gather you don't take the music business very seriously.
There's nothing to be taken seriously. No way. If you look at the music business over a long period of time, it's always put out mostly shit.
Is that why people aren't buying as much music as they used to? Is it a combination of shitty music and a bad economy?
Music is a luxury, as far as people are concerned. I'm not sayin' I believe that, but to people who haven't got work, and haven't got money, music will seem a luxury. In actual fact, music is a necessity, because it's the one thing that will maybe bring you up and give you just that little bit extra to keep on going, or. . . . Who knows what music does?
Apparently, you and Mick are still writing about whatever's happening to you at the moment. "Hang Fire," for instance, is explicitly about England, right?
Yeah: " . . . where I come from, nobody ever works, nothing ever gets done." They're going through their little traumas over there. It serves them right for kickin' us out.
What's happening to England?
It's coming to terms with a whole lot of problems that have been brewing for years, and the only thing it needed for these problems to come to a head was for the money to get tight. Everybody tolerates everything while they're doin' all right, Jack; but when they're not, it's "What the fuck . . . ?" Now they gotta deal with that.
How do you feel about the situation there politically? Are you at all political?
No. I watch it, you know. It's the height of cynicism for me to watch that whole power play go down. Just to see such hams get away with such a bad act over and over again, you know. I mean, it's an ongoing soap opera of the worst kind, but people still watch it.
Do you care? Do you think there may be some sort of ideal remedy?
No, there's no ideal thing. People are people, and they're pressured into one corner or another. What is politics? Politics goes down in everything. It's always ugly. Politics is an ugly word these days, and the only people who make politics an ugly word are politicians, because they're ugly people. Not necessarily ugly to start with — I'm givin' them the benefit of the doubt — but even if they aren't, they will be after a couple of years in Washington or Moscow or London, in that circle they move in. I always look upon it as, "Yeah, these are the guys who couldn't play Biloxi."
Do you get back to England very often?
Fairly regularly. This year I haven't, but for the past couple of years I've gone back around August for two months or so. After about a week in London, I tend to drift out to the country, where things never change. I go to a little village where there are only about three people who have ever been to London, you know — and it's only seventy miles away. "Oh, London? No, never been there. Too many people." It's kind of timeless there. It's a real great anchor for me. It still sticks in my throat a little that I can't, you know . . . what do you mean I make too much money to live here? You mean I can't afford to live in England? It's just kind of vindictive. I mean, I can't consider us part of the brain drain or anything like that, but they certainly flushed us down their john, you know? "In the bathroom of your heart, I've been flushed, dear. . . . "
"Neighbours" seems to be another slice of life — yours, I gather. Weren't you and Patti evicted from your Manhattan apartment earlier this year for playing music too loud?
Oh, a couple of them. Yeah, Patti and I are homeless at the moment. Mick wrote the lyrics to that — and he never has trouble with neighbors.
Just a quiet guy, right?
No, he's not. He's just smart. He got himself into a good old building with very thick walls and nobody particular around. I have a knack of finding a whole building of very cool people, you know, but there'll be one uncool couple — they're always a couple. And my apartment will always be either just above them or next door to them or just below. And they're the kind of people who'll knock you up at six in the morning, while you've just sort of got a little bit of music going. You're trying to be cool, 'cause you're aware of it, you know? By now, I'm aware that I can't blast the sounds. So I'm trying to be cool about it. And these people come up to our door saying, "We can't even hear Bugs Bunny on our TV, your music's so loud! Turn the kettledrums down!" So, I mean, I'm plagued by that kind of thing. I swear they're the same couple everywhere I go. They just follow me around: "Let's bug him; he's an asshole, he deserves it."
"Neighbours" is the first song I think Mick's ever really written for me. It's one I wish I'd written, that.
You and Mick appear to have one of the great friendships of our era. Is it really as solid as it seems?
Yeah. It's a true friendship when you can bash somebody over the head and not be told, "You're not my friend anymore." That's a true friendship. You put up with each other's bitching. People will think we're having these huge arguments and say, "Oh, will they split up?" But it's our way of working, you know? He's my wife. And he'll say the same thing about me: "Yeah, he's my wife."
I think the popular perception is that Mick is probably the better businessman of the two. Have you handled your money well?
I make it and I spend it, but it's set up in a way. Mick is pretty good at business. He's not as good as people think. He's probably not as good as he thinks. And he's probably not as bad as I think. Mick wants to know about every angle of everything, you know? Which is admirable — I certainly don't have the time or the inclination to find out those things. But we pool our information.
Do you ever feel you've become too rich to relate to your audience?
I just feel there's an audience out there,and as long as they want to hear it, I guess we'll go on making it.
How do rich people have the blues?
