PATRICK CONNOLE in New York meets the embodiment of rock'n'roll. And survives ...
Many years have passed since Keith Richards was to have left this Earth. The toll of living the rock 'n' roll dream for 35 years as co-head of the Rolling Stones would cut short his life, many said. Others, simply looking at the man, wondered how he survived the 1960s, much less the decades that followed. But here it is 1997, and the Rolling Stones, with Richards on board as ever, are again playing to full stadiums on their savagely promoted "Bridges to Babylon" tour. Like an anxious comet, the Stones streak onto an increasingly barren world stage every three years, taking their place as the World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band. Looking every inch the rock icon, the wiry, chain-smoking guitarist spoke at length about his life as a Rolling Stone and the effort it takes to keep the band together. First, he tried to answer the question he calls unaswerable: Why continue playing well into your 50s? "Why not? I don't know if it's just to do with rock 'n' roll or if it's inverted racism in a way. If I happened to be black, if I was Muddy Waters (a Stones mentor) or John Lee Hooker or Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ray Charles, nobody would even bring that (age) up," Richards said. "You'd think that us still playing would be a positive thing. For 20 odd years we've had to fight the question of how long can you go on. That's our question as well. It's not that we have the answer, but we can go on long enough. The band's rocking, and they're loving what they're doing." Richards espouses a live-and-let-live philosophy about his life's work, stressing that the Stones are enjoying their never-ending road show now more than ever. "If you set it up and sort of said this is the way you'd like it to go, it's gone better. Quite honestly, it's been amazing. The guys are just on. It's one of those indefinable things. Maybe it's because this hasn't been much of a show year. All the energy is there with the audience. Now and again we just sort of step right into a perfect frame." Richards says each time a Stones tour ends it could be the last, but invariably there is contact between members, and the whole process starts again. "There is usually some sort of phoning after six to nine months. 'Well, you know, whaddya think ... I'm ready.' It kind of starts from there. I guess in a way it's an itch." Some years ago, there seemed to be no itches left. Jagger and Richards were portrayed in the press as being in a state of war over the band's direction and solo projects that stretched the very ties that bound the Stones together. "That happened 10-12 years ago, 1985-86. In retrospect, it was inevitable in any long-running team, especially one so successful as the Stones," Richards said. "We just all said 'We're in prison, inside a Stones vacuum.' "It was more a fight against that in retrospect than it was between Mick and me hard-nosing. Obviously, with us being the two high-profile ones, it would come off like that. He had one way of dealing with it, and I had another way of dealing with it. The big test is, do you come back together again?"
'Sometimes Mick winds me up just to get me going, because he needs a bit of fire. I'll make him pissed off, and then I'll yell, and he'll get angry, and then we got the blood flowing.'
They did come back, cutting the "Steel Wheels" album and going on tour in 1989-90, followed by their "Voodoo Lounge" work and a new Virgin Record contract a few years later. "We came back with a lot more experience and a lot more air between us. We all learned a few things about being out there on our own, including Charlie (drummer Watts), which is probably one of the more important things," Richards said. "I think Mick found out that a great record means more than just having a few songs and being a lead singer. You don't throw a band together overnight just because they're the top hands in the world. Very rarely do the top hands in the world gel, and he learned that," he went on. "I learned what it means to be a frontman. It is all go. In this gig I can always hang with Charlie and just jam. Charlie had a lot more appreciation for what Mick and I had been doing, running the Stones between us. Positive lessons got learned." Richards may think of offering the band's conflict resolution methods to a self-help publisher since few marriages - and fewer rock bands -- stay together as long as the Stones have. "It's the hanging together that makes the band -- that delicate, fragile thing, the personality, the chemistry of everybody being actually able to tolerate each other. Because you wear yourself pretty ragged on the road. 'I hate you forever,' we'll say it one day, but forever lasts 24 hours." "Sometimes Mick winds me up just to get me going, because he needs a bit of fire. I'll make him pissed off, and then I'll yell, and he'll get angry, and then we got the blood flowing. We kind of play with it in a way, almost as much as we play the instruments, we play each other," Richards said. He said life on the road as the band gets on in years runs the same course as ever. His hotel room, wherever the locale, is tagged the "baboon cage," where everyone can practice long-established rock 'n' roll rituals peculiar to the road. "Quite honestly, on the road it's pretty much the same as ever. After a show, we get back to the hotel, and within a half-hour there's a knock on the door, people drop by for a drink, discuss the show, have a few more drinks, play more sounds, and before you know it, the sun's up," he said. "You never know what's going to happen, and that's all that's ever happened. The thing is you just hang around. Everybody thinks 'wild party,' as if there is some sort of big design going on. But, really, you just go to the room and see what happens." For now, that is what drives Richards -- the present, not the past and not the future. As long as music is coming out of the Stones, its famously still-alive-and-lucid lead guitarist will be taking to the road, again and again and again, humping his guitar onstage, simply because he likes it. "I just don't want to see the Stones gasping hungrily to be up to date and have hit records or anything. I just want the Stones to do the best they can. They're the only ones who can do it," he said. "I want to make really good stuff. If we get hits out of it, fantastic, but if not they'll be damn good records, and they'll still last, and they'll be around a long time. The immediate gratification left me a long time ago. If you don't get it, you ain't been there, but maybe you'll get it further down the road."
(This interview first appeared on Reuters.)