A drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Keith Richards dances around the New York office of his personal manager, Jane Rose, as Talk Is Cheap — his first solo album after a quarter century with the Rolling Stones — blasts out of the stereo. Beyond enjoying the grooves, Keith is also attending to business; he’s checking out slides, trying to choose cover art for the record. “Just put it in a brown paper bag,” he says jokingly at one point to Steve Jordan, with whom he wrote and produced the album. “I don’t give a shit about the goddamn cover.”
The emphasis on content is characteristic — and it extends to Richards’s collaborators. When Jordan, a hot New York sessionman who used to be the house drummer for Late Night with David Letterman, is complimented on the album, he simply says, “It’s a real record. We weren’t trying to do anything hip.” Along with guitarist Waddy Wachtel, keyboardist Ivan Neville and bassist Charley Drayton, Jordan is a member of the core band that plays on Talk Is Cheap and will tour with Richards after its release. “In ten days,” Richards says, “if you give me the right guys, I’ll give you a band that sounds as if they’ve been together for two or three years. I’ll make them sound like a band. Mainly because I need it, and that communicates itself.”
Talk Is Cheap serves up a rich sampling of Richards’s musical roots — from the Cajun flavor of “Locked Away” to the funk of “Big Enough,” from the Memphis soul of “Make No Mistake” to the rockabilly of “I Could Have Stood You Up.” And of course, “Take It So Hard,” “How I Wish” and “Whip It Up” rock with a force reminiscent of his classic work with the Stones.
Another track, however, “You Don’t Move Me,” evokes the Stones not only in its slashing guitar sound but in its subject: Mick Jagger. The song vents the anger and bitterness Richards felt when Jagger decided to pursue his own solo career in 1986 rather than tour with the Stones after they released Dirty Work. Accusing Jagger of greed and selfishness, the song also chides the singer for the commercial failure of his two solo records, She’s the Boss and Primitive Cool: “Now you want to throw the dice/You already crapped out twice.”
Later in the week, Richards turns up for his interview at Rose’s office sporting red-tinted shades, gray corduroy slacks, a white jacket and the same T-shirt he wore four days earlier: it bears the legend Obergruppenfueher (“major general of the troops”). After fixing himself a Rebel Yell and ginger ale and lighting a Marlboro, he drapes his jacket on the back of one of the chrome and leather chairs in the office’s conference room and goes to work.
Like everyone in New York this August, Richards complains about the wilting heat, but he seems in an upbeat mood — after the interview he will race down to Madison Square Garden to catch INXS and Ziggy Marley. Now forty four, Richards describes himself as a family man. In addition to two teenage children from his stormy relationship with Anita Pallenberg, he has two little girls from his marriage to New York model Patti Hansen. He looks weathered but fit, the leathery skin on his arms hugging his well-developed biceps.
Pleased and relieved to have completed Talk Is Cheap, Richards nonetheless remembers the frustrations that led him to make the record after years of saying that he had no desire to compete with the Rolling Stones. When he speaks about Jagger — and what he sees as Jagger’s betrayal of the Stones — his hurt pride is evident. As he speaks, affection blends with resentment, and a need for reconciliation battles with an equally strong desire to be proven right about the integrity of the Stones. Richards’s manner at such moments recalls nothing more than one of those exhausting conversations with friends whose lovers have left.
“It’s a struggle between love and hate,” Richards sings on Talk Is Cheap. Amid such ravaging emotional ambivalence, the Stones are talking about regrouping next year for an album and a tour. “Mick’s and my battles are fascinating,” Richards says. “When you’ve known somebody that long, there’s so much water under the bridge that it’s almost impossible to talk about.”
And then, for three hours, he talks.
After twenty-five years with the Stones, how does it feel to have completed your first solo record?
It sort of goes like this [sweeps his hand across his brow]: Ph-e-e-e-w. It’s kind of strange, because it was never in the cards for me. It was not something I wanted to do. Also, in the back of my mind, doing a solo record meant a slight sense of failure. The only reason I would do a solo album was because I couldn’t keep the Stones together.
As far back as 1971, you said that you didn’t ever want to be in a situation where you had to decide whether to keep a song for yourself or give it to the Stones.
Yeah, there’s all those things. To put yourself into a split situation, to have to decide — it’s hard. Fortunately or unfortunately, since the Stones have taken this break or whatever — you know, weren’t working — I didn’t have to worry about that particular problem.
You see, Dirty Work I built pretty much on the same idea as Some Girls, in that it was made with the absolute idea that it would go on the road. So when we finished the record and then . . . the powers that be — let’s put it like that [laughs] — decided suddenly they ain’t gonna go on the road behind it, the team was left in the lurch. Because if you didn’t follow it up with some roadwork, you’d only done fifty percent of the job.
