Originally published in The Weekend Australian, July 5-6, 2014
The front cover of Keith Richards on Keith Richards features a photograph of the great man taken circa 1990. In one of his gnarled hands a burnt-down cigarette smoulders perilously close to the knuckles, its silver fumes mingling seamlessly with the mushroom cloud of his hairdo. On the middle finger of the same hand reposes the skull ring he started wearing in the 1970s as a memento mori – his lone concession so far to the concept of death. The middle finger of his other hand is raised directly at the camera. But the veteran eyes twinkle, as if to assure you that he flips you off out of love.
Keith is not averse to playing up to his fried image, or down to it, so that his persona has become a parody of a parody. He shambles, he croaks, he looks like Wile E. Coyote after an accident with some gunpowder. But Keith is an unusual star in many respects, and one of them is that he gets more interesting when you listen to him, not less. He is at his most engaging on the page, where his words are not obliged to pass through his ravaged face. His startlingly lucid Life, published in 2010, has a fair claim to being the best rock autobiography ever written. Now we have an anthology of his press encounters from the past fifty years, shrewdly selected by Sean Egan. If the Life proved that celebrity memoirs don’t have to be trivial and self-serving after all, provided their author isn’t, this new book pulls off the same trick with an even dodgier genre, the star interview. One had thought the form was dead by definition. Like a voodoo priest Keith brings it jiving back up from the grave.
He achieves this by employing a method so simple that you wonder why nobody has thought of it before. When asked a question, he replies by saying exactly what he thinks. In the age of spin, such honesty is beyond unusual. It verges on the insane. These days everybody is in the good-PR business – even pop stars, or perhaps especially them. Granted, Justin Bieber will deface the odd public monument: but the act will be carefully designed to edgify the brand, and there will be plenty of minders on hand to stop the locals from giving him a richly merited beating. In Keith we have the authentic article: a man who has a mind of his own, invariably speaks it, and genuinely doesn’t give a shit what you think about him. Here is Keith on the importance of family: “I love my kids most of the time, and I love my wife most of the time. Music I love all the time.” Keith on why he refused to play at Bob Geldof’s Live8 concert for debt relief: “Decreasing debts? It all seemed a bit nebulous to me … I mean, Bob’s a nice bloke and all that, but ultimately he’s the one who comes off best, isn’t he?” Keith on a solo album of Mick Jagger’s called Goddess in the Doorway: “When [the newspapers] asked me about it, I said, ‘Oh, you mean Dogshit in the Hallway?’ … I heard it, and I thought, ‘Yeah, it is dogshit.’”
Keith is at his least corrigible on the subject of Mick. During the 1980s, there were long periods when it appeared, both to the world and to Keith, that Mick would sooner develop his solo career than play with the Rolling Stones. Those days are now safely in the past: the Stones have recorded several albums since, and their roadshow will be back in Australia this October. But Keith’s wounds will plainly never heal. “I’m still his mate,” he wrote in one of the most touching passages of his Life. “But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.”
No doubt Mick would say roughly the same thing about Keith, if he was into speaking his mind in public. But he isn’t. As if to prove that, the current book includes a solitary, brief, and excruciatingly pointless interview with Mick hailing from 2002, when he and Keith sat down (separately, of course) to plug the band’s forthcoming world tour. “I don’t do sniping,” Mick replies, twice, when invited to comment on his feud with Keith.
Which is a fair enough response, although quite boring to read. As Mick speaks, he and Keith have officially put the nasty stuff behind them. Miraculously, the band is back together. Only a madman would revive the old quarrels now. Enter Keith. When the same journalist asks him why he publicly put down Mick’s latest solo record, Keith immortally replies: “Where else could you put it?” Well, you could always not put it anywhere, if you really didn’t want to. You could keep your more controversial opinions to yourself, à la Mick. But Keith does not do softcore. He can’t not speak his mind.
Thus when he is asked, during the same interview, if he would care to re-air his grievances about Mick’s recent acceptance of a knighthood, Keith finds that he would. “Typical of Mick to break rank,” he says. Besides, “it’s a bit of a paltry honour, innit? If Phil Collins is a knight, then you should hang out for the fuckin’ peerage, man. Get a Lordship. They give knighthoods for covering a few Supremes songs.”
Mick’s approach to getting interviewed is the orthodox one, by our woeful current standards. He turns up on time, he switches on the verbal autopilot, he sells what he’s there to sell. Every star does it – every star except Keith, who lurches into the room with his vodka and orangeade, if not his cocaine, and treats every interview as a festive occasion, an orgy of candour. If he declines to behave himself, it isn’t just because he’s drunk or high, although he usually is. It’s because he refuses, on an existential level, to accept that he is in the PR business. All he wanted to be was a musician, not a politician or a celebrity or a role model or a spokesman for a generation. That other stuff came later – and was undesirable. “You don’t shoulder any responsibilities when you pick up a guitar or sing a song, because it’s not a position of responsibility,” he insists, radically.
This had better be true, considering what Keith is known to have swallowed, snorted, and injected into his buttocks over the years. Not many people, mind you, would look at him and conclude that heroin is good for you. Nevertheless, one reflexively waits for Keith to clear his throat and utter the obligatory cautions against repeating his mistakes. This is what stars are for, right? But Keith is Keith, so one waits in vain. “It’s a totally peripheral thing to me, and my own problem,” he declares. Or, more pointedly: “If they hadn’t come smashing through my front door no-one would’ve known what example I was setting! They made it public, not me.”
Among their many merits, the interviews in this book serve as a sort of running cultural history. They cover fifty years, during which a lot of things have changed. Some of them were changed by the Stones. Their career began in the era when bands wore suits and ties and had their concerts drowned out by screaming teenyboppers. Very soon the times got a lot funkier, partly because the Stones did. In 1967 Keith and Mick were sentenced to prison terms for minor drug offences. Even The Times, newspaper of the British establishment, thought this punishment over the top. So did the appeals court. If it hadn’t, Keith would have spent a year behind bars for letting people smoke cannabis in his home. Society was loosening up. For a while it loosened up to the point of anarchy. In 1969, the Stones played their notorious free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, with the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels providing security in exchange for a tremendous amount of beer. Four babies were born at the show and four adults died at it, including a man who waved a pistol at an Angel and then got stabbed to death on camera.
Things are far less heady now. Rock is no longer central to the culture. The last Stones song that everybody knows is “Start Me Up”, which came out in 1981. Arguably the band has recorded better songs since, but you could be forgiven for never having heard them on the radio, if indeed you still have one. Of the music magazines that still exist, none would now invite Keith to do a thirty-thousand word interview about the Zeitgeist, the way Rolling Stone did in the early 1970s. The nearer Keith’s interviews get to the present day, the more they tend to be pinned to the launch of some new product, or more likely a repackaged old one: an augmented Exile on Main Street, one more shameless compilation of greatest hits.
Keith’s fight to keep rock uninfected by celebrity values was doomed from the start. But in his own corner he still fights it. He keeps things real, ironic, sceptical, English. He talks the kind of prose you can’t stop reading, because it has the irresistible tone of a thoughtful and funny man being as honest as he can be, memory permitting. On the guitar, he can sound like himself just by striking a few ragged chords. He has the same knack with language, which seems unfair. To find him entertaining, you don’t have to agree with everything he says. Indeed it would be a worry if you did. It would make you Keith, and there is only one of him. Long may he live. But he’s done that already, somehow. Even longer may he live, then.