When Keith Richards announced he was going to write his autobiography three years ago, most people didn't believe the Rolling Stones guitarist could remember enough to justify the $5m fee.
Yet, here he is telling me it will be published this October. "I'm waiting for some proofs to come back. It's kind of weird reading about your own life. Who'd be interested in that?" he laughs, sounding not unlike Jack Sparrow, as portrayed by his friend Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. "But then, I realise there is a lot of interest, so... Talking to some of the people that were there and their version of events to try and correlate it all was very interesting, a kind of kaleidoscopic bunch of experiences," he says. He's left his home in Weston, Connecticut, an hour's drive from New York, something he often does with his wife, Patti Hansen, to visit their two daughters. Now he's at the Mercer Hotel, a luxury establishment in New York. No one bats an eyelid when he lights up. The old devil.
Ostensibly, we're supposed to discuss the remastered, expanded version of the Stones' masterwork Exile on Main St, the album whose genesis in the basement of Nellcôte, the villa Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera, in 1971, has become a cornerstone of the Keef legend. But he's as happy recalling the four years he used Switzerland as a base during the Seventies – "Switzerland was about the only country that would accept me at the time, so I'm always very grateful to the Swiss. I actually learned to ski, which was an amazing sight, believe me, to see Keith Richards ski!" – or enthusing about Jamaica, where the group recorded Goats Head Soup, the follow-up to Exile. "I have very strong roots in Jamaica. I love the joint, I love the people, even though they're crazy. Takes one to know one." Whatever the era, and the fact that he looks older than 66, as if every line on his face and every vein on his arms and hands could tell a story, his recollections are sharp and give the lie to doubters who say he has not been the same since April 2006, when he fell from a tree in Fiji and had to undergo surgery in New Zealand.
That accident added yet another chapter to the already hefty tome of Stones lore, one that Richards has contributed to over the last 45 years, blurring the line between truth and fiction for his own amusement as much as to help cover his tracks. "Someone asked me how I managed to clean up. I was sick of answering that question so I told him I went to Switzerland and had my blood changed. I was just fooling around. That's all it was, a joke."
Exile, the quintessential Stones album and favourite of hardcore fans, is so close to his heart, though, he won't tell fibs about it. So how did the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world end up on the Côte d'Azur in 1971? "The full weight of the British establishment came down on us. First they thought they could get us with the dope busts and it did not work," states Richards, referring to the police finding minute amounts of cannabis resin, Italian prescription pep pills in Mick Jagger's coat and Marianne Faithfull naked in a rug, at his Redlands property in Sussex in February 1967, and the subsequent trial and prison sentence (his conviction was overturned for lack of evidence). "Then they put the financial screws on us," he continues, hinting at the parlous state of the band's finances after a costly split from Allen Klein, their notorious American manager, and the punitive tax bracket their high incomes put them in.
"There was a feeling in the air that we'd reached a schism, a breaking point with certain people, Klein included. To keep the band going, we had to leave England. There was a lot of determination that we could do what we do anywhere. France was convenient," he explains. "We figured that either in Cannes, Nice or Marseilles, maybe we could find a studio that we liked. After that fell through, everyone looked at me. I thought: 'I know what they want, they want my basement.' That's how I ended up living on top of the factory."
The factory, or "old Nellcôte" as the guitarist fondly remembers it, "was a fantastic place upstairs. The basement was another story. It hadn't been used for years. It was ugly and dark and damp. It was funky, I'll give you that," he laughs. "I don't think we really bothered to clean it up much. We just kind of moved in. It was a great room to work. It was a little crazy, a bit of an experiment because we'd never recorded outside of a studio before."
They had used the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio to capture their farewell-to-the-UK dates in March 1971 and to cut demos at Stargroves, Jagger's country pile in Berkshire, but it really proved useful when parked on the French Riviera. "Having the truck made it possible. The thing actually worked," stresses Richards. "We were amazed. It was a lovely machine, for its time. You'd do a few takes, and then everybody would stamp up the stairs, get in the truck and have a listen. It was a pretty unique way of making a record. There was something about the rhythm section sound down there – maybe it was the concrete, or maybe the dirt – but it had a certain sound that you couldn't replicate. Believe me, lots of people have tried."
An infectious rhythmic swagger infused "Tumbling Dice", the lead-off single from Exile, and "Happy", Richards' signature song. "Sometimes, you come up with something you could play all night. 'Tumbling Dice' has got such a nice groove and a flow on it," he muses. "Living on top of the whole scene had its advantages. 'Happy' epitomised that. One afternoon, Jimmy Miller [the producer] was on drums and Bobby Keys on baritone sax, but that was about it. The guys didn't usually start work until after dark. I said: 'Look, I've got this idea. Can we just lay it down for later?' By the time the rest of the band arrived, I'd done a few overdubs and we had finished the track. I'd captured it before anybody else knew it existed. I play 'Happy' quite a lot. It's not usually my genre. I'm not known for happy and joyful stuff. I'm probably more aligned to Lucifer and the dark side. But it was a damn good afternoon and I still love it."
