FEATURE - Being Keef
By Sylvie Simmons
"Guys," declares Keith Richards, "is guys. They're either all right or I shoot 'em--hrrr, hrrr, hrrr!" His laugh, almost as ravaged as his face, turns into a hacking cough that sounds, as near as I can describe it, like a dirty old man being choked to death. We're talking about getting along with people--musicians generally, maybe one rather well-known bandmate in particular--when we're interrupted by someone at the door. "'Ang on a minute," says Keith in his central-casting Cockney accent. "Looks like some've just turned up." Letting them in, he directs them down to the basement in his New York home where he has a recording studio, promising them he'll be down join them before too long.
A solo album? Keith's not saying, although rumors that there's one in the pipeline have been circulating since early last year. But while fall 2001 saw solo releases from bandmates Ronnie Wood (the Rolling Stones guitarist's critically acclaimed sixth solo effort, Not For Beginners) and Mick Jagger (the frontman's critically slaughtered fourth lone album, Goddess In The Doorway), all we got from Richards (apart from that "be nice to each other" post-September 11 public service announcement) was his contribution to a Hank Williams tribute album ("I like cowboys!" Keith chortles). Meanwhile, management continues to deny that Keith is considering adding another album to the solo sideline he began in 1988 (three years after Mick started the ball rolling), even though he has been working away in his basement for months with musicians, including various X-Pensive Winos, Blondie Chaplin, George Roceli, and longtime Stones associate Bobby Keys.
As for Keith, he continues to talk about himself, as he always has, in terms of being part of the Rolling Stones. "It's not so much what one individual plays--it's when everybody hits it, you have those moments of triumph," he says. It's what Jagger once described to me as "that continuing image of the band as a sort of gang." Because even if Mick--who, like Keith, will be (hard to get your head around) 60 years old next year--has come to the point where he can say, "I think it's very important to grow up, really; you can't really be in a teenage gang with a bottle in your pocket for the rest of your life, running around with a guitar; it doesn't sit very well with anyone over 30, let alone over 50," his sidekick, physical appearance aside, just keeps on keeping on as the epitome of the ageless rock 'n' roller, someone who sleeps with his guitar and lives for the road. And his favorite road rock 'n' roll band is the Stones.
In the past, Keith has been the one who has had to persuade certain other less road-friendly band members that they should get back out there. But this time he shouldn't have so long to wait. Since the very poor sales of Mick's solo album (despite a huge advertising and publicity campaign, which included a star-studded, hour-long documentary, Being Mick) mean little demand for a solo tour, and--more importantly--since 2002, as well as endowing senior citizenship on the Glimmer Twins, marks another anniversary (40 years since the Rolling Stones made their debut at London's Marquee club on July 12, 1962), a celebratory Stones jaunt is definitely in the cards.
Keith is not going to be drawn on what he thinks of Mick's latest record--it's been many years since the feud that impelled him to write the pointed lyrics, "Why do you think you've got no friends?/You drove them all around the bend/Now you want to throw the dice?/You've already crapped out twice," about Jagger's decision to make a third solo album. Relations between the pair, at least from Keith's point of view, are good. Yes, they're as different as chalk and cheese, but the partnership, he says, works. Even though Mick likes things to be prepared and rehearsed and Keith goes more for live spontaneity.
"That is a stickler--hrrr, hrrr, hrrr!" he laughs. "We're still trying to figure that one out, even now! But maybe that's why it works. Mick and I still scratch our heads about it, because he always wants to know, 'Where's A? Where's Z?' and I'm like, 'I don't know...until we get there!' I like not knowing. I like that spark. Usually, when we're writing, I'll be like, 'The beat goes like this, umm, umm-a, and this is the chorus, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, tumblin' dice,' or"--at this point, Keith starts singing "Satisfaction" without any words except the title. "And Mick would just take it away, because he knows what I'm talking about. I've got the beginning, I've got the end, he's got the middle bit. Mick," he muses, "has done some great lyrics."
How do they actually start the process of writing a new album? "There's no set way. You don't get up in the morning, have a cup of tea, breakfast, and say, 'I'm going songwriting!' You have a smoke, lie about, and somebody says something and suddenly you leap up from the table--everyone goes, 'What's wrong with him?'--and you rush off and jot down what somebody said. And then you lose the bit of paper! Then you find it a week or a month later and go, 'Hmm, that's not a bad idea.' Once you start songwriting, you start to be this observer of things. For some reason you become more acute about listening to what people say or the phrasing of something, just because you're listening for subjects. It's like a painter I suppose, or a writer of anything: without even knowing it, you sharpen your senses.
"As long as the antenna's up, they can transmit. It's got to be up, girl! That's a good one!" he chokes as he prepares to go down to the basement to make some music. "Hrrr, hrrr, hrrr!"
THAT's my boy ; )