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Keith Richards: The 40th Anniversary Interview

In a career-spanning talk, Keef addresses everything from Mozart to hip-hop to laptops

May 3, 2007
Rolling Stones Keith Richards Isle of Wight Festival
Keith Richards performs on stage at the Isle of Wight Festival on the Isle of Wight, England on June 10, 2007.
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

You're still here.
You noticed.

You've lived through some very interesting times. If a fifteen-year-old were to ask you what the Sixties were like, what would you say?
It was pretty crazy. You kind of made them up as you went along, really. Somewhere in 1963, '64, '65, our generation came of age, so to speak. In England, there was a definite feeling that either this place is gonna go right down the tube, or something has to be regenerated. We were like, "This won't do!" That was the mood in the air, that what had come before was not acceptable anymore. And as much as I can get nostalgic about it now — little old English villages and stuff — that's just nostalgia. The fact is that it was bloody boring, and something had to happen. Rock & roll happened, basically. And then lots of people were trying on different things, getting very, very stoned, "exploring their boundaries." I know I did.

Do you remember the first time somebody handed you a joint?
Vaguely. I think I was turned on the first time by some black guys in a band. The Vibrations, maybe? I can't quite remember now. But they'd arrive every day for the gig — and sometimes there was two or three shows a day — and they were always so put together and smooth. And we were, like, nineteen years old and barely draggin' our asses around. So we asked them, "How the hell do you do it, man?" And the answer was, "You take one of these, and you smoke a little bit of this." And you got the recipe, you know? And backstage it was all secret — in those days, you didn't bruit it about. It was backstage shit. And you kind of felt privileged about being in on a secret.

Do you remember music before rock & roll?
Oh, yeah, very much. There was some very good jazz. And all those novelty songs — "Shut the Door (They're Comin' Through the Window)" — a barrage of that banality. But luckily, through my mother, I was listening to Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong and stuff, you know? And through jazz, I knew quite a lot about black music.

What was the first rock & roll record you heard?
The one memory that sticks out immediately is hearin' "Heartbreak Hotel" one night on Radio Luxembourg. It was very hard to get the signal, so you'd be walking around the room with the radio, going, "Oh, no, it's fading!" But it was like the world went Technicolor. Before that, it always seemed to be a bit drab. In England, especially, where it was all postwar — there was rubble everywhere, you know?

After Elvis, who were the musicians who knocked you out?
Muddy Waters. Little Walter, too. And Chuck Berry, of course — no matter whether it was "Carol" or "Little Queenie" or "Johnny B. Goode," just his sheer exuberance and power — and yet so light, too. I mean, yeah, it was rock, but there was a roll. There's so many records, really. Eddie Cochran. Buddy Holly. The Everly Brothers. The list becomes endless. And the thing was, you didn't know whether Elvis was white or black. I didn't know if Chuck Berry was white or black. Or Buddy Holly, come to that. So there was this mystery about it: "Where are these cats comin' from?" And you spent your whole time after that tryin' to track it down.

Did this music give you a mental image of America?
Oh, America figured very large in the psyche then. I mean, I used to buy American magazines just to look at the Chevrolet ads.

When you finally got over here with the Rolling Stones, was it the country you'd expected?
America then wasn't as homogenous as it is now. I mean, in New York, Chicago, L.A., Frisco, very cool things were going on. But you'd go fifty or a hundred miles inland, and the difference between the big cities and the Bible Belt, as they used to call it, was immense. You didn't need to take many bus rides down the road to realize that there were at least two Americas, you know? Segregation was very evident the first few years we were here. Goin' down South, you weren't allowed to pee in the black men's toilet. And you're dyin' for a pee, you know? Now there's been a shift. Now they've got a hard-on against the Mexicans. And of course, the Muslims are comin' in for some stick.

How did you feel about being part of something called the British Invasion back in the Sixties?
That was a bunch of horseshit. Suddenly, at last, some English bands got lucky and managed to go across the pond. It was just an explosion of music in England at that time that just somehow made it. And some of it was very bad, you know? A lot of it was just covers of American R&B. The British Invasion, in a way, was just an American invasion of Britain, musicwise. We were always surprised about that. We thought, "You can't sell it back to them, can you? They've already got it."

Did you have any favorites out of those bands?
Well, the Who, they were contemporaries of ours. They were picking up our gigs at clubs we weren't playing anymore. And the Beatles were a great band. Yeah, a great band. They lasted as long as they should have, you know?

In the Seventies, drugs became a big thing. Not just taking them but talking about them, and trying to find somebody who had them, and then waiting for them. People would spend days doing that.
Years for me!

I think young people today must look back at that period and wonder why everybody was taking so many drugs.
Well, something had to be changed, and that was the quickest way of doing it — while you were waiting for a real change. I don't remember anyone saying, 'I'm gonna get into drugs." But then drugs are like that. They kind of slip up behind you. There was also a certain amount of clubbishness about it, you know? "Is he a head or isn't he? He's not a head? Oh, my God, poor chap." And you'd go around wearing blue-tinted glasses, and all that crap.

It does seem quaint now. What do you think have been the other major social changes since then?
Well, I've got gray hair [laughs]. But the fact is that loads of changes are happening all the time — and that's a big change. There's more and more changes, and I think it's a bit confusing for a lot of people. I mean, if you'd gone into a coma twenty years ago and you woke up today and saw people talking on cell phones in their cars, you'd think the fuckin' world had gone mad. People walking around in circles trying to get a signal; laptops in planes.

I'm guessing you probably don't have a laptop.
Not me, pal. I have no cell phone, either. I don't wanna be tracked down.

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Mark Knopfler wrote this song with Sting, and it wasn’t without controversy. The Dire Straits frontman's original lyric used the word “faggot” to describe a singer who got their “money for nothing and their chicks for free.” Even though the slur was edited out in many versions, the band, and Knopfler, still took plenty of criticism for the term. “I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London--he actually said it was below the belt,” Knopfler told Rolling Stone. Still, "Money For Nothing," undoubtedly augmented by its innovative early computer-animated video, stayed at Number One for three weeks.

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