Do you feel that Dirty Work didn’t do well because the Stones didn’t support it with a tour?
Well, there was no promotion behind it. As it came out, everyone sort of said, “Well, they’ve broken up,” or “They’re not gonna work.” So you got a lot of negativity behind it.
It seemed like it was released into a storm of chaos.
It was — mainly, I think, to do with the fact that Stu [Ian Stewart, the pianist with the early Stones and the band’s longtime road manager] died at that point. The glue fell out of the whole setup. There’s not a lot of people who realize quite what a tower of strength he was and how important he was within the band.
The first rehearsal that was ever called for this band that turned out to be the Rolling Stones, at the top of this pub in Soho, in London, I arrived, and the only guy there is Stu. He was already at the piano, waiting for the rest of this collection of weirdos to arrive. On the surface of it, he was very different from us. He was working — he was a civil servant. The rest of us were, like, just a bunch of layabouts.
Stu was somebody that couldn’t tell a lie. I think one of the first things he said to me was “Oh, so you’re the Chuck Berry expert, are you?” At the time, Chuck Berry wasn’t in Stu’s bag of tricks. His thing was, like, Lionel Hampton and Leroy Carr and Big Joe Williams — you know, swing, boogie freaks. And so Chuck Berry to him was frivolous rock & roll, until I got him to listen to the records and he heard Johnnie Johnson [Berry’s longtime pianist]. In fact, one of the last things Stu said to me before he died was “Never forget, Keith, Johnnie Johnson is alive and playing in St. Louis.” And the funny thing is within a few months I’d found Johnnie, and he’s even on this record.
So Stu’s death was part of the problem. Then what happened? Was it that Mick didn’t want to tour?
In all honesty, it was Mick decided that he could do . . . I don’t know whether “he could do better” is the best phrase, but he felt, actually, that the Rolling Stones were like a millstone around his neck. Which is ludicrous — and I told him so.
He said that to you?
Yeah. Yeah. He said, “I don’t need this bunch of old farts.” Little do you know, Sunny Jim.
I spoke to him about it the other week, because now he wants to put the Stones back together — because there’s nowhere else to go. And I don’t want to knock the cat. Mick’s and my battles are not exactly as perceived through the press or other people. They’re far more convoluted, because we’ve known each other for most of our lives — I mean, since we were four or five. So they involve a lot more subtleties and ins and outs than can possibly be explained. But I think that there is on Mick’s part a little bit of a Peter Pan complex.
It’s a hard job, being the frontman. In order to do it, you’ve got to think in a way that you’re semidivine. But if it goes a little too far, that feeling, you think you don’t need anybody, and Mick kind of lost touch with the fact of how important the Stones were for him. He thought that he could just hire another Rolling Stones, and that way he could control the situation more, rather than battling with me.
My point around Dirty Work was this was the time when the Stones could do something. They could mature and grow this music up and prove that you could take it further. That you don’t have to go back and play Peter Pan and try and compete with Prince and Michael Jackson or Wham! and Duran Duran. But it’s all a matter, I think, of self-perception. He perceived himself as still having to prove it on that level. To me, twenty-five years of integrity went down the drain with what he did.
How would you explain that?
Mick is more involved with what’s happening at this moment — and fashion. I’m trying to grow the thing up, and I’m saying we don’t need the lemon-yellow tights and the cherry picker and the spectacle to make a good Rolling Stones show. There’s a more mature way of doing it. And Mick, particularly at that time, two or three years ago, couldn’t see a way clear to do anything different. So therefore he had to go backwards and compare himself with who’s hitting the Top Ten at that moment.
The last Stones show I saw was at the Fox Theatre, in Atlanta, in 1981, and it was just the band, without the gimmicks.
To me, the interesting thing about Mick is that he could work this table better than anybody in the world. And the bigger the stages got, to me it was a feeling that he had to use every inch of space on that stage. He would say that you’ve got to get to as much of the audience as you can when you’re playing stadiums. But the bigger the stage, the more stagy it got. The fact is that Mick didn’t appreciate that he had a band that he could rely upon, come hell or high water. I guess he took it for granted eventually and thought that he could hire that. And you can’t. You can’t hire that kind of thing.
At one point you seemed to feel that Walter Yetnikoff, the president of CBS Records, had encouraged Mick to go solo, that he believed that Mick was the Stones.
