Keith Richards on Songwriting, Creativity, and the Rolling Stones

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    For decades rumors have swirled that Keith Richards is a drugged-out burnout one wheeze away from the afterlife. Forget it. Richards is, in fact, charming, resilient, and among rock’s most articulate musicians. Don’t believe it? Listen to the hundreds of songs he’s written or read his autobiography, Life. If musicians were light bulbs, this guy would be 120-watts.

    I’ve done three interviews with Keith. The first, in 1992, was a three-hour encounter in Manhattan for a Guitar Player magazine cover story. The second, below, took place on July 14, 1994, at the Crescent School in Toronto, where the Rolling Stones were rehearsing for their Voodoo Lounge tour. The third was on Halloween night, 1994, in a little trailer backstage at the Oakland Coliseum. But that’s another story . . . .

    Earlier that day in Toronto, I’d interviewed Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts at a table in the school’s cafeteria. Keith’s took place on his own turf – Room 311, which he’d transformed from a classroom into harem-like hippie pad with deep red tapestries, plush carpeting, a stereo, and a low-slung table with assorted paraphernalia scattered about. He greeted me with a big smile and vice-like handshake and settled into a chair. A few days earlier, Keith had declared himself “the resident tyrant” of Voodoo Lounge in a brief article published in the San Francisco Chronicle. Keith began our conversation.

    ###

    How you doin’? Good to see you.

    I just found out yesterday that my wife and I are going to have our first child.

    Oh, yeah? Hey! Congratulations!

    We’re really happy. She won’t let me call it Keith, though.

    [Laughs.] Especially if it’s a girl!

    I’ve heard you’ve described yourself as the “resident tyrant” of Voodoo Lounge.

    [Laughs.] Benevolent tyrant, you know. Yeah. Somebody’s got to do it, crack ’em all into shape. Well, there’s not a lot to be done in the tyrant business, actually, these days. There’s not much need to tyrannize anybody there. Everybody is performing perfectly, so I don’t have to crack the whip very much.

    Your new record is up there with Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street.

    Whoa! That’s nice to hear! That’s what I was aimin’ for, you know, but that was a pretty high sight, so I didn’t know if it would make it. It’s nice to start hearin’ that. I knew it had to be a special one. The whole point of this going through Steel Wheels and getting back together and then we have to build on that – it’s like startin’ again, you know, especially with Bill [Wyman] leaving.

    What’s the deal there?

    Um, he just didn’t want to do it anymore. I don’t know. I could never get a straight answer out of him. He just didn’t want to do it. And I said, “That’s no kind of an answer, Bill,” and I would get mad, you know. Now I look at it as, hey, to do this gig, you’ve got to really want to do it 110% – at least. I mean, that’s how much it requires to do the gig, you know, to do it right. And if you don’t have that, then [shrugs shoulders]. And now the kindest light I can put on it is that Bill bowed out gracefully because he couldn’t guarantee that 100% anymore. And on top of that I know that he – I don’t know, to me, idiotically or whatever – developed an incredible fear of flying.

    You sure landed on your feet with Darryl Jones.

    Shit, man. You know – straight in. The only problem, the only cloud on the horizon last year, putting all this together, was changing the bass playing. You know, thirty years, the same rhythm section – this is a major upheaval. But in actual fact, it went smooth. We played with a lot of great guys, and eventually I said to Charlie, “You decide.”

    Why did Darryl get the gig?

    Because I left it to Charlie to decide. And he said, “You bastard, you put me in the hot seat!” And I said, “Yeah, for once, Charlie, once in 30 years, you’re going to be the supreme judge on this, and Mick and I will say what we think.” Because they were all such good players and hey, you’re playing like a couple of hours with a guy and then another. It’s so difficult to tell. And eventually I thought, well, what really counts is what the drummer thinks. So to get to that question – why Darryl – I think that five years with Miles Davis didn’t hurt as far as Charlie Watts is concerned! Because Charlie, being a jazz drummer himself, you know . . . . I mean, to Charlie, rock and roll is part of jazz, and it still has to swing. So in a way one of the best decisions I made last year was to leave the actual choice up to Charlie.

