The late Charlie Watts once pointed out that for all of Keith Richards’ self-destructive behavior, the Rolling Stones guitarist has always had a “strong will to live.” But Richards himself isn’t quite sure how he made it this far: “We are all built in different ways,” he says, “and I think possibly that I’m also so stupid to put myself into situations where it’s almost live or die.… But look, we only got one life, might as well enjoy it.” In a new interview on our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, Richards talked about his newly reissued 1992 solo classic, Main Offender, how Mick Jagger pushed him into a solo career, writing “Gimme Shelter,” the future of the Stones, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and more.
Talk Is Cheap, your debut solo album, was made very much in a mode of — not to put words in your mouth — “Fuck you, Mick.” But Main Offender was after Steel Wheels, after the Stones got back together, so it was a little different. You had reconciled. How did that affect the energy going into this one?
To me, there is a certain amount of “Up yours, Mick.” And of course, at the same time, it is not the main theme. Mainly, it was because I was offended to have to make solo records at the time, because it had never been on my schedule to sort of go solo. But in retrospect, I realized that the Rolling Stones were in their own bubble and there was bound to become a point where we would have to stretch our wings in one way or another. And this was my way, and I enjoyed it immensely. I loved playing with the Winos. I still, after all, play with Steve Jordan because he’s with the Stones, but that’s another story. There was something about all these guys I’d sort of known about and met and as friends, and the chance to be able to put such a rare bunch together was one of those little miracles for me. And I still treasure the moments. [2015’s] “Runnin’ Too Deep,” you know?
With Main Offender, you could not name the year it was recorded just by listening to it. You couldn’t even come up with a decade.
I get you. Yeah. It’s the timeless thing, how it’s turned out … Mind you, a lot of the Stones stuff was like that too, but I’ve been listening to Main Offender again, and I remembered what Waddy [Wachtel] and Ivan [Neville] and Steve [Jordan] had said: “Man, this record’s not just a one timer. This is going be around.” And funnily enough, here we are.
On “Words of Wonder,” which is a reggae track, that’s you on bass. Not sure the world had ever heard you playing reggae bass before. What do you remember about jumping on the bass in that one?
First off, it was Waddy Wachtel that came up with the song. Actually, through the years, I mean, I loved playing bass. I always have, though I mean with the Stones, I’m the bass on “Sympathy for the Devil.”
And “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Happy,” and others.
Yeah, I enjoy playing bass. So sometimes I think I should have stayed on it. At the same time, “Words of Wonder,” I just thought was a lovely song that Waddy had written, and me, I’ve been living in Jamaica for years. I said, “I’ll take the bass on this.” Reggae, it’s made for bass music. And since I’ve been living in Jamaica for, off and on, for, like, 10 years or so, Robbie, bless his heart … [reggae bass legend] Robbie Shakespeare was a great friend of mine, he’s just passed away. I don’t know, the bass has always been something like licking me from behind, you know what I’m saying.
That’s a pretty obscene image there, Keith.
Yeah, it is, you know. It’s just chasing me around the back, you know what I mean?
It’s funny, I was listening to some of the other songs you play bass on in the Stones’ catalog and on the studio recording of “Happy.” It’s fascinating how far behind the beat you are on bass and how that contributes to the sound.
I’m so far behind the beat, it’s almost in front. But, yeah, I’ve always loved to drag the beat back and this thing all depends with the drummers, but with certain drummers you can play around with the time until it’s almost gone round in a full circle. And I can never actually put it into words because you can only experience it when it’s happening, you know?
Obviously it was Charlie Watts, rest in peace, who recommended Steve Jordan to you in the first place. And it does seem like there’s obviously some similarities in feel; they have the same rhythmic spirit in some ways. It’s tremendously hard to articulate, but there’s similarities as drummers, right?
I think that first off, Steve Jordan grew up listening and admiring Charlie Watts. He’s always retained the essence of what Charlie Watts does with the Rolling Stones, which it’s a unique thing and I’ve never met another drummer who’s so sensitive to what Charlie did, you know? And, I mean, sometimes Steve can fool me, and I think it’s Charlie. With the Winos, it was wonderful to play with these guys who’d grown up listening to the Stones and hear their take on it. Steve and I are still working on this.
What is it that you’re working on, another solo record?
We’re working on just about everything. I mean, at the moment, we’re just feeling our way … I mean, we’ve just finished this tour, and they were just coming out of winter, right? And everybody is figuring out what to do this year and obviously, the Stones’ 60th coming up. And I think we’re definitely going to be doing something there. It’s just a little early in the year for me to say right now how the year’s going to pan out, especially with the old Covid on us. But hopefully, getting around all of that and getting past it. There should be some interesting music this year.