I think at the beginning, yes. But it’s understandable that somebody just walking in on the Rolling Stones . . . it’s an obvious thought. Mick is going to be talking to them. He’s the frontman. Since then, Walter has certainly changed his mind [laughs]. It’s understandable that you would think that, oh, if you’ve got it together with Mick, then you’ve got the Stones, because the next person to talk to is myself, and I’ve been a junkie, unreliable — in business people’s minds I’m the dodgy artistic freak. I’m not the one that’s going to be up in your office talking business at ten in the morning. So it’s an understandable attitude to take. But it certainly didn’t help keeping the Stones together at the time.
Didn’t Yetnikoff hook you back up with Sarah Dash, who sings with you on the album?
She’s a friend of Walter’s. She happened to be popping by to see him at the time, and I said, “Oh, Sarah, I haven’t seen you in donkeys’ years.” I mean, when I first met Sarah, she was fifteen or sixteen. She’d just started working with Patti LaBelle and the Blue Bells. This was in ’65. She had a chaperone with her, you know, nobody could get near her. They used to call her Inch, I think, Sarah. She’s still a dinky little thing, but what a girl, what a voice.
So by going to see Walter, I found the chick I wanted to sing on the album. The only other girl singing on it is the now infamous Patti Scialfa.
Springsteen has managed to tarnish his reputation.
Yeah, it was kind of surprising. In fact, the last overdub that Patti did for this record, she walks in with this guy. “Hi, Patti, how’re you doin’?” We’re talking. The guy is standing in the doorway, and I turn around, and suddenly I realize it’s Bruce [laughs]. Oh, oh, naughty, naughty, naughty.
Had you met him before?
I’ve met Bruce two or three times. We’ve had several good chats, usually at some release party or premiere, and we just end up in the corner talking. He’s a sweet guy, a nice guy.
Mind you, I think four-hour shows really are way over the top. To me, a great rock & roll act does twenty minutes [laughs]. I remember the Paramount, where you got the Impressions, Jackie Wilson, Joe Tex, and everybody does just their absolute supreme best shot! A lot of the shows you get these days are very self-indulgent. I don’t think anybody can be enthralling for four hours onstage playing rock & roll.
You’ve been recording on your own for years. Had you built up a big backlog of songs?
Not really. All of the songs on this album were written last year. There’s also a whole backlog of songs with the Stones that I didn’t touch. I wanted it to be completely separate. Of course, certain ways of doing things hung over. For the Stones I would write for what Mick could sing, what I thought was the best thing that Mick could handle.
On this album, the songs are not that much different in structure or in content, even. I managed to do some of the things that with the Stones I’d say, “Nah, can’t do that. Too complicated.” I realized this writing with Steve Jordan. That was the other great thing: that I found somebody else to work with. To me, teamwork is important. The enthusiasm from the other guys is incredibly important, and these guys gave it to me all the way. They would never let me indulge myself. For instance, with the Stones, if I’m writing something and they’re hitting it in the studio and I’d break down because I’m not quite sure how the bridge would go or something, I’d stop playing, and everybody’d stop playing, go off for a drink and a phone call and an hour later come back and try it again. With this lot, if I stopped, they’d just carry on. They’d look at me: “Pick it up, pick it up, man!” “Why, you goddamn nigger! Nobody’s kicked me up the ass like that.” At the same time I enjoyed it, because they were right. I would just pick it up again and get back in there.
Did you find yourself getting uptight about not wanting a song to sound like a Stones song?
No, I didn’t In fact, it was the other way. My idea was if I allowed myself to think, “I can’t do it like that, because it would be just the way I’d do it with the Stones,” that would be phony.
My main hang-up, first off, was “Who the hell am I gonna play with if it ain’t Charlie Watts?” If I’m gonna work on my own after twenty-odd years of working with this great drummer, who’s going to have, without looking at each other, the same feel, the same contact? The beauty of Steve and myself finding each other at that particular time was that it was a very natural changeover, since Steve and Charlie know each other and respect each other’s work very much.
Where are Charlie, Bill Wyman and Ron Wood on all of this? Are you in touch with them?
Well, yeah. In fact, in the last month or so I’ve been in touch with them. Mick suddenly called up, and the rest of them: “Let’s put the Stones back together.” I’m thinking, “Just as I’m in the middle of an album. Now what are you trying to do, screw me up? Just now you want to talk about putting it back together?” But we talked about it. I went to London, and we had a meeting. I think you’ll find a new album and a tour next year from the Stones.
Will you be touring with your band?
With this lot, yeah, sure. I need to get on the road, and the only way you’re gonna get on the road is to make a record. Since ’86, I’ve slowly been putting the team together. This basic band, you know, Drayton, Steve, Ivan Neville, Waddy.
I don’t want to do a big deal, you know, big stadiums and all that. I want to play some good rooms — theaters. We’re just starting to talk about it. Basically I just want to do some class joints, you know, some nice 3000, 4000 seaters.
