This article originally appeared in the October 1985 issue of SPIN.
It’s been 20 years since the time was right for fighting in the streets. Have mercy, baby, but it was 2,000 light-years ago that those thin, nimble but hard, defiant fingers introduced him as a man of wealth and taste. He’s been around for some long, long years—since Jesus Christ and His moment of doubt and pain.
Keith Richards still plays with fire. There’s something unnaturally timeless about him. It’s not that he hasn’t aged. Just look at the photographs. It’s that somehow he has never changed. We can count the years, the albums, the tours, the good times, the bad times, the tears as they go by. We have the evidence, yes, but when we stand to submit it, we stop, and don’t. Time is on his side.
As he sits in the Rolling Stones’ New York office, plucking abstractly at the strings of the unplugged electric guitar resting in his lap, we realize that mere chronology will not penetrate mystery. Keith Richards is not only rock ‘n’ roll. He’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the Monkey Man, the Midnight Rambler, the Prodigal Son. This is one outlaw who never gave himself up. It’s the nature of his game.
Once again, after a long layoff, the Stones have been recording. Is there some sort of inspiration you get in the studio that you can’t find anywhere else?
Studios are the same all over the world. Once you’re in there with your team, it’s “Studioland.” It doesn’t matter if it’s Australia or Hong Kong or Siberia or anywhere else. A studio’s a studio. We make it a comforting environment. I’ve been living all over the world for years, so a studio’s my home. It’s always the same. It’s nighttime, the phones don’t ring, there’s nobody around. I’ve probably been in the studio more time than I’ve been in bed.
So is there anything that determines what kind of music you create?
One of the few things the Stones have consistently done is, to get back to that horrible cliché, to be a mirror of society. But in a way, all clichés have a grain of truth in them. And rather than analyze it right now, I can only say, well, it’s another reflection, and if that’s what’s going down, then that’s what’s coming back to us. That’s what’s gonna come out.
With you and Mick also serving as coproducers of your albums, do Bill and Charlie know what’s actually going to be included on the finished product?
Oh, yeah, they’re kept well up to date. Generously, I mean, it’s really up to them. I’m not about to call ‘em and play the latest mixes over the phone. But as long as they’re in touch, they get cassettes. It doesn’t make a difference how it changes until you actually get to the point where you say, “That’s it,” and you always know when you reach that point when you start to look at each other and say, “I don’t know anymore.” It’s a natural ending to [recording] an album.
So, now that Mick’s done a solo album, shall I ask you the obligatory question?
Yeah, that one. This is in other people’s minds. Oh, I could put together a boxed set [of solo albums]! But I don’t feel any necessity. There’s nothing in the can that I’d want out. If you put it in your head, “I’m gonna do a solo album” and you make a deal, then you gotta make a record, and you’ve got the extra record company pressure.
I wonder how Townshend did it with such ease.
Yeah, but in actual fact, Townshend made better Who records than the Who did together. He used to go there with the album already finished, and the rest would come up with some dubs, but his was ten times better than the finished record. It was just a matter of them imitating what Peter had already laid out. Kinda Hitchcockish. After doin’ the storyboards, makin’ the actual movie was a drag for Hitchcock. His role thing was puttin’ it all together.
But I think, in a way—I don’t know if this is true, this is my interpretation—Peter is kinda like that. He is the Who. When Moonie was alive, him and Townshend were the who. Pete knew what he wanted to do and made damned sure they did it, but I think he coulda possibly done it better himself.
But, ah, “Trousers,” what a lovely bloke. Last time I spoke to him, I called him a creep. I feel real bad about it. It was the middle of the [’82 European] tour, and he lent me [roadie] Alan Rogan, great guy, great guitar wizard, and halfway through the tour he pulled him out, which is why I called him a creep. In Europe, I said, “You promised if I could have him, I could have him for my whole tour.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Oh, you creep.”
