Keith Richards called me at my place from his Connecticut estate at 3 p.m. EDT sharp on Oct. 17, 1998, as had been arranged by the band’s publicist. Usually the assistant puts the star on the line, but Keith is evidently a do-it-yourself type.
The interview was scheduled to take 10-15 minutes, but he was still going strong after 45 minutes and I found myself in the terrible position of running low on questions. The pretext was the release of yet another live Stones album, No Security, with tracks drawn mostly European and Buenos Aires shows on their 1997-99 world tour. It was pretty abysmal, thanks in large part to guest vocalist Dave Matthews’ singing on crowd favorite “Memory Motel.” On the other hand, I had seen dozens of shows on this outing, so was full of nerdy curiosity.
Keith had played a rough game of dominoes the night before with his father, Bert, and was very relaxed. Usually he’s hard to understand and speaks in soundbites that he repeats to every reporter. Hopefully this interview is a bit more original than most. I never got around to sending him a wish list of songs and other recommendations, as he had suggested, but maybe I played a small role in the reissue of his cover of “Run Rudolph Run” as an iTunes single nine years later. He also added “You Got the Silver” to the set list, as I had requested.
THIS ALBUM SEEMS MORE A COLLECTION OF LIVE SONGS THAN AN ACTUAL CONCERT ALBUM. IS THAT A DELIBERATE ATTEMPT TO ESCAPE THAT CONCERT ALBUM RUT?
Well I suppose so. In a way, when you’re doing a live album, you kind of have to approach it in the same way that you approach doing a live show. What are you aiming for? With the stage, we’ve always been trying to figure out new ways to get out … If you’re in a football stadium stuck down one end all the time, it’s a little restricting. It’s always how to get out there. In a way, having developed a second stage thing, which I think has really given a whole new “spacial” feel to what you can do, then you approach the record in the same way. In actual fact, you look for the best takes of the songs, and get the different feels from different places. I believe it’s definitely the best sounding live Stones record there is. People always throw Ya-Ya’s (The 1970 live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!) at you, which was damned good spirit, but sound-wise it was early days. I think with a bit of luck people might agree this is Ya-Ya’s, but better recorded, y’know?
MOST OF THE SHOWS COME FROM AMSTERDAM. DOES THAT MEAN THE AMSTERDAM SHOWS (THEY PLAYED 5 ARENA SHOWS; I SAW THEM ALL) WERE THE BEST FOR YOU?
I tell you what, not necessarily, only that it was a controlled atmosphere. It was the first dome in Europe, and so we didn’t have to deal with the weather. What happens when you’re recording live, everybody gets to know the room over 4 or 5 shows, and you can hone it down. You have virtually a controlled environment. You weren’t dealing with the rain or the wind. Sometimes you can get good tracks, but you don’t want to chance your luck too much! It was a pretty lousy summer in Europe’
ISN’T IT WEIRD STARTING WITH “YOU GOT ME ROCKING,” WHICH WE ALL KNOW COMES (MID-CONCERT) FROM THE B-STAGE?
We were under certain restrictions from the record company as to what tracks they didn’t want — tracks that had been on the previous 4 or 5 live albums. It made us hop around and bring up a different set list: not another “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” as good as it is and I enjoy it on stage. We had to come up with a more eclectic list of songs. “You Got Me Rocking” now is a pretty good statement. What interested me about it is that Mick suddenly loved the song on this tour, and I could barely get him to record it for Voodoo Lounge! He wasn’t interested in it at all then. You live and learn.
DO YOU FEEL PROPRIETORIAL TOWARD YOUR OWN SONGS? YOU’LL LOBBY FOR, SAY, “YOU GOT ME ROCKING” AND MICK WILL SAY, OK, AS LONG AS I CAN HAVE “ANYBODY SEEN MY BABY”?
No, not that way. I really consider them to be all collaborations. The only ones I don’t are probably the ones that I do sing myself, and there are others that Mick has written himself as well. But otherwise, I don’t really think about it that way. I’ve considered that my main task is to write things that I know that Mick can really get into, even if he doesn’t believe it when I first lay it on him! Sometimes it takes a while. To me, “You Got Me Rocking,” it does rock. The band plays so well. It never stopped every night. I was so impressed with everybody.
WHY WEREN’T YOU MORE VARIED DURING YOUR SOLO SPOT? YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO “HAPPY” AND “BEFORE THEY MAKE ME RUN” EVERY NIGHT, BUT HOW ABOUT “YOU GOT THE SILVER” OR “SLEEP TONIGHT” OR YOU COULD EVEN DO “GIMME SHELTER”?
