The Rolling Stone 20th Anniversary Interview: Keith Richards

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One of the great rallying cries of the Sixties was "Sex and drugs and rock & roll." Given your own well-publicized problems with drugs over the years and the reported rise in heroin and cocaine addiction in the last two decades, do you think such proselytizing may have been a mistake?
Yeah. All of those rallying cries are. I mean, they're all slogans, and necessarily they're very simplistic. Obviously, there was drugs in rock & roll, and the sex wasn't too bad. But, I mean, I don't know anybody that actually lives like that all the time. I used to know a few guys that did, but they're not alive anymore, you know? And you kinda get the message after you've been to a few funerals.

There seems to have been a 180-degree shift in today's rock scene. A lot of young acts pride themselves on being drug free. They take part in antidrug campaigns and play benefit concerts for various worthy causes. Do you relate to this cleaned-up scene at all?
Yeah, but . . . I'm sure the principles may be sort of admirable, but I . . . I know this business too well. I have to doubt the motives in many, many cases, you know? I mean, I'm not gonna smear anybody, but this is one route to gettin' more exposure. It's a bandwagon to jump on. And also, it's a way for the so-called system, or the authorities or whatever, to sort of harness the music for their own purposes. I mean, in England now, everybody's leaping around with the prince and princess of Wales - "Come over the palace," you know? Jesus, I mean, it's ridiculous. Everybody's cozyin' up. To me, the only bright spot in all of that is that eventually it'll get so boring and sickening, a reaction'll set in the other way. Like disco: just hammer it in there until they get sick of it, and then something else'll come out.

It is sort of odd to see rock in the hands of so many goody-goody groups now.
Yeah, I know. It's basically against the whole idea of what always made rock & roll music interesting to me. I thought it was an unassailable outlet for some pure and natural expressions of rebellion. It was one channel you could take without havin' to kiss ass, you know? And right now it just seems like they're on a big daisy chain, each kissin' each other's asses.

This is the age of AIDS, and of drugs that are even worse than any that existed before. What do you tell your kids about stuff like that?
The kids I've got are old enough to worry about it. As far as I know, they've got a pretty good attitude toward that. I mean, Marlon's eighteen; Angela, she's fifteen. And they're incredibly straightforward kids – especially considering when they were brought up and how. I mean, most people went, "Oh, my God, they'll . . . " [Laughs.] But I really never had any problems with them. I mean, Marlon's more like a mate of mine. Now and again he puts me on the hot spot. Like, I have to go and see his principal at school. "How could you do this to me, Marlon? I haven't been in a principal's office for thirty years." And I hated it.

Do you think the music has lost a lot of its original spontaneity today? Especially onstage, more and more acts seem tied down to lighting cues, timed effects, even choreography.
Well, yeah. But you see, it's big money now. And the more money's involved, the less spontaneity, the less fun, the less things are left to chance. It's always the same: the big budgets bring more pressure from the money people, the record companies, the promoters, to get it all together. And so you get these little groups, and they've got all this shit goin' – the video and the lights and all. But to me, the fun and the spirit of the thing shouldn't be just overawing people with slick productions, like they were in a Sensurround movie or something. It should come from the stage. I don't go to a show and look up and say, "Great lighting." To me, the most important thing about any musician is, can you walk in a bar and get a free drink with a song, you know?

With all the commercialism in rock now, it seems harder than ever for good, original bands to break through.
That's the thing. I don't really see that it's possible now the way it was for us. The whole business is just too big. Twenty-odd years ago, rock & roll was just peanuts to the money people, and therefore you could take chances, because they didn't really give a damn. But now, the price tag on puttin' out an album, and the videos and the stage show – there's so much investment in it that everybody's playin' safe. Somebody may come on with something really new to offer, but within a record or so, they're already toeing the line, playin' the game. I don't know if it's possible to be that free again, to get that amount of spontaneity. I don't know that it's gonna be allowed to exist. But you never know. I mean, that's another interesting thing about all this: there's music, and there's the music business. And there's always this weird balance as to who's holding the reins.

A lot of people have always seen you as the crucial member of the Rolling Stones – you know: "Keith Richards is the Stones." How do you respond to that notion?
It's far more subtle than that. I mean, there's no way you can say that any one person is the band and the rest are just padding. It is such a subtle mixture of characters and personalities and how you deal with each other. And if it works right, you never think about it yourself, because there's always the fear that if you analyze it, you'll blow it, you know? So you don't really wanna know. You'll just come up with something – a song or a riff – and you'll say, "I think we can nail this down." And you'll see a little look of mystification come over the rest of the band's faces. And if you feel strongly enough about it, you'll push it and push it, and they might be going, "Oh, no, not again." And then suddenly – if you were right – you'll look around and see that boom, click, and then it falls into place. And you say, "Oh, good, thank God – let's go, quick, before they lose it again."

I mean, it is the most difficult thing to talk about, because you feel that if you probe it too hard, it's just gonna collapse. You just go on this search for something, and bang, suddenly it happens. And then it infects everybody straight away – suddenly, everybody knows what it is they've gotta do. And those are the magic moments. Those are the ones where suddenly you sort of feel like you're ten feet tall and you're not touchin' the ground, you know? And that's what I've always lived for – that moment when a band just clicks in. For that little while you're playin' that thing, nobody can touch you.

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