Bang! Slam the phone down. That’s the last time I spoke to Pete. So I don’t know how he feels about me now. The situation was covered, thanks to Alan Rogan, I don’t know. I’ve known Pete a long time, but we’ve never spent any time together. He used to know Jimmy Page real well, way before Zep, when [Jimmy] played in a band called the Presidents, who were hot shit down there [in their hometown].
Guitar players, for me, are the hardest ones to know, all this professional shit going on. Very unprofessional, really. I mean, there’s a million guitar players, a million different types of guitar players, and the fact that we hit it real big, real quick.
And these guys were at least as good as I am. A lot of ‘em were a lot fuckin’ better, just as guitar players. I mean, Jeff Beck and I, for years, could hardly stand the sight of each other. It’s only been over the last few years that that’s all fallen by the wayside. Thank God it’s all over and we can sit around and have a drink and talk. That’s a guy I admire a lot. He’s a great player.
Speaking of guys you admire, what was it like for you to play with Jerry Lee Lewis on that Dick Clark TV special in ’83?
Jerry Lee, what a gent. I’ve been listenin’ to him since “Crazy Arms.” He’s part of my staple diet. As necessary as vegetables are. He’s just been around. What a gent. First I fly to L.A. at night [to do the Dick Clark special], and who do I see sittin’ on his suitcase waiting for his car but Chuck Berry, who I haven’t seen since he blacked my eye out at the Ritz. I believe he didn’t recognize me [when he punched me].
It’s great, ‘cuz after that incident he played with Ronnie, and he thought he was me, so he apologized to Ronnie! So I knew his general feeling. That was very sweet, we do look alike. And here’s Chuck sayin’, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was you I hit, my nerves were flyin’,” and we’re talkin’ while he’s waitin’ for his car, and he gives me his number.
At the same time, he lights a cigarette and drops it down my shirt and almost burns my stomach open! My shirt’s on fire! Every time him and me get in contact, whether it’s intentional or not, I end up wounded. But, I mean, if somebody’s gonna do it to me, I’m glad it’s him. He was a sweetheart about it. And I said, “Chuck, if it was possible to give you a black eye, I’d do it.” But it wouldn’t show up.
So I was thrown into this old rock ‘n’ roll syndrome. First Chuck Berry, and then Little Richard [also a guest on the Dick Clark special], who I hadn’t seen for many years, and of course, Jerry Lee. And the weird thing is that for some reason, I decided to be real colorful that day. Hey, it’s California, with an early-morning rehearsal, 9, 10 o’clock—early for me—and I decided to wear this turquoise T-shirt, shades, black jeans, and white shoes. I’m gonna play some rock ‘n’ roll today.
But I don’t know what I’m in for. I walk into the studio and there’s Jerry Lee in exactly the same costume—turquoise T-shirt, black jeans, white shoes, and shades. It’s one of those strange little anecdotes that usually only happens in movies.
It is strange that your ideals are now looking up to you, in a sense, to keep their legends alive?
No, it’s very nice and very encouraging that they’re still playin’, and playin’ so good. But they don’t need me any more than I need them. I mean, I got a lot more out of them than they’ll ever get out of me, ‘cuz they turned me on. I didn’t turn them on to what they’re doin’, they turned me on to what I’m doin’. So I owe them.
And if those guys ask me to come play with them, that’s a compliment, and I’m there like a shot. Because I hardly get to play with people like that. I mean, there’s loads of great musicians. Hopefully, each generation will keep it up. That’s one of the things about music: it’s a hand-me-down. It always has been, since the beginning. you learn from the guy before you. And if you get any good, guys learn from you.
How successful you become is a matter of luck and business, and is a totally unrelated subject. Whether you leave the house to your mother or if you’ve got anything materially to leave behind is one thing, but what you do leave behind is your music. Whether you sell a million records or never even make one, if someone’s heard you and you’ve turned them on to it, you’ve done your fuckin’ job. The rest of it is hype and business. That’s what it comes down to.
I could tell you enjoyed yourself jamming with Jerry Lee. Do you still feel like a kid when you play with someone like that?
