Keith Richards bolts out of the dark and into the light, grips the neck of his guitar like a rifle barrel and fires the opening call to joy of the Rolling Stones' 2002-03 world tour: the fierce chords of "Street Fighting Man," a blazing rush that for Richards is the sound of life itself. "My biggest addiction, more than heroin, is the stage and the audience," he says with gravelly cheer the next day, after that first show in Boston. "That buzz — it calls you every time." Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood will spend the next year on the road answering that call, celebrating forty years as a working band and the release of a two CD retrospective, Forty Licks. "You're fighting upstream against this preconception that you can't do this at this age," snaps Richards, who turns fifty-nine on December 18th. He has been through worse: a long dance with heroin in the 1970s; close calls with the law and death; his volatile lifelong relationship with Jagger. And Richards talks about all of it — as well as his ultimate jones, playing with the Stones — in this interview, conducted over vodka and cigarettes during two long nights in Boston and Chicago. "People should say, 'Isn't it amazing these guys can move like that? Here's hope for you all,' " he says with a grin. "Just don't use my diet."
How do you deal with criticism about the Stones being too old to rock & roll? Do you get pissed off? Does it hurt?
People want to pull the rug out from under you, because they're bald and fat and can't move for shit. It's pure physical envy — that we shouldn't be here. "How dare they defy logic?"
If I didn't think it would work, I would be the first to say, "Forget it." But we're fighting people's misconceptions about what rock & roll is supposed to be. You're supposed to do it when you're twenty, twenty five — as if you're a tennis player and you have three hip surgeries and you're done. We play rock & roll because it's what turned us on. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf — the idea of retiring was ludicrous to them. You keep going — and why not?
You went right from being a teenager to being a Stone — no regular job, a little bit of art school. What would you be doing if the Stones had not lasted this long?
I went to art school and learned how to advertise, because you don't learn much art there. I schlepped my portfolio to one agency, and they said — they love to put you down — "Can you make a good cup of tea?" I said, "Yeah, I can, but not for you." I left my crap there and walked out. After I left school, I never said, "Yes, sir" to anybody.
If nothing had happened with the Stones and I was a plumber now, I'd still be playing guitar at home at night, or get the lads around the pub. I loved music; it didn't occur to me that it would be my life. When I knew I could play something, it was an added bright thing to my life: "I've got that, if nothing else."
Do you have nightmares that someday you'll hit the stage and the place will be empty — nobody bothered to come?
That's not a nightmare. I've been there: Omaha '64, in a 15,000seat auditorium where there were 600 people. The city of Omaha, hearing these things about the Beatles — they thought they should treat us in the same way, with motorcycle outriders and everything. Nobody in town knew who we were. They didn't give a shit. But it was a very good show. You give as much to a handful of people as you do to the others.
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