Keith Richards bolts out of the dark and into the light, grips the neck of his guitar like a rifle barrel and fires the opening call to joy of the Rolling Stones‘ 2002-03 world tour: the fierce chords of “Street Fighting Man,” a blazing rush that for Richards is the sound of life itself. “My biggest addiction, more than heroin, is the stage and the audience,” he says with gravelly cheer the next day, after that first show in Boston. “That buzz — it calls you every time.” Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood will spend the next year on the road answering that call, celebrating forty years as a working band and the release of a two CD retrospective, Forty Licks. “You’re fighting upstream against this preconception that you can’t do this at this age,” snaps Richards, who turns fifty-nine on December 18th. He has been through worse: a long dance with heroin in the 1970s; close calls with the law and death; his volatile lifelong relationship with Jagger. And Richards talks about all of it — as well as his ultimate jones, playing with the Stones — in this interview, conducted over vodka and cigarettes during two long nights in Boston and Chicago. “People should say, ‘Isn’t it amazing these guys can move like that? Here’s hope for you all,’ ” he says with a grin. “Just don’t use my diet.”
How do you deal with criticism about the Stones being too old to rock & roll? Do you get pissed off? Does it hurt?
People want to pull the rug out from under you, because they’re bald and fat and can’t move for shit. It’s pure physical envy — that we shouldn’t be here. “How dare they defy logic?”
If I didn’t think it would work, I would be the first to say, “Forget it.” But we’re fighting people’s misconceptions about what rock & roll is supposed to be. You’re supposed to do it when you’re twenty, twenty five — as if you’re a tennis player and you have three hip surgeries and you’re done. We play rock & roll because it’s what turned us on. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf — the idea of retiring was ludicrous to them. You keep going — and why not?
You went right from being a teenager to being a Stone — no regular job, a little bit of art school. What would you be doing if the Stones had not lasted this long?
I went to art school and learned how to advertise, because you don’t learn much art there. I schlepped my portfolio to one agency, and they said — they love to put you down — “Can you make a good cup of tea?” I said, “Yeah, I can, but not for you.” I left my crap there and walked out. After I left school, I never said, “Yes, sir” to anybody.
If nothing had happened with the Stones and I was a plumber now, I’d still be playing guitar at home at night, or get the lads around the pub. I loved music; it didn’t occur to me that it would be my life. When I knew I could play something, it was an added bright thing to my life: “I’ve got that, if nothing else.”
Do you have nightmares that someday you’ll hit the stage and the place will be empty — nobody bothered to come?
That’s not a nightmare. I’ve been there: Omaha ’64, in a 15,000seat auditorium where there were 600 people. The city of Omaha, hearing these things about the Beatles — they thought they should treat us in the same way, with motorcycle outriders and everything. Nobody in town knew who we were. They didn’t give a shit. But it was a very good show. You give as much to a handful of people as you do to the others.
Do you have a pregig ritual — a particular drink or smoke?
I have them anyway [laughs]. I don’t go in for superstition. Ronnie and I might have a game of snooker. But it would be superfluous for the Stones to discuss strategy or have a hug. With the Winos [his late Eighties solo band], it was important. They were different guys; we only did a couple of tours. I didn’t mind. But with the Stones, it’s like, “Oh, do me a favor! I’m not going to fucking hug you!”
At the height of your heroin addiction, would you indulge before a show?
No. I always cleaned up for tours. I didn’t want to put myself in the position of going cold turkey in some little Midwestern town. By the end of the tour, I’m perfectly clean and should have stayed sober. But you go, “I’ll just give myself a treat.” Boom, there you are again.
Could you tell that you played better when you were clean?
I wonder about the songs I’ve written: I really like the ones I did when I was on the stuff. I wouldn’t have written “Coming Down Again” [on 1973’s Goat’s Head Soup] without that. I’m this millionaire rock star, but I’m in the gutter with these other sniveling people. It kept me in touch with the street, at the lowest level.
