by DAVID LANGSAM
The Politics, Philosophy and Psychology of the Rolling Stones
The Politics, Philosophy and Psychology of the Rolling Stones
Keith Richards interviewed at his Broadway, New York office.
December 1988 Keith Richards confidantly predicts the Rolling Stones willback on the road with a new album and a world tour in 1989 -but if it takes time to organise, the X-Pensive Winos - hisTalk Is Cheap album band - will tour Australia and Japanbefore the Stones work begins. However his trenchantcriticism of Mick Jagger as in this interview ''He has nofriends, he has no character''and Bill Wyman ''they take itfor granted that people love the shit that comes out oftheir arseholes'' makes it difficult to imagine the fiveworking together again ... Keith, a heroin-clean family of four man is very hung upover Mick. He thanks him immensely for saving him throughhis heroin habit days and admits a great love for hislifelong friend. But Keith is adamant that he has his acttogether and is at one with himself, while Mick has nofriends (other than Keith), only yes men and Mick needs helpto come to terms with his future. Mick may well havedifferent views on these matters. In fact the phrase ''He protesteth too much'' comes to mindas Keith carves into Mick's lack of character and then needto find himself. Maybe Mick doesn't agree with Keith. Maybethey have just gone their separate ways after 40 yearstogether and 25 years on the road together ... It's sad butit does happen. Whether the Stones regroup, record and tourthis year will depend on the five principals and if, asKeith claims below, he really wants to keep his bandtogether, he'd better soften some of the body blows he'slanding.
DAVID LANGSAM flew to New York from his homebase in London,to attend the last gig of Keith Richards' US tour at Meadowlands New Jersey, went to the end of tour party andmet Keith in his office on Broadway, above one of the fewliquor stores that sell Rebel Yell bourbon north of theMason Dixon line.
David Langsam: You've just finished your first solo tour -your first time on the road without Charlie, Bill, Ron andof course, Mick - well, what do you think?
Keith Richards: It was absolutely great. At the moment I'mjust realising that it's finished - the body keeps going,''Where's the gig?'' Nine o'clock and my body wants to goonstage and there's no stage to go to anymore. You get apost tour depression. It always sets in. The tour was fantastic, the crowds amazing. For me the wholething was an experiment, which is why I decided, except forMeadowlands, to do small theatres and stuff where I didn'thave to think about the sound and I could figure out whetherI could carry this thing off or not as a front man ... andthat worked. I'm very happy.
DAVID: I liked you as a front man, doing a Mick Jagger does Keith Richards, bouncing around the front and centre stage... and then you'd break it with a self-deprecating grin asif to say ''this is just crap, yeah I can strut my stuff butI don't need to.'' How do you feel about being able to fronta band?
KEITH: It was mainly a matter of whether I could personallyhandle it or whether I would just dry up having to handle awhole show by myself. I was unnaturally calm at the firstgig, in Atlanata. Usually I get excited, nerves don't reallycome into it, but I get an ''open the cage, let me out, letme at them'' feeling, but for the first gig I must havenumbed myself in some way, because I had this unnaturalclarity of what was going on and wasn't actually feelinganything at all until I got into the show. It was after thefirst show that I realised, ''Yeah I can handle this.'' The first one's the toughest always. After that it's amatter of mechanics, whether the voice holds out. Then ifyou can get through one show you can get through hundreds.The next gig, the next day, was Memphis and that's when Iknew it was okay, because I had that same feeling again,''Okay open the cage ... let me at them,'' so it wasalright.
DAVID: They were serious music places to open a tour,particularly Memphis. What was it like headlining your ownact in Memphis?
KEITH: In a ballroom, too. There were some great gigs. InDetroit we played in an old Fox theatre that had beentotally redecorated. It's almost a replica of the one in StLouis I did the Chuck Berry movie in ... incredibly ornateTwenties joint. I had heard that theatre was a flea pit acouple of years ago and they'd only just opened it againafter doing an incredible job. It's a serious old gig, abeautiful theatre and you get great sounds in those places.And there's no distance between you and the crowd ...they've got their fingers on the stage. It's very intimateand you can whip up a lot of excitement.
