Graham Reid | | 8 min read
A few minutes before the appointed time the phone rings and a scratchy voice wheezes, “Hello man, s'Keith”.
And it is. No intermediary, no international call connection through a third party, just Keith Richards laughing down the line. Which is unexpected in a world where stars have minions to connect calls (and sometimes listening, in case things get “awkward” for their client) but even more so in this case. Because Richards' people asked for written questions in advance which is highly unusual, and then came back with them modified.
My guess is Richards never saw any of that because – as when we spoke in 2006 in advance the last Rolling Stones tour – he's his customary jocular self, although nothing much is revealed. And you wonder if he realises how far 2013 has ticked down when saying he and Mick Jagger have spoken about getting back into the studio “this year”.
But here they come again -- 50 years after Richards, Jagger and others formed around Brian Jones as the Rollin' Stones -- they play the 14 On Fire show at Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium, November 22. And, on the evidence of the DVD film Sweet Summer Sun of their Hyde Park concerts in July, are thoroughly enjoying themselves.
“Glastonbury and the Hyde Parks were amazing,” he says enthusiastically “and we were blessed with good weather which is rare in Britain. The whole year has been great and we played in America before that, so the reason we're coming over your way is everyone is still up and saying, 'Let's do some more'.
So it was, 'Okay, let's go Downunder'.
Are you a bit surprised by that, because I know sometimes you do these big shows and that puts a full-stop on something, but does it surprise you that everybody is still keen?
I never doubt it, it's finding everybody in the right mood at the same time. I catch them when I can and I'm the one who's up for it. I'm always up for it, they can count on me.
I know it's hard to look back on 50 years and single out particular moments, but I was just reading that Beatles biography Tune In – which takes 900 pages to get to the end of 1962 – and throughout there seemed these moments where things just fell into place and they felt “This is it, we've made it'. When you look back to you remember a time very early on when you thought, 'This is it, we can actually do this'.
That's difficult, but the first time
was when I got into a recording studio [in 63], that was like
entering the portals of Heaven and it grew from there. But after
Satisfaction [in 65] we all felt we had a chance of a career.
And there was no career path for young bands like the Stones or the Beatles? You were just winging it.
Winging it is the right description, and making it look like you knew what you were doing. That includes everybody, like promoters. It was all unmapped and you made it up as you went along.
Looking at documentary footage of your early shows, they were chaotic. And at [the disastrous Altamont festival in 69] fans, Hells Angels and even a dog were on the stage at some points. This was all very amateurish in reflection.
Ramshackle, man. That [Altamont] show was thrown together by the Grateful Dead because we had no experience of that and it was their speciality. So we arrived and thought, 'This is the way it's done'.
But would never be done that way again?
Oh no, I draw a line there, man.
I want to ask you about songwriting. You and Mick have written some of the most enduring rock songs of the past many decades, but Doom and Gloom [their first new song in over a decade] is up there with them. Everybody I know think that's a classic Stones song. But do you and Mick not cross paths often enough to continue the writing process?
We absolutely do. We always have some work on the go and it's about getting off the hiatus and back in the studio. I think we have plans. Don't nail me down, but I got a call from Mick the other day saying sometime this year we better get in the studio.
We hope so because Doom and Gloom is extraordinary.
Yeah we still got it. That's the other great thing this year, the band is playing tighter than ever so I'll hold this wave and ride it.
When you said getting back into the studio – and we won't hold you to that – does that mean you and Mick separately or together need to get into some writing. Or do you write and record at home regularly but you just leave it on the shelf?
It all happen in dribs and drabs really. When Mick and I are on the road we put ideas together and one thing leads to another. Playing live gives songwriting and recording more impetus, so I'm hoping we can come out with something great over the next few months.
For your anniversary the Stones have also brought back guitarist Mick Taylor – coming to New Zealand with you too – so how did that reunion come about?
It was the end of last year. Everyone was going on about the 50th anniversary and we thought, 'Well, there's still a couple of Stones around who might want to join in'. [Former bassist] Bill Wyman did some gigs in London along with Mick Taylor, but dropped out because he doesn't like flying. So we said to Mick, 'Do you want to continue?' and he said, 'Yeah'.
Ronnie [Wood] and I have a great time because now there are three guitars and that gives us a bit more room to manoeuvre, that's much more fun.
But makes the ancient art of weaving, as you refer to it, a bit more complex?
A little more embroidery.