On this tour, you’re doing a lot of songs from Exile on Main Street — for most people, the band’s greatest album. Would you agree?
It’s a funny thing. We had tremendous trouble convincing Atlantic to put out a double album. And initially, sales were fairly low. For a year or two, it was considered a bomb. This was an era where the music industry was full of these pristine sounds. We were going the other way. That was the first grunge record.
Yes, it is one of the best. Beggars Banquet was also very important. That body of work, between those two albums: That was the most important time for the band. It was the first change the Stones had to make after the teenybopper phase. Until then, you went onstage fighting a losing battle. You want to play music? Don’t go up there. What’s important is hoping no one gets hurt and how are we getting out.
I remember a riot in Holland. I turned to look at Stu [Ian Stewart] at the piano. All I saw was a pool of blood and a broken chair. He’d been taken off by stagehands and sent to the hospital. A chair landed on his head.
To compensate for that, Mick and I developed the songwriting and records. We poured our music into that. Beggars Banquet was like coming out of puberty.
The Stones are reviving a lot of rare, older material on this tour, such as “Heart of Stone” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Why did you stop playing those songs?
Maybe they were songs that we tried once or twice and went, “That didn’t work at all.” I think we tried “Knocking” once the whole way through. When the actual song finished and we were into the jam, it collapsed totally. The wheels fell off. We tried it one other time — “We’ll just do the front bit” — and neither satisfied us. Nobody wants to go near something that has a jinx on it. But you have to take the jinx off, take the voodoo away and have another look.
Are there Stones hits that you’re sick of playing?
No, they usually disappear of their own accord. That’s the thing about songs — you don’t have to be scared of them dying. They keep poking you in the face. The Stones have always believed in the present. But “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up” are always fun to play. You gotta be a real sourpuss, mate, not to get up there and play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” without feeling like, “C’mon, everybody, let’s go!” It’s like riding a wild horse.
The general assumption about the Stones’ classic songs is that Mick wrote the words and you wrote the music. Do you deserve more credit for the lyrics — and Mick for the music?
It’s been a progression from Mick and I sitting face to face with a guitar and a tape recorder, to after Exile, when everybody chose a different place to live and another way of working. Let me put it this way: I’d say, “Mick, it goes like this: ‘Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.’ ” Then it would be a division of labor, Mick filling in the verses. There’s instances like “Undercover of the Night” or “Rock and a Hard Place” where it’s totally Mick’s song. And there are times when I come in with “Happy” or “Before They Make Me Run.” I say, “It goes like this. In fact, Mick, you don’t even have to know about it, because you’re not singing” [laughs].
But I always thought songs written by two people are better than those written by one. You get another angle on it: “I didn’t know you thought like that.” The interesting thing is what you say to someone else, even to Mick, who knows me real well. And he takes it away. You get his take.
On Stones albums, you tend to sing ballads — “You Got the Silver,” “Slipping Away,” “The Worst” — rather than rockers.
I like ballads. Also, you learn about songwriting from slow songs. You get a better rock & roll song by writing it slow to start with, and seeing where it can go. Sometimes it’s obvious that it can’t go fast, whereas “Sympathy for the Devil” started out as a Bob Dylan song and ended up as a samba. I just throw songs out to the band.
Did “Happy” start out as a ballad?
No. That happened in one grand bash in France for Exile. I had the riff. The rest of the Stones were late for one reason or another. It was only Bobby Keys there and Jimmy Miller, who was producing. I said, “I’ve got this idea; let’s put it down for when the guys arrive.” I put down some guitar and vocal, Bobby was on baritone sax and Jimmy was on drums. We listened to it, and I said, “I can put another guitar there and a bass.” By the time the Stones arrived, we’d cut it. I love it when they drip off the end of the fingers. And I was pretty happy about it, which is why it ended up being called “Happy.”
How do you and Mick write now? Take “Don’t Stop,” for example, one of the four new songs on Forty Licks.