Yeah, I feel like that. If they turn around and give me a wink, I feel like a million dollars. That’s all it takes. A little encouragement goes a long way.
Jerry Lee’s one tough sonofabitch. I mean, none of us are immortal, but if one of us is, it’s gotta be that guy. The tragedies he’s been through. How much can be thrust on one guy? Since I did that show, his wife died. That’s a handful now, five down. Oops, sorry about that one, Jerry. What a gentleman.
Same thing with Muddy Waters. Really great guys. Doesn’t matter what their image is or was. Most of their image is raw power, let-it-all-go. In a way, I can relate it to myself. People expect me to be a wild man, Keith Richards, crazy fuck. And it’s the same kind of image with Jerry Lee. He’s the Killer, right? But like all killers, what a gent. Same with Muddy. Same with Chuck—as long as he recognizes you, what a gent.
Do you see any similarities between the Stones’ survival and Jerry Lee’s survival?
Yeah, we’re all still here. That’s the only similarity. You come across these problems and you deal with them or you don’t. The only similarity is that so far we’ve both dealt with them. Nobody can deal with ‘em all. Eventually, there’s the one you don’t deal with, and that’s the one that gets ya. That’s only in our hands to a certain extent. I mean, you can do things to stay healthy and then get run over by a fuckin’ bus. You can be the healthiest man ever run over by a bus.
One of the main things for survival in rock ‘n’ roll, or just in Tin Pan Alley, let’s face it, is a certain constitution that you take for granted, that you don’t bend or don’t even have to think about. Hank Williams was sick from the day he was born, but got so used to it he didn’t even realize he was sick. He used to take things for it. That’s a rough route.
Jerry had to face up to that one year. You can’t hold out forever; you’ve got to cut a few things out. But fact is, the guy [Jerry Lee] never looked well for quite a few years. It’s one of the things I told Little Richard, that I was a bit worried about him, maybe he didn’t get over that thing. And then we walk into the studio—”You fucker, you got us here under false pretenses!” He was lookin’ so well. That woulda killed ten other guys, what he went through. And I was so happy to see him. I hope appearances are true, because he was lookin’ well. Put on some weight. And he was playin’ like hellfire!
Do you think personalities make survivors?
Yeah, there’s a certain equilibrium between your personality and your ego and your physical makeup. Woody’s that way. Tough always. Mick too. And all of ‘em. Skinny little fuckers. Well, not necessarily, so skinny anymore. I’m in amazingly good shape for the “old man of rock ‘n’ roll.”
What about a guy like Belushi? Did you see it coming?
Yeah, always. Not that I ever expected it to happen. You never expect it to happen. It’s kind of a retrospective point of view. But there was a very certain amount of Brian Jones-type vibrations in John Belushi. Even if you would’ve recognized it while John was still alive, you didn’t want to admit it to yourself or say it to him. There was that certain recklessness, certain kind of insatiable “overdo it.” You know you can’t say anything to him, ‘cuz the more you’d tell him he was overdoin’ it, the more he’d overdo it.
John, in retrospect—I mean, I never expected Brian to die either, it was a terrible shock. And Belushi was a real pussycat, basically. He’d always bluster, but he was a lovely guy. And there was that extra “more, more, more” about him that you only recognize when it’s too late, when it’s all over and done with. Something in Brian was in Belushi. The more they got, the more insatiable they were.
What changes have you seen the Stones go through personally?
I’ve seen ‘em go through just about every damn thing. For ten years, or at least for five years, undoubtedly, I was the weak link in the chain. From my point of view, no way. But I was, in retrospect, in no condition to judge. That’s the horrible, terrible fascination of dope. That when you’re on it, everything’s cool. And the more you take it, the more cool it is, and the more necessary it is to be cool. It’s only in retrospect that you’re able to say, “Ah, this boy, you been led astray.”
