Online Exclusive: Keith Richards Uncut

The Stones guitarist on alcohol, Altamont, Jones and Jagger

By |

When I interviewed Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones for the cover of RS 907, we spoke for over five hours, in two epic sessions held in Boston, the night after the band opened its current tour at the Fleet Center, and a week later in Chicago, on the first anniversary of 9/11. On both evenings, Richards was warm, funny, sharp and unafraid to speak his mind on any topic -- drugs, alcohol, Altamont, the late Brian Jones, the very-much-alive Mick Jagger. If you couldn't get enough of the published Keith, here's more from the original 28,000-word transcript.

I. SHOWTIME

I was surprised to hear the Stones screw up a couple of times on opening night. Somone went into the wrong key in "If You Can't Rock Me," and the O'Jays cover, "Love Train," fell apart at the end.

You expect that now and then. You hope to pick up and reassemble as quickly as possible. I look at Charlie and go, "Hold it steady." Within a bar or two, the band rights itself. This is an unsinkable craft.

Starting a song in the wrong key -- I do that [laughs]. But to be note-perfect, to sound like your record -- that's not my idea of a show. We walk around, have a couple of drinks, smoke a little something. We're a club band. Even though we've played on some of the biggest stages of all time, we're acting very much the opposite.

Do you get nervous before an opening night?

I know that all the band needs is an audience. To rehearse anymore would be pointless. It would be blunting the sword. I get a little icy feeling, which builds up until just before you go on: "Open up the cage, let the tigers out." By the time I get up there, it really is us leaping out: The cage is open, here we come.

The emphasis on this tour is on older material that you haven't played live in decades, if ever. Is Mick becoming more comfortable with the past?

Somebody told me that in Boston we did over sixty different songs in three shows. That's what I've been looking for for years -- to get out of the straitjacket. Mick is very anti-nostalgia. He wants to deny it.

But I think Mick is coming to terms with what he is, and that he's still got a lot in him if he wants to get in there and deliver. I can't remember another tour when he didn't lose his voice after the first show. Because Mick's tendency, at most rehearsals, was to half-cylinder through the songs, not put the power in it. When he finally got to the show, boom -- shock to the system. The voice would go. It became a point where you would expect it.

Mick rehearsed hard this time. He went all the way, and the proof was in the second show [at Gillette Stadium in Boston]. His voice was in fine form. After that, you feel like, "Yeah, we're rolling."

Have there been Stones tours that sucked -- where you felt the band was not living up to its abilities or reputation?

Steels Wheels [1989] was a bit difficult, mainly because we hadn't played together for so long. It was really start-again time, and it was very difficult to pull everything together. Otherwise, I don't think of things in terms of tours -- it's "the next gig." In 1964, '65, '66, we didn't think in terms of touring. You were just on the road. The idea of your own tour, with its own specific image and identity, didn't happen until the 1970s, when you started to design the tour along with the record. The Some Girls tour [1978] was the first one that I saw as an entity unto itself, rather than, "Well, you're just on the road."

My own personal low point was the 1981 stadium shows: Mick in the lemon-yellow tights, riding the cherry-picker over the crowd.

You gotta hand it to him -- he'll try anything [laughs]. It was circus time. You're up there, and the place is so enormous. You say, "Let's try everything." And if it don't work, it don't work. The lemon-yellow tights and the cherry-picker were the low point for me too [smiles]. I gotta stand behind him and watch it.

Stones live albums are notorious for being a letdown -- never as good as the experience they represent. Even Get Your Ya-Yas Out, which is the best of them, had a lot of post-production done on it.

We are uncapturable live. You gotta be there. The funny thing is, when you know you're recording, you can always guarantee that the Stones will not deliver. It's typically perverse. Either we try too hard, or something went wrong early on, and we're like, "Oh, screw it."

But isn't it frustrating that the thing you can't properly document is the one thing you do best -- playing live?

That is why it is live. All you can do is make a recording of it. It's like movies: Everybody's getting splattered, blood and bones flying about. But it all just sits there on the screen; you can't smell it or taste it. That's the difference between the vicarious and the real. You gotta be there. All I can say is, buy a ticket -- if you can find one [laughs].

I'd love to have a great recording of it. In actual fact, there are thousands of really good shows that were bootlegged, that are much better-sounding than any of those records. But to me, live recording is always a toss of the coin, at the very best of times. We might get the one we want this time around. We'll get it one day [laughs]. But it is an awfully hard thing. You don't just go up there and be the Stones. Because the Stones are a band that wants to top last night. If last night was awful, we definitely will. And if it was really good, we'll try even harder.

