Keith Richards: A Pirate Looks at 70

Mj 618_348_a pirate looks at 70
Photograph by Bruce Weber

Just before Christmas this year, Keith Richards will turn 70. Swirl that around in your snifter for a moment. The world’s most famous rhythm guitarist set the standard for powders injected and ingested, but he is still going to make it to the big 7-0. That’s 30 more than Lennon, 43 more than Hendrix and Cobain. It seems impossible.

And now, somehow, Richards has found another gear. In 2010, he published his memoir, ‘Life,’ and the only thing pretentious and rock-starish about it was the title. He wrote sweetly about being bullied as a kid, the size of Mick’s member, days on the run with Anita Pallenberg, and enough escapes from the lawman to fund another decade of Law & Order: Special Guitarist Unit. The book will be read by Stones fans and alchemists until the end of time.

Just as remarkable, when you read this, the Rolling Stones will probably be playing not too far from your town. Even more remarkable, according to reviews of the Stones’ 2012 dates, they’ll be damn good. Richards has emerged as the band’s greatest defender, carping about the defections of Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor but also recruiting them to play with the band once again. (Taylor will join the band on selected numbers this summer.)

Over the years, Richards has segued from dissolute dad to dedicated family man, patriarch of a sprawling clan. He had three children with Italian-born actress Anita Pallenberg, whom he swiped from fellow Stones guitarist Brian Jones. In the Seventies, Richards was notorious for taking his boy, Marlon, on the road with him while he was still in grade school. But those were different times. Richards has two more girls with his wife of 30 years, Patti Hansen. Let us say Theodora and Alexandra were raised under slightly different circumstances, with Richards claiming he was the breakfast cook if not the homework helper. He talks with affection and some melancholy about being an empty nester and missing a house full of noise.

I caught up with Richards at Electric Lady Studios in New York and then again while he was at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles for rehearsals before the tour. He wore the omnipresent bandanna, chain-smoked Marlboros, and drank a mysterious potion from a large plastic cup. He dodged nothing, and I only wish I’d had the courage to ask him who came up with the drum-machine bits on Undercover (Of the Night). The other weird thing? Keith Richards looked freakin’ healthy. That bastard is going to outlive us all.

Your whole pirate-junkie image has become part of pop culture, even homogenized for kids. How do you feel about that?
They think I’m a cartoon! I mean “Keith Richards” – everybody knows what it means. It comes with longevity. I’m glad it strikes people’s imaginations! I’d like to be old Keith and play him to the hilt. I’m probably something different to millions of different people.

Is the Keith onstage different from the Keith at home?
No, I’m the same bloke – I know who I am, but I’m also aware of the kaleidoscope of different visions being taken in by different people.

John Updike said, “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.” You don’t feel like a trained monkey sometimes?
I know my master, and I know when to jump and hop. I feel totally comfortable with it. The whole “Keef” thing, I consider it basically an honor. You’ve got to be around for a while to become this sort of icon thing.

Speaking of that, you’re going to be 70 this year. How the hell did that happen? Does that freak you out at all?
No, man, everybody should try it if they can get there. If I had a secret, I’d bottle it maybe. I just happen to be here. Just string it, and play it low.

But with the drugs and all, people will wonder how the hell you made it.
With the smack, I knew: “I’ve got to stop now, or I’m going to go in for hard time.” The cocaine I quit because I fell on my head! Due to that – no more coke. Actually, my body tells me when to stop . . . the hard way. It’s a knock on the head – OK. It’s no big deal to me, to give things up.

Your book suggests you did heroin because it allowed you to work. I find it hard to believe heroin was part of your Protestant work ethic.
It was – either stay up or crash out or wake up. It was always to do something. Also, I’ve got to confess, I was very interested in what I could take and what I could do. I looked upon the body as a laboratory – I used to throw in this chemical and then that one to see what would happen; I was intrigued by that. What one would work against another; I’ve got a bit of alchemist in me that way. But all experiments must come to an end.

Has there been damage done?
I’ve never felt that it affected the way I played one way or another; if I stayed up I got a few more songs out of it. It’s like Churchill said about alcohol, “Believe me – I’ve taken a lot more out of alcohol than it’s ever taken out of me!” And I kind of feel the same way about the dope and stuff. I got something out of it. Might’ve pissed off a lot of people!

Now it’s just a little weed, a little wine?
Yeah, exactly. I hate all this idea of rehab and giving stuff up because it just means you’re hung up on it. It just means, “OK, I’m drinking too much – I’ll cut down.”

Ronnie Wood’s been to a lot of rehabs.
Ronnie loves drama. He loves to talk to people he doesn’t know. “I can’t wait to hear your story!” That’s not my idea of an audience.