It’s interesting that “Wicked as It Seems,” off Main Offender, sounds like a musical cousin of a later Stones song, “Love Is Strong.” Were they in the same mental space for you, or how did you see that?
Yes. “Wicked as It Seems” is certainly a cousin of “Love Is Strong.” In fact, maybe a little closer related than that.
It’s kind of like identical twins who have different paths in life. You get to see different ways of building from the same blocks.
Yeah, man, it’s funny you should say that because that’s the way I felt about them. Somehow, I got to make two songs out of this thing, you know? And also, time-wise they were pretty much on the same level. When I listen to this stuff now, I go, “Wow, maybe we should do some more.”
More than one person has said that the opening track, “999,” reminds them of ZZ Top. Do you hear that comparison?
I can hear that comparison, yeah, very much. But to me “999” was just about the cost of everything, you know?
A little bit more of a distorted tone in that one, interesting change for you.
Yeah, yeah. I probably trod on the wrong button [laughs].
“Demon,” the closing track, is a beautiful song. When you sing, “There’s a demon in me,” what is that really about for you?
It’s a conundrum to me. I mean, the fact is that there’s a demon in all of us. You see? And I just admitted it.
I probably thought too much about it, but I was thinking it could be that the demon, the same thing that might drive someone to drink or drugs, might be the same thing that drives them to their brilliance and creativity and you can’t really choose between them. That it’s all from that one place.
Exactly, you know a demon isn’t necessarily an evil thing. It can be something that sparks life into things, you know? When I was writing it, I was struggling with the same thing. You know, it’s just too dark or … but I figure demon is really a synonym for energy.
And maybe you can’t let that demon die.
It’s for the people to decide whether it’s evil or good, or if there is such a thing. But when that demon gets me, I just got to do it.
When you made Main Offender, I think you were 48 years old. People were calling you guys too old to rock at that point, which is hilarious now. But what do you remember about being in that period of life?
I mean, sometimes in my twenties I felt a lot older than I do now. But it’s all so relative, and it all depends how you feel about yourself and how you feel about other people. I always try and look on the bright side of life, you know?
On the X-Pensive Winos live disc in this box set, we hear you sing “Gimme Shelter” live, which felt pretty audacious. Of course, it’s a song you mostly wrote, but how did that feel specifically?
Yeah, listening to it back, I’d even forgotten that we’d laid that one down on with the Winos. And in a way, it reminded me of the day that I wrote it, which was like a rainy day in London, in Mount Street. There was a big storm on and everybody was running for cover, and it really just came out of that simple vision. And then I realized, of course, you know then you have to expand it. And I realized that there’s only one storm, but there’s plenty more. But, yes, to actually hear myself singing it again, as I haven’t heard that since we’ve done it, it gave me that sense of urgency about it. “Gimme Shelter,” I’ve always sort of had a soft spot for that one.
And what did Mick actually contribute to that song in the writing?
Oh, expanded it. Expanded it, and especially when I said that we need a female in here, a duet. And so that expanded the song into more of a … I don’t know, certainly stage-wise, gave it far more visual presence. The rape and the murder always brings crowds in, you know?
Does it make sense to you looking back that you made this great album in 1992 and then didn’t make a solo album again until 2015?
No, not really. I find it bizarre, but I think it is because the Stones kept me busy for that long. And then I was having babies or … I wasn’t, the wife was, but I think also it was the same reason in actual fact that the reason I did Talk Is Cheap and Main Offender was because the Stones were taking one of their long hiatuses. And around 2012, ’10, it happened again.
And then Steve and I … actually, [manager] Jane Rose said, “Get together with Steve. Why don’t you do something while we wait to see what the Stones are going to do?” Because otherwise you can just sort of hang around and rot and enjoy yourself, which is all right, enjoying yourself is fine, but rotting isn’t. So thankfully Steve and I got together and just decided to put something together by ourselves. There are several Winos on there in the long run and some other wonderful people. And Crosseyed Heart is another little favorite of mine, but I find myself doing these things when I haven’t got the Stones’ pressure on, you know? Oh, yeah.
When I spoke to you and Mick and Ron in 2016 for the last cover story we did on the Rolling Stones, there was a studio album of brand-new songs underway in addition to Blue & Lonesome, which was the blues covers album that you put out back then. So what is the status of that new album? And, you know, without rudely asking why is it taking so long? I guess the question is, as nicely as possible, why does it take so long?
