Keith Richards literally wrote the book on being a rock star with his autobiography Life (2010). It is probably the best one I have ever read. He pulls no punches and much of it is absolutely hilarious.
In reading the interviews collected in Keith Richards on Keith Richards though, it occurs to me that he had been working on Life for a very long time. The book contains 18 interviews, spanning the years 1964-2011. While it is no substitute for his lengthy autobiography, I consider this book to be a fascinating, and for fans, essential addendum to Life.
The centerpiece is the landmark Rolling Stone cover story/interview by Robert Greenfield from 1971. It is hands down the best interview Richards ever gave, and marked the first time he had ever really talked at length in a public forum. It had always been Mick Jagger speaking for the Rolling Stones previously, but in this interview we finally got the chance to meet “Keef.” And he does not disappoint.
For anyone who enjoyed Life, but somehow missed the Greenfield interview, it is a must. I was a little too young to be reading Rolling Stone in 1971, and did not came across the interview until I read The Rolling Stone Interviews (1981) collection. What I did not know until now was that the original had been edited somewhat for the reprint. The version included here is completely intact.
The three pieces that come before the RS interview are interesting snapshots of the early days. The first is from the English magazine Melody Maker, in 1964. In “I’d Like to Forget About Juke Box Jury” Says Keith Richard,” he is in what would become a familiar position, defending himself for speaking his mind. On the JBJ television show, a band would be played new records by other artists, and asked to rate them. The Stones being the Stones, they dissed everybody, including Elvis. In this article, “Richard” stands by his guns.
The next two chapters are “Keith Talks About Songwriting,” and “Sue Mautner Takes You ’Round Keith’s House,” from 1964 and 1966 respectively. Both are from The Rolling Stones Book, which was their answer to The Beatles Monthly, and for members of their fan club. No earth-shattering revelations here, but the house in question just happens to be Redlands. Keith’s pad would become infamous the following year when the cops found drugs, Marianne Faithful clad in a fur rug, and a mysterious Mars candybar on the premises.
Having read (most of) the Greenfield interview previously, the most intriguing piece in the book for me is the one right after it, “And Sitteth at the Right Hand…” by John Ingham. I had never seen this 1976 Sounds interview before, but even if I had, I am sure the published version would have been a bore. As editor Sean Egan notes in the introduction, Ingham was very sympathetic to the nascent punk scene brewing in London at the time. In fact, he had just come from an interview with the Sex Pistols. The scene in the Richards/ Ron Wood suite is utter decadence, and he tried to convey this in his article.
Ingham did a great job of it too, although Sounds readers never got the opportunity to read it. His editors took out all of the references to drugs, leaving nothing but Richards defending the band’s latest opus Black and Blue to the assorted members of the press. That is a shame, because in its original form, this article is fantastic. Ingham describes the mountain(s) of cocaine Richards snorts throughout the proceedings, never offering any to the assorted journalists. The funniest moment comes when Keith wipes his nose with his finger and scrapes it off on his trouser leg. “A foot from my eyes, stuck to the corduroy, is a thick line if cocaine mixed with a little snot,” writes Ingham, “And for a mad punk minute I think of leaning forward and with a quick ’Excuse me Keith,’ snorting it.” Best line in the book as far as I am concerned.
The remaining 13 interviews are from 1980-2011, and include pieces by such famous names as Kris Needs, Chris Spedding, and Ira Robbins, among others. Trouser Press founder Robbins actually has two, from 1988 and 1992. The 1988 interview is titled “The Great Lost Keith Richards Interview” and has an interesting backstory. The interview was commissioned for Creem, but the magazine folded before it could be published. It appears here for the first time.
As the years tick by, we see Richards growing more and more into his role as rock’s elder statesman. I found Egan’s introductions to be very thoughtful throughout the book, especially in these later articles. When one compares The Glimmer Twins; Jagger and Richards, it is hard not to love Keith. He seems open and human, where Mick always seems almost ridiculously aloof.
As Egan points out though, when you read these interviews back to back, Richards has what amounts to a mantra that he has been using over and over again for years. When asked about the relevance of a rock group who are as old as the Stones, he says that maybe rock will “grow up” with them. Beyond that, there is the tendency on the part of the writers themselves to treat him with a deference befitting royalty. The only thing that really seems to change in the later interviews is the title of the album being promoted.
I mentioned Chris Spedding as a “famous” name earlier, and should probably explain that. Spedding was part of the British pub-rock movement, which came just before punk. The first few Stones records were part of the pub bands’ DNA. Spedding hit the English charts with a 1975 single titled “Motor Bikin,” so his interview with Keith was as musician to musician. The 1992 Guitar Player interview by Jas Obrecht is also concerned almost exclusively with music, and the various guitar techniques Richards has used over the years. It too provides some relief from the repetition of the questions and answers in these later interviews.
For fans of Keith Richards, this really is an excellent collection of interviews, and belongs on the bookshelf, right next to Life.