So what’s the current state of you and Mick?

You’re in a détente period?
Smooth. Even. Definitely workable. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it. A lot of these things are blown way out of whack. What is the closest I can get to . . . it’s like two very volatile brothers – when they clash, they really clash, but when it’s over, it’s over because we both know we need each other; we both enjoy working with each other. Ninety percent of the time it’s as cool as can be, then, of course, the people only get to hear about the 10. And the 10 are pretty fierce.

Was the book part of that 10 percent?
That was my gentle letdown. I’d tell Mick, “You should’ve read the rest, pal! You should’ve read the blue pencil.” But I didn’t want to get into it.

Did he call you? Did he express his displeasure?
He was intentionally annoyed. But at the same time, I had sent him the proofs. There’s nothing in there that ain’t true. There might have been a few things in there that he didn’t know about. . . . But I said, “Mick – you got the book, went straight to the index, and shot to M. . . . You went straight there, and you read that chapter, and you formed your whole opinion, and that was that. You didn’t read the rest of the other great stuff in there. Because I know you, Mick, and you’re a ‘me-me-me.’ ” And he is! There’s no getting away from it. It took him a while to come around, you know – demanding apologies and all of this crap. I’d say, “Ehhhh, I’m sorry I upset you,” you know?

That’s a distinction. You didn’t apologize for writing the book.
No, no way! If I withdrew one sentence, I would withdraw the whole book. At the same time, it didn’t surprise me it upset him – but you know, who else is going to say it?

So are you and Mick in a place where you can play together, but not write together?
We could do that, too. It’s not that we would seek each other out for fun or company – it’s a different social thing going on, but we could absolutely get together and sit down and go, “Let’s go in the back room,” and then, “I’ve got this song, you’ve got this song . . . ,” and I’ve always found working with Mick is like a joy, it’s a real pleasure. It’s outside of the realm of work is where we tend to disagree.

When you guys are thinking about gearing up the machine, who’s the one who has to be convinced?
That’s a hard one to call. Mick will want to be convinced, but at the same time, he’s the one that really wants to do it, so then he’s like, OK, convince me. Charlie’s a little hesitant about things until it starts. Charlie likes to check out the rest of the band to see if we can cut it. Then once he’s happy with that, then we’ll know. So it sort of starts in weird little ways like that, and the only way to find out is like, “Why don’t we all get together?” And then we’ll know, which is what we did in April of last year, in New Jersey – everybody got together, and I don’t know what other people’s expectations were, but they were incredible rehearsals. I mean, the band just exploded. And from that moment, I knew that we had a thing going.

You played some dates in London with ex-bassist Bill Wyman, and ex-­guitarist Mick Taylor will make a few appearances on the North American tour. Is that tough? You were bitter when they left.
Yeah, I guess I mellowed! Until maybe 20-odd years ago it was, “Nobody left this band except in a coffin!” I’d just say, after 50 years in a band, anybody that is still alive, you’re welcome to come back in and do your bit.

In your book you seem a bit vexed by Wyman – he was always a quiet guy but also an ­incorrigible ladies man.
They’ll both hate me for saying this, but Bill Wyman is very much like Mick Jagger – especially in that respect. But with Bill, if my attitude seemed off to Bill, it’s because he left! I was pissed off! I was like, “Where’s the coffin?”

You weren’t moving around the stage as much as you have in the past at last year’s New York–area shows, but your playing has never been better. Is that accurate?
I wanted to concentrate on the playing. We obviously hadn’t played onstage for a long time, and I did want to stay close to Charlie Watts, keep the band in tight. It wasn’t from a physical point of view. I wanted to stay centered, I wanted to play well – with me, I never know! As long as I’ve got the band centered then I can play well.

After you fell out of the tree and had to have brain surgery, was there some ­apprehension that first time you picked the guitar back up?
I’m sure there was for millions of other people. I’ve fallen out of trees and worse before. It didn’t really occur to me. The main thing of that was “Oh, yes, I have to give up some drinks.” That’s the only thing I remember about falling. You can’t do that anymore because it will thin your blood. Anyway, I was looking to kick it.

Do you do anything to get in shape? Maybe a little yoga?
[Laughs] The answer is no. My workout is when I work with the guys. If I have a massage, it’s from the old lady. I’ve never been the person to be like, “I need a ­massage,” somebody who’s like, “Oh, that’s nice.” I mean, I’m pretty limber! Mick is in fantastic shape; Charlie Watts is ­endlessly relentless. So from the physical point of view – it doesn’t come into it. We’re actually doing a longer show than we’ve ever done! I’ve felt no particular strain.