It’s startling to hear “Big Enough,” which has such a James Brown feel, as the first track on the album. Was that the first tune you recorded?
It’s not exactly the first thing, but it was fairly early on. It was just Steve and myself, just drums and guitar. It was incredibly long, almost a jam. But the groove on it was just so strong and, as you say, the James Brown feel of it was so evident that what happened was, during last winter, James played the Apollo. Steve and I went up there, and we saw Maceo [Parker, James Brown’s saxman], and we looked at each other, and we went, “Dig it. Maceo.” So we got in touch with Maceo to give it that horn thing.
The bass end was another problem, because the fact that we cut it with just guitar and drums, we had the drums tuned very low down. There was an awful lot of bass on the drums. And every time we tried to put a bass on it, it would just get in the way. So we thought about it, and once again, Steve, who’s got a great ear [snaps his fingers]: “Ah, it’s got to be Bootsy” — who used to play with James. So Bootsy [Collins] drove from Ohio — because he doesn’t fly, Bootsy — for one evening and heard it, grinned and did it. So that’s how James Brown the track was — it ended up with James’s guys on there!
On the other end of the spectrum from “Big Enough,” you have “I Could Have Stood You Up.”
To me that was “a little stroll through the rock & roll alley.” I actually started to cut these tracks a year ago, just about today, at about this time [laughs] — that’s why I’m looking at my watch — up in Montreal. We got about seven tracks in ten days, so I felt already “This thing’s going well, this band is cooking.”
Who was up there with you?
Charley Drayton, Steve, Ivan, Waddy and myself. Since we’d worked with Johnnie Johnson on the Chuck Berry thing, I really wanted to work with him. My next thought was “I don’t know if I’ve got anything in that vein for this album.” So Steve and I worked on it a bit, and I came up with that one thing. We wanted to do some sessions with Johnnie, so we got it together, and Johnnie — who happens to love me, for some reason. . . .
Well, your analysis of Chuck Berry’s music in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, where you point out that it was all based on Johnnie Johnson’s piano chords, might have something to do with it.
I would have never thought about it, except I went through that process and saw it. The guy’s sixty-eight, sixty-nine years old, and he probably plays more regularly than just about anybody on this planet. He has five or six club gigs a week in St. Louis. He’s one of the hidden masters of American music, to me. Also, given the fact that Stu had said what he said . . . [folds his hands in prayer].
“I Could Have Stood You Up” is also a reunion of Stones alumni: Mick Taylor, Bobby Keys, Chuck Leavell. Had you played with Mick since he left the Stones?
When he played the Lone Star last year, I popped up for a number or two. I hadn’t seen him for quite a few years. It’s sort of a mystery to me — and it’s also a mystery to Mick Taylor — as to why he left the Stones [laughs]. I said, “Why did you leave like that?” And he said, “I ask myself that all the time. I don’t know why I did that.”
But being in the Stones is a weird thing. I guess for Mick, you’ve been in the Stones for five or six years, and you think you can expand. He wanted to play drums. He wanted to produce and write. Rightly or wrongly — because to me Mick Taylor is just a brilliant guitar player. That’s what he is. And still is. But from the inside, you know, you think, “I’ve done this. I’ve got this now. Now I can go out on my own. I’m a bit bored with this.”
And Mick Jagger made the same decision — and the same mistake. Whether it’s a mistake or not, it didn’t work out the way he thought it was going to work out. Maybe it’s got something to do with the name Mick [laughs].
It seems that the Stones developed a very unsentimental attitude over the years about people who were sucked into their vortex and sometimes did great things but sometimes also damaged themselves.
It made them — and maybe even for the better — come face to face eventually with themselves. Maybe sometimes in the worst possible way. Maybe that ultimately is one of the most important things about the Stones — that, for some unknown reason, they strike at a person at a point and in a position that they don’t even know exists.
There was always a sense about the Stones and about your own life, certainly, that this is nothing other than what it looks to you to be.
Well, it’s certainly for real. The other thing about my life and the Stones’ life is that there was nothing phony about it. If anybody was going to take knocks, we were going to take the knocks along with everybody else. It isn’t that we were sitting up on some comfortable faraway paradise and putting out this stuff and saying, “Well, fuck yourselves up.” We got beat up more than anybody.
I’ve always just tried to avoid doing anything that would make me cringe. Anything I do, I like to be able to live with. No matter how on the surface — you know, “What a bum, what a junkie” — at least it’s real. And I can live with it. If I fuck up, the whole world fucks up with me! [Laughs.]
You once said that you never wanted anyone to feel that there was anything they could find out by going through your garbage can that they couldn’t find out by just asking you.
