Keith Richards: forty years on, here's a career that doesn't need botox
Music—The Coolest - Interview
From his days as a teenager developing a religious devotion to American R&B and blues to his time as a drug-addled star, Keith Richards has not only continued to make great music, he's also developed a mythic persona that all rock guitarists have followed ever since. Richards created the blueprint for the mysterious guitarist, a piratical warrior with an effortless gift for being devilishly cooler than the front man (in the Rolling Stones' case, himself pretty cool). The Stones' current world tour--coinciding with the recent release of Forty Licks (Virgin), a 40-track hit list charting their career--attests to Richards' undiminished powers for conjuring graceful, guttural sounds. In person he's weathered, degenerate, wise, bemused, sweet, and a force of nature.
DIMITRI EHRLICH: Why are you still going?
KEITH RICHARDS: It's still getting better. We haven't played together for three years, basically since the last tour, yet every time we get back together there's this extra juice that makes people feel good about playing. That's the important thing: You can't take this gig on and think, I'm just going to grind it out, because you'll grind yourself out. You've got to be looking forward to something, and morale right now is very good. Sometimes I wonder, Am I working for the audience, or am I working for myself?
DE: Do you often think about the larger questions--about what your purpose is?
KR: [laughs] Well, there's the great mystery, isn't it? Basically, all I know is that in order to do what I do--turn people on--the band needs to be turned on first. It has to do with being part of a team. If you're going through the motions, thinking [in a funny voice], They're looking to be impressed by my expertise, you might as well be a plumber or a CEO.
DE: It's not about money or acclaim, then?
KR: We never wanted to be pop stars. We were thinking more about jazz. Of course, we realized that wouldn't work if we wanted to get into a recording studio. Fame isn't something where you just sort of go, "OK, I'll be famous!" and take the ticket. When it happens, you'd better grab it. In the end, being pop stars was handy; you realize you could do a whole lot more from this position. Suddenly it wasn't so unhip to be a pop star. [laughs] Twist my arm. We're still here because we're not forcing it. There's just some compulsion to follow this thing.
DE: Your grandfather was the person who initially encouraged you to learn the guitar. Did he get to see his encouragement pay off?
KR: Oh yeah, he didn't die until the '70s. He gloated for a long time. As a kid I would go up and visit Grandpa for a couple of weeks; when I got there, there'd always be this Spanish guitar, a really beautiful old gut-string job, on the wall. I'd look at it and he'd go, "You can play it when you can reach it." I waited years. He was a very musical man. He played violin, sax; he had a band of his own until just before he died. He never stopped. He just turned me on in such a subtle way. I'd visit one of his guitar workshops or musical stores--you know, where the repairs are coming in, violins, guitars, saxophones. He'd buy me a few picks and I'd be sitting on the chair at six or seven, legs dangling, watching these guys coming in with guitars, or guys from the orchestras going, 'You must help me!" And I'm just observing this sort of alchemy go on. He brought me up without me even realizing it. Maybe it wasn't his plan.
DE: In Brian Eno's diary he wrote that you can never really rely on drugs or drink to improve your creative process. But the fact that you wrote "Satisfaction" and then passed out, and probably wrote many songs while quite buzzed, would suggest otherwise.
KR: It's impossible to say what I would have written if I wasn't [inebriated]. At the time I wrote "Satisfaction" it wasn't anything serious, you know? A few uppers and a bit of weed. When I listen to what I did under the influence--10 years of work--I don't think it either enhanced or impaired me. It didn't have that much to do with it. Some guys think dope is great for their music. Bullshit! I took drugs because I wanted to hide.
DE: You wanted to hide away.
KR: Life was just too bloody public, and that was the only place where I could handle it and be in my own cocoon. I was with an old lady who agreed with me [about drug use], so it was quite easy. Eventually you realize it's self-defeating- especially heroin. You think your scene is really cool as long as you've got the shit. No matter what you have to go through, you're like, 'Oh, it's cool. I've got to go score, honey. I'll be back." You go into this very heavy situation and take it for granted, but you might as well be in a war zone. You're more likely to get shot [scoring drugs] than in the front lines.
DE: I read that when you got busted in Toronto in February 1977. one of the reasons that you didn't go to jail was because some blind girl went up and testified to a judge that you helped her get home after a Stones concert. Is that right?
KR: I met this blind chick from Montreal on the road in the States. She was going to every Stones gig, hitchhiking blind as a bat to get to the next concert. I said, "This is not safe," so I would fix her up a ride with the truckers; I thought, She's going to do it anyway, and I didn't want her to get run over. And that's all did. This [drug arrest] case dragged on for a year and a half or more, and the Canadians wanted it out of their hair. But this chick actually went to the judge's house one night. She knocked on his door, told him the story, and from that he saw his way clear. These are my blind angels! [laughs] I'm blessed this way.
DE: I interviewed you about eight years ago and asked if you ever had trouble falling asleep, and you said, "No, I never go to bed. I just keep going until I pass out." Is that still true?
KR: Yeah. I still don't go to bed to go to sleep. Usually it overtakes me sooner or later, but basically that's true. Even if I've got to get up in the morning, I'll average it out and say, "Well, I've been up too long and I've got to get up in three hours." In that case I'll go through rather than get three hours' sleep. Forget about it. Otherwise I don't regulate it. It seems to work out.
Dimitri Ehrlich is Interview's Music Editor at Large.
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