    Darryl says that as a band leader and recording director, you share a lot of similarities with Miles.

    That’s funny. Yeah. There’s a couple of times he’s turned around and said, “Miles would have said that!” [Laughs uproariously.]

    The big question everyone wants to know is, what has Mick Jagger taught you about playing guitar?

    [Pauses.] Um . . . . What has he taught me? [Sputters.] How not to! [Laughs uproariously.] How not to thrash about! I must say, though, that’s not fair, because Mick is actually a damn good rhythm player. Nobody thinks about that, but he’s got a hell of a rhythm chops on him, you know. With Mick, all I’m trying to do as far as guitar playing goes is educate him about making sound. You know, where to put your knob to have it full up or just slightly off, and make little tips like that, because he tends to get into it a little. “Hey, a little restraint,” you know. And also, to me, I think it’s really important that you can pull the lead vocalist into the band to feel like part of it, to play with it, which is also why I insisted on bringing the harp [harmonica] back. Which is probably my other great idea of 1993!

    He’s got the tone.

    Yeah. And the more that he plays it, the more differently he sings. Suddenly he starts to sing the way he’s playing the harp, phrasing differently, instead of thinking of it as two separate entities, you know – singing is this, and playing harp is that. And he played all year. He would do two hours a day before we’d even come in to rehearse or whatever, with Charlie, just playin’ harp. And I can hear it paying off a lot in his singing too. I figured it’s like Louis Armstrong, who sang just the way he played cornet or trumpet a little later. He would sing in the same phrasing, and Mick’s phrasing on harp has always been incredibly free and fluid. And sometimes when he’s singing, I felt that he was getting too, like, [snaps fingers] click track, one, two, three, four, and thinking of it in a separate compartment. I think by getting him to play harp, I love the way he’s singing now. I’d say, “Wow! The man’s back. He’s got confidence,” you know.

    There’s a remarkable tenderness in the two songs that you sing on Voodoo Lounge. It’s in the lyrics, the . . .

    Oh, yeah. You know, I write about, ah . . . they’re more or less sort of just a feeling, really. They’re little bits of your life that just come back to you, and suddenly you say, “Oh, that little situation. Yeah. Now I can finally finish it off, tail it off, because now I can write a song about it.” But you don’t think about it. It’s something that happened maybe twenty years ago, ten years ago, whatever, just a little incident here or there, or somebody told you something. It’s just, in a way, trying to transmit a certain feeling.

    Do you recall the environment in which you wrote “Thru and Thru”?

    Yeah. I was pissed out of my brain! [Laughs.] This is the weirdest thing, the circumstances. We were in Barbados early last year, writing songs, Mick and I. Charlie was there, and also Pierre de Beauport, my guitar man, who’s also on “Thru And Thru” – he’s the guitar at the end. And we’d been out to a club in Bridgetown. Tropical night. We had a night off, you know. And we get back to Eddy Grant’s studio, which is where we were living and working, at five in the morning and get out of the car. And I start staggering in, and suddenly I turn around to Pierre. I said, “Switch the stuff on, man. Incoming, incoming.” I guess maybe in the car . . . . But I just went into the studio and laid it all down in one take. There it was. I don’t know if it was just in the car, but suddenly they come. And that’s really, to me, what songwriting is. I have very little to do with it.

    You’re like an antenna.

    Yeah! Really. I much prefer to think of it like that. Songs – there’s no reason. I mean, I didn’t have to work on that at all. Only sound-wise later with Charlie: “How we were gonna do it with the drums?” But the actual song: “Incoming,” there it was. And I guess, really, if anything, that’s that one instinct I have, that when there’s something around [snaps fingers], I recognize it.

    That’s a haiku guitar part.