There’s always this thing in show business: you have an “image,” and you play it to the hilt, but you’re not really like that “in my private life,” et cetera. In other words, it’s an act. And maybe for them that’s okay. But for myself, what I do, I’m too intense about it.
Obviously, there are lots of things . . . I mean, I’m a family man. I have little two-year-old and three-year-old girls that beat me up. I’m not the guys I see on MTV, who obviously think they are me. There are so many people who think that’s all there is to it. It’s not that easy to be Keith Richards. But it’s not so hard, either. The main thing is to know yourself.
I was kind of forced into the position of honesty because they went through my garbage can and it was all over the front pages. To the point where people think that I’m far more Errol Flynn or notorious than I actually am. But I know what people think: “We’ll give them that Keith Richards look” With my friends, the “Keith Richards look” is, like, a great laugh. And it’s got nothing to do with the moody bit — it’s just the way I look if I don’t smile. And this [points to his skull ring] is to remind me that we’re all the same under the skin. The skull — it has nothing to do with bravado and surface bullshit.
To me, the main thing about living on this planet is to know who the hell you are and to be real about it. That’s the reason I’m still alive. The chart I was Number One on longest was the Next One to Kick the Bucket. I headed that chart longer than I ever did Records! [Laughs.] But to me, I never had any real doubt, because whatever it was I did, no matter how stupid or flamboyant or irresponsible it may have seemed from the outside — and I can understand it appearing like that — to me it’s always been very important to know what I’m made of, and what I’m capable of doing. And making sure that nobody else suffered in the process. And if they did. it would only be from a misconception of themselves, not of me.
Obviously a whole mythology has built up around you. You must walk into situations all the time where people expect you to be “Keith Richards.” How does that affect you?
I try and disillusion them, because I don’t have an “act.” It’s impossible for me. It’s very embarrassing.
Charlie Watts, in fact, is a far more honest man than I am. Charlie Watts to me is the most honest man in the world — to himself, to every body. He never even wanted to be a pop star. It still makes him cringe. But because he liked the music — and loved playing with me and with Mick and knew that it was a great band — he’s willing to go along with it. Chicks screaming at Charlie Watts — to him it’s ludicrous. He wanted to be Max Roach or Philly Joe Jones — his idea of himself is that. And to have to live with being some teenybop idol for Charlie is very difficult, because he’s not like that at all.
They’re such a weird collection of guys — the most unlikely collection of people to be a good rock & roll band. Hell, half of them hate the idea of being a rock & roll star in the first place. It’s already embarrassing to them; they want to be serious artists. And when you’re living and working with people like that, it’s very difficult, if you’re phony or if you go . . . That’s what happened to Brian [Jones]. He really got off on the trip of being a pop star. And it killed him. Suddenly, from being very serious about what he wanted to do, he was willing to take the cheap trip. And it’s a very short trip.
Has Mick heard “You Don’t Move Me”?
Yeah, he’s heard it. I played the whole album to him — what? — last week, two weeks ago.
Here in New York?
Yeah. He talked all the way through it [laughs]. But I went to the john and took a pee, and as I was coming out, I saw him dancing in the front room. So then I went back to the john and slammed the door loud and walked out again: he’s sitting back like this [sits straight in his chair and folds his hands in his lap]. I don’t know what he really thinks about it, because it’s all tied up with what happened with his solo stuff.
What he put out, to me, is exactly the reason, as we were talking about before, why we didn’t go on the road behind Dirty Work. He wanted to compete on a different level. The sad thing, to me, about it was that I felt it was totally unnecessary in that he had no grasp of the idea of the integrity of the Stones.
What does it make you feel like since Mick didn’t want to tour behind Dirty Work but now he’s done a tour of Japan and he’s going to do a tour of Australia?
Great. Go to Australia in their midwinter. Go on. I’ve got other things to do. Go there. Go there with your jerk-off band.
He knows how I feel about it. Whether he’ll ever admit it to himself, I don’t know. I mean, I’ll be totally honest: I love Mick. Most of my efforts with Mick go to trying to open his eyes: “You don’t need to do this. You have no problem. All you’ve got to do is just grow up with it.” And that’s what he should be doing.
I mean, ninety-nine percent of the male population of the Western world — and beyond — would give a limb to live the life of Riley, to live the life of Jagger. To be Mick Jagger. And he’s not happy being Mick Jagger. He’s not living a happy life. To me, that’s unacceptable. I’ve got to make him happy! [Laughs.] To me, I’ve failed if I can’t eventually get my mate to feel good about himself. Even though he’s very autocratic and he can be a real asshole. But who can’t be an asshole at times?
