The next day, I meet Richards in a lounge room at the rehearsal complex, where the Rolling Stones are practicing for the tour. He wears slim jeans, a ragged-looking black T-shirt, and his gray hair
puffs up above a gray bandanna headband. Richards no longer dyes his hair, nor has there been any obvious cosmetic surgery efforts to soften age for him or any of the other Rolling Stones. These are no doubt reasonably vain men, but they are at home with the age in their faces. As we talk, Richards keeps a cigarette going.
I ask the guitarist about a comment by Prince Rupert Loewenstein, the former longtime financial adviser to the Stones, who in his recent book, A Prince Among Stones, wrote, "[One] of my relations who dabbled in psychoanalysis had once told me . . . 'In a way, Keith is coming out the winner on a human level – Mick on a professional one.' " I half-expect a demurral from Richards – nobody in or around the Rolling Stones, I'd been told, wants to risk disturbing the present armistice – but he responds without hesitation. "I would say that's a pretty fair judgment on it, yeah."
In a red-carpet interview for the premiere of Martin Scorsese's 2008 band concert film, Shine a Light, Richards was asked if he could imagine life without the other Rolling Stones. He looked bemused by the question. "Easily," he said. Which might be true – then again, maybe not. "We know we're damn good," Richards tells me, "and we have some weird desire to make it better. Everybody's still here, which is obviously an important ingredient. With any band that has been around, even for a few years, not everybody likes everybody all the time. But maybe you have a need for that conversation to continue, and music is the one way you can do that. It's stronger than any of the other things that can get in the way. It would be a miracle, wouldn't it, in 50 years for two guys to get along, let alone three or four? At the same time, I don't want to overemphasize the differences between Mick and me, because that's all you hear about. You never hear about the 98 percent of the time that we're pretty much in sync and know each other and know what we want to do. But my main communication is through music. Call it a gentlemen's agreement, or something like that. It's unspoken and it's unsaid, but I do notice that once we start working, then a lot of the sort of barriers or whatever you want to call them do tend to disappear."
According to Wachtel, who plays in Richards' occasional band, the X-Pensive Winos, Life's troubling revelations perhaps didn't come without warning to Jagger. "Before the book came out," Wachtel says, "Richards showed Jagger what was in it. Completely. Mick knew everything that was in that book, and then when it came out they had to make a stink about it. Keith says, 'I sat with the guy! I showed him it.'"
Richards doesn't offer that claim himself, though he says he wasn't surprised by Jagger's response. "No, not really. Uh, because I know what he's like. At the same time, I was going to tell the story. As I told Mick, 'You should have seen what I left out,'" Keith says with a laugh. "I did also say to Mick, 'I know exactly what you did. You got the book, you went straight to the index – Jagger, M – and that's what you read. You didn't take it in context. You didn't.' So, yeah, we had a bit of a doo-dah about that, but I was expecting it. We resolved it, in our own way, you know."
Mick requested an apology? "He did," says Richards, "and I said that I regret if I caused you any, you know, inconvenience or pain, or something. It was . . ." Richards laughs. "I'd say anything to get the band together, you know? I'd lie to my mother."
Did Richards feel the band was in jeopardy at that point?
"No, not at all. No. I thought it was a very interesting little prick – a little shot of adrenaline."
Looking back now, is there anything he wishes he hadn't said in print?
"No, no, no, no." Richards laughs again. "I say what I say and that's it. I wouldn't retract a thing, man."
I have to wonder: Have there been times, perhaps even during this recent dispute with Jagger, that Richards worried that the band was just broken?
"Sometimes I'd look at it and say, 'This damn band is broken – but not unfixable.' But none of us, not me or anybody else, ever discarded it in the junkyard, but it was like, 'Yeah, it's a bit broken, and it'll take a bit of work to, you know, to get it into shape again.' That's what we've done the last year, is we've knocked the thing back into shape and into far better shape than I'd hoped for."
I remind Richards about what he said before, that one of his goals was to see the Rolling Stones grow up, or grow older, gracefully. It might be fair to say that the Rolling Stones have also grown up a bit ungracefully, at times. Is there a value to growing up ungracefully, too?
"Um, yeah. Grace is . . . is a wonderful thing. Only, though, when you see it done with imperfection. Otherwise, if everything's graceful all the time, you get used to it. It's the odd ungraceful move that enhances the grace of the rest of it. You get my drift?"
Watts also told me something about grace: "If the music we play together is great, then that's why Mick's forgiven Keith, and vice versa – that's why Keith's forgiven Mick, or himself, for whatever he said about Mick. I think that's probably the saving grace of it all."
The idea of grace – as blessing or forgiveness – might not seem an obvious fit for the Rolling Stones. Certainly not for everybody in or near their history. On a bad summer night in 1969, guitarist Brian Jones died facedown at the bottom of his swimming pool. At the end of that same year, the band played the Altamont concert that resulted in a stabbing death in front of the stage as the Rolling Stones played. "It did teach me a lesson," Jagger told me in 1987. "The lesson is that you can't do a large show without, um, control. . . . It was a lesson that we all learned."
In subsequent years, others close to the Stones – Gram Parsons, producer Jimmy Miller – succumbed, perhaps hastened by their association with the band. In 1974, guitarist Mick Taylor left after feeling that Jagger and Richards hadn't given him the songwriting credits he deserved; he was also drained by the entire experience. "Some of it was incredibly chaotic," Taylor says now of his time with the Stones. "We toured, and if we weren't touring, we were creating some of their best music. We did six albums in six years. It was incredible, and then they carried on that way. I was strained, burned out." Taylor played as a guest at the 2012 shows, often joining on "Midnight Rambler," from the 1969 album Let It Bleed. He'll be back with the band for this tour. "I didn't realize how much I missed being with them until we played again, to be honest," he says. "Once I got on the stage, I felt completely at home and very much in my element."
Bill Wyman, the band's original bassist, left in 1993, after he began to feel uneasy about so much time in airplanes. "I got to a point, I just thought to myself, I don't need to fly anymore," he told Rolling Stone recently. "I've got my career, and I can do anything now. I'm going to raise a new family. I want to be with them. I don't want to be traveling around the world." Wyman also played with the Rolling Stones at last year's London shows at the O2 Arena but was unhappy with his short stay on the stage. "My three teenage daughters saw me for the first time with the Stones onstage, which they hadn't seen before, so it was a bit special for that reason. But I was there five minutes and off. I was a bit disappointed with that. That's the end of it, you know. That's why I didn't go to America, you know? To do three concerts for two songs? I realized you cannot really return to something from the past after years, because it's not the same. School reunions, old girlfriends, divorces and getting back with the old wife – it doesn't work. It's the same with a band."
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