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Keith Richard: The Rolling Stone Interview

Cozied up at his gargantuan estate in the south of France, the Stones guitarist (with help from wife Anita) gets up close and personal

August 19, 1971
Keith Richards on the cover of Rolling Stone
Keith Richards on the cover of Rolling Stone

Keith plays in a rock & roll band. Anita is a movie star queen. They currently reside in a large white marble house that everyone describes as "decadent looking." The British Admiral who built it had trees brought from all over the world in ships of the line, pine and cypress and palm. There is an exotic colored bird in a cage in the front garden and a rabbit called Boots that lives in the back. A dog named Oakie sleeps where he wants.

Meals are the only recurring reality and twenty three at a table is not an unusual number. The ceilings are thirty feet from the floor and some nights, pink lightning hangs over the bay and the nearby town of Ville-france, which waits for the fleet to come back so its hotels can turn again into whorehouses.

There is a private beach down a flight of stairs and a water bed on the porch. Good reference points for the whole mise-en-scene are F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night and the Shirelles' greatest hits. There is a piano in the living room and guitars in the TV room. Between George Jones, Merle Haggard, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry, Keith Richard manages to sneak in a lick now and then like a great acoustic version of "The Jerk" by the Larks one morning at 4 AM.

A recording studio will soon be completed in the basement and the Stones will go to work on some tracks for the new album, Mick Jagger having returned from his honeymoon. They will tour the States soon.

Most of it is in the tapes, in the background. Two cogent statements, both made by Keith, may be kept in mind while reading the questions and answers (which were asked and answered over a ten-day period at odd hours).

"It's a pretty good house; we're doing our best to fill it up with kids and rock 'n' roll."

"You know that thing that Blind Willie said? 'I don't like the suits and ties/They don't seem to harmonize.'"

What were you doing right at the beginning?
I was hanging out at art school. Yeah. Suburban art school. I mean in England, if you're lucky you get into art school. It's somewhere they put you if they can't put you anywhere else. If you can't saw wood straight or file metal. It's where they put me to learn graphic design because I happened to be good at drawing apples or something. Fifteen . . . I was there for three years and meanwhile I learned how to play guitar. Lotta guitar players in art school. A lot of terrible artists too. It's funny.

Your parents weren't musical?
Nah. My grandfather was. He used to have a dance band in the Thirties. Played the sax. Was in a country band in the late Fifties, too, playin' the US bases in England. Gus Dupree . . . King of the Country Fiddle. He was a groove, y'know . . . a good musician . . . He was never professional for more than a few years in the Thirties.

Photos: Rare and Intimate Pictures of the Rolling Stones

What did your father do?
He had a variety of professions. He was a baker for a while. I know he got shot up in the First World War. Gassed or something.

Were you raised middle class?
Working class. English working class . . . struggling, thinking they were middle class. Moved into a tough neighborhood when I was about ten. I used to be with Mick before that . . . we used to live close together. Then I moved to what they'd call in the States a housing project. Just been built. Thousands and thousands of houses, everyone wondering what the fuck was going on. Everyone was displaced. They were still building it and really there were gangs everywhere. Coming to Teddy Boys. Just before rock and roll hit England. But they were all waiting for it. They were practicing.

Were you one of the boys?
Rock and roll got me into being one of the boys. Before that I just got me ass kicked all over the place. Learned how to ride a punch.

It's strange, 'cause I knew Mick when I was really young . . . five, six, seven. We used to hang out together. Then I moved and didn't see him for a long time. I once met him selling ice creams outside the public library. I bought one. He was tryin' to make extra money.

Rock and roll got to England about '53, '54, you were eleven . . .
Yeah. Presley hit first. Actually, the music from Blackboard Jungle, "Rock Around the Clock," hit first. Not the movie, just the music. People saying, "Ah, did ya hear that music, man." Because in England, we had never heard anything. It's still the same scene: BBC controls it.