II. BRIAN JONES, HELL'S ANGELS AND THE DEVIL

Why Jagger-Richards? Why not Richards-Jones? You both played guitar, and Brian was the original leader. Why couldn't you write songs together?

Brian was not a natural songwriter -- his mind was too confused. He could talk his head off, but he couldn't write well. He was an interpreter more than a writer. I stumbled into songwriting; so did Mick. You know the story: Andrew Oldham locked us in the kitchen and forced us to do it. You either find you've got it or not.

Andrew could just as easily have locked you and Brian in that kitchen.

We would have come out with nothing. There was no spark. Brian was a gifted musician, but he didn't have the drive to write. He wanted to, because he saw where the money was. He could get green, that boy.

After you were arrested for heroin possession in Toronto in 1977, Mick said the band would keep touring if you went to jail: "We can't wait five years." Could you imagine a Stones without Keith Richards?

It looked pretty grim. Because on top of that, with a conviction, I wouldn't be allowed back in the States, which severely curtails the movements and the revenue for the band. A few days after I got busted, I went and looked over Niagara Falls. I thought, "This is as close to the line as I'm gonna come. I'm too close to the edge" [mimics looking over a precipice].

The Stones without me -- it was a possibility in the late Seventies. But we're down to the hardcore now: Charlie, Mick and me. If you took one of those three out, we'd say, "That's it." But at the moment, no one has the least intention of leaving the band. So we should be alright.

How did you feel about the Who touring right after John Entwistle died?

I put myself in Pete and Roger's shoes. I thought, "Oh, they won't go on without the Ox." But when I heard that Pino [Palladino] had stepped in, who's a great friend of mine, I thought, "Go for it. That'll keep your mind off of what's happened."

But is it the Who?

Is it the Who without Keith Moon?

People have asked the same question about the Stones since you fired Brian in 1969.

That was a monumental thing. And it happened at a time when it wasn't just a matter of whether that would put an end to the Stones. The authorities tried every trick in the book to make sure there would be no Rolling Stones. Brian dying, in a way, is directly related to their harassment. I know who killed Brian -- it was basically the English cops. They did him in. He couldn't take the pressure. He buckled.

You actually went to jail after being convicted on drug charges in Britain in 1967. Were you scared?

I had a room at Her Majesty's expense: thirty hours at Wormwood Scrubs, a heavy-duty prison. [He was released on appeal, and his conviction was later overturned.] Scared? There was a twinge of panic, waking up the next morning. The cell was a dungeon: eight feet long, quite tall, with a little slit of a window. I felt like the Prisoner of Zenda [laughs]. I got a bit romantic about it.

Exercise time was real nineteenth century. You're all in drab blues, in a circle, tramping around this courtyard with sixty-foot-high walls and barbed wire. Some guy goes, "Hey, Keith, want any hash?" "Oh, let me hang in for a day or two -- you might be a plant."

Late that afternoon, I'm working in the library, and there's a buzz. Some little wizened prisoner comes up to me and whispers, "Keith, you're getting out. We heard it on the radio." Suddenly, I'm taken up to the governor's office. He was very polite. I go down to the yard, and there's my Bentley arriving. But this top screw, a right bastard, goes, "You'll be back." I said, "After your time, pal." And by now, I'm sure it is.

Do you have any fear -- of anything?

My reaction is to get ice cold. And that makes me mad. I have to worry about this. This red curtain comes down, and then I'm liable to do anything. But fear? As a kid, I knew it real well. I'm this little squirt, and everyday when I go home from school, no matter which route I take, I'm gonna get beat up. It was around then that I banished it -- fear. I learned how to take a beating and how to get a good one in now and again. It taught me to toughen myself up.

In the film Gimme Shelter, there's a scene from the Altamont concert where you start yelling at the Hell's Angels to stop beating people. Mick is trying to calm the crowd -- "Why are we fighting?" -- but you look ready to dive in.

Quite honestly, they didn't impress me, the Hell's Angels. And if you're on stage, and all you've got is a guitar around your neck, there is no way you can relinquish that control. The stage is an amazing thing. You're up there with the lights on you. From that position, as long as you can control and hold it, you can contain events. But the minute you buckle, it's over. There will be mayhem, and people will be hurt. Basically, there was nothing else for me to do: "I've got to stick my neck out."

There was a heavy air of devilry around the Stones in 1967-69: "Their Satanic Majesties Request," "Sympathy for the Devil," Altamont. Did you take it seriously?

