The Rolling Stones: Notes from the Babylon Bar

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Richards talks in a deceptively lazy drawl, and – just as he brazenly ignores the shifting dictates of fashion and still wears thin, colorful, silken shirts open halfway down his chest – somewhere in his life he found the manner of speech that suited him and stuck with it. Women are "chicks" (except when they are wives, in which case they become "the old lady"); sentences frequently have a "... man" appended to their end; and anyone – including me – can be referred to as "baby" if it will help the sentence to roll right.

Keith Richards' room always has a name, and on this tour it is known as the Baboon Cage. The simian reference is a coincidence. "The baboon cage was my room way before Elton got into this thing," Richards says before I can ask. The Elton John feud is not for discussion. "You can forget about that," he pre-empts, "except I'll say this: I guess the truth hurt."

What do you mean?

In his eyes I see the beginning of a glare. "I don't have to explain any more. If you don't get it ..." He shrugs. "The only reason Elton spoke out like that is in response to something that I said, and I guess the truth must have hurt. I was talking about a funeral, and the rest of it doesn't bother me. It's all on him. He's got to live with it, not me."

I begin another question, but I am clearly pushing my luck.

"That's it," says Richards firmly. The glare deepens, and I understand why people used to be scared of Keith Richards. "That's that subject gone."

Almost. He will later note that he is enjoying singing "All About You" onstage – "There's some lines in there I'm really relishing right now: 'Hanging around with dogs like you'; it's nice to sing lines like, 'You're the first to get laid but always the last to get paid'" – and that on the night the news broke, he dedicated the song to Elton John. And there is one further, small irony worth observing. Elton John triggered these events by singing for royalty in Westminster Abbey. But it is Keith Richards who, more than 40 years ago, sang Handel's Messiah for the queen of England in the very same building, as part of one of the country's finest school choirs. "Some of my most prestigious gigs," he smiles, "were when I was still at school." Those experiences taught him an early lesson about stardom's ugly side. "The real thing I learned was that when your voice breaks – shrrrmmttt! – you're out of here. Then you go back to the real world, where you haven't done chemistry for a year because you were let off for the choir."

I think you caught up on chemistry.

"Maybe," he grins. "It took me a while. I have a very good laboratory."

There are others who knock him. In the world of David Letterman, Richards has replaced Bob Dole as the totem of everything impossibly aged. "I can only put it down to jealousy," Richards says. "They can't understand why I can do what I do 'at my age.' What is it with these guys? Because they can't do it? Just because chicks throw their panties at me and I'm 54? So? So I'm sorry, you little boys who can't get that action. Well, stuff you. . ."

What would you say if you met him?

"If I walked into his studio, I'd say, 'As usual, it's too cold.' It's terrible to play in. It gives a horrible ambience to the whole show. Just because he doesn't want to sweat, you know. Well, I like to sweat, and I sweat every night." Last night in Charlotte, N.C., he tells me with great excitement, his fingers remembered a little flourish in "Jumpin' Jack Flash" that he swears he hasn't played since he made the record. "Just a curly little lick," he says. "The songs keep on teaching you."

The drinks and questions roll on. I ask him about his dreams, and he says: "The only recurring dreams I can remember are all on cold turkey, and it was always that the dope was hidden behind the wallpaper. And in the morning, you'd wake up and see fingernail marks where you'd actually tried to do something about it." I ask him what Mick Jagger would never do, and Richards says: "You know, there's nothing I can think of. He'd say he'd never take drugs again. I mean, it depends who he's talking to." I ask him which clichés about himself have become most tiresome. "Sometimes," he says, "you feel a certain pressure of being wished to death. That kind of can get to you. It just stinks a bit. Shit, they've been wishing me dead since the early '70s, man."

The Baboon Cage is open most nights for anyone on the tour who wishes to hang out. There is a small Baboon Cage suggestion box to which visitors are invited to contribute anonymously. It gets opened once a week. "I've had a few 'Fuck off, you cunt's," Richards laughs, "but you expect them. Last week there was 'The wicked get wickeder' and 'You should get some sleep tonight.'"

As a rule, Richards does not get some sleep on any night. He normally crashes out at about 7 or 8 in the morning, and he talks about having breakfast or going to the shops as activities you stay up to do. His is a body with its own rules. "The permanent night shift," as he calls it. The night energizes him, he says, but there's nothing like drawing back the curtains and seeing 10-in-the-morning, happy-new-day sunshine to make him feel tired and drive him into bed. He'll generally rise around 3 in the afternoon and start to get going around 5.

In this and many other ways, convention is something that Keith Richards has been careful not to respect. But he does not wander aimlessly – he has thought these things out. "Why do you think there's this three square meals a day?" he asks. "This is about factories. You eat, you go to work, you get a break for lunch; when you're finished you get your dinner. But people should never eat like that. They should have little bits every two hours." And, consequently, that is what Keith Richards does.

Two days later, one of the Rolling Stones gets ill, and they have to cancel an MTV concert. It is Mick Jagger.

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