There was one flaw in the masterplan: the flow of visitors documented by the photographer Dominique Tarlé in the coffee-table book Exile: The Making of Exile on Main St – a favourite of Richards. "Ah, Dominique, great guy. We liked Dominique because he was the most invisible photographer. You never knew he was there, he melted in and became part of the band. I was amazed by the book. I didn't know he'd taken that many pictures. A lot of people that you didn't intend to be there, like Gram Parsons, ended up at Nellcôte, and stayed for a month. Gram is on Exile in spirit. The good die young."
Nevertheless, the guitarist is adamant that extra-curricular activities didn't deter the group from focusing on music. "Yes, you can call it a vibe, it was a thick one," he says with a smile. "Of course, there were drugs, but it didn't affect the work. We were making a record, we didn't have time!"
The months spent at Nellcôte have been described as hedonistic but he recalls comedy moments. "There was a chef, Big Jacques, who blew the kitchen up. There was a great explosion," he gesticulates. "We had a couple of local Villefranche boys working for us. Yes, they did hook us to the railway line a couple of times when the power went. The gendarmes were very reasonable in their Mediterranean way. Sometimes, they just wanted to come around and have a look. You stand outside the front gate with the sergeant. 'Monsieur, excusez-moi.' Usually, things would settle down and you'd say: 'Come in, have a cognac.' We did have a robbery and we got some of the guitars back. Justice prevailed. We'll leave it at that. The lady caretaker was great. How she put up with us all... The smile on her face all the time. I don't quite know what she was smiling at but she handled us very correctly. I have fond memories of playing and working there. There could be worse places to make a record."
Kicking off with the out-and-out rockers "Rocks Off" and "Rip This Joint", Exile also saw the Stones explore a more gospel-flavoured, soulful direction. "Yeah, strangely enough, once we were in the middle of France, we started to dig deep into American music. After all, basically, that's what we do," reflects Richards. "But we started to pull on different aspects of it, country music for instance, gospel. Maybe, because we weren't in America, we missed it."
In fact, even if Exile is presented as the album the Stones made on the lam, chunks of it had already been recorded at Olympic Studios, London, where they'd made three previous albums. Exile was completed at Sunset Sound in LA between November 1971 and February 1972. "In order to mix it and to do certain overdubs, we needed rather more sophisticated equipment than what we had in our truck. That was the reason we took it there: to polish it, give it a little touch of Hollywood. The great thing about LA, especially in those days, you could make a phone call at three in the morning and say: 'We need a couple of voices.' Within half an hour, there'd be a couple of chicks ready to go, still wearing their nightdresses," he adds with a glint in his eye. "It was like that. You'd have an idea and it would actually happen, which was kind of cool."
Exile is now seen as the high watermark in the band's canon, but it wasn't in 1972. "Maybe because it was a double album. We had to fight the record company about that. We insisted it was a double," recalls Richards about Atlantic, which distributed the recently launched Rolling Stones label around the world. "We knew that there was going to be a reaction to it, just because it was very different. There was no hit singles. It was an album by itself. There was a lot of determination in the band to step up to the plate and make an interesting record. They'd kicked us out of England. We were the exiles. That's why the album ended up being called Exile on Main St. We were very aware that we were suddenly out there, with our backs to the wall. We had to make it up as we went along. There was no script, nobody had done it before. We were reinventing the Stones as we went along. It was a miracle it happened, quite honestly. The Stones had this streak of what do you want to call it, luck, bonne chance.
"In a way, we were growing up along with the audience," says the guitarist. "The tracks we found in the vault are mostly as we left them 39 years ago. I can hear stuff and go: 'Oh, my God, did I actually play that?' Sometimes you just take off. The spirit, the feel of it, it's well worth putting it out, because it's the flavour of the era. I stroked an acoustic guitar here and there. Mick did new vocals for 'Plundered My Soul' and 'Following the River'. We had to draw the line somewhere. We decided that, if we were going to repackage and put Exile out as a box-set, then we should add some of the other stuff that we had left over. When you make records, these things sort of fold over. There's stuff from Sticky Fingers that went into Exile at one end and out of the other into Goats Head Soup. Nobody writes an album from track one to track 12 and says: 'that's it'. It's a continual process and hopefully it will continue."
Stones fans have been spoiled with the expanded Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! and now Exile, but what's on the cards? "Nobody's going to make a decision about what we're going to do until we get further into 2010," says Richards. "No doubt the guys are going to want to talk about whether we're going to record and go on the road in one form or another. Maybe we're going to talk about doing it differently. There's going to be a lot of that. I would tell you if I knew."
'Exile on Main St' is reissued by Polydor on 17 May. The documentary 'Exile of the Stones' is on Radio 2 on 19 May at 10pm