DAVID: What was the opening communal crouch about?
KEITH: I didn't want it to start with ''Ladies and Gentlemen Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos'' I thought we'd justgo on, sit down and finish our cigarettes and talk over whatwe're doing and bring the lights up slowly and when we'reready to go, go. Everybody wonders what the hell's going on and actually itcalms the band down and stops the nerves getting to anybody. We just finish our cigarettes, finish our drinks and justwish each other good luck. And when I know everybody's readyI just start the song. It centres the band and leaves alittle feeling of intimacy in a way to the audience -especially in the smaller theatres. It lets the audiencethink they're being let into some private rehearsal orscene. It draws them in, it's a little bit of theatre ...and also (laughing) it's very cheap.
DAVID: The obvious question is whether you'll stay with thisor go back to the Stones, but in fact you now have theoption to either perform solo, or work with the Stones?
KEITH: The ideal thing for me would be to do both. The Stones don't work enough for my liking. To get the best workout of myself I have to work more often than the Stones canpossibly work. The machinery is so big in the Stonesorganization you tour maybe once every two years. The Stonesnow haven't been on the road for six years, it will be sevenif they get on the road next year ... which is a long time. And for a musician that's not a good thing. A musician needsfairly regular constant work, practice, to keep your chopstogether so that it flows out of you naturally. The Stones, when we record or go on tour, I have to knockthe rust off the machinery for a couple of months first, andit's a hard grind to get them into top gear. The ideal thingwould be to work both of these bands: It would help me bemuch more well-oiled for when I work with the Stones andalso ... I like this band a lot. These guys are amazing. Onegood band in a life time is a miracle and to find two ...somebody's really smiling on you when you do that, when youget two great bands together. Around July or August we had a meeting in London and theysaid, ''Yeah let's do it. We want to do it.'' So I thinkthat it's a 99 percent surety that we'll definitely be onthe road this year and if things work out, maybe a newrecord before then, if we can get one together in time. Sobarring any fatal accidents of any kind or major explosions,I would imagine that somehow we'll see the Stones on theroad in '89.
DAVID: The Meadowlands gig at the end of the tour was quitea departure from a Stones gig in two ways. Firstly, Iexpected a wider age range, but it was overwhelmingly lateteens, college kids, high school students - which is greatfor you because it means you're breaking into a new audience- and secondly, while it was boppy, the music was lessdanceable than a Stones concert - more serious listeningmusic. In fact while watching you I was thinking this feelsmore like a Bo Diddley gig or a BB King show than a stadiumrock band.
KEITH: That's true. It's a very musical band to start withand most of the emphasis was the music. There's veryunderstated lighting, absolutely no visual gimmicks at all.It was designed to be concentrated on as music, but withenough power and enough looseness to not become stuffy asrecital. But Meadowlands was the only big place that weplayed, so in a way, although it was the last show it feltlike the first show because we were using all new equipment,much bigger equipment, so we had to change a lot of things.The show was basically designed for the more intimatesmaller theatres ... three thousand four thousand people andthat was 15 thousand. The other big problem I always thought I would have istrying to remember lyrics all the way through. And which atthe beginning for the first couple of shows I did have. Asyou're coming up to the microphone after, say, a guitar soloand you think, ''I have no idea what the words are'' andyou've got ten seconds or a tenth of a second and there itis ... it just comes out. In a way it's like slow motion. That's the ideal feeling onstage. That everything has slowed down for you. It's likebeing in a car crash ... the car's rolling over for thethird time and it seems it's been going on for half an hourand you know it's only a split second. It's that clarity youget.
DAVID: You have quite a reputation for car crashes, haven't you?