I don't know. I've never met a rich person yet who's felt rich. Because from my own experience, the bigger things get and the more money you make, the more it takes to run the whole show. Especially tax attorneys. And therefore, the more you have to go out and make more money to pay them to give you . . . it's a diminishing return, you know? I've never felt rich. I've never really thought about it. All I'm worried about is having enough to keep the show on the road, you know. As long as that's there, then it's all right. The rest of it — what am I gonna do with it anyway? I spend half my life in the studio, and when I'm not there, I'm hustling to get on the road again. So, I mean, I can spend it, but I don't know where it goes.
Do the Rolling Stones ever socialize with each other anymore?
Yeah, we're always in touch. Charlie bounces into New York or wherever once every couple of months. As far as I'm concerned, I'd just say that I'm continually thankful — and more so as we go along — that we have Charlie Watts sittin' there, you know? He's the guy who doesn't believe it, because he's like that. I mean, he doesn't think that his contribution is as —
Yeah. There's nothing forced about Charlie, least of all his modesty. It's totally real. He cannot understand what people see in his drumming.
I think so.
What about Ron Wood? He's been part of the act for about six years now, but I think some people still tend to dismiss him as a kind of Keith Richards clone.
I was the one who was most apprehensive about taking Ronnie into this. He's a very good friend of mine, and I've worked on his solo albums. But he doesn't play like me. To me, Ronnie's keeping together that idea of the Stones sound that Brian and I had. That's how I feel about Ronnie. He has an instinctive feel for what Brian and I originally worked out as far as guitars and the music go. Siamese twins — they both play. Look at it like this: there's one guy, he's just got four arms. That's the way I like to feel about it. Because when it comes out, it doesn't matter how many people are playing and who's doing what. When that sound comes out, does it hit you between the eyes and does it grab you?
Brian's been dead for twelve years now. Do you still think about him?
Yeah, I think about him every time we play "Time Is on My Side," or when I'm playing his guitar licks on "Mona." Brian, in many ways, was a right cunt. He was a bastard. Mean, generous, anything. You want to say one thing, give it the opposite, too. But more so than most people, you know. Up to a point, you could put up with it. When you were put under the pressures of the road, either you took it seriously or you took it as a joke. Which meant that eventually — it was a very slow process, and it shifted and changed, and it is so impossible to describe — but in the last year or so, when Brian was almost totally incapacitated all of the time, he became a joke to the band. It was the only way we could deal with it without gettin' mad at him. So then it became that very cruel, piss-taking thing behind his back all the time. It all came to a head when ... he was with Anita at the time, and he started beating her up and kickin' her around. And I said, "Come on, darlin', you don't need this. Let's go. I'll just take you away." I didn't give a shit. I wasn't involved in it at the time. Just, "Let's go. I'll take you out of this, at least, then you can do what you want." So we split. It was very romantic — Marrakesh, tramping through the desert and all that crap. I mean, Brian was so ludicrous in some ways and such a nice guy in some ways. It was like they used to say about Stan Getz: "He's a nice buncha guys." You just never knew which one you were gonna meet.
The Brian-Anita-Keith triangle is a centerpiece of Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, by Tony Sanchez, which came out in 1979. Sanchez described himself as, among other things, your drug procurer, and his description of your lifestyle in those years — late Sixties, early Seventies — is one of almost total dissipation and addiction. Is any or all of this true?
Spanish Tony's book? Let's put it like this: I couldn't plow through it all because my eyes were watering from laughter. But the basic laying out of the story — "He did this, he did that" — is true. Tony didn't really write it. He had some hack from Fleet Street write it; obviously, Tony can hardly write his own name, you know? He was a great guy. I always considered him a friend of mine. I mean, not anymore. But I understand his position: he got into dope, his girlfriend ODed, he went on the skids and . . . it's all this shit, you know? As far as that book's concerned, as far as, like, a particular episode, just the bare facts — yeah, they all happened. But by the time you got to the end, it was like Grimm's Fairy Tales — with emphasis on the grim. It's really all old stuff. You know, there are certain showbiz cliches that always seem to hold true. One is that there's no such thing as bad publicity, and the other is that the show must go on, right?
Have you seen Sanchez since the book came out?
Yeah, a couple of years ago.
Did you punch his lights out, or what?
No. I showed him a new shooter I'd gotten. I haven't seen him since.
What's become of Anita? Is she all right?
Yeah, she's fine, man. She's fine. I don't consider myself separated from Anita or anything. She's still the mother of my kids. Anita is a great, great woman. She's a fantastic person. I love her. I can't live with her, you know? I don't know if I really see that much less of Anita now than I ever have. She's in New York.
Doesn't it drive you nuts to live your personal life out in public?