Umm, well, I’ve got 2 songs to do. In America, I did “All About You,” so basically I was revolving around 4 songs: “All About You,” “Thief in the Night,” “Gotta Hold You” (sic), and also “You Don’t Have To Mean It.” To me, it became more interesting to hone them down, as long as I have one of the new ones on there. I also really like to play “I Gotta Hold You.” It was something you could really get your teeth into, and everybody was playing better every night. So I didn’t see, really, a reason to change my thing too much. On a Stones show, after all, I’m very much aware that I am the interlude! And I know certain people, God bless them, that get into it. But at the same time, there’s always a changeover going. For instance, when I’m doing my songs, the guys are preparing the B-stage, so there’s other things going on. I just fill in the gaps. I loved singing “Thief in the Night” and the reggae one. That’s enough, I don’t want to confuse everybody. I would have liked to have got “All About You” on there (No Security), but it’s in the can, y’know?
DO YOU THINK EMOTIONAL RESCUE AND UNDERCOVER, FROM WHICH “ALL ABOUT YOU” AND “1 WANNA HOLD YOU” COME, WERE UNDER-RATED?
Yeah, it’s a funny thing. I can’t really put a finger on that. You even mentioned “Get Some Sleep Tonight.” Not a lot of people know that one! And it’s always been another one that I’ve wanted to work up. We also rehearsed “How Could I Stop” (sic) as well. Knowing that we’re kinda carrying on next year, I figured well I’ll stick with this lot for a bit, and I’ll do some different ones when we get back.
I’LL SEND YOU A WISH LIST
OK!! I’m open to suggestions.
ACTUALLY, A LOT OF US THOUGHT YOU MIGHT HAVE DONE “RUN, RUDOLPH, RUN” AT ST. LOUIS
We were gonna do it, but you know Chuck Berry charges a fortune for TV (it was a pay-per-view show). That’s why we didn’t even do “Little Queenie” because he’s just ridiculous.
HOW ABOUT RELEASING “RUN, RUDOLPH, RUN” AS A CD SINGLE, BECAUSE IT’S ONLY AVAILABLE NOW ON 7-INCH VINYL?
Well that’s another idea, why don’t you send me a piece of paper?!! I’m just recovering from the road at the moment. I ended up at about 1 28 pounds, which is a little light, even for me. So I’ve been under orders from the wife to sleep a lot and eat a lot. I’m gettin’ into it, but at the same time the body keeps going, C’mon, where’s the adrenalin? Where’s the 80,000? At the end of the tour it’s kind of a cold turkey’
AND YOU’RE USED TO THOSE OBVIOUSLY. “MEMORY MOTEL” IS PROBABLY ONE OF THE BEST-LOVED STONES SONGS, BUT I THINK A LOT OF US ARE DISMAYED TO HAVE DAVE MATTHEWS ON THE RECORD. WAS HE REALLY NEEDED?
Umm… I kinda liked his delivery. I kinda like the three different voices, Maybe it’s something to get into. Dave’s an all right guy. I have nothing really against it. It might be that I was playing with him live, so I have a more –. I don’t see these things as always being pure. Why not let Dave have a bash? It gives it a slightly different feel. It’s kinda just interesting. It either make it for you or it don’t, but you also might just grow into it.
SHERYL CROW SOUNDED OK ON “DEAD FLOWERS” FROM ALBUQUERQUE OR “HONKY TONK WOMEN” FROM LAS VEGAS
Yeah, well “Honky Tonk Women,” they (Virgin) didn’t want. As usual, on the Japanese album there’s an extra track, “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” But it doesn’t go on (the album in other territories). I don’t know Sony politics that well, but you can guess why they didn’t. Then they export the one with the extra track on it, no doubt. It’s a business thing. But at the same time, you always agonize about what goes on and what goes off. And sometimes you just get out the scalpel and say, OK, learn to live without it.
ARE YOU SURPRISED THAT SOME OF THE STUFF ON BRIDGES TO BABYLON SOUNDS SO MUCH BETTER LIVE? WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT THAT “SAINT OF ME” OR “OUT OF CONTROL” WOULD BE SHOW-STOPPERS?
On the record, it’s not the Stones. Charlie’s on drums, but they were not cut with the Stones. They were cut with (producer) Danny Saber, and I over-dubbed a bit of guitar in there. But those tracks are not the same real Rolling Stone tracks. But once the Stones got their teeth into the songs on stage, the difference just became amazing. It’s just another lesson that I hope certain people learn! If you want to make a Rolling Stones record, use the Stones. I have nothing against Danny Saber or the Dust Brothers, etc. except to say, Stay in your own lane.