So you haven’t gone vegan or ­macrobiotic?
No, we haven’t gone that far. I eat basically bangers and mash in the morning, and a small tipple in the evening. I’ve given up all the hard stuff.

I’ve got to imagine your approach to child rearing was much different with your younger kids.
Well, yes, of course – a different wife, for starters!

Patti seems to be more of a rock than Anita was.
Marlon and Angela, you know, the kids from Anita – we were basically on the run. They had to grow up on the lam. Luckily, though . . . at the same time, you’ve got to say, “Hey, you’ve got your mom and your dad around” – all kinds of shit can happen, but as long as you know they’re there, there’s been no damage. Marlon’s a great lad, he’s given me three grandkids, and Angela’s given me one. My present brood – thank God for Mrs. Patti Hansen, who has finally got her way and put me on the straight and narrow. I mean the proof is in the pudding: great kids.

What were you able to give Marlon? You were basically taking a 10-year-old on the road.
I gave him excitement! Knowledge of geography, a kind of street-wiseness that nobody else could get. He’s basically on the road with me and a bunch of musicians, I mean Stevie Wonder – he used to hang with Stevie. So he grew up in a very unique way.

Even at the height of that kind of craziness, would you try to carve out 15 or 20 minutes of father-son time a day?
Oh, man, every day! I used to do that by giving him a task that involved us both: “Today, you’re my roadie, grab my guitar” – make it a “we” thing; we’ve got to do this together. I did it that way. Like I said, a very unique upbringing, but at the same time, I don’t know a straighter guy than Marlon!

So he’s never come back at you: “Why did you make me? I could’ve been playing cricket, and you had me at the Riot House trying to shake you awake.”
It was a unique upbringing, unique circumstances. There’s no guidebook on how to bring up a kid when you’re a junkie rock & roll star. You have to rely, as they say, on eventually saying, “You’re my son, you know, we’re family.”

Were you ever worried about him?
I would’ve been if he’d given me cause to be, but he didn’t. He was going to prep school on Long Island, and he turned around to me and said, “This is no good, Dad. I want to go to England and get some education.” He made his own decision and off he went with his mom, and got himself an education. And I’m glad he made that decision, and I think he is, too, because, you know, he was hanging out with a lot of bums.

With your kids growing up with Patti in Connecticut, it’s hard to imagine you at soccer games.
Oh, I’ve been to a few end-of-year concerts and school plays. I’ve done my daddy bit, big time. It’s kind of new for me – ­graduations and stuff.

Do you enjoy it?
Yes, of course I enjoyed it. It was important to me because it was important to them.

You don’t feel shackled by the chains of domesticity?
No! I’m the one that cooks breakfast. When I’m at home, I’m Daddy to the max.

When you’re not working, what’s your life like in Connecticut?
Depending on the weather, sit down and read a bit. There’s always lots of incoming information to deal with. Patti and I without the kids – we’re sort of still learning. The kids have gone from the nest, but they’re only around the corner; most of the time they’re all up at the house anyway. We have a lot of family, especially Patti, an enormous family. Ours is a tribe, not a family!

Do you play every day? I’ve talked to some musicians, and some of them are like, if I don’t play for a day I feel a little withdrawal. Others are like, when I’m done with a tour I don’t want to ever see the guitar again.
I’m somewhere in between. I don’t feel that I have to do it. Mostly, I’m very selfish; I do it when I want to. If an idea for a song comes up, or if the guitar is just staring me in the face, and there’s nothing else to do particularly, then we get together. But it has to want me, and I have to want it at the same time.

Do you sometimes wonder why you’re still here?
I do. Sometimes it makes you wonder, “What they got in store for me?” Ha, ha! Have they got the really big drop?

If you had 90 days . . .
In jail?

No, if you had 90 days left, where would you go? Where is the place?
I’d go down to the tropics, to the Caribbean, either Jamaica or Parrot Cay. That’s where I can loosen up and hang out, and I know people who don’t give a shit who I am. Parrot Cay is a more controlled environment, and I basically go there because I’ve got grandkids, and I’ve got this little beach that’s so shallow only an idiot could drown there. That’s the reason I’ve been hanging there. But for me, Jamaica has been, and probably always will be my favorite hang.

I know you love dogs. Do you take your dogs on vacation?
Yeah, right now we’ve got two French bulldogs. My man Rasputin died just about a month ago – I picked him up in Russia and brought him back to become the czar of Connecticut – he went his natural way.

Did you grow up with a dog?
My mother hated animals. I always wanted one. We had a cat once that my mom put to sleep, so I pinned a note on her door: “Murderer.” I had a pet mouse once. I’ve always wanted animals; there’s something of a connection with them. I’ve always felt that it’s very innocent and beautiful – there’s a beautiful trust exhibited, with no other side to it.