KEITH: I've had a few. Everything slows down and you're wondering whether you'll get the hell out. I've been in carcrashes where you actually do get out. I've watched it fromabove, saying, ''I'm a goner. This is it. No way am I goingto survive this.'' And suddenly you're watching it all from above. And by somequirk of fate you're actually still alive when the wholething is all over and suddenly ... bvoom ... you're back inthe driving seat again. It is a very strange feeling andonstage it can be like that sometimes. You just disappearand suddenly when it's time for you to be back insideyourself ... bvoom ... you're there and it's a strangefeeling. Maybe it's something to do with the afterlife, Idon't know. What was really great about this band on the road was that it was the same as playing with the Stones ... I didn't evenhave to look around. When I knew we had screwed up thearrangement somehow, but we'd just play it through toanother chorus and we'd bounce back in again. Which is what the Stones are very good at. Especially whenMick is halfway down a football stadium, half a mile awaynearly and you can hardly hear what's going on, because it'sso far away and you get this echo zooming around. With agood band you kind of know what the other guys are thinkingeven though you can't see them. You say, ''They know I'vescrewed up'' but you don't have to look around to try topull anything together, you can feel them all in the back ofyour mind, ''Okay we're with you''. Which is what the Stones prided themselves with working with Mick. No matter where he was, if he was halfway down a stadium oron one of those ramps we used to use ... he could be a tinylittle figure way down there, but if he screwed up a verse,or got dragged off the stage by some chick, he didn't haveto worry that the band would be there. And that's the signof a really great band, that unconscious picking up withoutany effort at all, without any consternation, that's theamazing thing.
DAVID: You're really missing those guys aren't you?
KEITH: Of course I miss them. I've known Mick for nearly 40 years ... Ronnie's a newcomer and he's been with us a mere 15 years or is it 13 years? And the other guys have beentogether 25 years. You're bound to miss people. I miss themall, they're all great friends of mine. As much as I miss them, I can, which I never thought Icould, work with other people as well. Before I startedworking on my own over the last couple of years, it justseemed so monumental to me, the task of trying to puttogether something else. When the Stones decided not towork, I decided, ''Well I got to work''. I can't just sit around on my arse and wait for the Stones to decide when I'mgoing to work again. But the task seemed too monumental tocontemplate ... to find other guys to play with and put itall together. Probably because I'd never had to do it sinceputting the Stones together in 1962.
DAVID: The album, Talk is Cheap, is a great album, but it'sbombed in the UK and in Australia, where you've done littleor no press and there's no tour planned, despite your ratherstrident criticism of Mick (Jagger) for not following upDirty Work. There are a lot of disappointed Keith Richardsfans in Europe and Australia who would have loved to haveseen you tour with X-Pensive Winos. It might have made the album chart.
KEITH: I'm not too concerned where it's done well and where it hasn't. It's already far exceeded what I expected it todo. I expected it to do respectably, but I can't be in Australia and in the UK and in America at the same time. If I had the time, I'd love to take this band everywhere and indue course, hopefully I can. There's no possible way I could have done a world tour atthis time given the fact that the Stones are going to beworking next year. If I had the time I would have loved tohave done that and the band were ready to go. And as far asthe record company is concerned, we've only had one single (Take It So Hard) out so far. There's plenty of otheralbums that don't take off until the second or third single.
DAVID: Like some Stones albums, Talk Is Cheap doesn't sound so good on the first listening, but the more you listen tothe tracks the more you like them. There's a deceptivebeauty to them.
KEITH: Exile On Main Street was like that. That was universally panned when it came out. And it was a double album. People get overloaded with double albums. There's somuch to listen to, you get confused. This album's like thatin a way. There's far more depth to it than you can possiblycatch on a first listening and it does take a few listens, which is why I mean there's plenty of room for this album todo things yet. As long as we can keep the interest alive onit, I think you'll find this album will still be a grower.They dumped a gold record on me after the Meadowlands gig, so we've done that. In Germany, France and Italy it's done very very well. And Scandinavia, Japan, as I say, it's been a blockbuster. The rest of the world has been much stronger with it than just America. That's another thing that makes me think it wouldbe very worthwhile to get these boys on the road. There's alot more interest out there than I thought there would be.