Usually it's not from within — not from Anita or Patti or myself. It's other people saying, "Oh, we should play this down." Which I'm not interested in doin', because the only way I've ever been able to survive any of this crap is by saying: "Anything you put on your front page, I can top it." Because I'll give you the real lowdown, which is far more interesting. The last thing I want is to seem that I'm hiding anything, or playing a role. Sure, you don't want to call up the Daily News and say, "Well, last night I screwed . . . " but at the same time, I don't want anybody to think it's worth snooping around in my backyard thinking they're gonna pick up anything that they wouldn't learn by asking me.
As far as my relationships go, with Anita or anybody — I don't understand the meaning of separation. It's a legal phrase, that. And since I've never done anything legally, or never considered whether it's legal or not . . . I mean, I do what I do. The only areas of illegality that I've been involved in are ones that are questionable. Like, the question of victimless crimes. You can say that being a junkie is not really being a criminal, because it's just a law. But then again, junkies are the ones who buy the stuff from the dealers, the dealers make the money off the junkies, and dealers are the ones who go and corrupt the other kids, da, da, da. So where does the responsibility begin and end? I don't know. I don't really care, because it's a fact of life. I mean, all those questions are talked about by people who know nothing about it, as you well know. They're the ones who decide to put every patient they get on Methadone — to force them into the belief that if you've taken dope at all, you'd better get on Methadone right away, because you're always gonna need it. But they don't mention that for every patient those clinics get, they get bread from the feds.
You've tried Methadone?
Only when I couldn't get nothin' else. What a dopey drug, you know — dopey in the sense of nondope. What a dopey nondope.
Did heroin affect your music, for better or worse?
Thinking about it, I would probably say yeah, I'd probably have been better, played better, off of it I mean, sometimes people think they play better on dope, but it's . . . in actual fact, when I was onstage playing, or recording, and I was doped up, you know, and I listen to it now — I mean, sometimes I still have to play what I played then. "Right, I've gotta play this goddamn junkie music? Me? Now? I've been through it." And I still gotta play my junk licks. But I can't imagine what else I would have played, no matter whether I was drunk, on dope or on Preparation H — they sniff it, you know.
The thing about smack is that you don't have any say in it. It's not your decision anymore. You need the dope, that's the only thing. "Why? I like it." It takes the decision off your shoulders. You'll go through all those incredible hassles to get it, and think nothing of it. Because that is the number-one priority: first the dope, then you can get home and do anything else that needs doing, like living. If you can.
Did you realize that you were addicted?
Oh, totally, yeah. I accepted that. It took me about two years to get addicted. The first two years, I played around with it. It's the greatest seduction in the world. The usual thing, snort it up. Then: "What do you mean I'm hooked? I've taken it for two days and I feel all right. I haven't had any for . . . all day." And then you think that's cool. And it draws you in, you know.
How do you get off junk?
You just have to want to reach that point. I mean, I kicked it loads of times. The problem is not how to get off of it, it's how to stay off of it. Yep, that's the one.
Do you still feel drawn toward it?
I always, um . . . never say never. But no, no.
Was it difficult for you to record those albums?
No, I mean, especially with the Stones, just because they've been at this sort of point for so long, where they're considered, you know, "the greatest rock & roll band in the world...." [Laughs] God, my God — you gotta be joking. Maybe one or two nights, yeah, you could stick them with that. My opinion is that on any given night, it's a different band that's the greatest rock & roll band in the world, you know? Because consistency is fatal for a rock & roll band. It's gotta go up and down. Otherwise, you wouldn't know the difference. It would be just a bland, straight line, like lookin' at a heart machine. And when that straight line happens, baby, you're dead, you know?
Rock has an awfully high death rate, it seems. Among your contemporaries, John Lennon, Keith Moon, John Bonham — when you see them go, does it worry you?
There are risks in doing anything. In this business, people tend to think it'll never happen to them. But what a way to make a living, you know? Looking at the record over the last twenty-odd years, it goes without saying, I should think, that there is a very high fatality rate in the rock & roll music business. Look at the list, man, look at who's been scythed down: Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran. The list is endless. And the greats, a lot of the greats have gone down. Otis, man. I mean, that one killed soul music.
I've always felt that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest loss. Did you know him?
Fairly well. By the period of his demise — to put it politely — he was at the point of totally putting down and negating everything that had made him what he was. I mean all the psychedelic stuff. He felt like he'd been forced to do it over and over again so many times, just because that's what he was known for. When I first heard him, he was playing straight-ahead R&B.
When was that?
I first heard him on the road with Curtis Knight, and then I used to see him play at a club called Ondine's in New York.
What did you think when you first heard him?
