The Rolling Stone 20th Anniversary Interview: Keith Richards

To celebrate our twentieth anniversary, 'Rolling Stone' talked with some of the people who have helped to shape rock & roll, as well as American culture and politics, during the last two decades

November 5, 1987
Rolling Stones Keith Richards Portrait
Portrait of Keith Richards in New York, New York on September 22, 1987.
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Rock & roll has obviously been a major force in your life – you've been playing it with the Rolling Stones for a quarter of a century now. Do you think rock & roll has as intense an effect on kids today as it did when you were, say, fifteen?
No, I don't see how it's possible, really. I mean, when I was fifteen, rock & roll was a brand-new thing, and we were very conscious that we were in, like, a new era. Totally. It was almost like A.D. and B.C., and 1956 was year 1, you know? The world was black-and-white, and then suddenly it went into living color. Suddenly there was a reason to be around, besides just knowing you were gonna have to work and draggin' your ass to school every day. Suddenly everything went zoom – glorious Technicolor. Kids now at that age, they've never known a world without rock & roll. And I did, you know? That's the difference. I mean, it was an international explosion, man. Just a few little goddamn records by some guys in Memphis and Macon and places like that, but they really did have an effect. It's absolutely amazing. It changed the world. It's reshaped the way people think. I mean, goddamnit, now you've got rock & roll concerts in Moscow, you know what I mean? 'Cause you can't stop that shit. You can stop anything else. You can build a wall to stop people, but eventually, the music, it'll cross that wall. That's the beautiful thing about music - there's no defense against it. I mean, look at Joshua and fuckin' Jericho - made mincemeat of that joint. A few trumpets, you know?

Do you think you're a much different person than you were twenty years ago?
Well, obviously. . . .

Have you changed in essential ways?
Yeah. It's not that I feel that different. I mean, I've been through twenty years of . . . I mean, my years are as long as anybody else's. I mean, like, twenty years ago, let me think . . . In '67, I was just learnin' how to get busted [laughs]. I was taking a lot of acid and getting busted. Researching police cells, you know?

Keith Richards in 1981: The Rolling Stone Interview

Do you think that the Sixties changed things in significant ways?
Well, we all thought so at the time – at least the guys of my age, doin' what we were doin'. It did look like there was a possibility of it. But I'm sure all the guys that had to go and fight in the Second World War thought the Forties were gonna do that, and so did the guys in 1917, you know? It's a watershed in everybody's life, that point in your late teens or early twenties where you think you really know everything much more than everybody else. Where everybody else is either an old fart or a kid, and you're the only one who's got the balls to do anything, you know? But you'll find out, sucker. [Laughs.]

I mean, for me, the beginning of the Sixties was when I got to be eighteen and nineteen, so in a way, it was a magical time, because I actually managed to turn my little juvenile fantasies into a way of life. I mean, I never dreamt that I would be able to do it, so it was magical in that sense, in that I'm still here playin' rock & roll, and makin' a livin' at it, which is what I wanted to do. And I thought that would be impossible – that that was something that happened to stars. Even when we got our first record out, we all looked at each other with a little bit of dismay, you know? Because there was no precedent at that time; nobody lasted. You shot up there, and you were gone. There was no possible way you could believe that it was gonna last for anything more than another two years. So for us, it was like "Oh, man, this is great, makin' records – but that means it's the beginning of the end," you know? But of course, by the time a year or two had gone by, we realized that there was a whole different thing in the works, and we forgot about that. Because it became obvious that you could expand this thing. And what made that possible was that we managed to export it – which was the most blinding thing to any musician at that point. I mean, before that, you had to be the biggest dreamer in the world to think that you could export this stuff to America, you know?

Were you surprised by the reception you received in the States when you came over for your first tour?
Yeah, it was really weird. Because this is such a huge country, right? And you'd go into, like, New York or L.A., and it'd be "Wow!" Blown away, you know? But then you'd play, like, Omaha, and they'd be goin', "Who? What?" You'd do a gig in Chicago, and it'd be magnificent – all these kids goin', "Yeahhh!" And then you'd go off on a three-week slide through the South and the Midwest, and it would be like "What the fuck is that?" You know? "It's a buncha chicks!" And so you'd constantly be goin' through this thing of, like, one minute this sort of fanatical acclaim, and the next minute you'd go a few hundred miles and it'd be, like, "Scumbags!" You'd be nobody, the lowest, lower than the town bum – at least they knew him.

But the Stones prevailed in the end. What's kept you going all this time?
Well, mainly, I wouldn't know what else to do. I'm just personally very happy that I still enjoy doin' it. And I'm a lazy son of a bitch, you know? I mean, I can be. But at the same time, to me, that's the hardest work of all, bein' lazy. I mean, in a way, I enjoy it, lyin' around doin' nothing. But you can't just make a profession out of laziness – you have to work really hard at it, you know? It's easier to do some great music, to click off of a few other guys and get like "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" You may go eighteen hours without even takin' a pee, it's just such tremendous fun. Like "Yeah, man! That's it, man!" It might not even be it, you know? But at the time, it was it. And that's what I've always enjoyed. To me, to put four or five guys together and just sort of boom, let it go. When that happens, it's just the pinnacle. It's one of the purest pleasures that I know. I mean, it ain't gonna hurt nobody. It's not even gonna hurt you. It's just a pure pleasure.

Do you ever go back and listen to the Stones' old albums?
Well, funnily enough, this year I've listened to them more than ever, because they all came out on CD. That was the first time I listened to a whole series of Stones stuff for a long time.

Which of the albums emerged as your favorites?
Well, the ones that impressed me were the ones I always thought were superior - Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed. And Sticky Fingers. And Exile. There's so much stuff on Exile that even I'm surprised. I can't even remember all of it: "Oh yeah. Did I write that?"

I quite liked Black and Blue. I hadn't listened to that for a long time, and some of that quite surprised me, especially as it was cut while we were auditioning guitar players [laughs].

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