    Strange little riff. And you know, the actual basis of it comes off of a Jimmy Reed blues, a special trick that Jimmy Reed had when he would play the V chord [motions his hand like he’s swiping something, then laughs]. And suddenly it just flooded back to me. Of course, it’s not even a blues, but it was just that one figure on guitar. I said, “If I slid it down there [slides hand down an imaginary fingerboard], it would still keep going.” And I go, “Ahhh,” and suddenly, you know . . . . When you’re not trying to work and not trying to do things is when the ideas really come, which is why I never, ever, sit around and say like, “I am now going to sit down and write songs – silence in the house!” I can’t do it like that. I wait for stuff to come. Angels tell me. [Laughs gently.] I don’t know if they’re angels, really!

    Are there solo compositions on Voodoo Lounge, where you wrote the entire track?

    Yeah. “Thru And Thru” is one. “The Worst” is. “Out Of Tears” is totally Mick’s. “I Go Wild” is pretty much all Mick’s. Our input there is like musical. Hybrids, ones where we would work together, are “Love Is Strong,” “Got Me Rocking,” and “Sparks Will Fly.” Those are ones that are really like 50-50.

    Did you write those eyeball-to-eyeball when you did those?

    Yeah, yeah. “Sparks Will Fly” was actually eyeball-to-eyeball with Charlie Watts more than anybody to start with, because we wouldn’t let anybody else play on it until we’d honed down that rhythm track thing dead right. You know, it was like, three’s a crowd [laughs] for a minute, until we’d worked it out. And then we let everybody else in. Writing-wise, “New Faces” is, I think, pretty much all Mick’s – maybe a bridge, I’m not quite sure. It gets a little blurred here and there.

                 So you have an arrangement like Lennon and McCartney, where both bylines go on no matter who wrote it.

    Well, you know, you come with songs of your own and things that have arrived. There’s lovely things like “Thru And Thru” and “Satisfaction,” when they all arrive in one bag, and you go, “Thank you very much!” [Laughs.] “Give thanks and praises!” And then there’s one where you have a great idea, but you don’t know what to do with it. And that’s usually where the collaboration will come in. You say, “Well, I have this other piece that I don’t know what to do with. Maybe would that fit with that?” And that’s when you get into the craft thing. But the ideas are already there, and you quite often find that actually you’ve written the same song. You know, he’s written one bit, and I’ve written the other. And we both thought we’d written half a song and didn’t know what to do with it. But then suddenly it dovetails, you know.

    Can you think of an example?

    Ah . . . I would say “Sparks Will Fly.” ’Cause all I had here, exactly, was the hook [sings “because sparks will fly”] and the way it was takin’ off. Mick’s bit was the other bit where we hit the verse – boom. It dovetailed straight in, and we had that. And then this album is different in that we spent a lot of time writing the songs and playing before we went into the studio. Much more than we have probably done for years and years. We started in April [1993] in Barbados, with nothing more than a week off here, and then we went to Ireland – Ronnie’s house, where he has a little studio. We were there from June until December. Then we went into the studio in Dublin. So, you know, we did all year. And I think it’s paid off, that the band is really playing together.

    Whose idea was it to have Ronnie play pedal steel?

    I’ll claim the credit. Because I knew he had one around. I said, “Where’s that pedal steel of yours, Ron?” “In the attic.” So we sent some of the roadies up to go and look, and they come down covered in dust, but they found it. Ronnie said he hadn’t played it for like four years, but he was always very good on it. I thought, “Well, that’s another sound that you can use,” so I encouraged him to get back in. I think the real reason we brought it down in the first place is because Jerry Lee Lewis came by for a night, and we did a session with him just for fun. It’s great stuff I have on tape from that. And that’s why I pulled out the pedal steel, because I wanted to get Jerry to do some of his country stuff. And then after we’d done that, it was lying around and I got Woody, and we had “The Worst,” you know, and we started to get into it: “That pedal steel would be nice there.” And I gotta say Don Was too is like an incredible . . .

    What was his contribution?

