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Keith Richards: The 40th Anniversary Interview

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“Santa Monica”

Everclear | 1996

After his brother and girlfriend both died of drug overdoses, Art Alexakis -- depressed and hooked on drugs himself -- jumped off the Santa Monica Pier in California, determined to die. "It was really stupid," said the Everclear frontman, who would further explore his personal emotional journey in the song "Father of Mine." "I went under the water. Then I said, 'I don't wanna die.'" The song, declaring "Let's swim out past the breakers/and watch the world die," was intended as a manifesto for change, Alexakis said. "Let the world do what it's gonna do and just live on our own."

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