Then, everybody stood up for that music. I didn't think of playing it. I just wanted to go and listen to it. It took 'em a year or so before anyone in England could make that music. The first big things that hit were skiffle – simple three chord stuff. It wasn't really rock and roll. It was a lot more folky, a lot more strummy. Tea chest basses. A very crude sort of rock and roll. Lonnie Donegan's the only cat to come out of skiffle.

But we were really listening to what was coming from over the Atlantic. The ones that were hitting hard were Little Richard and Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Chuck Berry was never really that big in England. They dug him but . . . all his big, big hits made it . . . but maybe because he never came over. Maybe because the movies he made like Go Johnny Go never got over because of distribution problems. Fats Domino was big. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys too; all kinds of weird people that never made it in America.

They loved the piano. Looking back on it, all the piano boys really had it together for England. More than just the cat that stood there with the guitar.

Did you start really playing in school then?
Yeah. It's funny going back that far. Things come through but . . . I'll tell you who's really good at pushing memories: Bill. He's got this little mind that remembers everything. I'm sure it's like he rolls a tape.

How things were at the start is something. It's when everybody's got short hair. And everybody thought it was long. That's the thing. I mean, we were really being put down like shit then for having long hair. Really. Now, people go into offices with longer hair.

When I went to art school, people were just startin' to grow their hair and loosen up. You got in there on the favors of the headmaster. You go there and show him your shit, the stuff you've done at ordinary school, during art lessons, and he decides. You don't have to do anything apart from going to see him. He says, "You takin' anything? What are you on?" And you're about 15 or 16 and you don't even know what the fuck they do in art school. You have this vague picture of naked ladies sittin' around. Drawing them . . . well, I'll try that.

So you go there and you get your packet of Five Weights [cigarettes] a day. Everybody's broke . . . and the best thing that's going on is in the bog [toilet] with the guitars. There's always some cat sneaked out going through his latest Woody Guthrie tune or Jack Elliot. Everybody's into that kind of music as well. So when I went to art school I was thrown into that end of it too. Before that I was just into Little Richard. I was rockin' away, avoidin' the bicycle chains and the razors in those dance halls. The English get crazy. They're calm, but they were really violent then, those cats. Those suits cost them $150, which is a lot of money. Jackets down to here. Waistcoats. Leopardskin lapels . . . amazing. It was really "Don't step on mah blue suede shoes." It was down to that.

The Rolling Stones, 1963-1969: Behind-the-Scenes Snapshots

I really, literally, got myself thrown out of school. I was livin' at home but I had to go everyday. When you think that kids, all they really want to do is learn, watch how it's done and try and figure out why and leave it at that. You're going to school to do something you wanna do and they manage to turn the whole thing around and make you hate 'em. They really manage to do it. I don't know anyone at that school who liked it or anyone my age who liked to be at school. One or two people who went to a decent school had a good teacher, someone who really knew how to teach. The nearest thing I been to it is Wormwood Scrubbs [an English prison] and that's the nick. Really, it's the same feeling.

So you spent three years there and it was coming to degree time . . .
That's when they got me. It was 1958, they chucked me out. It's amazing – Lennon, all those people, were already playing. I hadn't really thought about playing. I was still just jivin' to it. I went straight into this art school, and I heard these cats playin', heard they were layin' down some Broonzy songs. And I suddenly realized it goes back a lot further than just the two years I'd been listenin'. And I picked up the nearest guitar and started learnin' from these cats. I learned from all these amateur art school people. One cat knew how to play "Cocaine Blues" very well, another cat knew how to play something else very well. There were a lot better guitar players at school than me.

But then I started to get into where it had come from. Broonzy first. He and Josh White were considered to be the only living black bluesmen still playing. So let's get that together, I thought, that can't be right. Then I started to discover Robert Johnson and those cats. You could never get their records though. One heard about them. On one hand I was playing all that folk stuff on the guitar. The other half of me was listenin' to all that rock and roll, Chuck Berry, and sayin' yeah, yeah.

And one day, I met Jagger again, man. Of all places, on the fucking train. I was going to the school and he was going up to the London School of Economics. It was about 1960. I never been able to get this one together, it's so strange. I had these two things going and not being able to plug 'em together, playing guitar like all the other cats, folk, a little blues. But you can't get the sounds from the States. Maybe once every six months someone'll come through with an album, an Arhoolie album of Fred McDowell. And you'd say: There's another cat! That's another one. Just blowin' my mind, like one album every six months.