    To me, he’s very much like working with Jimmy Miller, who’s also producer but also a musician. To the Stones, it’s a real extra plus to have a guy that knows how things are played, what’s done. And Don’s real contribution is, “You’ve got a hundred songs here. We have to choose!” [Laughs.] You know, “Let’s cut this list down by half to start with, and then eliminate,” because there was just songs coming up. We had more and more stuff, you know, and we were in danger of just being buried in an avalanche of material. And it was his to hone down that. Also I had Don Smith engineering, who’s the guy that did the two Winos records, as well. So I had a team going there that was very well used to working with each other. Don Was was new but slotted in beautifully and handled the personal stuff really well. “Just keep your mind on what you’re doing,” you know. The atmosphere was very much Exile On Main Street, actually. I can’t think of sessions since where things were quite that loose and free, and ideas were popping up. Charlie Watts moving his drums, which is unheard of.

    Playing on different landings in a stairwell . . .

    Yeah, yeah. He would work the staircase, you know. And that’s something that Charlie hasn’t done, I think, since Beggars Banquet or maybe Exile. It’s been that long since I’ve had that much input from Charlie. That was amazing. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that he’s been doing his own thing with Bernard Fowler, you know. He’s taken that jazz band around. Hey, he’s worked Brazil and Tokyo with a big jazz band. I said, “Five pieces is enough for me. You’re taking, like, 30 people!” [Laughs.] So he came back with a whole new perspective on what it’s like when the buck stops here.

    During our interview earlier today he completely downplayed his contributions.

    I know. He always will. Yeah, yeah. The thing is, that’s Charlie. He’s modest to a fault. The difference, I think, that I felt with Charlie is that he’s always known he’s good – I mean, there’s never been any doubt about that in anybody. But I think he started realizing that he might even be a great drummer, which I have known for years. But you could never . . . To tell Charlie that, you know, you’d embarrass him to death and get into an argument about why he isn’t. It’s impossible, you know what I mean? But I think somewhere lurking now there is like the germ of that idea. You know, he’s peaking, man. He’s playing just so well, I can’t believe it. And hitting with Darryl. It’s interesting to see the band, because obviously with a new bass player it’s gonna change some.

    Is there a big difference?

    Not immediately, because right now we’re either playing the record – you know, working those out – or Darryl’s learning a lot of backlog. So he’s starting from where we left off. But over the month of rehearsing and over the years songs are changing, the groove’s shifting. He’s gonna be very interesting onstage, I think. Yeah. Because you’re gonna watch the band sort of growing at the same time. It’s like a really fresh thing.

    I hear more of a rhythm and lead guitar separation than there’s been in the past ten years.

    Mm hmm [nods in agreement]. I think just more direction, really. That came from Don Was and Don Smith, and also me working with the Winos, working with Waddy [Wachtel]. In actual fact, there’s quite a lot of guitars on those tracks, but the separation . . . . I mean, there may be six guitars on some of those tracks, but they’re not on all the time. You know, they’ll be shifting. Two of them will be almost identical, but one will just do better for a certain lick in one place, and we just pull it up. So there’s a lot of that. It’s just a very well disciplined album, sound-wise. And I think in the ’80s, too, it was very difficult. A lot of the stuff, the material that Mick wanted to do, was not particularly guitar-oriented. We were trying to, like, wedge guitars into places where they’re not necessary, like the Emotional Rescue and Undercover. Around that time we were doing a lot of material that was not necessarily made for guitars. Mick wanted to get into that dance thing and, you know, “Okay, here we go.” Yeah. I got him back now, though!

    Blinded By Rainbows” sounds like it could have been off Between the Buttons.

    It is. That is Mick’s song totally.

    Whose idea was the harpsichord?

    I think that might have been mine. Because at the time, I just thought it was . . . . I guess maybe “Lady Jane” came somewhere around the back and hit me. There was just something about the melody that suggested it. Sometimes you listen to a song and it says “trombone” or it says “harpsichord.” You don’t know why; you just suddenly hear this part singling away, and you say, “What about trying this?” And it kind of fit.