It’s basically all Mick. He had the song when we got to Paris to record. It was a matter of me finding the guitar licks to go behind the song, rather than it just chugging along. We don’t see a lot of each other — I live in America, he lives in England. So when we get together, we see what ideas each has got: “I’m stuck on the bridge.” “Well, I have this bit that might work.” A lot of what Mick and I do is fixing and touching up, writing the song in bits, assembling it on the spot. In “Don’t Stop,” my job was the fairy dust.
What would it take for the Stones to have hit singles now, the way you churned them out in the 1960s and 1970s?
I haven’t thought like that for years. “Start Me Up” surprised me, honestly — it was a fiveyearold rhythm track. Even then, in ’81, I wasn’t aiming for Number One. I was into making albums.
It was important, when we started, to have hits. And it taught you a lot of things quickly: what makes a good record, how to say things in two minutes thirty seconds. If it was four seconds longer, they chopped it off. It was good school, but it’s been so long since I’ve made records with the idea of having a hit single. I’m out of that game.
Charlie Watts gets an enormous ovation every night when Mick introduces him. But Charlie’s also quite an enigma — the quiet conscience of the Stones.
Charlie is a great English eccentric. I mean, how can you describe a guy who buys a 1936 Alfa Romeo just to look at the dashboard? Can’t drive — just sits there and looks at it. He’s an original, and he happens to be one of the best drummers in the world. Without a drummer as sharp as Charlie, playing would be a drag.
He’s very quiet — but persuasive. It’s very rare that Charlie offers an opinion. If he does, you listen. Mick and I fall back on Charlie more than would be apparent. Many times, if there’s something between Mick and I, it’s Charlie I’ve got to talk to.
It could be as simple as whether to play a certain song. Or I’ll say, “Charlie, should I go to Mick’s room and hang him?” And he’ll say no [laughs]. His opinion counts.
How has your relationship with Ron Wood changed since he gave up drinking?
I tell Ronnie, “I can’t tell the difference between if you’re pissed out of your brain or straight as an arrow.” He’s the same guy. But Ronnie never got off the last tour. He kept on after we finished the last show. On the road it’s all right, because you burn off a lot of the stuff you do onstage. But when you get home and you’re not in touch with your environment, your family — he didn’t stop. He realized he had to do it. It was his decision. When I found out about it, he was already in the spin dryer.
Ronnie has always had a light heart. That’s his front. But there is a deeper guy in there. I know the feeling. I probably wouldn’t have gotten into heroin if it hadn’t been a way for me to protect myself. I could walk into the middle of all the bullshit, softly surrounded by this cool, be my own man inside, and everybody had to deal with it. Mick does it his way. Ronnie does it his way.
Do you miss having a drinking partner?
Shit, I am my drinking partner. Intoxication? I’m polytoxic. Whatever drinking or drugs I do is never as big a deal to me as they have been to other people. It’s not a philosophy with me. The idea of taking something in order to be Keith Richards is bizarre to me.
Were there drugs you tried and didn’t like?
Loads. I was very selective. Speed — nah. Pure pharmaceutical cocaine — that’s great, but it ain’t there anymore. Heroin — the best is the best. But when it comes to Mexican shoe scrapings, ugh. Good weed is good weed.
What about acid?
I enjoyed it. Acid arrived just as we had worn ourselves out on the road, in 1966. It was kind of a vacation. I never went for the idea that this was some special club — the Acid Test and that bollocks.
I found it interesting that you were way out there but still functioning normally, doing things like driving; I’d stop off at the shops. Meanwhile, you were zooming off. Methedrine and bennies never did appeal to me. Downers — now and again: “I’ve got to get some sleep.” But if you don’t go to sleep, you have a great time [laughs].
How much did your drug use in the 1970s alienate Mick?
He wasn’t exactly Mr. Clean and I was Mr. Dirty. But I withdrew a lot from the basic daytoday of the Stones. It usually only took one of us to deal with most things. But when I did come out of it and offered to shoulder the burden, I noticed that Mick was quite happy to keep the burden to himself. He got used to calling the shots.
