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Keith Richards: Being, Keef

As the Rolling Stones prepare to release a new album - with the inevitable world tour to follow - their legendary guitarist discusses drugs, guns, music ... and why they refused to play Live8. James McNair listens in

Saturday 20 August 2005 00:00 BST

Presented with the above vignette, Richards gets the joke. "Yeah, I'd like to see the Reaper off," he says with a gruff laugh, "but people shouldn't try and do what I've done with my body, because not everybody can." As though to underline that truth, he swigs at a large vodka and orangeade-based concoction called a Nuclear Fall-Out. Would I like to try one? No, I'll stick with beer, thanks.

Sixty-two in December, Richards is enjoying his tipple while chain-smoking full-strength Marlboros. Though it's only 5.30pm, his skulls-and-guitars-appointed dressing room is candle-lit. The air is heavy with incense, and a small, coffin-shaped box on the table lies open to reveal Keith's rolling papers. He's wearing lime-green work boots, and a black tracksuit top with the word "Jamaica" emblazoned in yellow on the back.

You take in his gnarly knuckled fingers, his swarthy, heavily latticed face. On his right hand is the familiar silver skull ring that he has long worn as a memento mori. Keith's eyes are so brown they are almost black, and juju trinkets dangle from his gloriously unkempt hair. An amiable rogue who has been described as "a grinning baboon" and "the human riff", the guitarist proves surprisingly well spoken. As the vodka kicks in and he starts to slur a little, he puts me in mind of Rowley Birkin, the genial, dipsomaniac QC from The Fast Show.

"I went to see my dentist the other day," Richards says, still on the topic of his rude good health. "Chipped tooth. Hadn't seen him in 20 years. He thought he'd put me out on anaesthetic, but he hadn't - I was just sitting there feeling pleasant with my eyes closed. First I hear him praising his own handiwork; then he starts rooting around with his dental tools. After a bit I hear, 'This guy's immune system is fucking unbelievable!' I chuckled to myself but I didn't say anything."

Richards' dressing room is stationed within Greenwood College School. It is here, incongruously, in a quiet suburb of Toronto, Canada, that the Rolling Stones are once again rehearsing for an upcoming US tour. Richards' manager, Jane Rose, is on site, as is her tiny white Maltese, Ruby Tuesday, so named by Keith himself. On closer inspection the pooch is seen to be wearing a leopard-print scrunchy.

By Richards' account, rehearsals are going well: is contemplating the 43-date August-January tour like contemplating Everest?

"No, it's like downhill skiing! Nobody is dragging their ass to come on this one." Even Charlie Watts, traditionally the most touring-reticent Stone, can't wait to get going - and this despite the drummer's recent battle with throat cancer. "Charlie's fine now and he came back firing on all cylinders, maybe to prove a point," says Richards of his 63-year-old colleague. "If that's what chemo does for you, I'm going in for some."

Later, when I sit in on the Stones' rehearsal session, it's clear that Richards' claims about the camp's high morale are valid. It's fascinating to watch the group in something like private, Keith perusing the set-list through dainty pince-nez while he and 58-year-old Ronnie Wood's gritty guitars spar to glorious effect. Mick Jagger - 62, black baseball boots sans laces, 28-inch waist still intact - looks almost boyish as he beams at backing vocalist Lisa Fischer during "Gimme Shelter". When he catches sight of me on the balcony he does a double take, however - the thought bubble above his head reading: "Who let him in?"

If the Stones' appetite for their upcoming jaunt is tangible, Richards, for one, was less enamoured with the notion of Live8, and actually vetoed the idea of the Stones playing the event. "I didn't understand why everybody who was trying to coax me in happened to be knighted," he says with a laugh. "I got hit on by Sir Bob and Sir Mick, but I said to Mick, 'We ain't doing it, pal. You can do it, but I ain't.'

"Decreasing debts?" the guitarist goes on. "It all seemed a bit nebulous to me. Plus I couldn't believe the amount of pressure, even from 10 Downing Street. I was like, 'We're finishing the new album and getting ready for the tour - sorry, but we can't spare the men.' I heartily applaud what they were trying to do, except that it was tied in with Government policy and I always try and separate politics and music. I mean, Bob's a nice bloke and all that, but ultimately he's the one who comes off best, isn't he?"