    What’s the story on the new Virgin remasters of your old albums?

    I’m hearing little guitars going on and other instruments that I’d totally forgotten were on. Well, they did a lot of work on ’em, you know.

    Were you involved with that?

    Only to the point where they would send us what they were doing, and we’d say yea or nay, in that respect, because we were makin’ this one. So we really didn’t have any time to sit and do it. We gave it to the guys and said, “Just do it, and we’ll see what we think and say yes or no.” And they started to come through. A couple we sent back and said, “Do that again!” But they got the picture. They give me Exile the first time, and I said, “Man, there’s something wrong.” And they swore there wasn’t. I said again, “Do it again. It’s no good.” And then they found that there was something in a machine somewhere, screwing. They said, “I don’t know how you could hear it.” I said, “I can fuckin’ hear it, man.” So they redid that one, I think, but most of them, I’m pretty happy with ’em.

    A lot of people talk about the Stones’ blues and rock influences, but sometimes I hear a real Bakersfield influence in Jagger’s vocals.

    Yeah! It’s funny. I don’t know why. He likes Merle Haggard.

    He’s got that broad American country accent.

    Yeah. It’s not Nashville. You’re right – it’s Bakersfield. I don’t know. I know he listens to – and used to – a lot of Merle Haggard.

    Hearing the steel guitar on the new record puts it more in perspective.

    Yeah. When you think about it, he even sings “Bakersfield” in, ah, is it “Indian Girl”? No. Because I remember rehearsing a country thing [sings “I was riding through Bakersfield” from “Far Away Eyes”]. I wonder why Bakersfield? I’ve got to ask him that. Maybe he don’t even know himself. I think it must go back to him listening to a lot of Merle Haggard.

    Have you made any fortuitous equipment finds?

    Some nice new guitars coming through. I have to break ’em in yet, but Pierre’s been, “Here’s another one.” They’re feeling nice. There’s a nice area that’s going on with acoustic-electric. Fender popped us a nice one that’s got a pickup in the bridge, and it’s hollow, so it picks up. Also you can mix it in with the other pickup, which is proving interesting. The Music Man guitar, those Silhouettes, are little darlings.

    When we talked in 1992, you were curious to see how your Gibson Robert Johnson guitar would age.

    It’s sounding great. Now that I’ve had it three or four years, it’s a beauty, man. It’s the acoustic on “The Worse.” Yeah, yeah. Actually, I left it at my house by accident. I’ll have my hands on it soon! But I don’t want to trust it to the carting; I’ve got to wait for somebody to come. My dad’s comin’ out – he’ll bring it. He’s cool, man. That’s the very chap! “Dad, and don’t forget my guitar!”

             What’s it like preparing to tour at 50 rather than 20?

    You’re probably more ready for it now than we were then. And after all, in those days a show lasted 20 minutes. And for a lot of that period, not even that, because usually it was teenage riots and everything. I remember those sets that went on for, like, one and a half songs before the whole place was pandemonium, the cops were taking you away and out of there, and people are fainting. You know, in the teenage days. So that wasn’t really so much hard work – just a lot of hard partying and a lot of hard driving. But now you’re up there for like two-odd hours. The guys are probably in better shape now than they’ve ever been. Really. Yeah. First off, you’ve got to be to even contemplate doing this, you know. When you’re rehearsing, you’re working maybe 10, 12 hours a day with the guitar around your neck. So by the time you get onstage and do two hours – although obviously doing a show, the lights and adrenalin, you put a lot more in there – it’s kind of nothing after 12 hours a day. So in a lot of ways rehearsing is like the real training ground, because that’s where you really do work. You get home at four or five in the morning from these sessions here at the school. Night school!

    Do you find yourself inventing parts in rehearsal that you’d wished you’d had when you made the recording?