DAVID: I've always been interested in the social and political philosophy of the Stones. You've been adopted by everyone from Hippies to the Hells Angels. There's been much controversy about your lyrics: Street fighting Man is an anthem, Salt of the Earth, Brown Sugar, Heaven, You Can't Always Get What You Want, Luxury - so many of them analyse social conditions. But noticably your songs, Happy, T & A, You Got the Silver, All About You, Coming Down Again and just about everything on Talk Is Cheap are love songs, or blues songs. They're emotional, they're self-descriptive with little or no social comment.
KEITH: Mick's more of a preacher than I am, in his method of delivery etcetera. With Mick I can sit down and write on amore political level, a more social level, because he candeliver it that way. To me, when I get down to it, there's really not very much difference. A song about you and I isreally about the same thing at a more intimate level. It'sjust a matter of can we get along? And that's after all what society is. And that's all politics are. Between us all, how do we get along? And I usually focus it down to a morepersonal level, because I can deliver it better that way.Mick can sing it at a far more general level. In a way you only reflect what is going on out there. Also I find there's only so much you can say on a political or a social level. If you keep on doing it it starts to get hollow. And it's the same with Bob Dylan. Bob probably wrotesome of the best social commentaries in the 60s thatanybody's ever written. You can't keep on ... you can onlysay that sort of thing once or twice with any realconviction or otherwise you're just repeating yourself. AndI don't think rock'n'roll music's strong point is in being so pointed. One thing that did get over the Iron Curtain was music. You can buy Rolling Stones records in Moscow on the black market at 65 bucks a piece. And many other artists too. I think ageneration of all that has been - I won't say a main factor- but a strong factor in the reason that Gorbachev has said,''We can't keep the gates locked anymore. We've got to startto converse with people otherwise we're screwed.'' And so maybe music has an effect. But not just from the lyrics,because people don't all speak English and they're buying iton a far more human level. Music's way of doing things isfar more subtle than just by preaching about things that aregoing down. The power of music, the essence of it is not so much what is said but the fact that it is there.
DAVID: Mick sings ''Every cop is a criminal, all the sinners saints''. You sing ''I'm gonna walk before they make me run''. The first is social comment, political if you like.The second is self descriptive. Do you see yourself as an anarchist, as an outsider or like Bowie's Thomas Newtoncharacter in The Man Who Fell To Earth -ª a creature fromfar away bemused by the games people play?
KEITH: That's a good one. I see myself ... I don't know. I see myself as in a way put in a position. Like you said at the very beginning when you were testing the tape. Give meyour name and what you do for a living ... I'm a guitar player. I'm as bemused by what goes on in the world as anybody else and I really see myself as the extension of a very long tradition of troubadors and balladeers and musicians throughout the ages. I'm not trying to influence anybody in any particular way. I'm far more comfortable with describing how things affect me and seeing if that relates to people than deliberately trying to express what I think is going down in the world. When you're a performer, especially a famous performer, I suppose the best you can do ... as long as you're in touch with people and you don't isolate people ... is reflect what's going on around you. It really does depend on what's going on in the world as to what you write about. If everything went fascist, which is quite likely, you might feel moved to do something, but how to do it and what would have the best effect is another thing. Music is already a reaction ... so you're only saying what you know a lot ofother people are feeling anyway. In the Sixties, although there was an enormous amount of reaction, I don't think we really changed anything in the world. But we were there as asort of anchor point for people who felt that way.
DAVID: As far as I know the Stones have never endorsed any political ideal or ideology, with the exception of Mick turning up at the Grosvenor Square (anti-Vietnam War) demonstration in 1968. Is that the sum total of the public political statement ... one member of the band at one demonstration, once?
KEITH: Yeah, I think probably it is.