I was naive — I should have thought about it. I have no doubt that here or there Mick used the fact that I was on the stuff, and everybody knew it: “You don’t want to talk to Keith, he’s out of it.” Hey, it was my own fault. I did what I did, and you just don’t walk back in again.
Describe the state of your friendship with Mick. Is friendship the right word?
Absolutely. It’s a very deep one. The fact that we squabble is proof of it. It goes back to the fact that I’m an only child. He’s one of the few people I know from my childhood. He is a brother. And you know what brothers are like, especially ones who work together. In a way, we need to provoke each other, to find out the gaps and see if we’re onboard together.
Does it bother you that your musical life together isn’t enough for him — that he wants to make solo records?
He’ll never lie about in a hammock, just hanging out. Mick has to dictate to life. He wants to control it. To me, life is a wild animal. You hope to deal with it when it leaps at you. That is the most marked difference between us. He can’t go to sleep without writing out what he’s going to do when he wakes up. I just hope to wake up, and it’s not a disaster.
My attitude was probably formed by what I went through as a junkie. You develop a fatalistic attitude toward life. He’s a bunch of nervous energy. He has to deal with it in his own way, to tell life what’s going to happen rather than life telling you.
Was he like that in 1965?
Not so much. He’s very shy, in his own way. It’s pretty funny to say that about one of the biggest extroverts in the world. Mick’s biggest fear is having his privacy. Mick sometimes treats the world as if it’s attacking him. It’s his defense, and that has molded his character to a point where sometimes you feel like you can’t get in yourself. Anybody in the band will tell you that. But it comes from being in that position for so long — being Mick Jagger.
What don’t you like about his solo albums?
Wimpy songs, wimpy performance, bad recording. That’s about enough. I’ve done solo things here and there, but the Stones are numero uno. The Stones are the reason I’m here. They are my whole working life. I never had a job. To me, it’s very important that there is a very close unity presented to everyone else: “Shields up.” Outside projects, I felt, were a detriment to the Stones. If what you did is fantastic, you’re going to want to carry it on. If it’s a bum, you’ve gotta run back to the Stones and say, “Protect me.” That’s not a good position for a fighting unit. “I’ve got deserters”: I used to think like that.
But you can’t keep everybody in that insular thing forever. I mean, Charlie takes his jazz band around the world. You’ve got to turn it into an asset. Whatever it was, we all went out there and tried it on. But we all come back to the Rolling Stones. There is an electromagnetic thing that goes on with it. It draws us back to the center.
What do you think of Mick’s knighthood?
I have to revert to a Stones point of view. These are the guys who tried to put us in jail in the Sixties, and then you’re taking a minor honor. Also, to get a phone call from Mick saying, “Tony Blair insists that I take it” — this is a way to present it to me?
It’s antirespect to the Stones — that was my initial opinion. I thought it would have been the smarter move to say thanks, but no thanks. After being abused by Her Majesty’s government for so many years, being hounded almost out of existence, I found it weird that he’d want to take a badge. But what the fuck does it matter? It doesn’t make any difference in the way we work. Within the Stones, it’s probably made him buckle down a bit more, because he knows he’s being disapproved of [laughs].
In the opening lines of “The Worst,” you sing, “I said from the first/I’m the worst.” Are you a hard man to love?
Ask those who love me. In any new relationship, I tell people, “Do you know what you’re dealing with? Don’t tell me that I didn’t say from the first, I’m the worst.” It’s my riot act. The last time I said it was to my old lady twentyodd years ago. I say, out front, take it on, or get out.
You and your wife, Patti, have two teenage daughters, Alexandra and Theodora. And as a dad, you have a unique perspective on the mischief kids get up to, because you’ve done most of it.
I’ve never had a problem with my kids, even though Marlon and Angela [two of his three children by former girlfriend Anita Pallenberg] grew up in rough times: cops busting in, me being nuts. [Another son, Tara, died in 1976; he was ten weeks old.] I feel akin to the old whaling captains: “We’re taking the boat out, see you in three years.” Dad disappearing for weeks and months — it’s never affected my kids’ sense of security. It’s just what Dad does.