    Oh, yeah, and also you find yourself doing that onstage as well, suddenly finding that extra lick that you really knew you were looking for, but it came too late. But that’s one of the beauties of recording live sometimes, is that you can add certain things. And these days you can start to get really good live recordings. I’d like to tape this show somewhere near the beginning, somewhere in the middle of the tour, and then again at the end, and see what we get.

    John Lee Hooker cannot read or write, but he has a remarkable memory for his songs.

    If you can’t read or write, your memory is apparently a thousand times better, because you get used to saying, “I’ve got a memo on that,” and so you don’t work it. That’s very nice for them.

                I mentioned to him an obscure song from the 1950s, “Mad Man Blues,” where it sounds like his amplifier’s ready to explode, and [I imitate John snapping his fingers] and he sang the whole thing.

    He’s so sharp, man.

    Do you have that kind of memory for your material?

    Probably not as sharp as that, because I can read and write. Sometimes I wish I couldn’t! [Laughs heartily.] I mean, there are certain songs I prefer to forget, you know, like some really early dubs and stuff. But musically, yeah, if Charlie or somebody would say a song, and suddenly we say, “How does that go?” And then suddenly he’ll look at me and sort of [imitates the movement of drumsticks as he says “chick-boom”], and we can do the whole song. We may not have even played it for 15 years for something, and suddenly [snaps fingers] it’s there. So in that way there’s that instinctive musical memory. You don’t really know how it works, and you don’t wanna.

    Do you play the CDs for reference?

    Oh, yeah, we’re doing that all the time down here. “Hey, play me ‘Stray Cat Blues,’” you know. “What key? How did we do that?” And what tempos? The tempo of the record – is that right for stage? There’s a differenciation there sometimes. Oh, yeah, we refer. That’s why we’re listening to all of these reissues ourselves – probably more than most people!

                 What’s the appeal of working with Woody?

    Woody is such a sympathetic player. He likes to weave. He don’t just wanna hog and just do what he’s gonna do as if a separate thing exists. See, this lead and rhythm thing – there’s no such thing. You play guitar. In a good band, it should swap and shift. You know, licks will come from there [waves right arm] and that one [waves left arm] will pick up the rhythm. And then you swirl it around, and you don’t have to think lead and rhythm. What we are looking for is to break the barriers down. And that’s why I love playing with Woody.

                Would you mind being asked about what Brian Jones brought to the Rolling Stones?

    No, I don’t mind talkin’ about Brian. Brian, at the beginning of this band, he was [long pause] a little ball of energy, man. When this band started, this is like when it really started from absolute scratch, Brian was dedicated, a very inventive musician who’d studied. Because we’d all just met up in London, coming from various parts of England, you know. Mick and I were basically close enough to London, but Brian came from further away, and we’d all meet in this blues club, Alexis Korner’s place. And Brian, he stunned us playing Elmore James shit on slide onstage with Alexis, along with Cyril Davies, Nicky Hopkins, and, I don’t know, Jack Bruce on bass, I think. It might have even been Ginger on drums, as well. All of those guys were gathering together in these few spots in London. And what did Brian in was fame.

    Yeah?

    Really, yeah. The minute that he was a pop star, suddenly it all just seemed to switch. And it does that to some people, you know, and it’s funny to watch because at the same time you’re going through it. Maybe it’s not something that I was aware of immediately at the time or anything, but when I think back, I say, “That was when suddenly he assumed a self-importance.” And I think also that Brian did . . . He was, like, the main member of the band. You know, Mick was the singer and I was the other guitar, but I think he felt at the time that it was his band. In actual fact, it was Ian Stewart’s. [Laughs.] That’s the other thing I’ve learned over the years – we were working for Stew. And you don’t have time to think about this when you’re going through it. Then when Mick and I started to write songs together, we sort of assumed that Brian felt . . . You know, there was a certain bitterness. And then he started a competition thing, you know, which you really don’t want to deal with when you’re working 350 days of the year, on the road. And so slowly it assumed larger and larger proportions. And then, of course, when he discovered acid – well, when we all did, but Brian really did! – he really went for it in a big way. And there was that side of him that would wallow in self-pity. And I spent a couple of times where I would really try and re-establish relations with Brian, which for a while was workin’ around ’67. But then, of course, Anita got into it, so then the triangle, you know, and love rears its head, and all that. So you’ve got all of that.

