Shining a Light on The Stones' Keith Richards
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008; C01
Keith Richards, distilled: iconic survivor, Mick Jagger foil, rhythm-guitar legend, Captain Jack Sparrow inspiration, Louis Vuitton model, co-author of some of the greatest songs in rock-and-roll, and the proud (if occasionally incomprehensible) owner of one of the genre's greatest speaking voices -- a whiskey-soaked, smoke-cured guttural slur.
The most mystical of all Rolling Stones, Richards, 64, is calling to discuss Martin Scorsese's "Shine a Light," a new concert documentary filmed at New York's Beacon Theatre in 2006. It is, Richards purrs, "a documentation of this band's career and the way it goes on."
It's gone on for so long -- 46 years -- that there are enough Stones films now to fill a festival lineup. The list famously includes "Gimme Shelter," "Sympathy for the Devil" and Robert Frank's "[Expletive] Blues."
Why do another documentary?
If somebody says, "Hey, Martin Scorsese wants to point a camera at what you do," I'm not going to say no. Am I crazy? I might be stupid. (Laughs.) It's Martin Scorsese. The man has a vision.
Let's talk about your image.
What is that?
As this lovable rock-and-roll rapscallion who has nine lives and sort of exists in another, more nomadic dimension.
A lot of it is probably true, and a lot of it is a bit of fantasy. I'm still trying to grow up, man. It's all still an amazing adventure to me, the whole thing. Wow.
How do you feel when you see the younger version of yourself in the vintage footage that's used in "Shine a Light"?
I say: "What a pretty boy. And he's still here!" (Laughs.) I don't believe I dragged it out this far, but there it is. I'm doomed to live.
How long do you think you might live?
I'm not Nostradamus, pal.
What do you do when nobody's looking?
I try not to be an [expletive].
When you're at home, do you put on fuzzy slippers, grab some ice cream and curl up on the couch to watch Oprah Winfrey?
I'll give you the couch, but I won't give you the Oprah. I was just watching the history of fertilizer, actually.
Are there things you do that would surprise people?
Well, I don't know. I mean, I got me dogs, me kids. I go out and garden occasionally, depending on the time of year. Everybody lives, man. It's the same old life however you look at it. As Chekhov said: Any idiot will face a crisis, it's this day-to-day grind that'll get you down.
Let's talk about Mick's public image.
All right! (Laughs.)
How close to reality is it?
It's a hard one; I don't really want to talk about my pal too much. But he's very much more conscious than I would be of image.
This idea that he's a major control freak, is that real or --
I don't know. He doesn't really control anything.
But he did put together the entire set list for the concert Marty filmed.
You see, a singer is the one that's got to sing the songs. I'm there to support him. I always let the set list be chosen by the singer, because maybe he's got a bad throat that day and doesn't want to hit that note on that song. I only intervene if, when I look through it, I see: "Mick, you have 10 songs in the same key. How about a bit of variation?"
What about when you're writing new material? Did you and Mick butt heads while working on "A Bigger Bang"?
Not really. It's placid. You sit around and say: "What you got? Bring me your best, sir." Basically, it's always been the same. You can't head-butt and write songs at the same time, believe me. Though you might have to kiss [expletive].
You said recently that Mick would be nowhere if he hadn't met you, that "he'd be just another wannabe." Where would you be without him?
Probably the same thing, yeah? It's a matter of teamwork and chemical magic in some kind of way.
Everybody talks about the friction and yet you're looking at almost 50 years together. What's the secret?
You just keep going, baby. You just keep on grinding. And things happen. As far as music goes, I'm still learning every day. I absolutely know nothing about music except what I find out tomorrow.
That's a funny thing to hear from a guy whose riffs and open-G tuning have been so influential.
I'm still looking, I'm still searching. But if I've turned a few other people on to what I've found out, I'm very happy about that. One of the best things you can say about a musician or a writer is that he passed it on.
Why did you give Buddy Guy your guitar in the film?
Buddy had given an incredible performance. I just felt it was the right time to offer him my favorite guitar.
[Atlantic Records co-founder] Ahmet Ertegun suffered a brain injury after falling backstage at the Beacon and died several weeks later. How did his death affect you?
It's almost like losing your father, but not quite. I had lots of fights with Ahmet. Mind you, I fought my father quite a lot. But it was just so sudden it should happen there and then.
Did his accident affect your performance?
No, baby. You know, when people croak in the bog, they croak in the bog. This is rock-and-roll. You don't have any emotions about things. Later on, yeah, you think about Ahmet and think of all of those things he did. He made some great American music.
So you don't take things that happen away from the stage up there with you?
You can't. If your mother died, you'd be up onstage and you wouldn't think about it for the whole show.
Then what do you think about when you're onstage?
I'm watching my fingers and some of the prettiest girls in the front row and I'm checking Charlie Watts's beat and trying to make it fly. That's it. You have to let it flow. You turn the mind off, really. I'm not thinking. At all. It's an elevation. A levitation.
So you're never up there thinking: "Damn, I really want to be somewhere else"?
Oh, no. I'd rather be there longer. (Laughs.)