The new album Richards mentions is A Bigger Bang, due in September. It's the group's first studio outing since 1997's Bridges to Babylon, and as its title suggests, it sees the world's greatest extant rock band shirking complacency and roaring loud. Not every track is a classic, it's true, but "Laugh, I Nearly Died" is as agreeably raunchy as anything on Sticky Fingers, while "Rain Fall Down" is the band's funkiest moment since 1983's "Undercover of the Night".

Elsewhere, on the flagship single "Streets of Love", an uncharacteristically lovelorn Jagger delivers one of the most compelling performances of his career, his diction masterful and his ad-libs on the fade-out unmistakably heartfelt. Lyrically, it's one of several songs on the new record that have led some to posit that the work is partly Jagger's love-letter to his estranged wife, Jerry Hall. "The awful truth/Is really sad/I must admit/I was awful bad," sings the old philanderer at one point. It sounds awfully like he's acknowledging his costly dalliance with a 20-year-old Brazilian lingerie model by the name of Luciana Morad (in 1999, Morad bore Jagger a child; Hall filed for divorce shortly afterwards).

With Charlie recuperating and Ronnie Wood facing equally testing times (the guitarist was devastated when his first wife Krissy took her own life earlier this year) Richards says he and Jagger were forced to pull their fingers out on A Bigger Bang.

"We were short staffed," he quips, enjoying a quotidian phrase and deliberately sounding like himself as caricatured by John Sessions on Stella Street. "Mick and I got the news that Charlie was going in for treatment just as we started writing. There was a pregnant pause, and we thought, 'Should we put things on hold?' But then it was, 'No, let's forge ahead - it will be a good incentive for Charlie. Actually, this is probably the closest Mick and I have worked together since Exile on Main Street. Both of us took on tasks that normally wouldn't have occurred to us, playing bass or whatever.

"Mick playing great guitar helped," Richards continues. "I sleep downstairs and the studio is upstairs. One night I thought I was hearing this old Muddy Waters track I didn't know, but it turned out to be Mick working on a slide part for "Back of my Hand". He's always been a good, smooth acoustic player, but the electric seemed like an untamed beast for him until this year. When I heard him this time I thought, 'My God! The boy's finally got it.'"

This is how Richards goes on: holding court, spinning anecdotes, and generally leaving no buckle unswashed. No huge surprise, then, that he has reportedly been offered a part in Pirates of the Caribbean III (Pirates II is already in the can). While his pal Johnny Depp famously used Keith as a template when playing the roguish Jack Sparrow, Richards says he can neither "confirm nor deny" his own involvement in the trilogy.

"What I can tell you," he says, "is that when we were finishing the album in LA, Johnny came down to the studio to talk about the movie. Behind him was, like, the Disney wardrobe department or something, and we spent the rest of the afternoon hilariously dressing up in pirate clothes. I'm up for doing the film and so is Johnny, so hopefully we can schedule something in ... I'd obviously bring my own cutlass, ha ha!"

Joking aside, this last is not a fact that anyone who knows Keith Richards would doubt. Ask director Julien Temple: before he worked on the 1983 video for "Undercover of the Night", Richards reportedly flicked open a switchblade, held it to Temple's throat and said, "You better not fuck up."

My host's liking for firearms has been well documented too, but he says that these days he leaves his handgun in the drawer at home. When he was scoring dope in the US in the late 1960s, however, he carried one around as a matter of course. "I'd read that Muddy Waters had one, and I suppose there was a bit of emulation going on there. America was a strange, lawless place back then. You'd be in some motel, and people would be shooting at each other, but unfortunately you'd be in the room in between. I used to keep my gun under my pillow [laughs], but then it becomes like your fetish, and you can't go to sleep unless it's there. Then you start wondering what you're worried about and if you'd actually use the gun anyway. I got pretty good at light bulbs and chandeliers, though. You had to check it was still working."

Asked what the biggest misconception about him is, Richards is stumped for a few moments. The public face of Keith Richards, he says, is a caricature with a large element of truth in it. "I've been cast in the role of the rascal and I accept the role gracefully," he laughs, "but everybody changes. The problem is that, when you've been famous for this long you drag all the key events and rumours of your life around with you like Jacob Marley's chain."

For Richards, these would include the night he wrote the riffs for " Satisfaction" and "Brown Sugar", the bloodbath that was the Rolling Stones at Altamont in 1969, the mysterious death of Brian Jones earlier that same year, and the persistent myth that a Swiss blood transfusion process akin to premature embalming was what enabled Keith to temporarily kick heroin prior to an important, 1973 tour of Europe. The mere mention of the latter proves enough to help Richards find an answer to my previous question. The biggest myth about him, he now posits, is probably that he was constantly endangering himself with drugs. "Actually, I would take drugs quite responsibly," he says. "A nice fix at breakfast, one for elevenses, and another one at teatime - it was like breaks at the cricket, or something.