    Fodder for songs.

    Yeah. “I said from the first, I am the worst.” [Laughs uproariously.]

    Did his creativity dry up with that?

    He was still fantastic making records, because he was so versatile. I mean, he’d have marimbas – which is why you have marimbas on “Under My Thumb” – or dulcimer, sitar. He kind of lost interest in guitar, in a way, but at the same time he added all of that other color, those other instruments and other ideas. He was an incredibly inventive musician. He just more and more . . . . I mean, we all were out of it up to a point. But Brian, you know, it was like you were carrying a passenger towards the end, and just as you were getting pretty weak at the knees yourself. And so eventually, there you go. But I certainly didn’t expect him to croak within a few months or weeks.

    Did you sense that fame was getting to Mick Taylor?

    Mick, no. I don’t know. He’s a very shy boy, Mick Taylor. Lovely guitar player, really. Whew! If you talk to Mick Taylor – and I have, I see him now and again – and say, “Why did you leave?” He says, “I don’t know.” It’s the same as asking Bill Wyman! There’s a wipe-out point on some guys.

    Maybe Taylor and Wyman should get together.

    You know, I don’t think that’s necessary! [Laughs heartily.] But Mick’s still playing and still plays mean guitar. He doesn’t really have a direction, you know. He’s always been happy just . . . . I don’t know. He didn’t really like being a star and always felt like he was a second-hand one because he was in Brian Jones’ shoes. Maybe that had more to do with it than you could tell. I don’t know. But at the time he left, he thought that he could produce and go on, and actually he did nothing for ten years.

    That book about Taylor’s era with the band, Up and Down With the Rolling Stones . . .

    That’s [author] Tony Sanchez, Spanish Tony. Spanish had to make some money. I mean, that book is basically . . . Every chapter starts off fairly accurately, but by the end of it, it’s taken so many spins. And I know a lot of the reasons why. Because people would get arrested [laughs], including Spanish Tony, if you told the truth. But at the same time, he was down on his luck. Tony. [Shrugs shoulders.] “Okay. So far, no farther, brother.”

                When you and Mick are writing songs together, is it important that you have a spirit of friendship between you, or is adversity good for the creative process?

    Songs induce friendship, because when you’re working on something, you’re just into that. And that brings you closer together. Mick and I are still getting used to actually enjoying working together again. It’s been very fruitful this last year. Mick goes through his things. To me, Mick seems to be ten times happier than I’ve seen him, and comfortable within the band and what he’s doing and really into it. He’s lost some of that star-trip thing that was pissing me off during the ’80s. He’s starting to appreciate the basic comforts of comradeship again, and that’s great. I mean, it’s a good feeling right now.

    It’s interesting. By distancing yourself from stardom, you’ve become even more of a star. It’s strange.

    Yeah, it is. I suppose keeping a band together this long, it was bound to hit a rough patch somewhere. And when that happens to most bands, that’s usually it. The ship founders on that rock forever. The strength of the Stones is that they didn’t. We went through it all, Mick and I went through whatever we went through, and put it back together. And now we’ve got it on a very interesting track again. To us, it’s like Rolling Stones II. Almost like starting again, you know. It’s kind of interesting.

                There’s one other thing I wanted to ask you about. I’m writing a Willie Dixon cover story for an Italian blues magazine, and wonder if you’d care to say something about Dixon’s songwriting.