The siege mentality kind of worries me about Mick. Nobody can get in there, even me, who’s known him longer than anybody. What bothers me sometimes about him is not being able to get through to him. He’s got his own vision about himself, which is not actually who he is. So he has to play a game; he has to act. He’s not about to give you anything. He’s not about to give anything away. He’ll be flip.
And I don’t mind him reading this shit, because this is part of, as far as I’m concerned, my attempt to help him along. It’s a very sad thing to me to have a friend that . . . especially when he’s in such a privileged position and should be able to live one of the best lives ever. Everybody, as I say, would give limbs to be Mick Jagger, to be able to live like that. And not to be happy? What’s so hard about being Mick Jagger? What’s so tough? It’s like Bob Dylan‘s phrase once: “What’s so hard about being one of the Beatles?” Although, you could say that about Bob, too, you know. Now I’m really gonna get shit, man! [Laughs.] I mean, this exaggerated sense of who you are and what you should do and worrying about it so much. Why don’t you just get on with it and stop trying to figure all the angles? That to me is a waste of time.
Now you’re in the situation where your own solo record is coming out. Do you feel any sense of competition with Mick?
Obviously the situation is there for it to be perceived that way. No, I don’t feel any sense of competition with Mick. Whether Mick feels a sense of competition with me — that’s another question. Why we didn’t go on the road behind Dirty Work . . . that might be an answer to that.
You mean he felt that it was more your record or . . .
Or who runs the deal. I think to Mick that’s more important than it is to me. You see, I tip my hat to Mick a lot. I admire the guy enormously. In the Seventies, when I was on dope and I would do nothing but put the songs together and turn up and not deal with any of the business of the Stones, Mick took all of that work and weight on his shoulders and did it all and covered my ass. And I’ve always admired him very much for that. I mean, he did exactly what a friend should do.
When I cleaned up and Emotional Rescue time came around — “Hey, I’m back, I’m clean, I’m ready; I’m back to help and take some of the weight off your shoulders” — immediately I got a sense of resentment Whereas I felt that he would be happy to unburden himself of some of that shit, he felt that I was horning in and trying to take control. And that’s when I first sensed the feeling of discontent, shall we say. It wasn’t intended like that from my point of view, but that’s when I first got a feeling that he got so used to running the show that there was no way he was going to give it up. That, to him, it was a power struggle.
To turn away from the Stones for a moment, what do you make of the state of rock today? Some have said this is the worst period in the history of rock & roll.
My cheap answer to that would be “Yeah, wait until my record comes out!” [Laughs.]
I wanted to run the Top Ten singles by you and get your impression of them.
All right, run ’em down.
Number One is “Roll with It,” by Steve Winwood.
Steve is great, but the record, eh. He’s not pushing anything further. I mean, he’s a great musician, but he doesn’t seem to me to have a driving desire to really do anything. If he bothers to work, it’s fantastic. I think he’s one of the best English musicians that we have.
But at the same time, my problem with Stevie — he’s gonna fuckin’ hate me forever for saying this — is that he’s kind of faceless. What’s Number Two, George Michael?
Number Two is “Hands to Heaven,” by Breathe.
Never heard it. Don’t know nothing about it.
Number Three is “Make Me Lose Control,” by Eric Carmen. He had a hit recently from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
A nice P.R. job.
Number Four is “Sign Your Name,” by Terence Trent D’Arby.
He’s more interested in Terence Trent D’Arby than he is in anything else, as far as I’m concerned. Hey, a nice-looking boy — but hung up on himself. A great voice, but that’s not enough.
“1-2-3”, by Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine.
A Holiday Inn band, a club band that made it. Very nice. Love the girl. Like Dirty Dancing: just to watch, yeah. But it palled really quickly.
“I Don’t Wanna Go On with You Like That,” by Elton John.
Reg, give me a Rubens, and I’ll say something nice. Reg Dwight. Lovely bloke, but posing.
“I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love,” by Chicago.
Chicago? I haven’t heard it. Chicago to me was always . . . I mean, you’ll get a lot of put-downs this way, guy! [Laughs.] You’ve got to forgive me. I haven’t heard that particular record, but I would think “contrived.”
“Monkey,” by George Michael.
Shave and go home. He’s a wimp in disguise.
“Hold On to the Nights,” by Richard Marx.
I don’t know the particular record, but I have a feeling — why do I say this? — maybe there’s something interesting in there?
And Number Ten is “Just Got Paid,” by Johnny Kemp.
I wish I just got paid! Who the hell Johnny Kemp is I don’t know.
I also wanted to ask you about the current superstars.
U2 I like. I like Bono very much. When I worked with him, I’d never heard him. I found the guy very interesting and very open. Then, afterwards, I started listening to them. It’s human music; it’s not pushbutton music.