I don't take any notice of that crap. "Sympathy" is quite an uplifting song. It's just a matter of looking him in the face. He's there all the time. I've had very close contact with Lucifer -- I've met him several times.

Evil -- people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn't rear its ugly head. "Sympathy for the Devil" is just as appropriate now, with 9/11. There it is again, big time. When that song was written, it was a time of turmoil. It was the first sort of international chaos since World War II. And confusion is not the ally of peace and love.

You want to think the world is perfect. Everybody gets sucked into that. And as America has found out to its dismay, you can't hide. You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. "Sympathy for the Devil" is a song that says, "Don't forget him." If you confront him, then he's out of a job.

III. TAKIN' CARE OF BUSINESS

In the Stones, you're considered the passionate heart of the band while Mick is seen as the calculating businessman, counting the T-shirt sales while he's up there singing. Is that fair to him?

That's as much a simplification of our relationship as saying he writes the lyrics and I write the music. It's a handy pigeonhole, and from the outside, it would seem that way. And Mick is very calculating -- he is very much into business. He doesn't have to be. He just likes to be -- sometimes much to the business detriment, because he does get in the way [laughs]. In actual fact, we work very well together on a business level, because he's on it day by day. If anything comes up and a decision has to be made, that's when we come together. And usually we're very quick, when it's obvious what has to be done.

But Mick's ability and need to do that -- to have all the strings, the svengali bit -- has been a very positive thing for the Stones. We need one of us to be on the case, and since he likes it -- in fact, can't live without it -- it's alright. He's very astute. Business, to me, is interesting only when it's necessary. I like to take care of business quickly. Mick likes to get involved. That's the big difference. When it comes to business, Mick and I are probably more in agreement that on most other subjects.

What are your strengths as a businessman?

I can spot a scam, or something that is a detriment that doesn't appear to be so on the surface. Like if you sign this deal for extra money, there are certain restrictions on it which you gotta think about. At first, everybody considers it a minimal thing. But if you think about it, it really means you've given up a certain amount of artistic freedom. You're jeopardizing the Stones by taking a few extra bucks. It's better to figure another way to do it, to keep what we always fought for and what we always had from the beginning.

The big miracle about our record deals was that, from the start, we had total control over what we did. We leased our tracks to Decca [the Stones' original British label]. We were not under contract to Decca. They had to agree that whatever we gave them was what happened. They were not involved in the making of the records, or what songs were on them.

This is a mom-and-pop store. We have no stockholders. We are beholden to nobody. But I'm not that interested in talking about money. I'd rather make it than talk about it.

IV. STAYING ALIVE

Part of the Stones allure is the way you've survived a lifetime of bad habits -- the kind that can kill you. Does it bother you that people are often more interested in your mortality than in your music?

People's fascination with other people's bad habits is something you don't take into consideration when you start this thing. Yeah, it's there -- the image of me with a parrot on my shoulder and a patch on the eye. But he's only one side of it. I really like a quiet life: listen to my music, burn my incense. I'm all for a quiet life, except I didn't get one.

What did heroin do for you in the Seventies? What did you get out of it -- calm, poise, a sense of power?

You could talk to every junkie in the world and get a different answer. Because they don't know -- nor do I. [Long pause] It was a damn good feeling, for starters. And we were going through a lot of stuff. I could operate behind that. It gave me a distance from everything that was going on around me. I could see things happening -- fast time, slow time. It was Stones business, Allen Klein stuff, and then Brian dying. There was a lot of stuff happening, and it gave me a sense of space. Eventually, I was so far in space, I was almost in the atmosphere.

Being famous wasn't the idea. If I could have done what I wanted to without being famous, I would have done it. So would Charlie probably. Being famous wasn't the point -- it was making good records. But when you're nineteen or twenty and suddenly you're famous . . .

You're talking to a madman, really. Who else in this forty or fifty years of rock has been able to sneak through the cracks like this? Which is probably why a lot of us become musicians, I think. As long as you've got a gig, it's a brilliant slide through the social structure. You don't have to play the game that everybody else has to. It's a license to do what you want.

But there is a responsibility that comes with it -- the music has to be worthwhile.

You don't want to let people down. And you don't want to let yourself down. You don't want to let down anybody who's made it possible for you to do this.

Why have you been able to survive, physically and otherwise, the excesses that have killed so many of your peers and followers?

I don't know. I have an intuitive sense of my own body and my inner workings. I don't push it for the fun of it. I have a lot of energy, and I gotta burn it one way or another. And I'm trying to burn it in the best way -- for my life, for what I think should be done.

[Expanded From Story in Issue 907 — October 17, 2002]

x