In the 33 years since the Rolling Stones first hit the U.S., 54-year-old guitarist Keith Richards has ripened from the first punk to the last rock & roller. As the band's Bridges to Babylon tour – the year's biggest – takes it across America for the 13th time, Richards is in fine form: as irascible, honest and fierce as ever.
Which tour was craziest?
Tours sort of melt into each other. The '69, culminating with Altamont, was the most disjointed, but it was nothing to do with the band. It was part of the times, the Vietnam War – the country was fractured. There was no security; they had no cops to spare for things like that – they'd all been drafted. Everybody was doing what they wanted. That was the most chaotic.
Was that more fun than this one?
No. You don't really look for the chaos. It's no fun being onstage with Hell's Angels watching while others stab another guy. That is not conducive to making good music.
Do you have any strong feelings about Sprint, your tour's current sponsor?
The phones were shit. But I don't use cellular phones, so it makes no difference to me. It's like sticking your head in a microwave oven. They're very bad for you. Phones, for me, are strictly for information. I don't chat. Phones are the bane of my life. Alexander damn Graham Bell, I'd shoot him.
These days your songs seem to be the most romantic ones.
Yes. It's the intriguing ambiguity of romance. Because it's very hard to write love songs which tweak your ear. "Thief in the Night" – I can remember some chick at school putting me on when I was about 14 or 15, sending me a note saying come and see me tonight, my parents are out. And there's me, trottling through the garden with the note, and then I realize they've gone on holiday. The other chicks had put her up to it. And then it starts to piss with rain. Bedraggled Keith goes home, having learned another lesson.
Onstage, you and Mick Jagger rarely interact visibly.
I always find, as tours go along, that develops. To Mick, especially, it's a new show and he's very much concentrating on finding his feet on the stage. He's one of the most innovative movers and entertainers. I've seen them all – the James Browns. Mick's singing better than ever, and Charlie's . . . peaking. You can't go wrong with a band like this. Charlie would always rather be at home. Same goes with Mick. But the minute you get onstage, everything changes. And then you realize how much you mean to each other and how much you dig doing it. Woof! Woof!
Well, it's like a dog. Throw me a bone. Throw me another one of those bones and we'll eat it forever.
Do you feel happiest when you're onstage?
Yeah. The phones don't ring. You get addicted to the boards, the lights . . . just being 30 feet above everybody else is not a bad feeling – the symbolic thing that everybody's got to do this [mimes the audience arching their necks], which is why they built stages in the first place. But what really strikes me is the sort of wave of warmth that comes out of people, which is not something you'd immediately associate with the Stones.
Well, you're not evil, satanic whatevers anymore.
Never were. But at the same time, we've always tried to remind people that there's another side of the coin. Now, people come back with their kids, and they realize that it was not some scary shit just for the sake of cheap thrills. We sort of sent a postcard from the depths.
Do you dream about the Rolling Stones?
[Pianist] Ian Stewart does crop up – the bandleader. Charlie will tell you the same thing. You sort of talk to Stu constantly. Your mind goes, "What would he have said?" This is 10, 11 years since he died. The first few years are kind of shocking, because you miss the man so much, but he creeps back into your thoughts. It's comforting to consult the old bugger.
Have you been listening to any new music recently?
People told me to listen to Beck, but that didn't take long. It sounded contrived – made for a certain market. It sounded businesslike.
Do you really have a bottle of sand from Robert Johnson's crossroads?
Just a little vial. [I got it] about 10 or 15 years ago. A friend of mine. He said, "What do you want?" And I said, "Just bring me back a bit of old dirt." But it's more of an abstract thing – they say you make the deal without knowing it. Because there's a certain commitment has to be made if you want to get really good at what you do. You realize you've made some compact. With who, that's another thing. Devils and stuff, they've got their versions of that stuff. But it's on a need-to-know basis.
This story is from the December 25, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.