To me the disgusting thing about popular music at the moment . . . and especially I’m disappointed with you black guys, just pushing buttons and shit. They are, to me, really fucking up. With the drum machines and the engineers that have never . . . you set up a drum kit and say you’re gonna use a live drummer and they go, “What? How do we record a thing like that?” Music’s got to do with people, not pushing buttons. To me, it’s kind of weird that George Michael is Number One on the black charts. Because, ‘ey, ‘ey, what happened to Little Milton? What happened to the soul?
You mentioned Bruce Springsteen earlier. What about his music?
Bruce? That’s a tough one, because I like the guy. But the music . . . I don’t know. I’m the toughest taskmaster of all time. I’m going to annoy a lot of people. Bruce? To me, it’s pretentious.
What’s pretentious about it?
I love his attitude. I love what he wants to do. I just think he’s gone about it the wrong way. These are just my opinions, and okay, I’ll annoy the lot of you. Bruce? Too contrived for me. Too overblown.
I know you haven’t liked Prince in the past. Has your opinion of him changed?
Prince, I admire his energy, but he’s riding on a wave. To me, Prince is like the Monkees. I don’t see anything of any depth in there. I think he’s very clever at manipulating the music business and the entertainment business. I think he’s more into that than making music. I don’t see much substance in anything he does. Too much appealing to . . . a Pee-wee Herman trip. And I like Pee-wee Herman better than Prince. He’s appealing to the same audience. To me, it’s kid stuff.
What do you think about Guns n’ Roses?
Not much. I admire the fact that they’ve made it despite certain resistance from the radio biz. I admire their guts. But too much posing. Their look — it’s like there’s one out of this band, one looks like Jimmy, one looks like Ronnie. Too much copycat, too much posing for me. I haven’t listened to a whole album to be able to talk about the music.
I’m a very hard taskmaster. I know that everybody’s gonna say, “Oh, he’s putting everybody down.”
Well, tell me what you like.
I don’t like much. And I don’t want any of these guys to feel like “Oh, he’s an old fart, blah-blah-blah. But we’re up there, blah-blah-blah.” I’m not interested in that. My main thing is “What are you trying to do, just be famous? Or have you got something to say?” And if you do, are you forgoing it in order just to be famous?
I’ve always liked AC/DC, all right? I like U2; I really do. I think Bono, especially, has something special. INXS I’m quite interested in. I like Tracy Chapman. Ziggy Marley I find very interesting because he’s not just “the son of,” He’s avoided being, I hate to say this, Julian. He’s taken from his father and built on it, but he’s not just “the son of Bob Marley.” He’s got his own things to say, and he’s serious about it.
I wanted to ask you about Chuck Berry. If you take forty-five Chuck Berry songs, fifteen of them will be among the greatest rock songs ever written and thirty will be the most clichéd formulas.
And two or three of them just trite. To me, the saddest thing about Chuck Berry is that his biggest-selling record is “My Ding-a-ling.” But that’s what he deserves, because of his attitude toward what he does. He hasn’t sussed out his own worth. He has no idea of his impact on popular music. Chuck just wants the bread. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because it’s the only way a guy from his era, from where he came from, could get out.
And also getting ripped off in the past, that’s what he learns. But he’s carried it around for thirty years.
He’s a loner. That’s why I could work with Chuck Berry, because he’s very much like Mick. It’s a siege mentality: “Nobody’s going to get into me.” And “If I give a thing away, I’m a weakling.” To me, the truth is the more you give, the stronger you are. The more of a man you are. Who are you scared of? What’s so scary that you’ve got to lock yourself up?
In that scene in the movie where you turn around and give him this look, it looks like you’re going to have a fight or something.
A shoot-out? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s pretty true. Yeah, just about. Most of the band, the guys behind me are going, “Keith in this situation is gonna pull out the blade and just slit the motherfucker’s throat.” I’m biting bullets, because I’m trying to show the band that, in order to get this gig together, I am gonna take some shit that I wouldn’t take from anybody. I’m not gonna let Chuck get to me that much. Whereas anybody else, it would be toilet time.
You say the Stones may be getting back together. Given all that’s happened, couldn’t that be seen as just a case of knowing that this is an opportunity to make forty million dollars and . . .
A hundred [laughs].
Well, what do you say to that?
What can I say about it? However much you make, the same percentage goes toward keeping it together. The overhead’s tremendous. The amount of money — I find it as mind boggling as anybody out there on the street. You say, “Yeah, he’s a fucking multimillionaire, and blah-blah-blah.” The one thing you find out when you make a lot of money — and it always sounds trite when you say it, but it isn’t — is that that’s not the important thing. It doesn’t add one iota to your happiness in life. It just means you have different problems to deal with. And it brings its own problems. Like “Who are you going to put on retainer?”