I thought I was watching someone just about to break. But as far as his being a guitar player, I mean, I was disappointed when the records started comin' out. Although, given the time and that period, and given the fact that he was forced into an "English psychedelic bag" and then had to live with it because that's what made him . . . one of the reasons that he was so down at the period when he died was because he couldn't find a way out of that. He wanted to just go back and start playing some funky music, and when he did, nobody wanted to know.
It was a weird period.
Yeah. Everybody got sort of carried on this tidal wave of success for doing outlandish things, until what they were really known for was the outlandishness of what they were doing, and not really what they were doing. I mean, even with Satanic Majesties, I was never hot on psychedelic music.
Everybody's always put Their Satanic Majesties Request down, but I've been listening to a clean copy of it recently and there's some good stuff on there, despite the ridiculous mix.
The only thing I can say, from the Stones' point of view, is that it was the first album we ever made off the road. Because we stopped touring; we just burned up by 1966. We finished Between the Buttons, you know, "Let's Spend the Night Together," and boom, we stopped working for like a year and a half. And in that year and a half, we had to make another album. And that was insane — on acid, busted, right? It was like such a fractured business, a total alien way of working to us at the time. So it kind of reflects. It's a fractured album. There are some good bits, and it's weird, and there's some real crap on it as well.
Has having kids changed you at all? Your son, Marlon, is almost a teenager now, right?
Just about, yeah. He's beatin' the shit out of me. It's gotten to the point now, in the last few months, where I've noticed he's coming up and reprimanding me, you know? "Dad! Get up! There's a rehearsal. They're waitin'!" And I'm takin' it — I'm takin it! "Yeah, okay, I'm ready. Give me my jeans." And he says, "Oh, yeah — you look like you're ready. You got one eye closed!" I don't really have to worry about Marlon, he's so together. I mean, he's been on the road since he was about a year old, so to him this is all totally normal. He used to crash out to "Midnight Rambler" every night behind my amp, you know?
It's nice not to have to be a disciplinarian.
Yeah. Or only if something's really grating on my hangover. But I've been lucky. I've never been forced into that position of saying, "Now look here, son, you can't do that." I'm still half waiting for my own old man to start knocking me about — "Bloody rock & roll! You fool!" Bash!
Your dad's still alive?
Yeah. I have not seen him. Occasionally, I write him a letter: "I really want to get together with you again," you know? And I get a really nice letter back. He's a great guy, but very hard to get to know. He was born in 1914, and I didn't have anything to say to him when I was eighteen. It was a total stand-off, you know? And so I left home and got the band together with Mick and Brian.
Has your father ever seen Marlon?
No, no. I know what I should do, man, I know. I'm workin' on it now. In fact, I'm glad you asked me that. You reminded me, 'cause I sent him a letter about a month ago, saying, "If you wanna come over. . . . " Either that or send him a ticket and say the plane's leaving, get your passport and get your ass over here. He's only been out of England once, and that was to France to get his leg blown up. The Anglo-American tour of Normandy, they called it.
Judging by some of the songs on Tattoo You, your and Mick's attitudes toward women seem to have changed somewhat. With the exception of "Little T&A," that is. . . .
Well, that song's just about every good time I've had with somebody I'd met for a night or two and never seen again. And also about the shit that sometimes goes down when you just sort of bump into people unknowingly, and not knowing the scene you're walking in on, you know? You pick up a chick and end up spending the night in the tank, you know?
On the other hand, "Black Limousine," for instance, seems more generous in its appraisal of a past relationship. Quite vulnerable, really.
Yeah, because time marches on, et cetera. And also, I guess, because the women in our lives at the moment have made a change in our attitudes toward it. I guess because everything that comes out from the Stones is just as it comes out. I mean, you just turn on the tap and it pours out. That's how we used to feel about it, and that's how we feel about it now. This is purely a guess, because I haven't really thought about it, but it seems logical that the people you're with are the ones who are gonna influence you most, whether you intend it or not. Mick might intend to sit down and write a real Stones song — you know: "Blechhh! You cruddy piece of shit, you dirty old scrub box!" But obviously, that's not the way he's feeling now. It's not the way I'm feeling now.
Would it be fair to say that you're both in love?
Oh, yeah. But I've always been in love.
It seems like you and Patti, though. . . .
It's a big one, it's a big one. Yeah. It doesn't matter, I'll tell ya — yeah, I'm in love. Those are the things that, when you're at the other end of the scale, you know, and you think, "Oh, goddamn, you can only be in love when you're eighteen or twenty-three or . . . But then you get older and suddenly — bang! One again! And you realize that was all a load of crap. And those are the things that turn you on, you know? Those are the things that make you look forward, keep you going. You say, well, if it can happen, keep on going. I mean, it's the greatest feeling in the world, right?
Love is good!
Love wears a white Stetson.
This story is from the November 12, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.