With their new Martin Scorsese-directed rock doc, two Stones 'Shine a Light' on the roots of their music – and take White along for the ride
In the Rolling Stones' new concert movie, Shine a Light, there is a vintage interview with guitarist Keith Richards. A reporter asks Richards what he thinks about when he's onstage playing with the Stones. Richards coolly replies, "I don't think onstage. I feel." Directed by Martin Scorsese, Shine a Light captures the Stones in their current feral prime, in breathtaking close-up. Scorsese shot the band in 2006, during two intimate shows at New York's Beacon Theatre, with guest appearances by Buddy Guy, Christina Aguilera and Jack White of the White Stripes, who duets with Mick Jagger in a heated country-soul version of "Loving Cup," from 1972's Exile on Main Street. But Shine a Light – named after another Exile song and the latest in a long line of Stones documentaries, including Gimme Shelter (1970), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones (1974) and Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank's notorious, unreleased chronicle of the backstage excess on the Stones' '72 U.S. tour – is a testament to the power of feeling, the blues-band empathy and brotherly defiance that continue to drive and define Richards, Jagger, guitarist Ron Wood and drummer Charlie Watts in concert.
Shine a Light has also inspired a first: the following interview with Richards and White, in front of a roaring fire in a New York townhouse on a recent wet, cold afternoon. Born half a lifetime and a few rock revolutions apart, Richards, 64, and White, 32, had never talked at length before. In fact, White did not see the Stones live until the White Stripes opened two shows for them in 2002. But the two guitarists quickly bonded over their mutual love of the blues and the spontaneous joys of live performance. "It's like describing the Pyramids to someone who has never been there," White says, when asked what he feels in the middle of a hot guitar solo. "A man after my own heart," Richards agrees, smiling.
Richards, who, after a fall from a tree, underwent brain surgery a few months before the Beacon shows, brushes off doubts about his health. "I must be fine, because I'm not seeing any doctors," he growls cheerfully. As for a future Stones tour, "I've never heard anything about not going out again," Richards says. "I'm basically giving the guys a year off. I'm not pushing. But I might withdraw their wages," he adds with a cackle, "and see how they feel then."
Keith, what do you think of Shine a Light?
Richards: I'm just seeing what Marty Scorsese sees in the Stones. I was never aware of the cameras. I knew they were there. But once you go to work, your job is to give the audience what they want and, at the same time, get yourself off. I've no doubt that Mick was far more aware that he was making a movie. But once I get going, I just look at Charlie.
I've always been amazed by how much fuss goes on around us – the big screens, the technology. And it has to be coordinated. Mick loves to coordinate. But I'm selfish. I gotta feel good. I can't go up there worrying about things. I go onstage to get some fucking peace and quiet.
Jack, what did you learn about the Stones when you opened for them?
White: How good they were. You could see the comfort level between them, in Keith's guitar playing and Ron's slide playing. It's impressive, man, when that confidence is exuded. Someone once told me when I first started playing – you get a lot more respect if you act like you own the joint. If you fumble around, you don't gain respect.
Richards: You could have asked me that question back when we went from clubs to opening for Bo Diddley, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers on one tour [in 1963]. I learned more in those six weeks than I would have learned from listening to a million records.
What was the primary lesson?
Richards: Stagecraft – what works and how to feel comfortable onstage. The Everly Brothers were superb every night – those beautiful harmonies. We'd open, then climb the rafters and hang there, watching them. Watching Bo Diddley was university for me. Every set was twenty minutes long in those days. When he came off, if he had two strings left on the guitar, it was a fucking miracle. The Duchess was there [on guitar], and Jerome Green, with the maracas in each hand. It was my job to be Jerome's minder. I used to fetch him from the pub – "You're on, mate."
Jack, how did you and Mick choose "Loving Cup" as your duet?
White: Mick called me. I offered up six or seven songs, which were all shot down [laughs]. "Factory Girl" [on Beggars Banquet] was talked about. Another one was "Shake Your Hips" [the Slim Harpo cover on Exile on Main Street]. Then he said "Loving Cup." That was great – for years at White Stripes shows, we played "Loving Cup" [over the PA] as the crowd was leaving. I just wanted to harmonize with Mick. I didn't necessarily want my own verse. But he said, "Take one."
Was Exile on Main Street an important album for you?
White: I didn't know much about Exile until Meg and I did the first White Stripes album [The White Stripes, 1999]. We covered "Stop Breaking Down," but we did it from Robert Johnson. I didn't know it was on Exile. Aftermath and Beggars Banquet were the Stones albums I listened to. Then someone told me, "The Stones do 'Stop Breaking Down,' too." My roommate at the time – Exile was his favorite album. He played it for me.
Keith, the Stones played Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley songs from the start but didn't cover the older bluesmen – Robert Johnson and Fred McDowell – until Beggars Banquet and Sticky Fingers.
Richards: We were slowly going back. When I was into Chuck and Bo, I wanted to know what they were listening to. Who turned him on? When Chuck Berry started out, he wanted to be Nat "King" Cole. And he did a damn good imitation.
White: The more you look into it, it's all the same family, and you're lucky to be part of it. The difference is, Charley Patton didn't get his photo taken very often. Son House didn't get to make that many records. But you pull certain things from those guys. From Kokomo Arnold, I get the vocal phrasing. From Blind Willie Johnson, it's the slide [guitar].
One amazing sequence in "Shine a Light" is when Buddy Guy comes out for the Muddy Waters song "Champagne and Reefer." He looks ready to kill, like this is not going to be just a friendly jam.
Richards: That was the high point of the film for me. He came in steaming. I looked at him and knew – the night is on. When he took the stage, everybody else wanted to move back.