    Can’t say enough. I mean, what a songwriter! To me, that’s one of the names. When I was getting into the blues, it was, “Who wrote this?” I was lookin’ at Muddy Waters records [mimics flipping through records], and who wrote it? “Dixon, Dixon, Dixon.” The bass player is writin’ these songs?” And then I’m lookin’ at Howlin’ Wolf: “Dixon, Dixon, Dixon.” I said, “Oh, yeah, this guy is more than just a great bass player!” And let’s face it: He was an incredible bass player. You know, that would be enough. But he’s the backbone of postwar blues writing, the absolute. Personally, I talk of him and Muddy in the same breath, and John Lee [Hooker], come to that. You know, gents. These guys don’t have to prove anything. They know who they are. They knew what they could do. They know they can deliver.

    Did you meet Willie?

    Yeah, I knew him real well. And Shirley, his daughter, and his sons. Yeah, I knew him real well. Every time we went to Chicago, they stuffed me full of food. I’d come out five pounds heavier. [Laughs.] Willie, to me, is a total gent and one of the best songwriters I can think of.

    The poet laureate of blues.

    Absolutely! Yeah. You get a list of what he’s written, and whoa! That’s the proof, you know. And also his incredible support. Willie and Muddy, instead of looking at us like white kids coming in, doing their music, and, in their eyes, making a fortune – instead of being resentful, they actually were like, “Hey, guys, great. Sit down there. I’ll show you how to do this a little better.” Encouragement all the way – from day one. All of those guys. And Willie extended invites to us, like the blues festival of Chicago. He put his money where his mouth is, as well.

    Willie mentioned that he sometimes made demo tapes of his songs for British kids. Were you among those kids?

    No. By the time Willie was workin’ over there, I was probably working the States. Because those [blues] guys started to really hit England just as we were starting to hit America. But I was listening to him!

    Do you have a favorite of his songs?

    No. That would be impossible for me to say.

              Too much like picking your favorite child?

    Yeah, exactly. And then the others would feel bad. It’s like when someone says, “What’s your favorite song off your album?” “I can’t do that. The others would be jealous!” It’s like you’ve just got listen to the whole body of work, man. Willie Dixon is superior.

    As you go through the Rolling Stones catalog and rehearse for the concerts, are you focusing more on any certain periods of your career?

    Not really. Actually, what you do is you play everything you can, every song you can remember, and see how they float this time. In that way you let the songs pick themselves. Of course, then you have things you have to deal with, like the lights and the staging point of it and say, “Well, what’s the angle on this?” And then you say, “Oh, then you need a song like ‘Monkey Man’ if you want to do this Voodoo Lounge. It may be the right kind of song for that.” So you pick certain songs for the way they’re going to be presented from a visual point of view as well. It’s not just ears, you know.

    Thanks, Keith.

    Pleasure, and bless you.

     

    Epilog

    Keith invited me to attend the band’s rehearsal that night. Two or three hours into it, they performed the country-influenced “Far Away Eyes” from the Some Girls album. As they concluded with a rousing round of harmony vocals, Richards pointed to me and shouted “Bakersfield!,” accompanying his observation with a half-bow and upraised palms.

    For more on the Rolling Stones

    Charlie Watts: The Complete 1994 Interview

    Mick Taylor on John Mayall, the Rolling Stones, and Playing Guitar

    Ronnie Wood: Slide Guitar with the Rolling Stones and Faces

    Transatlantic Blues: How Britain’s Blues Boom Saved American Rock and Roll

    Max Crace photos used with permission. © Max Crace. All rights reserved.

    Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.

    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.


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      3 comments on “Keith Richards on Songwriting, Creativity, and the Rolling Stones

      1. TD WRIGHT on said:

        keith richards is the coolest guy in the world. i bought my ernie ball musicman silhouette because he said it “will be one of the greats”. when i discovered open g tuning with it, it was a hallelujah moment for me. long live keith! thanks for all your great work jas.

      2. Pingback: The Rolling Stones: The Complete 1994 Charlie Watts Interview

      3. Well, Keith Richards! today Dec 18, you are another year older and you haven’t changed a bit. That’s great because you are perfect just the way you are and Rolling Stones alway Best. Happy Birthday.

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