DAVID: Did you ever go to any demonstrations?
KEITH: No. I've been on the fringes of them. Also I've said okay I support that or I'll go along with that or I'll sign this petition or do this. There are a lot of wrongs that need righting, but as I say, honestly, I'm a musician and I'm playing a gig. There are many times I wish I'd had my voice felt on certain things, but I happen to be on theother side of the world while it's going on. I think probably the only reason Mick turned up at the Grosvenor Square thing was that he just happened to be there at thesame time. Most of the stuff that went down in the Sixties,we weren't there. We were playing Peoria or somewhere. We'd only hear about it later. To me politics never changes really. When people do get up off their arses and actually do something about it, I find that very interesting, but I'm almost detached from it. To me the most important thing, if I was to make ademonstration is ''Just give me enough air to breathe''. This is the one thing that worries me, whether my kids are going to have any air left to breathe or what. I find these surges of emotion that people have en masse, interesting. After 20 odd years on stage and watching people en masse and the way everyday normal people come to a concert. What the hell would you want to be in the middle of 100,000 people for? And it's raining ... and yet they do it constantly. When people are all together the mass thing takes over. Hitler knew this real well. They become one. It's a subconscious desire among people to become part of one big thing so they can forget their own individuality. People are so hung up on their individuality, that sometimes they need an excuse to, for a couple of hours, just become part of this huge swaying thing and be the same as everybody else. It's a mass psychoses. I can understand it because I'm up on stage and basically doing the same thing ... that's why I get post tour depressions. Because while you're doing all that, you don't have to worry about anything else at all. Everything is focussed on that two hours on stage, you've got no time and you can forget all of your worries, all of your personal problems and be a part of this whole huge one thing, like a coral that is all tiny pieces that all seem to fit in. And people need that, otherwise it wouldn't go down so often.
DAVID: So the only political questions that really bother you are about the environment?
KEITH: Basically, yeah. What's the point of fighting about little portions of the earth ... little ants in fratricide and homicide and national boundaries when we're probably polluting ourselves out of the whole game anyway. That's a far greater danger to me. The ozone layer has a hole in it. The weather's changing. All kinds of shit's going down. We don't even know what we're doing to it. It's a global question. It's no longer amatter of national boundaries. Nobody's gonna fight nobody, if there's no air to breathe ... all other problems pale into insignificance. Maybe the fact that we now have global communications just might wise people up to it quick enough to do something about it, but we've created some damage on this globe and we're liable to asphyxiate ourselves. So all the other things are bemusing or amusing. It's very sad for people that get killed, yeah, but we might all die. This is a global problem now. It's got nothing to do with lines on a map. This part is mine and this bit is yours. It's all ours.I just want to make sure there's enough air for my kids to breathe when I'm dead and gone and for my grandchildren to breathe. That would be a nice legacy to leave. But we've already broken through the ozone layer. We don't even knowif we can repair that. How much punishment do you think thisplanet can take? We could be put down as the generation that destroyed the world. There's no two ways about the world. We're on the verge of destroying this world. As my dad says, a fox never shits in its own hole.
DAVID: In England Mrs Thatcher has said she would like to eradicate all the permissiveness and social culture born of the 1960s revolution - a time she despises as dreadful -she's no Jackie Kennedy if you like - an era of which you were not only a key player, but remain a powerful symbol. At the same time your rags to riches success is a perfect example of the ambition and determination that she espouses.What do you think of England in the Eighties under Thatcher... or do you prefer to lie back and think of fucking?
KEITH: I always prefer that to thinking of Maggie Thatcher... England's weird in that it likes an iron maiden. From Bodecia, Elizabeth I, Victoria ... when monarchy meant something ... under a woman they blossom. They love mummy. A cabinet minister can walk out of a meeting with the Prime Minister and say ''Well, what could I do? She's a woman. I had to give in.'' It's an excuse. The English love the mistress with a whip in her hand, they're quirky that way, especially when you get up to that strata of English society. I have this weird ambivalent feeling about England. In one way, ''What a tyrant!'' on the other side of it, anything's preferable to the previous 20y ears of wishy-washy not knowing what's going on. They just wanted someone to come along with a big stick and bash the minto shape. Even guys that I know that were fairly left-wingare comfortable under Maggie at the moment. So I look at it from the outside and wonder what's going on there too. And you can't turn the clock back so there's nothing she can do about the Sixties.