Do you have a man cave at home?
Well, I have, but I keep shifting from room to room depending on where the action is! And I’ve got a library, and I go in. But I found the trouble with that is I was shutting myself up in there and not communicating. I would just get so into books and writing. Right now, I’m reading this terrible book, but I love it because it’s 19th-century prose. It’s called Great British Battles – ha, ha! It’s boring as shit, but just the way it’s written and their choice of words is fascinating, so I’m basically studying literature I suppose; I’m just finding a new way to see it, or an old way.

Do you see the band now as something kind of like Count Basie or Duke ­Ellington, where you’ll just keep playing because this is what you do?
We love it, and even more important than that: They love it. You don’t sell out Hyde Park in four minutes – that just happened – without knowing you have an audience. In a way, you feel an obligation. I don’t get nervous. I don’t feel like it’s all on me, you know? I’m just there to sling some hash and everybody have a good time.

The Collected Keith

The riffs, vocals, and collaborations that make Keith Richards a legend.

The Rolling Stones: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” 1965
The riff that tore a hole in the Sixties. “Satisfaction” gave the Stones their first number one in America and remains rock’s greatest statement of horndog alienation. Keith woke up in the middle of the night, recorded the bare bones of the song, and went back to sleep, later waking to find it on the tape. Amazingly, he didn’t like it much when the Stones recorded it. “I think Keith thought it was a bit basic,” Mick Jagger later recalled.

The Rolling Stones: “Salt of the Earth” 1968
Keith’s first recorded lead vocal can be heard on “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” from 1967’s Between the Buttons. But the heartrending final track from Beggars Banquet is where he first showed how powerful his ragged singing could be. He also played its searing slide-guitar part because doomed, drug-addicted lead guitarist Brian Jones didn’t make the session.

The Rolling Stones: “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” 1971
This seven-minute ­monster from Sticky ­Fingers may be the band’s greatest guitar extravaganza. The boot-in-the-gut riff is one of Keith’s fiercest. But “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” also shows how gracious he was about ceding the spotlight – the Latin-tinged jam that comes in at the 4:40 mark is a showcase for Jones’ replacement, Mick Taylor, whose fluid lines coil around Keith’s staccato snarls.

The Rolling Stones: “Happy” 1972
The third side of the Stones’ 1972 double album Exile on Main St. kicks off with Keith’s first hit as a singer. His guitar part is as bright as it is bruising, the lyrics are pure street-fighting bravado, and the vocals sound like he’s shouting up the stairs from the devil’s wine cellar.

The Rolling Stones: “Beast of Burden” 1978
One of his finest songwriting moments and an example of his ability to play slow and subtle while still serving up a classic riff. The elegant guitar work on the Stones’ signature ballad is the perfect complement to the worn tenderness in Keith’s lyrics, which intimately address the state he was in during the drug-wracked mid-Seventies.

The Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” 1981
In the 1960s and early ’70s, Keith was turning out historic riffs with unmatched regularity. But by 1980, he hadn’t unleashed a stadium-rattler on par with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in a while. “Start Me Up” almost didn’t make it onto 1981’s Tattoo You because Keith thought it was derivative. But thanks to the clarion smuttiness of his guitar intro, it became the band’s biggest hit of the 1980s.

The Rolling Stones: “Too Rude” 1986
Keith’s always been the Stones’ R&B conscience, with a wide-ranging notion of the genre. This loose cover of a tune by reggae singer Half Pint from 1986’s lackluster Dirty Work might not have made the cut on a top-shelf Stones record. But that’s better for us: Keith and Ron Wood, assisted by Jimmy Cliff, sing this ode to a skeezing island girl like they just woke up on the beach after a long, spliffed-out night.

Tom Waits: “Big Black Mariah” 1985
A tireless collaborator, Keith has worked with everyone from George Jones to B.B. King. He clearly has a special affinity for Tom Waits’ rattletrap eclecticism and lowbrow poetry (he’s appeared on three of his albums). On this rumbling track from Rain Dogs, Keith lends shadowy blues accompaniment that’s perfect for a noir moaner.

Keith Richards: “Take It So Hard” 1988
The Stones hit a low in the late-Eighties as Mick and Keith battled like angry spouses over the band’s direction. But there was no lack of focus on Keith’s 1988 solo debut, Talk Is Cheap, recorded with ace musicians such as drummer Steve Jordan and guitarist Waddy Wachtel (a.k.a. the X-Pensive Winos). With its Exile on Main St. swagger and happy-hour backing vocals, “Take It So Hard” nailed a bromantic drive he just wasn’t getting from his regular gig.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!