In the voodoo lounge of Laiston Hall, near Stockbridge, afternoon tea is being served, and tuna sandwiches in fingery morsels. Through the French windows, there's a glimpse of croquet lawn, but none of the nine people in the room seems likely to be playing: not Caroline, the harassed, super-capable Virgin PR, nor the chap displaying the mysteries of the new Stones CD-Rom to a baffled hack, nor the elfin blonde regarding the mile-high video screen on which the Stones are performing their live version of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", nor the vast pile of reinforced concrete with wraparound shades that turns out to be Joe "Razor" Seabrook, Keith Richards's legendary minder. And nothing is going to chill out the chap from Max, a trendy German style magazine. Though cool, leather-clad, with hair just so and head full of questions, he is a bag of nerves.
"I don't know," he tells me. "Many times, many rock stars I am interviewing. Last month with David Bowie I am relaxed. But this ... It is true I am intimidated." But why? "Because at work, at the magazine, on the wall there is only one poster, and it is of Keith. Of course."
Of course. In this outer sanctum, this ante-shrine in the heart of bosky Hampshire, we are all quietly ignoring the fact that somewhere nearby the beating heart of rock'n'roll, the Master of Disaster, the Vampire of the Blues has just got up. Or has he? Caroline says he has. Joe the minder denies it. Caroline retracts it. " 'E was up quite early this mornin', actually," says Joe firmly, "An' then 'e went for a nice bike ride."
One does not care to dispute anything with someone called "Razor", but the likelihood seems remote. It's part of a rehab process (he's clean, he's off this, he's being treated for that, he drinks only orange squash) by his corporate nannies and hangers-on. But one doesn't want to believe that Keith, the embodiment of the outlaw spirit, could ever settle into bourgeois routines like health. Heroin couldn't get him, nor the police, nor the judges in 1967, nor the Mounties in 1977, nor bad acid and oceans of bourbon, nor Anita Pallenberg and hordes of dangerous girlfriends. The existence of the Keith Richards fan club is predicated on their hero never settling down, sobering up, being anything but murderously cool. Hence the panic in the Max man's eye.
But Keith is not being cool today. He is being sweet. After the first shock of meeting him - the skinny legs, the crumpled denim jacket, the bare pigeon-chest, the slightly precarious, marionette walk - you find yourself instantly beguiled by his stories, jokes, little impersonations and random musings. Of the stoned gypsy, the bewildered wino or the pissed- off, belligerent press-hater as once advertised, there is no sign. After five minutes in his company, you decide he is the most charming man in the world. After 20, you want to bin the interview and take him out for a drink. After 40 minutes, when they come to take you away, you have to be virtually jemmied off your exciting new friend.
With the enormous 135-date world tour behind him, Keith is living in Redlands, the 15th-century moated cottage in Sussex he bought in 1965 - but he won't have strangers tramping through it, hence our meeting at the nearby hotel. "You should see it at the moment, man. It's like the Somme. I'm having the moat dug out. ..." He's rediscovering the joys of home after renting it out for 13 years and is newly fascinated by DIY. "It's beautiful to be back in yer own house. I'm just amazed I'm actually there, just getting into little domestic things like, that window frame needs fixing, and maybe I'll paint that bit green. Suddenly there's a weird set of problems, after a year on the road when all you're thinking is, what are the chords to 'Not Fade Away'?"
Redlands was the setting for the famous drugs bust of February 1967, when Keith and Mick and several friends were raided by the police. "It's difficult to forget," he muses, "with 10 people in a room coming down off LSD, and looking out the window, hearing a knock on the door and sayin', 'There are some funny little midgets outside, all dressed the same. Oh, let 'em in.' Had he still got the fur rug in which the naked Marianne Faithfull was notoriously wrapped? "Nah, it fell apart. Not surprisingly, after having Marianne inside it. I sold it off in bits."
The inhabitants of West Wittering, the nearest village, have got used to seeing the apparition of a multi-millionaire in battered jeans, headband and skull ring down at the local. "The Ship's the best one. They've ruined the Dog and Duck, where the Customs people were tipped off about us. But these people in the village, it's as if they've lived there for a thousand years. I talk to them sometimes. They're nice folks."
This is the man, you tell yourself, whose wild ways are spoken of in stricken whispers. The chap who once stayed awake for nine days because he was on so many uppers. The miscreant who hits people with guitars. The fellow who drinks Tom Waits under the table. The one-man pharmacological research facility who has tried every drug between Samarkand and Sausalito. Just how much of a family man had he become?
He lives in Connecticut with his wife, the ex-model Patti Hansen, and their two little girls, Theodora and Alexandra, who show up as a song on the Stones' Tattoo You album. "Yeah, Little T and A. They're nine and 10 now, all teeth and hair and long legs." Are they pretty? "Oh yeah," says Keith with enthusiasm. "Unfortunately, I can already see the tongues hanging out. I miss them all the time. I use the fax machine as a basic form of communication, rather than phone, because you can do little drawings. And my son, Marlon, he got married last year. I couldn't make the wedding because [adopts Elvis delivery] Ah wuz playin' Vegas. So I said, I'll see you back in Italy, where they got married, for the first anniversary, which was last weekend. We were all there in Tuscany, and Marlon's late. Then he's sitting there eating pasta and suddenly he says, 'By the way, Dad, you're going to be a grandfather in eight months' time'."