It’s much better to be rich than poor, but not for the reasons that you would automatically think. I grew up with no bread at all. In fact, I was talking to Steve Jordan and Charley Drayton — black cats, you know, fairly well-off middle-class cats. I grew up poorer than they did. We just about made the rent. The luxuries were very, very few. I know what it’s like down there. I remember it. There wasn’t a lot of chances for someone, the way I grew up. My dad worked his butt off in order to just keep the rent paid and food for the family. To me, people are more important than anything else. Rock & roll, anything else, people are more important.
I know you and your father were reconciled a few years ago. Are you still on good terms?
Oh yeah. Dominoes every Friday night. In fact, I’m late for the game right now!
Does he live in New York?
He lives about forty-five minutes out of town. Oh yeah, now that we’re together, we’re very tight.
You described yourself earlier as a “family man.” What about your marriage and your kids? Obviously your wife, Patti Hansen, has her own business to do, and you have what you do.
Patti’s a mother now. She doesn’t do much. She does one job, two jobs a year. I mean, this is my second time around with families. I have a son — Marlon’s nineteen. Angela’s sixteen, and she’s just left school.
I have this new family. I live in a houseload of women, which sometimes can drive me totally round the bend, which is why I need to work and get on the road. I love ’em all, but it’s weird to be living with a load of chicks — it doesn’t matter what age they are. For a guy, the only guy in the house, you gotta call up another cat and say, “Hey, come over, or I’ll just drop over there!”
And my old lady knows this, bless her heart. I mean, that’s why I married her, because I’ll only get married once. But Patti and I, we have a good thing going. And it’s just kept going. I’m a lucky guy.
With you and Patti, is it the sort of arrangement where somebody is taking care of the kids all the time?
No, I hate that. I’d never have that. It’s only Patti and me and the kids. There’s other people who clean up the house, but it’s not like there’s a nanny and she brings the kids down once a day to play with for tea-time and then fuck off. No way. You live all together.
I mean, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and there’s both my kids in the bed. They’ve managed to find their way, and we’re all in the same bed together [laughs]. You get more out of it like that, and so do the kids. Family is a special thing. It’s almost . . . you can’t really talk about it, except to say that if you get a chance at it, try it out, because it’s one of the most special things that you’ll ever get on the face of this earth. It gives you that final missing link of what life’s about. While they’re looking upon you as the most wonderful person in the world because you’re “Daddy,” they do more for you than you do for them.
How is your health?
You tell me.
You look good. You sound great.
I’ve lived my life in my own way, and I’m here today because I have taken the trouble to find out who I am.
The problem, however, is people who think they can live like Keith Richards.
That’s what I mean. The biggest mistake in the world is to think that you have to emulate somebody else. That is fatal. It’s got nothing to do with me. If people want to be like Keith Richards, then they better have the same physical makeup. I come from a very sturdy stock — otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
At this point, to what degree is your identity tied into being a Rolling Stone?
Well, I’ve always been one, from the start of . . . if you want to call it my professional career. And I never wanted to be anything else. For the last couple of years I’ve had to deal with not being one. At first it almost broke my heart.
What I’ve learned from not being a Rolling Stone for two years probably will help me be, if the Stones come back together, which they will, will help me be . . . what can I say — “a better Rolling Stone”? [Laughs.] Or make the Rolling Stones better.
I have a little more confidence in myself, by myself. I found that I can, if I have to, live without the Rolling Stones. And that my only job isn’t desperately trying to keep a band together that maybe needed a break.
The last question I want to ask you is about legacy. All the bluesmen you admire — there’s a legacy of theirs that you’ve carried on. Do you have a vision of how you’d like yourself, the Stones, your music, to move forward?
Well, then we get back to the break around Dirty Work. My vision of the Rolling Stones was that this was the perfect point and opportunity, at our state and our age, to carry on and mature and prove it. I played with Muddy Waters six months before he died, and the cat was just as vital as he was in his youth. And he did it until the day he died. To me, that is the important thing. I mean, what am I gonna do now, go for job retraining and learn to be a welder? I’ll do this until I drop. I’m committed to it and that’s it.
I want to try and make this thing grow up. Elvis couldn’t do it. A lot of them didn’t do it. To me, it’s important to prove that this isn’t just teenage kids’ shit and you should feel embarrassed when you’re over forty and still doing it. That’s not necessary. This is a job. It’s a man’s job, and it’s a lifelong job. And if there’s a sucker to ever prove it, I hope to be the sucker.
This story is from the October 6, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.