When Mick came to first rehearsal did it just work, because we'd all like to believe in that kind of intuitive magic. Or was there a bit of effort needed on everyone's part to accommodate and find your way through things?
Very little thinking through is done. Basically it worked and so we thought we should just carry one. You can't plan and think too much about this, if it feels right then I go for the gut instinct every time.
Let's turn to what you are doing now because we could live in the past for a long time . . .
Exactly, longer and longer. [laughs]
A set list for the Stones has to accommodate what an audience might want but I saw you on that tour in 2002 and you were pulling odd songs into the set. For this time out are you looking to do things that haven't been given a bit of an airing?
Yeah. One of the things that has cropped during the tour this time has been throwing things in, or even asking for requests. 'Play Fingerprint File' [laughs].
I like to keep it as free and open as possible and we never stick to a totally fixed set anyway, I like to leave as much room as possible for experiment. Nothing in rock'n'roll has to be nailed down. There should be a looseness.
Where once audiences would come on the basis of the Stones' notoriety, today you capture a broad demographic drawn more for the music and sense of the event.
Yes, it's weird because, once again, no one has been here this long in a rock'n'roll band. I think we just carried the generation along with us and some of the younger ones still pick it up. It's hard to put your finger on it.
You expect to be rejected by the next generation because that's what they do. But there seems to be some thread in what we do that busts through all that, and thank God it's a long piece of string.
If you were to point to any album to explain the Stones to a 14-year old getting into rock music, which Stones album would you point to and say 'That's what my band is about'?
I'd say Exile on Main Street, mainly because it's a double album so there's more range on it. But it also is the pointer.
The one at the time people said was poorly recorded but is the one which has risen to the top?
Yeah, it's amazing. We had to fight to put that one out but eventually everybody got.
And now everyone has a copy. I don't know if you know this but it seems to me 15 to 18 year olds are getting into Satanic Majesties, I think because for them it is removed from the context of its time and so they are just hearing the experimental quality of the songs. Does that surprise you?
It does a bit because it's always been an oddball album really in the whole line-up, probably because of some of that acid. But over the last year or so we've noticed a lot of interest in that album too.
I'm not sure we'd put it on our list of favourites, but there are moments on it which stand out: She's a Rainbow, 2000 Light Years from Home.
I expect you would have a shelf of Rolling Stones albums but do you ever listen to them?
Oh yeah, I do. If I hear the Stones it's usually on the radio and by accident, but sometimes it makes me go back and listen to something I haven't heard for a while. When we are rehearsing we listen to just about everything we've ever recorded in order to find out how originally played it, and to pick the essence out of it. We do quite a bit of research on ourselves when we are rehearsing.
It's a long history and I guess you do need to remind yourself of it.
Oh yeah, you need a reminder of some of the more obscure tracks.
I know you are great reader and I've seen photos of that wonderful library you have. These days there's a slew of rock autobiographies coming out, Pete Townshend, Rod Stewart . . .
Do you ever read any of those other people's books?
Not really. The experience of writing my own was enough. Pete Townshend's book I've read some of but I couldn't plough through it all.
It wasn't much fun I thought. At least yours had some of that.
Yeah, I didn't want to go in there because I love Pete, but it was bit screwed up and a bit morbid. But mind you, he's a barrel of laughs sometimes. Sometimes.
I know I have to wind this up but just talking about reading, I understand you are a history buff. Read anything especially interesting lately?
Somebody gave me Max Hastings latest book about 1914, there's some interesting stuff in there about how the First World War built up, and who screwed up first. It's good writing. Catastrophe is what it's called, which I thought was a great album title.
Or a life style.
[Laughs] Yeah, tell me about it.
Read any Anthony Beevor books the guy who writes about the Second World War?
Oh yeah I have. A great writer. I have got to pick up some more books for the road.
And finally, I don't imagine you are a man to give advice, but if you were, career advice to young musicians just starting out?
Perseverance. If you really want to do it and you hit brick walls just dust yourself off and keep going.
As you've done, even after that holiday in Fiji in 2006 when you slipped from a tree just days after the Auckland concert.
And I came right back to Auckland. Dr Andrew Law saved my bacon.
The weird thing for me was when you were having neurosurgery I was asked to write your obituary, just in case.
Put that on the backburner for a while [laughs]
I quoted something Charlie once said about you which I always liked, “There's something about music that likes being around Keith.”
Oh, bless him. I'll wear it like a cloak.