"The times I fucked up was when I scored from people I didn't know and the stuff was laced with strychnine. I'm lying on the bed, and people are going, 'Well, he's still breathing ...' It was a bit Edgar Allen Poe-ish; a bit like being buried alive. You could hear every word they were saying, but you couldn't say anything back because you were paralysed.

"John Lennon did that, too," Richards goes on. "He seemed to be in competition with me over drugs, and I never really understood that."

Was he a Rolling Stone in Beatles clothing?

"That's interesting - you might have something there. I think the Stones behaved like he'd like the Beatles to behave, and [because of that] he felt constricted."

Richards' main home is still in Weston, Connecticut, and he continues to share it with Patti Hansen, the Staten Island-born model whom he married in 1983. It was at home on the couch that Keith penned "This Place is Empty " [without you], a fine country-style ballad from the new album that he croons raggedly à la Tom Waits. The guitarist concedes the song was partly written for Patti (one great line runs: "Come on, honey/bear your breasts/and make me feel at home"), but the lyric's wider resonance may take in empty-nest syndrome.

"Our daughters, Theodora and Alexandria, have grown up and got their own apartment in the city," he says. "For a while we didn't know what to be doing, but then Patti said, 'Jesus Christ! We can do want we want! Let's be a couple again, darling!'"

There are also grandchildren to enjoy, these fathered by Keith's son, Marlon, who together with Angela, his other child by Anita Pallenberg, is now well into his thirties. "Marlon's got little Ella, bless her heart, and Orson, who's about five now," says proud granddad. "Thanks to Johnny [Depp], Orson actually thinks I'm a real pirate. He's coming up just nicely, learning all the right cuss words."

Clearly, Richards is in fine fettle. He's already had three Nuclear Fall-Outs, but this has merely whetted his appetite for the rehearsal session that will begin immediately after our chat. What, though, of absent friends and family? Richards has lost Brian Jones, and his own father, Bert. He has lost musical soulmates such as country star Gram Parsons, and the Rolling Stones' unofficial extra member and keyboard player, Ian Stewart.

As his own pension book looms closer, are there moments when Keith recalls these people? Does he dream of them, perhaps?

"They come and visit now and then, and not necessarily when I'm asleep. I'll be talking away to someone and Bert will come in and say, 'A fox never shits in his own hole, Keith!' Parsons sometimes comes to me in dreams, but that's more of a musical thing. Ian Stewart? Man, he just rings like a bell. Whenever one of us in the band tries to pull a number, somebody will drop a little Stu-ism like, 'Come along my little shower of shit.' These people resonate; you never forget them. I miss all those cats."

And Brian? Is it all just too long ago now?

"Brian could be the most frustratingly obnoxious, nasty person. Which he never was until the minute we had a hit record. It was a fame thing, maybe; something seemed to snap in him. It could be that he thought he was numero uno and Mick didn't like that. I wasn't thinking about hierarchy at the time - I was just trying to find [the chord of] E7.

"We were pretty mean to him. We started to pick on him just to let him know: either you're in or you're out. And then he got more and more stoned, and he'd check into a clinic in Chicago while we were touring the Mid-West. I'm standing on stage trying to cover two guitar parts - it doesn't endear you to the guy.

"Later, I made a real effort to hang with Brian. This would be '66-'67, when we finally got off the road for a year. Everybody's getting stoned out of their brains and there's acid flying about. We were having a good time, but unfortunately there was Anita [Pallenberg - Jones's girlfriend before Richards "rescued" her from him], and then we get into that. That was the final nail in the coffin."

At that, our time is up. One last question, though: does he have any kind of fitness regime prior to going on the road? "Yeah," he deadpans, "It's called 'Rehearsals'.

"Mick's your guy for a fitness regime and a schedule," he adds, "but then he has to cover a lot more stage than me.

"When I wake up in the morning I just say, 'Ahh! Jah wonderful! Let's see what the day brings.' I'm happy to be here. I'm happy to be anywhere.

'A Bigger Bang' is out 5 September on Virgin Records. The US leg of the Rolling Stones' World Tour begins in Boston tomorrow, with European dates still to be announced

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