Two minutes' silence while this intelligence sinks in. Keith Richards, a grandpa? Is this the end? Hastily one turns to the new record. Stripped, to be released on 6 November, is a delight, a kind of Unplugged without an audience, recorded mid-tour in Tokyo and Portugal. "When I heard the first playbacks, I couldn't believe how strong the sound and feel of the songs were. Mind you," he reflects, slipping smoothly into PR mode, "the band has been pretty feisty too, lately, the best they've played since the early days. And if Charlie's smiling, the whole world is smiling. ..."
He smiles and laughs a lot, his face creasing into a cascade of crow's feet. Although his face is more lined than a relief map of Connemara, the only impression of age comes from the deep weals that run down his cheeks. Suddenly you realise they are laugh lines, the result not of age but of too much manic hedonism, a surfeit of (occasionally chemical) bliss. You're also surprised by the warmth of his eyes, which look like hard black marbles in photographs but are in reality a humorous brown. He's unexpectedly forthcoming about all manner of things.
What was he reading? "Right now, I'm reading Gitta What's-her-name on Albert Speer. The way he keeps duckin' and divin' is fantastic. Guys give me a lot of books like, you know, the Goebbels diaries. Like a lot of friends of mine, you know, born in the Second World War, I'm still tryin' to figure out who these assholes were that landed a V1 rocket on my bed."
Where did he did get the floor-length coat he wore on stage during the world tour? "The peach-coloured one? It's in the room upstairs - shall I show it to you? It's a duster-coat, yeah, like the villains in Pale Rider wore. Well, if you run to a wardrobe department and you get really in with the seamstresses, you can see something in a magazine and say, 'How you going girls, you couldn't just run me up one of those, could you?' "
It used to take a cocktail of cocaine, LSD, opium, marijuana and Jack Daniels to get him on stage. What did it take these days? A blizzard of mock-denials ("Nope-nope-never-touch-a-thing, not-me, neveragain") and then he reflects that he only ever played a concert while tripping on one occasion. "Sydney racetrack, '72, Bobby Keys [the band's late saxophonist] and I had been hangin' with these chicks in Perth and flew to Sydney with the amplifiers. As we said goodbye, they gave us two last tabs of acid, and we thought, 'Why not?' But then we got to the racetrack, and everything's all set up. There's the governor's landau and six white horses, and the acid's already coming down. We're driven out to the stage in the middle of the track by the six white horses, and the last thing I remember is these blinding lights coming down." Didn't it freak him completely? "Bobby and I played fantastically. We were really rocking. The horses must have done something to the acid, like made it think, 'Uh-oh, I don't need this shit.' ..." His wheezy chuckle is triumphant.
The world tour ended, as everyone knows, back in Blighty, with three boiling sold-out nights at Wembley Stadium and a single date in the tiny Brixton Academy that half of London pretended to have attended.
How was coming home? "London amazed me. Wembley amazed me, and the Brixton Academy knocked me flat on my back. It's always the hardest place to play, your own hometown. There's that thing for years: 'Oh the Stones, flash rock'n'roll superstar, tax exile, jet set, blah-blah - OK then, entertain me.' This year there was a feeling that London was welcomin' you back, sayin': 'It's nice to see you.' It knocked the Stones out. Afterwards Ron and Charlie and I got quite emotional about it, we almost shed a tear." He shakes his head, mock-tragic. "But I couldn't remember how to cry.
"Brixton, well, you looked down and thought, 'It's just like playin' Richmond Station Hotel in '62 and '63.' It's a long time since we did this, but now there are all these professional types - the weirdos of the Nineties, right - and they're bank managers. I'm always surprised at the range of the audience, there's 12-year-old guitar freaks - I remember being like that - and guys with, well, obviously not their daughter on their shoulder; it's their granddaughter, and they're still rocking all over the place."
An unlikely visitor on the tour was his mother, about whom he is very eloquent. "Oh yeah, my old Mum. She popped in and out. She's only 80, she can nip about. She's getting married next year, you know. My Dad wrote to tell me. It's a guy she's been with for years. She wants to tidy up her life, bless her heart." Weirdly, he has suddenly become a sentimental old softie from EastEnders. But he means it. "I learned about music from my Mum, her and the BBC. She used to search out Ella Fitzgerald on the wireless, good jazz, good classical about half an hour a week. I grew up with that as a constant background, like an education without knowing it." Did he remember being a choirboy? He bridles with pride. "Albert Hall, Festival Hall and once at Westminster Abbey singing in front of the Queen. Frankly, my career's gone downhill ever since."
Keith Richards is 52 in December. After a lifetime of debauchery, he is terrific company, basking in the knowledge that after years of public hostility, he's back to a kind of national hero-hood. Now he was an institution, I said, what sort of recognition did he crave? A knighthood? "Mmm. A great shag would be better." But he's already in cahoots with the royals. "I got a fax from Charles the other day. Got home three nights ago, there's a fax from Highgrove House signed "Charles". I thought: Charlie Watts? But no, it was the one of Wales. It was because, during the tour, we re- did the lighting in the big galleries in the palace at Prague inside Hradcany Castle. And apparently Charles is involved in the Prague Heritage project. So he was faxing to say thanks, and was there anything else I'd like to do for him? I was thinking of writing back and sayin', 'You don't fancy doin' my job for a bit, do you?' "
What a card. We shake hands, his skull ring bruising one's fingers.
Outside, I tell the German journalist: Don't worry. He's reading about Albert Speer. You can have a chat about the war. The blood drains from the hack's face. "I come now?" he asks. "Five minutes," says Keith Richards, limping off. "I gotta powder me nose."
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