Charlie Watts gets an enormous ovation every night when Mick introduces him. But Charlie's also quite an enigma — the quiet conscience of the Stones.
Charlie is a great English eccentric. I mean, how can you describe a guy who buys a 1936 Alfa Romeo just to look at the dashboard? Can't drive — just sits there and looks at it. He's an original, and he happens to be one of the best drummers in the world. Without a drummer as sharp as Charlie, playing would be a drag.
He's very quiet — but persuasive. It's very rare that Charlie offers an opinion. If he does, you listen. Mick and I fall back on Charlie more than would be apparent. Many times, if there's something between Mick and I, it's Charlie I've got to talk to.
It could be as simple as whether to play a certain song. Or I'll say, "Charlie, should I go to Mick's room and hang him?" And he'll say no [laughs]. His opinion counts.
How has your relationship with Ron Wood changed since he gave up drinking?
I tell Ronnie, "I can't tell the difference between if you're pissed out of your brain or straight as an arrow." He's the same guy. But Ronnie never got off the last tour. He kept on after we finished the last show. On the road it's all right, because you burn off a lot of the stuff you do onstage. But when you get home and you're not in touch with your environment, your family — he didn't stop. He realized he had to do it. It was his decision. When I found out about it, he was already in the spin dryer.
Ronnie has always had a light heart. That's his front. But there is a deeper guy in there. I know the feeling. I probably wouldn't have gotten into heroin if it hadn't been a way for me to protect myself. I could walk into the middle of all the bullshit, softly surrounded by this cool, be my own man inside, and everybody had to deal with it. Mick does it his way. Ronnie does it his way.
Do you miss having a drinking partner?
Shit, I am my drinking partner. Intoxication? I'm polytoxic. Whatever drinking or drugs I do is never as big a deal to me as they have been to other people. It's not a philosophy with me. The idea of taking something in order to be Keith Richards is bizarre to me.
Were there drugs you tried and didn't like?
Loads. I was very selective. Speed — nah. Pure pharmaceutical cocaine — that's great, but it ain't there anymore. Heroin — the best is the best. But when it comes to Mexican shoe scrapings, ugh. Good weed is good weed.
What about acid?
I enjoyed it. Acid arrived just as we had worn ourselves out on the road, in 1966. It was kind of a vacation. I never went for the idea that this was some special club — the Acid Test and that bollocks.
I found it interesting that you were way out there but still functioning normally, doing things like driving; I'd stop off at the shops. Meanwhile, you were zooming off. Methedrine and bennies never did appeal to me. Downers — now and again: "I've got to get some sleep." But if you don't go to sleep, you have a great time [laughs].
How much did your drug use in the 1970s alienate Mick?
He wasn't exactly Mr. Clean and I was Mr. Dirty. But I withdrew a lot from the basic daytoday of the Stones. It usually only took one of us to deal with most things. But when I did come out of it and offered to shoulder the burden, I noticed that Mick was quite happy to keep the burden to himself. He got used to calling the shots.
I was naive — I should have thought about it. I have no doubt that here or there Mick used the fact that I was on the stuff, and everybody knew it: "You don't want to talk to Keith, he's out of it." Hey, it was my own fault. I did what I did, and you just don't walk back in again.
Describe the state of your friendship with Mick. Is friendship the right word?
Absolutely. It's a very deep one. The fact that we squabble is proof of it. It goes back to the fact that I'm an only child. He's one of the few people I know from my childhood. He is a brother. And you know what brothers are like, especially ones who work together. In a way, we need to provoke each other, to find out the gaps and see if we're onboard together.
Does it bother you that your musical life together isn't enough for him — that he wants to make solo records?
He'll never lie about in a hammock, just hanging out. Mick has to dictate to life. He wants to control it. To me, life is a wild animal. You hope to deal with it when it leaps at you. That is the most marked difference between us. He can't go to sleep without writing out what he's going to do when he wakes up. I just hope to wake up, and it's not a disaster.
My attitude was probably formed by what I went through as a junkie. You develop a fatalistic attitude toward life. He's a bunch of nervous energy. He has to deal with it in his own way, to tell life what's going to happen rather than life telling you.
Was he like that in 1965?
Not so much. He's very shy, in his own way. It's pretty funny to say that about one of the biggest extroverts in the world. Mick's biggest fear is having his privacy. Mick sometimes treats the world as if it's attacking him. It's his defense, and that has molded his character to a point where sometimes you feel like you can't get in yourself. Anybody in the band will tell you that. But it comes from being in that position for so long — being Mick Jagger.
What don't you like about his solo albums?
Wimpy songs, wimpy performance, bad recording. That's about enough. I've done solo things here and there, but the Stones are numero uno. The Stones are the reason I'm here. They are my whole working life. I never had a job. To me, it's very important that there is a very close unity presented to everyone else: "Shields up." Outside projects, I felt, were a detriment to the Stones. If what you did is fantastic, you're going to want to carry it on. If it's a bum, you've gotta run back to the Stones and say, "Protect me." That's not a good position for a fighting unit. "I've got deserters": I used to think like that.
But you can't keep everybody in that insular thing forever. I mean, Charlie takes his jazz band around the world. You've got to turn it into an asset. Whatever it was, we all went out there and tried it on. But we all come back to the Rolling Stones. There is an electromagnetic thing that goes on with it. It draws us back to the center.
What do you think of Mick's knighthood?
I have to revert to a Stones point of view. These are the guys who tried to put us in jail in the Sixties, and then you're taking a minor honor. Also, to get a phone call from Mick saying, "Tony Blair insists that I take it" — this is a way to present it to me?
It's antirespect to the Stones — that was my initial opinion. I thought it would have been the smarter move to say thanks, but no thanks. After being abused by Her Majesty's government for so many years, being hounded almost out of existence, I found it weird that he'd want to take a badge. But what the fuck does it matter? It doesn't make any difference in the way we work. Within the Stones, it's probably made him buckle down a bit more, because he knows he's being disapproved of [laughs].
In the opening lines of "The Worst," you sing, "I said from the first/I'm the worst." Are you a hard man to love?
Ask those who love me. In any new relationship, I tell people, "Do you know what you're dealing with? Don't tell me that I didn't say from the first, I'm the worst." It's my riot act. The last time I said it was to my old lady twentyodd years ago. I say, out front, take it on, or get out.
You and your wife, Patti, have two teenage daughters, Alexandra and Theodora. And as a dad, you have a unique perspective on the mischief kids get up to, because you've done most of it.
I've never had a problem with my kids, even though Marlon and Angela [two of his three children by former girlfriend Anita Pallenberg] grew up in rough times: cops busting in, me being nuts. [Another son, Tara, died in 1976; he was ten weeks old.] I feel akin to the old whaling captains: "We're taking the boat out, see you in three years." Dad disappearing for weeks and months — it's never affected my kids' sense of security. It's just what Dad does.
What about serious talks? About drugs?
That's something you see on TV ads. Alexandra and Theodora are my best friends. It's not fingerwagging. I just keep an eye on them. If they got a problem, they come and talk to me. They've grown up with friends whose idea of me — who knows what they've been told at school? But they know who I am. And they always come to my defense [smiles]. Which is the way I like it.
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