When all is said and done, I’m either damn lucky or, as I like to kid myself, real smart that I didn’t manage to top myself in that period. After all, the only thing I was toppin’ the charts in then was One Most Likely to Kick the Bucket. And I held that position for several years. It’s one of my minor joys that I’m no longer on the last. Sid Vicious beat me to it. Loads of others. That shows how wrong the charts can be.
So, now that you made it this far, what do you think about the big stink made about your age? Look what Mick goes through on his birthdays.
That’s why I restrain the laughter with him. After all, he’s only five months older than I am. I’ve known Mick since he was 4 years old. For 38 years, I’ve known the guy off and on, since we hung out in the same sand pit when we were 4. I’ve known the guy a long time. I think rock ‘n’ roll is a fairly healthy life, if we’re all still here. And nobody looks like a 40-year-old executive. They’re all still in good shape. They’re all still trim, put in two hours onstage, probably more energetically than they did in the ’70s. And those people who ask me about age, it never goes across my vision, except that the years do go by a little faster.
Do you mind having done some growing up in public?
No, how can I complain? It’s not something you get any preparation for, but “Deal with it” is the maxim if you wanna stay in rock ‘n’ roll and make it your career. Anyway, it’s too late to get me trained to do anything else.
Are there any groups you’d like to work with or would’ve liked to work with in the past?
I could’ve done with being one of Elvis’s original band, being one of the Crickets, being one of the Blue Caps. I could’ve used being in Little Richard’s band in the ’50s, a million others. I would’ve loved to have been in Muddy’s band in the early ’50s. Would’ve loved to be in Louis Armstrong’s band in the ’20s. I mean, I can go back farther than that. Yeah, I wish, I wish [laughs].
But you’re satisfied where you are?
Oh, sure, given the time and place. And you can’t do much about that.
You’ve borrowed from Chicago, Jamaica, and so on. Is it a fair cultural exchange? What are you, a white kid from Dartford, putting back into this melting pot, musically or personally?
We had to come here and let you know? Fact is, in England what was really important was what was going down in American music, while the kids here just had to flip the dial. It wasn’t programmed by prejudice and custom. But it never occurred to them. We had to pick up a few stray notes from 3,000 miles away and bring it back here to these people to start it again. By the time we got here, you could’ve heard all this shit ten times better, five years before the Beatles or us arrived. It was here already. So that’s what we did as white kids from Dartford.
So, what’s on your turntable right now?
I haven’t got one. Oh, wait, actually, I tell a lie. I just got one, a great little machine called Mr. Disc. You can put it in your suitcase and put your socks around it.
What I was getting at is what you think of some of the stuff comin’ out right now, especially technopop.
Wrong to ask me, because when I’m makin’ Rollin’ Stones records, I listen to nothing else. When the breakfast comes, which is 8 o’clock in the evening, MTV is on for ten minutes during the corn flakes, which is hardly a good guide as to what’s actually going on. That is the limit of what I’ve seen recently.
Have you been noticing any changes in what you have been hearing?
The only thing I’ve gotten out of it this year is that there’s rather less synthesizer than there was last year. I hear a lot more simplified guitars. This is just my impression. I may be tuning in the same time every fucking day and getting the same tracks, I don’t know.
But it seems to me that in these last few months, the very little that I’ve heard and been in touch with is rather more emphasis on a straightforward instrumental lineup, mostly guitars. At one period, I was getting the definite impression there were a lot of guys out there tryin’ to sound like the Byrds.
Jus a lot of nice, simplified, echoed guitar. Whereas last year, the synthesizer was swamping everything. I mean, the synthesizer ain’t a natural rock ‘n’ roll instrument. It can be used, but you gotta know how to use it. There are certain sounds, but I don’t think you can base a band around a synthesizer sound. Blondie used it, and everyone else. I think there may be a bit of breathing space now, to come out with a new generation of synthesizers capable of pounding another new sound into the ground.
Are you intimidated by all this computer technology?