HOW DOES BRIDGES TO BABYLON HOLD UP. DO YOU STILL LIKE IT?
I like it very much. The whole idea really being, ‘Hey Mick, don’t let’s try and meet somewhere and compromise in the middle. You go with what you’ve got together and I’ll do it my way, and let’s see if finally something comes together.’ And it kinda did. You can tell where it’s happening, and where it isn’t. But I had a great time making the record, it was very interesting. To work with Jim Keltner and Charlie together, two drummers, is usually a no-no to me, but with those two it was basically percussion and drums. It was some great teamwork. It was great to have Waddy (Wachtel, session guitarist) on there and (touring singer) Blondie Chaplin and Wayne Shorter, man, and all kinds of people to play with. I think maybe because it was the first time we’ve been able to record in a music city. Usually we record tracks on islands, remote and with no feedback from other musicians or other people. You get a vacuum. To me, it was very interesting to record in L.A. First off, it’s one of my favorite towns to record in, it always has been.
SO HOW DID IT FEEL TO HAVE THE STAGE TO YOURSELF AT THE START OF EACH SHOW (WHEN HE OPENED “SATISFACTION”), WITH NO ANNOYING LEAD SINGERS?
It feels great. It really wakes me up, even if I’m a little shagged out before. You get up there at the beginning and you snap to. It’s a fantastic feeling. Ha-ha!
I DETECTED A STRONG BOND BETWEEN YOU AND MICK WHEN YOU’D GO OVER TO HIM DURING HIS HARP SOLO ON “OUT OF CONTROL”
I’m provoking him there, saying come on you motherfucker! Blow it, come on! He performed so well, he sang great. There’s a hundred-odd shows in varying conditions, and he hung in. I promised him the best band yet, and I said ‘You’re gonna have to rise to it,’ and he did. I’m very impressed with the way the whole band dealt with this tour, because it seemed to go on a steady upward plane. There were no real lows and highs. Usually with a tours, (it’s) good show, great show, terrible, average and then you sort of build up. This has gone so well from a musical point of view, from a performance point of view. I guess that’s why they’re going to continue.
I AM INTERESTED IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH RONNIE. HE HARDLY PLAYED ON THE B-STAGE, AND YOU YELLED AT HIM IN A LOT OF INTERVIEWS
That’s just Ronnie’s and my sense of humor! We blow each other out with the most cutting remarks because we’re the greatest of friends. Ronnie and I play what’s called the ancient form of weaving. We cross over, there’s no lead and rhythm. It’s basically when you can’t tell who’s doing what. Anyway on the b-stage I don’t play a lot. We play very basic riffs. There’s nothing too complicated going on out there. It’s simple but it’s tight. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll has to be, especially when you’re on a tiny stage in the middle of 80,000 people. It kind of makes you lean into it.
WERE THERE SONGS THAT NEVER CAME TOGETHER LIVE? I’M THINKING OF “ANYBODY SEEN MY BABY?”
That could either be great or abysmal. That’s the thing about tempo, and also attitude. Sometimes it felt really good, other times it felt a bit naff to me. At the same time, I kind of enjoyed it because I could play the soul guitar player bit! Just stand there and be cool, instead of leaping about.
WERE THERE OTHER SONGS THAT WERE DIFFICULT IN A LIVE SETTING?
Not really. With this website thing, which basically we didn’t rig very much — once or twice because the thing had broken down and nobody knew what it was, so we guessed what it would be — we wouldn’t know until half an hour before. “She’s a Rainbow,” Jesus Christ! That was the element of surprise for the band every night as to what was going to be the catch of the day.
IN NASHVILLE THE CHOICE WAS “FARAWAY EYES” AND IN OKLAHOMA “SHINE A LIGHT,” WHICH SEEMED RIGGED TO ME
“Shine a Light” we did it a couple of other places here and there. “Lowdown” started to get played in Europe (Author’s note: Keith is misinformed here. It was played only once, at the Jan. 14 MSG date, and it wasn’t the Web choice). A couple of others were starting to creep in. I always judge how Mick’s feeling about a show by how many songs he’s willing to change in a night. I don’t make the set list up because he’s got to sing them. If there’s 4 or 5 different songs from the night before, I know that he’s really feeling like on the ball. But if it’s like, ‘We’ll just keep it the same, we’ll change that one’ — uh-oh, I know something’s up. When there’s no changes then I know, What’s up? Is it the throat? Has he just had an argument with Jerry (Hall)?!
