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Keith Richards Meets the Mounties and Faces the Music

Page 7 of 8

At midnight, I am summoned to Keith's chambers. Compared to the quiet splendor of Mick's suite, Keith's is frenzied and I feel that I have suddenly entered Rock & Roll Supreme Headquarters and hit the very core of rock: farther than this one cannot go.

Nothing is still: room service comes and goes frequently: everyone who is anyone within the Stones camp rushes in and out with urgent errands; "Honky Tonk Women" is blasting from giant speakers; and guitars and tape recorders and amps are everywhere. The television is on but the sound is turned off: the program being shown is of a church service. Wine is being poured everywhere.

Keith calls down to room service for another fifth of Jack Daniel's, then settles onto a couch beside me. For a man who has appeared. . . worn ever since he began with the Stones, he does not look all that bad. He is wearing jeans tucked into boots and a red shirt and a red-and-blue newsboy's cap. Anita drifts in and out in a nightgown and young Marlon sprawls on the floor.

"These are the Paris tapes," Keith yells to me over the din. "These are good, but I'll play you the El Mocambo tapes -- they're better in some ways." He's right.

He also says he's been thinking he might someday like to teach college music seminars and that he's been writing songs daily and the first one -- still untitled -- is about prison. He does not volunteer any further information about it.

We retire to a quieter room and open the Jack Daniel's. Attorney Bill Carter is present, since the only way I could get the interview was to promise not to mention words like "heroin."

Keith begins, speaking softly: "Since I have been stuck for a week in Toronto by myself, while everybody else drifted off as stealthily as they could, I've been getting some rough mixes down from the El Mocambo gigs -- the second night we recorded some good sounds. The first night, the band sounds like it was playing for something in New Delhi; there were these weird sort of quarter tones, out of tune, very frantic; it was all adrenalin."

But the second night, I say, was amazing: the Stones really kicking ass in a bar.

He smiles. "It was dead easy to get back into. I mean, we haven't played a place that small since '62. But it all fell into place, it felt very natural, you know. It has been a long time since I've had my legs stroked while playing, you know, I'd forgotten all about that. . . It's a full circle. We started off playing the real low bars and we have only just played our first bar this side of the circle so maybe it just means we are going to start playing a whole lot of bars again. It felt good. I know the band wanna do it. A lot of bands would like to do it, to break this system of these enormous tours -- it's so hectic, three months and then everything explodes just as it is getting good and it's really starting to go to a top gear that you didn't know was there."

He snaps his fingers. "Then it stops. No gigs for nine months. . . Charlie Watts is playing well. . . and it just stops. If every band could play three or four gigs a month, but it's not structured that way -- how do you break that? I mean, the band is just as happy playing in a place like that [El Mocambo] as in Madison Square Garden. To play one of those once a month would be great to stay in shape. It's really a very unprofitable way of using the energy -- this system of tours and huge auditoriums. It can't go any bigger, you know. With any other sports, okay, they build a special place for you to play that game in. If you play football, you go to a football field. Rock & roll -- you don't get a rock & roll building, you know, you just play in a fucking football field."

Marlon comes in as we get fresh drinks and cigarettes and he starts talking. Keith: "Shh, son, daddy's working right now."

What sort of material, I ask, is he cutting now?

"I've got time to put down all these songs I learnt from Gram Parsons. I was very tight with him for a long time. I used to spend days at the piano with Gram, just singing, you know, I did more singing with Gram than I've done with the Stones. He taught me all the Everly stuff and the cross harmonies and shit like that. We lived together when we cut Exile on Main Street. He wrote songs, man, he would go all day without repeating himself.

"But it's been eight years since he taught me. . . I've never really done anything more than put them on cassette just to remember the lyrics so I thought I would put them down, a dub sort of thing, mostly country songs, Merle Haggard and George Jones. There's a few Dallas Frazier songs. 'Say It's Not You.' 'Apartment Number 9.' A couple of Jerry Lee Lewis things like 'She Still Comes Around.' 'Six Days on the Road.'

"I took this opportunity to sort of wrack my brains and put down everything I had floating around in my head: songs, half-songs, riffs, I got it all out on tape, very efficient for me. So that killed some time in Toronto."

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Song Stories

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A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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