It doesn’t intimidate me. We’re at a stage now where everybody’s tryin’ to figure out how much they need and how much they like them, how much they can live with ‘em, and what they can get out of ‘em. When do you reach that point where if you’re not careful they start using you. Which is the classical H G. Wells situation, George Orwell’s 1984.
Switching gears a bit, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting your father.
Oh, god, the legend [laughs].
What was it like to have him pop back into your life in 1982, after not seeing him for almost two decades?
There had been so many attempts for several years, a couple of letters back and further in the late ’70s. And I never expected it. I thought, when it happens, it happens. It just so happens that that year we were in Europe, I’d also written me dad again, and suddenly I got a reply when I was actually close by for a change, instead of being on the opposite end of the world, so we could do somethin’ about it. This is my father, who I hadn’t seen in twenty years. I was so scared to meet him, I took Ronnie [Wood] with me.
We met in an apartment in a house where we were staying. This is the father I’d left because we couldn’t stay in the same house together anymore. It was just time for me to leave the goddamned nest. And soon after that, my mother broke up with my father, and one’s inclination is to take care of mum. And then I wasn’t anywhere capable of or geographically near enough to deal with it, so I got very used to it. “Oh, I haven’t seen my dad in two years. I haven’t seen my dad in five years. I haven’t seen him in ten years, fifteen years.” It could’ve gone on forever.
He seems to be enjoying himself now that he’s with you.
Yeah, he retired since then. So now we really appreciate one another. All the things we couldn’t stand about one another twenty years ago are all water under the bridge. In a way, he’s given me a lot of insight into why I am like I am. He was at every recording session, and we found 42 bottles of beer stashed under his bed, an emergency supply, when he left.
How’s your son Marlon?
He’s great. He just started a new school. This was a school he wanted to go to, so my father, me, and Marlon go up there and talk to the principal. It was a great place, and particularly a place he wanted to go to. But now that he’s going, I think he’s kinda shocked at how much he’s got to work. But he’s into it.
The great thing is, I would’ve been very happy to deal with education in that way. For me, it was all groovy until my voice broke. They threw me out of the choir, and then it was sheer murder. It was quite a big deal, the choir. We used to have all these competitions and do the Westminster Abbey Festival, a lot of big gigs. I’d forgotten about it until I met my father again and talked about it. The other thing about my father is that he and Marlon—those two are inseparable, a terrible duo, like Batman and Robin.
Is it hard to discipline Marlon with all the wealth around him?
I don’t know. Because he’s also old enough to realize the wealth is very much temporary, wondering whether the old man is gonna go to jail. I can’t imagine it, with the kind of childhood I had, one town all the time, same house, day in, day out, the way most of us grow up. Whereas Marlon has grown up in the archetypal show-business, born-in-a-truck-in-Peoria type of thing.
Does Marlon’s presence cramp your style, say, on a tour, when you’re supposed to be the big, bad Rolling Stones?
No, Marlon’s been on the road since he was a year old, in 1970. He’s very used to it. A very domestic scene is going down, when people are expecting party time. Usually, both things are goin’ on at the same time. It’s party time, and in the meantime, I used to go in and put Marlon to sleep. With this raving crowd leaping outside, like Stevie Wonder’s band, or [Stones saxophonist] Bobby Keys out of his brain. Half the Stones were out whoring with groupies. He didn’t give a shit. As long as he had his old man or his old lady. That’s the important thing. They don’t care about places, circumstances. The only important thing to a kid is, “Where’s mom and dad?”
Do you see much of [daughter] Dandelion?
Quite a lot, more and more. She’s now Angela. She discarded Dandelion. It’s much easier to melt into the crowd with a name like Angela. It’s also her name. Give ‘em three or four, let ‘em choose! She’s bein’ brought up like I was brought up. She’s bein’ brought up by my mum [in England], so I know it’s a good upbringing. After all, the old lady didn’t do too bad with me. She loves the stability, you know, chicks are different than guys. There’s lots of different things about ‘em [Marlon and Angela], I’ve noticed. And it’s up to what each individual person is happy with.