Then, at the end of the song, you give him your guitar.
Richards: It's one of my favorites, too. That was straight off the top of my head: "It's yours, baby." With everything going on that night, with this movie, I thought, "This is my respect to Buddy and to Muddy and all the other guys who turned me on."
Do you feel cheated, Jack, that you won't meet and play with your favorite bluesmen because so many are gone?
White: The problem now is if you want to work with somebody – if that somebody is still alive – you do it on one of those compilations or tribute records. Last year I got asked, "Do you want to play with Jerry Lee Lewis?" It was for one of those records. Yeah, I do want to play with Jerry Lee Lewis. But I don't want to do it like that. I want it to be where we can both get something out of it.
The Stones have made concert movies since the Sixties. Did you see any great music films as a young man, Keith?
Richards: Jazz on a Summer's Day [Bert Stern's 1960 film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival]. I think it was in 1962. We were on the way to a gig, and we stopped off at the Hammersmith Odeon [in London], Brian [Jones] and me. We were carrying our axes.
There was some incredible jazz in that movie. But it was the shots of Chuck Berry – his moves and the disdain of the jazz band playing with him. It was amazing. Chuck had this big coat on. Lit from beneath, he looked like a devil.
Jack, did you see Stones films like Gimme Shelter and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones when you were young?
White: I saw Gimme Shelter. And at a house I lived in, we had a grainy copy of Cocksucker Blues, so we watched that a few times [laughs]. Is there a nice copy of that movie? That's what I want to know.
Richards: Once we started getting into Shine a Light, I got all the Stones movies from our office. I didn't want to look at them. The only one I did watch was Cocksucker Blues.
That movie is famous mostly for the sex and drug scenes and the fact that it never came out. When I saw it, I found parts of it boring. Maybe debauchery is only interesting if you're doing it.
Richards: There are highlights, but the highlights are the shows. The rest is a grind. You get a perverse delight out of the grind. My memory of that time is a little hazy. That's why I watch it so much [smiles], so I can remember what happened. The monument to the unknown junkie is one of the best bits of cinema. But some of the cats died, like [cameraman] Danny Seymour. There wasn't anything involved in making that movie. We got used to the cats hanging around, in everybody's rooms. You carried on, doing what you did.
Did you actually like the film, Jack?
Richards: It almost put him off the idea of being in a band [laughs].
White: I had more questions than opinions. I wanted to know where it came from, why it never got released. But I loved the mystery of the backstage, of the transportation to the gig. It's a lot worse now. It's more boring than ever.
Richards: People have timetables. Showtime in the Seventies was whenever I got up. It had nothing to do with what the ticket said.
Jack, do you feel you were born too late – that you missed out on a time when joining a rock band was like running away to the circus?
White: I didn't have those kinds of rock-star dreams. I wanted to play in smaller clubs, even when we could fill bigger ones, because I knew it would be better there. I was always aiming low. That's the problem. To get mood and vibe, you have to aim low. The Stones have been playing a lot of club shows in the last few years. I'm sure the vibe is better.
Richards: When you get into this, you want to communicate. You just have to figure out how. My lot, it's a caravan. That's why I enjoyed working with the X-Pensive Winos [in the Eighties]. I could take it down a notch. We called it EMG: Everything Must Go. We traveled on a bus. I hadn't done that for a long time.
White: I saw the Winos when I was a teenager. I worked at the Fox Theater in Detroit. I had an hour break and got to watch the show.
Richards: It was as free as what Jack does with the Stripes now. How did we open the show? We'd sit down in front of the drum kit and smoke a joint. All the audience could see was this light passed around. You felt the mood of the audience, and you could feel when it was the right time – "OK, let's break" – and you could open with a different song every night. It was far more interesting than fireworks going off.
Jack, is there a Stones song that you particularly like – one that's not a greatest hit?
White: I don't know why we didn't do it, but in the Stripes, we were going to cover "Undercover of the Night." I love the guitar riff. I wanted to break the song down to just the riff and that shaky-maracas beat. But we worked on it for a second and got distracted, I guess.
Richards: You wouldn't have loved the song so much if you'd had to do the goddamned video for it.
There is a scene in "Shine a Light" of Dick Cavett interviewing Mick backstage in 1972. Cavett asks, "Can you possibly see yourself doing this at sixty?" And Mick replies, "Easily, yeah."
White: It's because of the blues. If you're in love with the blues, rooted in it, it gets better the more you do it.
Richards: The media's perception of longevity is you're supposed to be able to do this from eighteen to twenty-five, if you're lucky. In 1956, rock & roll was like calypso – a novelty. They said, "None of it will last" – without realizing that all of the music behind it was not a novelty.
Jack, did you always take it for granted that you could do this forever?
Richards: Thanks to me, yes!
White: In the White Stripes, we thought, "If we can find a hundred people in each town to keep this thing going, we won't need day jobs." If you love it for what it is, the other stuff is extra.
Richards: He shouldn't quit [gestures at White]. He's a good man.
Despite your generation gap, the blues shaped your lives in similar ways.
White: When you see someone play, you immediately know whether you can connect with them or not. You know you're in the same family. And [gestures at Richards] I think we are. You ask me, did I miss something? Was I born in the wrong generation because I didn't get to play with Muddy? I play with the sons of those guys. And there will be more grandkids after that.
Richards: I loved listening to music – the pure beauty of listening – before I ever learned an instrument. I realize, in a way, that I tainted that beauty, because now I know how certain things are done. But brother, you've made your deal now. The only thing you can do is pass it on.
White: That's what you should have named the movie – Pass It On.
Richards: No, that's for the tombstone, baby. "He passed it on."