DAVID: Does it worry you that she actually despises that period. A period which means an awful lot to me and I suppose it means a lot to you too. Why would she want to eradicate it all?
KEITH: I don't know. I imagine Maggie wasn't that different then to what she is now. She saw it as a total assault oneverything that she found cosy and comfortable. There's a lot of Mary Whitehouse in Maggie. She's very prim and proper. On the other hand, on the surface, she seems to have whipped the country into a comfortable shape. What do most people care about? Most of England feels that one way or another there is more bread rolling in, there's more employment. Most people worry about the money in their pockets, whether they can feed themselves and so the major task is to make sure that things are at least moving. Whereas nothing seemed to be moving in the Seventies in England. It was one wet flannel after another. Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan ...everything was just dissolving ... more and more people unemployed. Nobody could deal with anything. So I think there's a very ambivalent attitude towards Maggie otherwise she wouldn't have got back in in '87.
DAVID: There is a lot of animosity towards Mrs Thatcher, particularly from people who support the rights of say, homeless people and the bottom strata of society and the reason I raise the question is that Blues and Jazz and Rock'n'roll really come from that strata. People critical of Mrs Thatcher would say, ''Yes, things are moving, but the people who are suffering are suffering worse than they ever have before.''
KEITH: In that respect you have the same situation here. I spend most of my time in this town (New York). The guys are on the streets here, openly begging. You never used to see that. Maybe one or two, but now it's a way of life on the street here. On the street I live on there's virtually a toll booth comprised of dixie cups at either end of the street. You gotto get to know the guys in order to get out of there ... I usually go out with a dixie cup of my own and I say ''Funny, I was going to ask you the same thing''.
DAVID: How do you walk around Manhattan? Do people recognise you everywhere you go?
KEITH: If I take the dog for a walk and it starts to rain and a cop car drives by, the police call, ''Hey Keith, you want a lift home, man? You'll get wet''. People just take me as I am. If I'm walking and I turn a corner and some school's just coming out then it can be a hassle because they're coming en masse and someone says ''It's him''. I either run for it or ease through, giving thanks and an autograph. But there's a tremendous amount of goodwill forme in this town. I've had muggers come up to me and suddenly stop. ''Er, can I have your autograph? We don't want to fuck with you man.'' Because I also have this fearsome image, which worries them. They never know if I'm going to pull an Uzi out on them.
DAVID: Just a technical question, Keith, do you have an Uzi?
KEITH: No, I don't like semi-automatics.
DAVID: What do you carry with you for a gentle walk down Broadway?
KEITH: I carry a big stick. My preferred weapon is a Smith and Wesson .38.
DAVID: Turning to the musical changes over the last 20 years... from R&B, from your 12 x 5 album to Rap and Hip Hop and Scratch ... you're not very impressed with anything in the charts, but you constantly go out to shows. Do you still like going to clubs? And what's good to see?
KEITH: I liked InXS. The guys can play. They're a band,They're together. I listen to blues, Robert Johnson, Mozart. To me music is music. The only worrying thing to me is the way the music business keeps pidgeonholing things more and more. The outlets diminish as you get put into a slot to make it easier for the music business. It makes it harder for music but easier for the music business. If you look at the music trade magazines, Billboard and Cashbox, you have the feeling that they'd like to have achart for every record, so every record could be number one and it could take up all the pages, instead of those blurred photographs of guys having a drink and a gold record. ....
the rest of this interview can be obtained on request from the author. all material copyright David Langsam 1988/1989/1997