So I get on this train one morning and there's Jagger and under his arm he has four or five albums. I haven't seen him since the time I bought an ice cream off him and we haven't hung around since we were five, six, ten years. We recognized each other straight off. "Hi, man," I say. "Where ya going?" he says. And under his arm, he's got Chuck Berry and Little Walter, Muddy Waters. "You're into Chuck Berry, man, really?" That's a coincidence. He said, "Yeah, I got few more albums. Been writin' away to this, uh, Chess Records in Chicago and got a mailing list thing and . . . got it together, you know?" Wow, man!

So I invited him up to my place for a cup of tea. He started playing me these records and I really turned on to it. We were both still living in Dartford, on the edge of London and I was still in art school.

There was another cat at art school named Dick Taylor, who later got the Pretty Things together. Mick found out – "Oh, you play?" he said to me. That's what amazed him. Mick had been singin' with some rock and roll bands, doin' Buddy Holly . . . Buddy Holly was in England as solid as Elvis. Everything came out was a record smash number one. By about '58, it was either Elvis or Buddy Holly. It was split into two camps. The Elvis fans were the heavy leather boys and the Buddy Holly ones all somehow looked like Buddy Holly.

By that time, the initial wham had gone out of rock and roll. You were getting "By The Light of The Silvery Moon" by Little Richard and "My Blue Heaven" by Fats, "Baby Face." They'd run out of songs in a way, it seemed like. England itself was turning on to its own breed of rock and rollers. Cliff Richard at the time was a big rocker. Adam Faith. Billy Fury, who did one fantastic album that I've lost. He got it together once. One really good album. Songs he'd written, like people do now, he got some people he knew to play together and did it. His other scene was the hits, heavy moody ballads and the lead pipe down the trousers. They were all into that one.

To get back to Mick and I . . . He found out that I could play a little and he could sing a bit. "I dig to sing," he said, and he also knew Dick Taylor from another school they'd gone to and the thing tied up so we try and do something. We'd all go to Dick Taylor's house, in his back room, some other cats would come along and play, and we'd try to lay some of this Little Walter stuff and Chuck Berry stuff. No drummer or anything. Just two guitars and a little amplifier. Usual back room stuff. It fell into place very quickly.

Then we found Slim Harpo, we started to really find people. Mick was just singing, no harp. And suddenly in '62, just when we were getting together, we read this little thing about a rhythm and blues club starting in Ealing. Everybody must have been trying to get one together. "Let's go up to this place and find out what's happening." There was this amazing old cat playing harp . . . Cyril Davies. Where did he come from? He turned out to be a panel beater from North London. He was a great cat, Cyril. He didn't last long. I only knew him for about two years and he died.

Alexis Korner really got this scene together. He'd been playin' in jazz clubs for ages and he knew all the connections for gigs. So we went up there. The first or the second time Mick and I were sittin' there Alexis Korner gets up and says, "We got a guest to play some guitar. He comes from Cheltenham. All the way up from Cheltenham just to play for ya."

Suddenly, it's Elmore James, this cat, man. And it's Brian, man, he sittin' on his little . . . he's bent over . . . da-da-da, da-da-da . . . I said, what? What the fuck? Playing bar slide guitar.

We get into Brian after he finishes "Dust My Blues." He's really fantastic and a gas. We speak to Brian. He'd been doin' the same as we'd been doin' . . . thinkin' he was the only cat in the world who was doin' it. We started to turn Brian on to some Jimmy Reed things, Chicago blues that he hadn't heard. He was more into T-Bone Walker and jazz-blues stuff. We'd turn him on to Chuck Berry and say, "Look, it's all the same shit, man, and you can do it." But Brian was also much more together. He was in the process of getting a band together and moving up to London with one of his many women and children. God knows how many he had. He sure left his mark, that cat. I know of five kids, at least. All by different chicks, and they all look like Brian.

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