Will Keith Richards Bury Us All?

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Do you have a pregig ritual — a particular drink or smoke?
I have them anyway [laughs]. I don't go in for superstition. Ronnie and I might have a game of snooker. But it would be superfluous for the Stones to discuss strategy or have a hug. With the Winos [his late Eighties solo band], it was important. They were different guys; we only did a couple of tours. I didn't mind. But with the Stones, it's like, "Oh, do me a favor! I'm not going to fucking hug you!"

At the height of your heroin addiction, would you indulge before a show?
No. I always cleaned up for tours. I didn't want to put myself in the position of going cold turkey in some little Midwestern town. By the end of the tour, I'm perfectly clean and should have stayed sober. But you go, "I'll just give myself a treat." Boom, there you are again.

Photos: See five decades of the hottest live shots of the Rolling Stones

Could you tell that you played better when you were clean?
I wonder about the songs I've written: I really like the ones I did when I was on the stuff. I wouldn't have written "Coming Down Again" [on 1973's Goat's Head Soup] without that. I'm this millionaire rock star, but I'm in the gutter with these other sniveling people. It kept me in touch with the street, at the lowest level.

On this tour, you're doing a lot of songs from Exile on Main Street — for most people, the band's greatest album. Would you agree?
It's a funny thing. We had tremendous trouble convincing Atlantic to put out a double album. And initially, sales were fairly low. For a year or two, it was considered a bomb. This was an era where the music industry was full of these pristine sounds. We were going the other way. That was the first grunge record.

Yes, it is one of the best. Beggars Banquet was also very important. That body of work, between those two albums: That was the most important time for the band. It was the first change the Stones had to make after the teenybopper phase. Until then, you went onstage fighting a losing battle. You want to play music? Don't go up there. What's important is hoping no one gets hurt and how are we getting out.

I remember a riot in Holland. I turned to look at Stu [Ian Stewart] at the piano. All I saw was a pool of blood and a broken chair. He'd been taken off by stagehands and sent to the hospital. A chair landed on his head.

To compensate for that, Mick and I developed the songwriting and records. We poured our music into that. Beggars Banquet was like coming out of puberty.

The Stones are reviving a lot of rare, older material on this tour, such as "Heart of Stone" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." Why did you stop playing those songs?
Maybe they were songs that we tried once or twice and went, "That didn't work at all." I think we tried "Knocking" once the whole way through. When the actual song finished and we were into the jam, it collapsed totally. The wheels fell off. We tried it one other time — "We'll just do the front bit" — and neither satisfied us. Nobody wants to go near something that has a jinx on it. But you have to take the jinx off, take the voodoo away and have another look.

Are there Stones hits that you're sick of playing?
No, they usually disappear of their own accord. That's the thing about songs — you don't have to be scared of them dying. They keep poking you in the face. The Stones have always believed in the present. But "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Brown Sugar" and "Start Me Up" are always fun to play. You gotta be a real sourpuss, mate, not to get up there and play "Jumpin' Jack Flash" without feeling like, "C'mon, everybody, let's go!" It's like riding a wild horse.

The general assumption about the Stones' classic songs is that Mick wrote the words and you wrote the music. Do you deserve more credit for the lyrics — and Mick for the music?
It's been a progression from Mick and I sitting face to face with a guitar and a tape recorder, to after Exile, when everybody chose a different place to live and another way of working. Let me put it this way: I'd say, "Mick, it goes like this: 'Wild horses couldn't drag me away.' " Then it would be a division of labor, Mick filling in the verses. There's instances like "Undercover of the Night" or "Rock and a Hard Place" where it's totally Mick's song. And there are times when I come in with "Happy" or "Before They Make Me Run." I say, "It goes like this. In fact, Mick, you don't even have to know about it, because you're not singing" [laughs].

But I always thought songs written by two people are better than those written by one. You get another angle on it: "I didn't know you thought like that." The interesting thing is what you say to someone else, even to Mick, who knows me real well. And he takes it away. You get his take.

On Stones albums, you tend to sing ballads — "You Got the Silver," "Slipping Away," "The Worst" — rather than rockers.
I like ballads. Also, you learn about songwriting from slow songs. You get a better rock & roll song by writing it slow to start with, and seeing where it can go. Sometimes it's obvious that it can't go fast, whereas "Sympathy for the Devil" started out as a Bob Dylan song and ended up as a samba. I just throw songs out to the band.

Did "Happy" start out as a ballad?
No. That happened in one grand bash in France for Exile. I had the riff. The rest of the Stones were late for one reason or another. It was only Bobby Keys there and Jimmy Miller, who was producing. I said, "I've got this idea; let's put it down for when the guys arrive." I put down some guitar and vocal, Bobby was on baritone sax and Jimmy was on drums. We listened to it, and I said, "I can put another guitar there and a bass." By the time the Stones arrived, we'd cut it. I love it when they drip off the end of the fingers. And I was pretty happy about it, which is why it ended up being called "Happy."

How do you and Mick write now? Take "Don't Stop," for example, one of the four new songs on Forty Licks.
It's basically all Mick. He had the song when we got to Paris to record. It was a matter of me finding the guitar licks to go behind the song, rather than it just chugging along. We don't see a lot of each other — I live in America, he lives in England. So when we get together, we see what ideas each has got: "I'm stuck on the bridge." "Well, I have this bit that might work." A lot of what Mick and I do is fixing and touching up, writing the song in bits, assembling it on the spot. In "Don't Stop," my job was the fairy dust.

What would it take for the Stones to have hit singles now, the way you churned them out in the 1960s and 1970s?
I haven't thought like that for years. "Start Me Up" surprised me, honestly — it was a fiveyearold rhythm track. Even then, in '81, I wasn't aiming for Number One. I was into making albums.

It was important, when we started, to have hits. And it taught you a lot of things quickly: what makes a good record, how to say things in two minutes thirty seconds. If it was four seconds longer, they chopped it off. It was good school, but it's been so long since I've made records with the idea of having a hit single. I'm out of that game.

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