One of the few things I learned quite early on by traveling around a lot is that in our part of the world, we tend to keep people children for as long as wet can. To drag childhood out. We’re very reluctant to relinquish parenthood or responsibility or to give rights to the child. You go to different parts of the world and see kids 6, 7, absolutely capable of takin’ over dad’s business. “Okay, you mind the store.” And you find that the old man is easier to bargain with than the kid.
Just by travelin’ around, you get very hip to the fact that kids are very capable of growing up. Then you can say, “Well, is it good for them to grow up too soon?” Whatever someone’s capable of I would imagine would be good for them. In that respect, I’ve brought my kids up with the view, “You’re old enough to walk, then you can walk to the fuckin’ john to take a crap. I’m not gonna wipe your ass.” I’ve given ‘em a lot of independence in that way.
This time around, you and Patti will be raising your child in a somewhat more stable environment, a rented apartment. Will you miss living out of a suitcase at the Plaza Hotel
The Plaza’s so big, and if you don’t answer your phone for a day or two, security comes and smashes your door down to make sure you haven’t deceased. Which becomes a drag if you just want to spend three days in bed. So fuckin’ what? None of their business. They get too worried for me.
How is Anita [Pallenberg, mother of his first two children]?
Anita’s doing very well. Very well. Cleaned up her whole act. I’m very proud of her. Her and Patti actually talk to each other. I’m either very lucky or I’ve done something right. There is nothing hidden from anybody. They talk to each other, visit each other. And Anita still knits me sweaters.
Maybe it’s because we never had the divorce thing. By not getting married and divorced, where the lawyers force you to hate each other, just from the point of “As your lawyers, Mrs. So-and-so, I advise you to get this much out of that sonofabitch.” And I suggest we change the venue of this divorce, Mr. So-and-so, because they can’t screw so much out of you here.” So you become implacable enemies. Anyone that survives a divorce and still talks to each other is a miracle. People can actually get along a lot better without resorting to the law.
Then why did you make it legal with Patti?
Because it’s me now, and it’s Patti, and it’s a different point of view. Anita and I, in the ’60s, were never interested in marriage. It seemed an archaic and dumb thing to do just to have a child. And that was then and that was Anita, and that was me and Anita. Patti and I have a different relationship.
And besides, shit, I’m gonna try anything. And if I’m gonna try anything like marriage, I’m only gonna try it once. And if I’m gonna try it once, it’s gonna be with this chick. ‘Cuz I’m not about to try it twice. I ain’t a Texan, I ain’t Bobby Keys—if he loves her, he’s gotta marry her. It’s just a different point of view. For me, it’s worked out fine, ‘cuz I can still talk to my ex-whatever. And there are other exes before Anita, and I can still talk to them.
How did you meet Patti?
It was engineered by other people, matchmakers. It was my birthday . We were all in New York. A few people had the same idea at the same time for a year before I ever met Patti. Every other night, somebody would say, “Oh, you should meet this Patti Hansen.” I kept asking, “Why should I meet this Patti Hansen.” I found out later. But it was one of those inevitable things. She was getting the same stuff. Until eventually somebody said, “They’re never gonna get it together themselves. We have to throw them together.”
What did her family think of you at first?
The first time I went to meet her parents, I was out of it. Out of my brain. I’d been up for days, got drunk, figured I’d keep myself real mellow. Instead, I wound up smashing up stuff. But they dug it. I went crazy and it didn’t offend them. I could’ve blown it, you know, “Never come back here again!” I was my worst.
After all this time, I’d never been through this trip, meeting a girl’s parents, so it was important to me. Try to be real cool, and I overdid it. I went totally over the top. But they dug me for it. That was the first indication that this was family I could do with if they could take that.
The old “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?”
I’m still not finished with that, after all these years. Once those things are pinned on you, they stick with you forever. It might seem slightly silly when you’re 60 or 70 years old.