What about serious talks? About drugs?
That’s something you see on TV ads. Alexandra and Theodora are my best friends. It’s not fingerwagging. I just keep an eye on them. If they got a problem, they come and talk to me. They’ve grown up with friends whose idea of me — who knows what they’ve been told at school? But they know who I am. And they always come to my defense [smiles]. Which is the way I like it.
Describe your life at home in Connecticut: When you get up, what do you do?
I made a determined effort after the last tour to get up with the family. Which for me is a pretty impressive goal. But I did it — I’d get up at seven in the morning. After a few months, I was allowed to drive the kids to school. Then I was allowed to take the garbage out. Before that, I didn’t even know where the recycling bin was.
I read a lot. I might have a little sail around Long Island Sound if the weather is all right. I do a lot of recording in my basement — writing songs, keeping up to speed. I have no fixed routine. I wander about the house, wait for the maids to clean the kitchen, then fuck it all up again and do some frying. Patti and I go out once a week, if there’s something on in town — take the old lady out for dinner with a bunch of flowers, get the rewards [smiles].
Have you listened to the new guitar bands — the Hives, the Vines, the White Stripes? The Strokes are opening for you on this tour.
I haven’t really. I’m looking forward to seeing them. I don’t want to listen to the records until I see them.
But is it encouraging to see new guitar music being made in your image?
That’s the whole point. What Muddy Waters did for us is what we should do for others. It’s the old thing, what you want written on your tombstone as a musician: “He Passed It On.” I can’t wait to see these guys — they’re like my babies, you know?
I’m not a champion of the guitar as an instrument. The guitar is just one of the most compact and sturdy. And the reason I still play it is that the more you do, the more you learn. I found a new chord the other day. I was like, “Shit, if I had known that years ago …” That’s what’s beautiful about the guitar. You think you know it all, but it keeps opening up new doors. I look at life as six strings and twelve frets. If I can’t figure out everything that’s in there, what chance do I have of figuring out anything else?
A lot of people who were a big part of your life with the Stones are no longer here. Who do you miss the most?
Ian Stewart was a body blow. I was waiting for him in a hotel in London. He was going to see a doctor and then come and see me. Charlie called about three in the morning: “You still waiting for Stu? He ain’t coming, Keith.”
Stu was the father figure. He was the stitch that pulled us together. He had a very large heart, above and beyond the call of duty. When other people would get mean and jealous, he could rise above it. He taught me a lot about taking a couple of breaths before you go off the handle. Mind you, it didn’t always work. But I got the message.
Gram Parsons — I figured we’d put things together for years, because there was so much promise there. I didn’t think he was walking on the broken eggshells so much. I was in the john at a gig in Innsbruck, Austria. I’m taking a leak, and Bobby Keys walks in. He says, “I got a bad one for you. Parsons is dead.” We were supposed to be staying in Innsbruck that night. I said fuck it. I rented a car, and Bobby and I drove to Munich and did the clubs — tried to forget about it for a day or two.
Have you contemplated your own death?
I let other people do that. They’ve been doing it for years. They’re experts, apparently. Hey, I’ve been there — the white light at the end of the tunnel — three or four times. But when it doesn’t happen, and you’re back in — that’s a shock.
The standard joke is that in spite of every drink and drug you’ve ever taken, you will outlive cockroaches and nuclear holocaust. You’ll be the last man standing.
It’s very funny, how that position has been reserved for me. It’s only because they’ve been wishing me to death for so many years, and it didn’t happen. So I get the reverse tip of the hat. All right, if you want to believe it — I will write all of your epitaphs.
But I don’t flaunt it. I never tried to stay up longer than anybody else just to announce to the media that I’m the toughest. It’s just the way I am. The only thing I can say is, you gotta know yourself.
After forty years, still doing two and a half hours onstage every night — that’s the biggest last laugh of all.
Maybe that’s the answer. If you want to live a long life, join the Rolling Stones.