WERE YOU ALL EXHAUSTED TOWARDS THE END OF THE TOUR?
You don’t realize it until you finish because you’re kinda running on empty. There’s a feeling in the last week where you feel your body trying to relax, and you’re trying to say to it, ‘C’mon, we ain’t finished yet. There’s another few more to go,’ and then sort of coax it along. It’s generally like that, and then there’s this period of decompression. You try and figure out how to deal with it by hanging with friends. But then you can’t really deal with it because around show time, the body gets antsy! The adrenalin! After a year of it,, it is a drug we do create ourselves, and when you suddenly cut it off, it’s cold turkey and I know all about cold turkey!
SO I UNDERSTAND YOU’RE DOING AN ARENA TOUR OF NORTH AMERICA NEXT JANUARY, FEBRUARY?
That’s what I hear. I’m going to Toronto, see (tour promoter) Michael Cohl, do some interviews and shit on Monday, and then I’ll know more. At the moment, I’m still recuperating from this part of it.
THE NEXT TOUR WILL BE THE FIRST TIME SINCE 1964-66 THAT YOU’VE TOURED NORTH AMERICA IN THREE CONSECUTIVE YEARS
The tour has taken on a life of its own due to several reasons, probably one of them being the change in the tax laws in England, which made it impossible to play there while we wrangle with the British government (and therefore the 1998 UK shows were postponed by a year to 1999). The interesting thing was, to me, that they’d sold 105,000 tickets for Wembley, so we offered everyone their money back. And 2,000 (people asked for their money back). They must be the terminal cases who know they won’t be around then! Otherwise everybody’s hanging in, we’ll be there. In the meantime, it should be interesting to play the smaller theaters and arenas.
I KNOW MICK DOES THE SET LIST, BUT WILL YOU TRY AND LOBBY FOR MORE VARIATIONS EACH NIGHT?
Certainly. This is the perfect time to do it because as far as we’re concerned this was the end of that particular set list. We’ll definitely be changing it.
DO YOU SIT AT HOME AT NIGHT AND WORK OUT THE IDEAL SET LIST?
Yeah, but it’s almost impossible because you’ve got 30-odd years of music to cram into –. In a way, by osmosis, set lists make themselves. Starting with “Satisfaction” 2 or 3 tours ago wouldn’t have made it: we just didn’t have the attitude on it or the sound on it or the technology on it to make it reliable every night. And you need the first song to really punch in, for everybody to be happy to play it. Sometimes it’s “Not Fade Away.” You can never tell. In a way I await with anticipation to see how it pans out for next year.
ARE THERE SPECIFIC SONGS THAT ARE NOW READY TO PULL OUT FOR THE LIVE SHOW?
It’s so difficult to start pulling them out.
SOME OF THE STUFF CONSIDERED THROWAWAY ON EXILE ON MAIN STREET HAS HELD UP REALLY WELL, “TURD ON THE RUN” …
Yeah, there’s “Ventilator Blues” and “Casino Boogie.” When we rehearse for tours, we generally run them all, or at least most of every song we’ve ever done. Just to stay in touch with it. You wait to see if it pulls itself through, and you give it as many tries as you can. In a way, a set list counts not just in every individual song, it counts how they sit together as well. There has to be a theme to it as well. Once you start to juggle things around, then you have to wait for a whole new pattern to emerge. That’s generally what happens in rehearsals. We have a great big blackboard and write ‘em up. Oh, that sounds good against that one. It’s kinda like making a track list. Many times, great records suffer from having the songs in the wrong order!
ARE THERE ANY FAVORITE UNRELEASED ROLLING STONES TRACKS?
There are so many. There’s hundreds. There’s songs from Dirty Work still, “What You Gonna Tell Your Boyfriend?”
I QUITE LIKED “STRICTLY MEMPHIS.” REMEMBER THAT ONE?
Yeah. What usually happens is I have a bunch of work cassettes from way back. I put my hand in and I pull ‘em out and I put ‘em on, and there’s a song that I’d almost forgotten. And then I start to work on it again. It’s like a great wine cellar!! You can just keep delving in there, and there’s always something. Whatever the record ends up being, it’s the tip of an iceberg. If there’s 1 5 tracks on a record, there’s probably hundreds of other ideas and bits, some of them finished and some of them half-constructed, on the way, and you try and stay in touch with them.
DO YOU HAVE VOODOO BREW AND VOODOO STEW (TWO LAVISHLY PRODUCED BOOTLEG BOXED SETS OF OUTTAKES FROM THE VOODOO LOUNGE SESSIONS)?
