Keith Richards: The 40th Anniversary Interview

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

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

Music has changed a lot too. How do you feel about digital recording technology?
Digital is a handy tool, but I prefer to record analog. Digital can't get the sound in the same way. It's good for editing, but if you really want that boom, you can't get it on digital.

What about today's pop music?
Quite honestly, hip-hop leaves me cold. But there are some people out there who think it's the meaning of life.

It's like the new rock & roll.
Yeah, but rock & roll had songs. I mean, I don't wanna be yelled at; I wanna be sung to. I never really understood why somebody would want to have some gangster from L.A. poking his fingers in your face. As I say, it don't grab me. I mean, the rhythms are boring; they're all done on computers.

Do your kids try to turn you on to new music?
It's strange you should mention that. My daughters bought me a Billie Holiday anthology yesterday. So it's not just a generation thing. People that like music get into music. I mean, I really wasn't much of a fan of Mozart when I was growing up — it was just over my head, you know? But I play him every day now. I'm a late bloomer!

So you're still learning new things about music?
All the time, are you kidding? It's continually fascinating. You'll never get to the bottom of it, no matter how much you try. And I'm always lookin' for the next great song, you know? I think it's always lurking just around the corner. But then you've gotta take a pee and you've forgotten it.

Do you ever get tired of playing "Satisfaction" every night?
Never. It's quite bendable onstage, you know? It's not the same every night. It's a song that you can levitate to, where you suddenly feel that your feet are not quite on the ground, but you're not gonna fall over. That's what you look for, to levitate.

You've become a major guitar icon over the years. How does it feel to have been such an influential musician?
Well, I used to think, "I know I'm pretty good, but I don't really know shit." As you get on, though, you sort of grow into it, and you find your own way of playing. You can't force it. You can't try and be Segovia if you're not. Even Segovia said that.

Who was the biggest nonmusical influence in your life?
Probably my grandfather, Gus Dupree, my mother's dad. He was incredibly funny, totally bizarre: a musician, a baker, a little bit of a flyboy on the side. He would take me to guitar shops, around the back, where they were fixing instruments. And he'd sit me on a shelf with a cup of tea and a biscuit, and I'd watch these violins and guitars going by on, like, a conveyer belt. And there were these great big pots of glue, and the wood, the smell of it. Without knowing it, he was showing me how instruments were made.

What kind of music was he into?
He played everything, man. He was a friend of Yehudi Menuhin. Because he was the janitor where Yehudi's son went to school. And Yehudi's son said, "I've met this amazing man." And eventually, whenever Yehudi was in town, he'd invite my grandfather up, and they'd scrape away together. We used to sleep under a tree in Primrose Hill, a park in London, sleep under there all night with the dog, you know? 'Cause that's the reason we were out, to walk the dog. Whose name was Mr. Thompson. There's a joy of life; that's what I learned from my grandfather. He just enjoyed the world, and he taught me how to do that.

Gus Dupree?
Yeah, Dupree is my mother's family name.

Is there French in the family?
Some people think he made the bloody name up.

How have things changed for you?
Well, I may be go to bed a little earlier, get up a little earlier. But I don't really feel any different.

That's kind of amazing. Especially since the Rolling Stones audience must now span, like, three generations.
Yeah, that's very interesting. I've noticed it more in the last few years — people are there with their sons and their grandchildren. But that's great, to see it passed on. You actually start to feel a responsibility, you know? "They're not just your grandchildren, they're mine." It's quite humbling, in a way, if you think about it. It's nice to leave your mark, you know? I can say, yeah, I've touched a lot of people's souls and a lot of people's hearts. And, hey, not a lot of guys can say that.

Any life lessons you'd like to pass on to that younger generation?
First off, don't do anything if there's not joy in it, a sense of exhilaration. A day is a day, and each one is going bye-bye, and you've only got so many more in front of you. Friendship is probably one of the most important things in life. Apart from your immediate family, it's about friends — the ability to make friends, the ability to forgive friends. And their ability to forgive you. It's just the ability to enjoy other people's company, really. Then you've got it all, man. The rest of it's gravy.

What else have you learned over the years?
Well, eventually I found out that I'm better than I thought I was. Growing up, no matter what anybody else is saying about you — you're fantastic or whatever — you're always saying to yourself, "I'm inadequate. I'm just this mere shell." But you fill the shell up, you know? And I kind of feel like I'm half-full.

Now that you're sixty-three, do you think about mortality? When you fell out of that coconut tree, or whatever, in Fuji last year, was that a near thing? You had to fly to New Zealand for some sort of surgery.
Well, the fact that it occurred in Fiji, automatically everybody's thinkin' I fell out of a coconut tree. I gave that up years ago [laughs]. In actual fact, it was a gnarly little bush by the side of the beach. I was perched up on this branch, maybe six feet off the ground, and somebody said, "Lunch is up," and I dropped down and hit the ground the wrong way, went backward and hit the back of my head on the trunk.

Did you have to have brain surgery?
It was cranial surgery. I told the anesthetist — his name was Nigel — I said, "Nigel, let me tell ya, I'm really difficult to put out."

So it wasn't a near-death experience, something you've brooded about?
When the end comes, it'll come, you know? I'm good at duckin' and diving. And I've had so many close brushes with the specter of death already.

It has been a full life.
I had a great time. I mean, hey, there's been a lot of pain, but all in all, what a life, you know? So far, so good. When they let me out of school, I'll be a motherfucker.

When the time finally comes, how would you like to make your exit?
In a ball of smoke and a great explosion.

This is a story from the May 3rd, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1025: May 3, 2007