Well, as far as status goes, I can’t really report anything. But look, really all I want you guys to know is that it’s now … what is it I want you guys to know? I mean, I just love working. If I can’t work with one lot, I’ll work with the other.
There was a report that Charlie basically recorded his parts for whatever the next album is. And, I mean, is that true? Did Charlie actually finish recording drums for the next album?
No, it’s not true at all. Yeah. I mean, Charlie Watts was playing along. He did some stuff with Mick, and we already have quite a lot of stuff in the can with Charlie from last year. But Charlie Watts certainly wasn’t in the mind of “I’m going to record things because I’m not going to be here.” He isn’t that kind of guy. And he didn’t think like that. Charlie would work if somebody said, “Hey, I’ve got a couple of songs, drop by and play,” and that’s the way he was. We do have a lot of stuff of Charlie Watt’s still in the can, because we were halfway through making an album when he died, but you know, goddamn, I loved that man.
I guess it was never a question that if you’re going to finish the Stones’ album, then Steve will have to play on some of the stuff. Is that the idea?
Yeah. I guess, I mean, this is one of the things that we are going to be having to sort out this year. So, of course, I mean, if we want to carry on recording, then we are going to need drums and it’s going to Steve Jordan. Which for me in the beginning of the tour, a few months ago, I was saying, “Oh no, I cannot do this without Charlie.” But except Charlie saying to me, “Listen, Keith, you can do it with Steve. You’ve done it many times. You know he can take my seat any time, you know it.” And he talks me into it. And not because I … because I knew Steve could do it. You just wonder how the thing’s going to all coalesce. I was beautifully amazed by how everything fell into place. And I’m looking forward to doing some more with that lot.
Of course, it couldn’t feel exactly the same.
No, of course not. It felt like new blood, fresh blood, in there, and it felt very energetic. At the same time, Steve and I, and Steve was watching himself, saying “I don’t want to over do it, go this way or that.” But he has a feel for the way Charlie Watts plays that makes it very, very easy for us to continue without going through incredible convolutions to it. Steve’s a consummate pro and a great lover of Charlie Watts’ style. I was amazed sometimes watching him, saying “I could do it like Charlie, or do you want me to?” “I’ll leave it to you, Steve, like I would if it was Charlie sitting there, I’d leave it to Charlie. And now you’re sitting there, and I’ll leave it to you, Steve.” But we had a great time on the tour, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue into this year.
I was going to ask you, what did you make of Paul McCartney saying that the Stones were a blues cover band?
I got a note from Paul about that saying “I was taken totally out of context.” He said, “That’s what I thought when I first heard them.” Because Paul and I know each other pretty well, so when I first read it I said, “Ah, there’s been a lot of deleting and editing going on here.” And the next day I got a message from Paul saying “If you’ve read this shit, it’s all out of context, believe me, boys.” So I take it to that, you know?
I thought maybe he was getting back at you for calling Sgt. Pepper’s a mishmash of rubbish.
That could have been the thing, but Paul, he isn’t that way. No, I felt for him. He replied so quickly on that and saying … I mean, if he’d have meant to say, he wouldn’t have bothered replying. Paul’s a great guy, man. Jesus Christ, look at the songs he’s written, you can’t knock a guy like that. We’ll let the little things come out in the press and kind of ignore them, you know what I mean?
What do you make of the Eric Clapton thing, where he’s suddenly all about the anti-vaccine talk?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, it all sort of seems old-fashioned about vaccine, and I don’t know. I love Eric dearly, I’ve known him since forever. And he had ups and downs, but he never … I mean, and especially this 19, this Covid thing. It’s split people up and made people sometimes go awry for a while. I don’t really have anything to say. I just say, “Hey, hope that you rethink here, let’s do this thing.” I just want to get rid of this damn thing, you know? And the only way I can see of doing it is everybody does as the doctor says and let’s get back to normal, hopefully. And I don’t understand quite why some people are getting so wound up about it. You wouldn’t get wound up about the flu or something. You know what I mean? And that’s even worse than this, and so … And I’m no doctor, but hey, this thing works in various nasty ways on people, and we all have to bear with each other, and we all have to have a little sympathy.
You mentioned the 60th anniversary of the Rolling Stones. Can you wrap your mind around the concept of 60 years of this band?
Who can wrap their head around 60 fucking years? It all seems impossible that it’s been that long. But, yes, the feeling is that we have to do something this year. And, you know, when that feeling grips this band, something will be done.
Finally, I wanted to run something by you. We were talking six years ago, about how you might like to leave this mortal coil. And you said, “I’d like to croak magnificently onstage.”
Yes, yes. I agree. But not yet!