Oh, yes I do. As much as everybody tries to wind me up business-wise about how this is unforgivable, I don’t like to be ripped off in a way, but at the same time I kinda like bootlegs. They’ve always provided me with an indication of what’s what, and they give you a different point of view on your own stuff sometimes. I’ve always found it kinda stimulating in a way. So I’m ambivalent about bootlegs. I wouldn’t mind being paid!! The more bootlegs there are on you, the more interest there obviously is on a level that’s not expressed elsewhere.
WHEN DO YOU THINK THE NEXT STUDIO ALBUM WILL BE?
Clairvoyant, I’m not. I figure we start somewhere next fall. If we’re on the road until June, and there’s definitely going to be another decompression then. Maybe, either late next year, or we start early —
WHAT ABOUT A NEW XPENSIVE WINOS RECORD?
Yeah, I’d love to. If the time presents itself. But at the same time, it’s finding the space where everybody isn’t tied up doing something else. It’s a schedule thing, otherwise we’d do it all the time. The hardest thing about putting that thing together is just finding that space to do it. Any time, I’d do it.
THERE’S A THEORY OUT THERE THAT THE REAL STORY BEHIND YOUR LIBRARY ACCIDENT (KEITH FELL WHILE REACHING FOR A BOOK IN HIS LIBRARY, FORCING SOME 1998 TOUR DATES TO BE POSTPONED) HASN’T COME OUT
I love theories, but the fact is I was reaching for Leonardo’s Book on Anatomy because the Guggenheim Museum had asked me to do a sketch for them for charity, and so I thought I’d check with the master and the fuckin’ shelf full of volumes just knocked me off. I don’t break 3 ribs and puncture a lung for any conspiracy! It was fucking painful.
YOU HAVE AN AWFUL LOT OF WORLD WAR II BOOKS
Oh yeah. I have a very extensive military library.
I’M QUITE A NUREMBERG TRIALS BUFF MYSELF
Nuremberg is where “Thief in the Night” on this record was cut! That was my first show after doing the ribs in. So it ties in.
THE CONSENSUS IS THAT BUENOS AIRES IS THE BEST PLACE TO SEE A STONES SHOW
They’re an amazing audience, absolutely. It’s guaranteed. I don’t know quite what the connection between the Stones and Argentina is, but something goes on there that’s just amazing. There’s a total understanding between us. I have no idea. Maybe it’s the gypsy thing.
CONVERSELY, DO YOU FIND IT A BIT DISAPPOINTING TO PLAY IN AMERICA? IT’S DEPRESSING, THE AUDIENCE IS OLD, THEY DON’T REACT, THEY’RE IN THEIR LITTLE SEATS TOO BUSY SCHMOOZING WITH EACH OTHER.
You kinda do your best, and hope that they do.
— THAT’S WHY EUROPEAN SHOWS ARE MUCH BETTER —
— But at the same time, you get some great audiences in America. Chicago… It’s just so regulated, but then you try Japan and they’re regulated even more. You just try and overcome, and within the limits of what’s possible, let’s have a good time. If you’re not doing that, playing this music, then you’re not doing nothing.
SO HOW’S YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MICK AT THE MOMENT?
Ha-ha! Mick and I can fight, Ronnie and I can slag each other off and everybody takes it seriously. But we’ve been together so long. We can do things and say things to each other in front of you, and you would be shocked and chilled. Meanwhile, we’re just putting each other on. To me, if I can keep the band rolling and get Mick to perform at his best, then Mick and I are really cool. So that’s the way it is at the moment. We might have different ideas on certain things and different agendas for ourselves when we’re not doing this. But when we are doing this, we know what’s what. I love him dearly and this is why I give him a hard time.
SO YOU CONSIDER THE BAND YOUR RESPONSIBILITY? YOU’RE THE GUARDIAN?
Yeah. Basically, I figure that if I take care of that end of it, then that frees Mick up to just worry and think about what he’s going to do in front of it. If he starts to interfere with the band and gets hung up about this and that, then that disperses his energy. Basically we’ve come down to the deal, leave the band to me, Mick, I’ll promise you the best one. All you worry about is what you do, and then it’ll all melt in together. And that’s the way it’s panned out the last year or so. I’m fairly benign.
THAT’S GREAT KEITH, GOOD LUCK WITH THE TOUR. IT’S BEEN GREAT TALKING TO YOU.
You too, Dean. You send me that list if you like, or to Jane (Rose, his manager), you know.
Stay in touch, man.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 1998, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING