KEITH RICHARDS - THE ORIGINAL PUNK - By Kris Needs
'Keith is the original punk rocker. You can't out-punk Keith. It's pointless.' So said Mick Jagger after the class of '76 exploded into the rock 'n' roll playground - and he was right.
Keith started laying down a punk blueprint while he was still at school. Despite subjecting his now 60-year-old body to a gamut of abuse and experiences, he's never wavered from being the no-nonsense music-crazy hoodlum that gets into trouble. He just got more famous, more out there and more revered as probably the greatest rock 'n' roll ever to stalk the planet.
There are countless tales of Keith's dedication to excess in the cause of being a self-appointed 'human laboratory'. Just as many about the absolute horror he struck into the hearts of 'decent' people the length and breadth of the land. The brushes with the law, drug busts, car crashes, fights and incidents clubbing unwanted invaders off the stage with his guitar. From refusing to go the silly revolving stage on 60s variety show Sunday Night At The London Palladium through being done for pissing in a garage forecourt to carrying a gun through New York's Lower East Side to cop heroin, Keith's been there and done that with more variations and on a scale few could imagine. On top of this, he has defined the role of rhythm guitarist and didn't earn the Human Riff tag for nothing.
Apart from their influence as the first dangerously anti-establishment band to come out of the 60s, the Stones' no-frills approach to spreading the gospel of the blues and playing vamped up teenage anthems set brand new precedents for rock 'n' roll. But apart from Keith's outlaw attitude, the Stones unwittingly became a motivating force for punk rock because of their very existence and the extravagance which gripped them in the mid-70s.
When the Stones played Earls Court in May '76, they were lambasted for their massive lotus stage, the appalling sound quality and hob-knobbing with
Princess Margaret backstage. The fact that the Earls Court gigs were huge, overblown and musically wretched added fuel to a gathering fire for some members of the audience who had their own bands, called the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
There was something new and scary germinating amongst London's young people at the time. The Pistols had already played their first gigs, boasting how Steve Jones had stolen some of their gear from the Stones' rehearsal space. The Pistols laid out a manifesto that was the opposite of luxury jets, lotus stages and albums that took over a year to record.
Most of London's burgeoning punk community attended Earls Court, and were incensed by the pantomime aspects of the show. The Clash wrote '1977', which declared, 'No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977' - despite the fact that their lead guitarist was one of London's most effective
'Yeah, and no Sex Pistols in '78!' - Keith would cackle when asked about it.
Punk had an obvious effect on the Stones when they recorded their Some Girls album in late '77. Keith was now trying to come off smack, which was another reason for his full-tilt approach. The album was high-charged and not working-titled More Fast Numbers for nothing. Tracks like 'When The Whip Comes Down' were shot with rampant punk attack, except set in a New York fetish club instead of a tower block.
The hidden influence of the Stones on punk was obviously enormous, apart from the obvious hatred from the older generation. As Keith says, Malcolm McLaren was, 'a half-assed Andrew Oldham' - referring to the Stones' original Svengali-style manager who engineered press outrage to gain the Stones notoriety.
Joe Strummer said that the first record that turned him on was the Stones' '63 single 'Not Fade Away'. Mick Jones razor guitar often came over like Keith-on-speed and he got a similar sound to Richards on tunes like 'Clash City Rockers'. In fact, the parallels between The Clash and the Stones were many and striking. The Strummer-Jones partnership could be as volatile as Jagger-Richards but produced some amazing music. Both bands went
to art school, loved American music like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and, when they toured the US, insisted that American black music legends support to remind the country of its own heritage. The Clash's at first misunderstood double album, London Calling, has been called their Exile On Main Street - the Stones' masterpiece from '72.
Punk attitude doesn't mean revisiting '77 and imitating Sid. It's in the way you live and approach life. That doesn't mean shouting in a squat, sniffing glue, or wearing the right uniform. It means staying true to yourself, not following the herd and, if necessary, living outside of the rules imposed by those who think they know. Keith's always done that. He's a family man these days but hasn't lost that fire and thirst for music and
Robert Johnson, Keith Richards, Joe Strummer, Andrew Weatherall, Pete Doherty...don't matter when you were born or what musical bucket you've plopped into. The attitude's what counts and what comes out of it. Even as a punk seeing The Clash every week, I never lost my respect for what the Stones had done, even when they were losing the plot. I'd been fanatically immersed since '63 and made interviewing Keith my top ambition when I started writing about music in the mid-70s and top priority when I took over as Editor of Zigzag. In 1980 the chance came after much pestering of press officers and now I've encountered him several more times up over the years. He's become a kind of long distance mate, which I find fairly surreal.
Last year, I realised another lifetime ambition and started writing a book about Keith. Easier said than done. It turned into a year-long obstacle course with problems like my mum getting ill, school holidays and a missionary zeal setting in which occasionally threatened my relationship with Michelle until I gave up the method acting. The fact I turned in more than double the amount of text required didn't help - and I still wasn't finished ! So what's coming out around now as Keith Richards - Before They Make Me Run [Plexus] has been very chopped about and changed with hardly any room for pictures. It's still just about my version of Keith's story and my relationship with him and his music though.
My first encounter with Keith in the flesh was shaking his hand after his trial at my local Aylesbury Crown Court for cocaine possession in '77. But I'll now hand over to myself in the book for an abridged account of our first interview...
'Our rendezvous was to be on Friday September 26, ['80] at Blake's Hotel, an exclusive and plush little establishment owned by former actress Anouska Hempel. The day after being summoned, I duly arrived at the pre-arranged time and was told to ring his room on the house phone. "Hello", said a familiar-sounding voice. Somewhat flutteringly, I announced myself. "I'll be right down". Two minutes later in strode Keith Richards, accompanied by Patti Hansen. Grey army sweater, black thatch, big grin and outstretched hand, all aboard that unique, loose-limbed amble.
"How ya doin', man?".
Not even seventeen years of immersion in everything to do with the Stones could prepare me for that first face-to-face meeting. But all nerves evaporated instantly with that first grin. There was no way I felt anything like an annoying gnat to be dispatched away as soon as possible - like I'd encountered with many a lesser so-called Rock Star.
"We'll do the interview at the Stones office", he announced, before a typical Keith afterthought. "Now I've just gotta find the car!"
We embarked on a bit of exploratory action around Kensington, while chatting away. I immediately felt at ease in his company and he was obviously deeply in love with Patti. He must be so used to awestruck fans, but didn't pull any play-acting or strops, and within minutes he was more like a mate. Didn't feel awestruck, just really fuckin' happy.
We traversed those high-class streets with a "I know it's round here somewhere" narrative from Keith., who was also explaining how they'd got back in the early hours that morning from Tramps night-club. Finally, we rounded into a leafy square, where we spotted the faithful Bentley. It's named 'the Blue Lena' after jazz singer Lena Horne, and she was halfway up the curb.
No chauffeurs here, and tales of Keith's gung ho approach to driving flashed through my head. Away we went! Through Kensington down to the Embankment, with Keith chatting away happily about what the Stones had been up to. By now it was approaching rush hour, so the traffic was fairly busy.
Suddenly Keith broke off the conversation. "Oops, I'm going the wrong way!". Without a second thought and at rather high speed, he launched into a tyre-shredding u-turn across three lanes of rush hour traffic, blowing kisses and waving regally at the gaping homebound motorists. There was much commotion and horn-parping, but we were soon heading the right way to Cheyne Walk, home of the Stones office.
We backed up to the front door and strode in. "Hi, darlin'", Keith greeted the receptionist, who was already reaching under her desk. "Jack Daniel's?" Out came the bottle and we headed up the stairs, with Keith leading the way to a comfy room, where we both slumped on a luxurious brown leather couch. Here, Keith commenced the emptying of both the Jack Daniel's bottles and my packet of Marlboros.
Keith in interview mode goes a bit like his driving - wherever it takes him. A languorous, cackle-peppered drawl, dotted with succinct comments and hilarious one-liners. That was the big surprise - and the one no one really bothers to tell you - this is one funny man. Keith's a past master of the swerve, but he released tantalising glimpses of a lot more going on in his life, brain and behind closed doors. Of his family life he was protective. Of his drug use astonishingly frank - in retrospect, after he'd knocked it on the head and had no fear of being busted again. About the group and music? Now you were talking.
My front page feature in the November, 1980, Zigzag led off with the following description, which still seems relevant today: 'The 1980 model Keith Richards is devoid of Rock Star flash, maturing like a caring, kindly old blues musician. But he still possesses an indefinable swagger that makes any of the preening idiots that still profess to be R 'n' R stars look the pathetic buffoons they really are."
That is the difference, and in many cases still is, between Keith and fellow musicians of a similar age group. He does what he wants to when wants to. He certainly won't stamp his foot and blow out a gig a few minutes before he's due on because some of the audience are smoking. I hate the phrase "down to earth" but Keith seems to revel in being as normal as possible with his wealth and fame, while still existing in, what experts call, "Keith time". No rules, no "petty morals" but, when you strip it down to the naked Keith, a major heart-grasping passion for the thing that got him going in the first place. Music.
He talked about Rolling Stones Records' star of the moment, Jim Carroll, from the East Village - the New York hotbed, which had also spawned Patti Smith, writer-musician Richard Hell, and a host of artists thriving under the original shadow cast by figureheads like the Velvet Underground and William Burroughs. Heroin had played a major role during this explosion, and Carroll's novel, The Basketball Diaries, was a brilliantly graphic account of the subterranean world which it ruled. Jim's debut album, Catholic Boy, was lined up to be released on Rolling Stones Records, trailered by the single, 'People Who Died'. This was essentially a role call of street acquaintances of Carroll's, who'd gone a hit too far.
Keith started laughing: "Yeah...I did a couple of numbers with him in New York, but I was drunk so 'yeah, alright!'. Actually Mick was supposed to join me but he chickened out at the last minute. Cunt."
Keith was fascinating company and a major laugh to interview. We swigged Jack from the bottle, leaned back and he simply soaked up my enthusiastic fan-type probings with relish before coming out with superbly insightful answers. He talked about the Stones' image.
'It gets impossible if you try and live up to it. We just do what we do and hope they like it. I mean, usually more and more you find that people come up with interesting ideas on an album a year later. Me too. It'll take that long to get a perspective on the last album. I'm too close to it right now. I've only just healed up from the last sessions! [laughs]. Beat me own record - nine days on a stretch! Once you get in the studio it doesn't really matter. It's timeless, like hibernation [snigger]. One tape op drops, you wake another one up!'
At this juncture I pointlessly came out with, 'So how d'ya keep awake then?'
'I dunno', smiled Keith. 'I can only do it when I'm working really.
I've got a cycle of it by now. Normally I get up and I'll be up for two or three days, but when you're working...'
Really, with Keith, it's down to boredom thresholds crashing down. That's why he used to get back into serious heroin use when tours finished. Nothing else to do and energy to burn. He went on to bemoan the lack of decent venues in London but said he loved playing three-thousand-seater theatres in the States - "Kept us on our toes. It's a totally different way of playing." That one has grown and grown over the years.
Keith hated the 1976 'unfolding lotus' because he had to kick the set off with his "Honky Tonk Women" intro astride one of the petals. Not the most practical of ideas for the man who fell on his arse when he slipped on a stage-lobbed frankfurter [in Frankfurt!].
I must stress that, before the interview, I had made a mental note not to launch into tabloid-style 'Shocking Truth About Drug Fiend Keith' probing, unless he brought up this well scraped bone himself. The Canadian bust was only recent then and so much had been written on Keith's personal life it would've just seemed predictable and brainless to try and prise more juice out of his weary and battered reputation. On the other hand, heroin had been close to Keith's heart for years and he'd brought the subject up himself as our conversation gained steam. I mentioned how he'd always be lumbered with the rock 'n' roll junkie chic number. Another swig from the Jack - another of my fags - and that shaking-head grin. Keith's off for about the next twenty minutes on this one. Even though he's talked openly about his addiction from then until the present day, in 1980 this was the first time I'd encountered him being this candid anywhere.
So here's Keith on drugs...
'Yeah...I ain't gonna get rid of that one easy, am I? [Laughs] Maybe if I keep my nose clean as long as I kept it dirty they'll forget about it.'
I wondered if he still continued to get hassled about it.
'No...no. S'funny. [Leans forward and whacks table] Touch wood! It's like they've said, 'oh, we've had a go at him, he's done his bit, we'll leave him alone, he's kept his end up'...which I certainly didn't do for them. I did it for the Stones and for myself, the kids, whatever...'
Keith was plain angry with what he considered to be a concerted plan to bring down the Rolling Stones via repeated drug busts. It worked with Brian. They pried into his private-life, put all the dirt in lights then accused him of being a bad influence on the kids.
'Right,' he agreed, looking quite pissed off. 'Not only would you get done for what you got done for, you'd get done for setting a bad example. If they hadn't have come smashing through my front door no-one would've known what example I was setting! They made it public. Not me. I could understand it if I'd gone round saying "oh yeah, have a needle and a spoon, go off and have a good time, that's what it's all about." But I wasn't about to go round advertising it. They advertised it, then I had to pay for it. But fuck it, it happens to lots of people.
'I don't know how much the powers that be all work together or communicate with each other but it was like, how many more times would they have done me without it looking really like a bit of 'let's pick on him', y'know? I was an easy target. They knew I was on the stuff. They could've come round every day! That's why I eventually had to say 'no more'. I don't wanna see 'em any more. I was seeing more of cops and lawyers than I was of anybody else. To my mind, in the business of crime there's two people involved, and that's the criminal and the cops. It's in both their interests to keep crime a business, otherwise they're both out of a job. So they're gonna look for it. They ain't gonna wait for it to happen.'
By now, Keith was warming to his subject. He seemed to be letting out all his feelings about the last few years of smack domination, and was obviously proud of beating it. It had been some struggle. Having scanned all Keith's press, as a matter of keeping up with the Stoneses, I'd not encountered him opening up like this on the subject. He had the fire and determination of the man in denial who'd got there, and wanted the world to know, while also telling himself. Comment, observation, confession...call it what you want. He'd only been off the stuff completely for six months, so this was possibly the first interview he'd done clean for over ten years. It was Keith Richards talking about heroin, frankly and honestly, for twenty minutes straight. And in some little fanzine too!
'There's no way of writing about anything like that. It doesn't matter which way you angle it or state your case. Somebody's going to get turned on by it, Saying it's 'not chic', that means it's chic. If you said it was chic...there's no way of writing about it because it's such an emotional an sensitive subject. The main thing is, why, especially in this business, do people go onto it in the first place? What are the pressures? Is it the one guy above you that you dig the way he plays. Charlie Parker has done more to turn lots of horn-players into junkies just because it happened to be known. If people had left him alone, and nobody had known he was a junkie, maybe it would've been better. Why go searching out making sensational stories when you know that, just because the cops bust somebody if they're popular musicians or a superstar, there's gonna be somebody, no matter what that guy's going through himself, who's going to try and emulate it in some way?
'There's no right way about writing about heroin. There's plenty of wrong ways, and it's difficult to know. Ever since I kicked it, and cleaned up, I've been bombarded with requests and offers to make a statement about this, or address judges. I've been asked to do lectures for judges! The chance I've been waiting for - FUCK YOU! What else am I gonna say to them about dope? I'd just be embroiling myself and keeping myself in the same bag, attaching myself to the same thing that I'm trying to get rid of.
'Probably the only thing that might have any effect is, once everybody knows you're a junkie then yeah, you are an example. They've made you one, whether you wanna be, or not. So the only example I can be now is to say, 'yeah, I've done it for longer than most people, and luckily came out the other end, and I'm still here, and I'm alright. Even if you're into it already and you need to kick it, at least you know, because I'm still here. If you want to, you can kick it, and the sooner the better, darlin'.
'If there's one thing I can talk about more than music and guitars, I can talk about dope! It's like guns. There's nothing wrong with the gun. It's the people who are on the trigger. Guns are an inanimate object. A heroin needle's an inanimate object. It's what's done with it, that's important. I think of all these people doing it, and not even knowing what they're doing. That, to me, is the dumbest thing. At least, by the time I got on it, I knew as much as you can know.
'The one thing that I've realised more than anything since I kicked it, is that the criteria you use when you're on it is so distorted from what you'd use normally. I know the angle - waiting for the man, sitting in some godamn basement waiting for some creep to come, with four other guys snivelling, puking and retching around. And you're waiting for something to happen, and it's already been 24 hours, and you're going into the worst. How does it feel, baby? You don't feel great. If I was Joe Blow, maybe I'd still be on it, I dunno. I wouldn't take any notice of what I was saying if I was listening to it, or anybody else, cos when you're on it you don't.
'The only thing I can say is, if you want to, it's no big deal to kick it. Everybody wants to make like, 'oh, I've been to hell and back'. You've only been half way, baby. Nobody's been there and back. Anyway, here I am. Ten years I did it, and then I stopped, and I'm still 'ere. I've still got two legs, two arms luckily, and a bit of a head left, and that's about it. If examples count at all, that's the only statement I can make. I'm still here.
'In America it's even worse, because you have doctors coming on TV, discussions about the drug problem. These doctors...the more patients they get on methadone, the bigger federal grant they get, so it's in their interest. They tell people who've been on it a few months, a year, 'your body can't do without heroin, you'll need methadone forever'. Bullshit. You can kick it in three fucking days. That's as long as it stays in you. After that, it's up to you. I might oversimplify it in saying that, but that's the way it's always hit me. It's a physical thing for me in almost every way. If I can kick those three days...
"The other big problem is not cleaning them up, just sending 'em back. The same with me. The times I cleaned up and went straight back to exactly the same scene I was in before. What else you gonna do? You've been doing it for years. Everybody you know is doing it. You're kind of locked in. Unless you can break out of that circle afterwards...that's the next step. You're back in that same room as five years before, when you were on it, and they're still calling you up. Same people are coming around. It's a total drug, like total war. It takes over your whole life, every aspect of it eventually.
"I used to clean up to do a tour, because I just didn't want to be on the road, and have to be hassled. But, physically having to readjust when a tour just stops - [snaps fingers] - 'Now what do I do?' I'm physically readjusting to then going home and living a quiet family life for two months [!]. That'd do me in. Bom-bom, I'd go back on it. But if I had to work I'd clean up. But what a hassle! When you're on it you'll go through any hassle to get it. "First get me the dope, then I'll do what I have to do".'
Since then, Keith has refined his heroin overview. As this was his first interview off the gear, it was all coming off the top of his head, channelled from an awakened soul. The stupid tragedy on my behalf was listening enthralled as Keith opened his heart, taking it all in, then later doing the classic and diving in headfirst myself. Not because of Keith Richards, either. I became besotted with a female, who was besotted with heroin. Keith's words would often ring around my head...
One of Keith's scoring spots used to be the City's Lower East Side - same place and era as Johnny Thunders, who we met last month! Keith had been going there since the 70s. In those days, venturing East past Avenue A was totally off-limits to anyone who was white or not on dope. Avenue D stood for Death. Most of the buildings were burnt out, the streets were ruined and filthy, and practically unattended by cops. Simmering violence, imminent robbery and heroin etiquette ruled. The latter meant that you wouldn't think twice of ripping off someone you'd known for ten years. 'I carried a piece then.' And no fucking wonder. Go to all the trouble of scoring, then someonegrabs it back on the way out. 'You can't have that', muttered Keith.
What I'm getting at, is that Keith was venturing to the darkest, most dangerous, spots on earth to feed his habit. And, having been there myself, I can vouch that it is not self- mythologizing exaggeration when he describes these outings.
As you can imagine, by now the interview had quite loosened up. So, maybe we could talk about another delicate subject. Around that time I'd just read Up And Down With the Rolling Stones by Tony Sanchez - probably the most blatant muck raking cash-in on the Stones' dark side published to date. 'Spanish' Tony was Keith's minder during the height of his addiction and made sure he dished as much dirt as he could muster - homing in particularly on the drugs. It was recently published again with the new title, 'I Was Keith Richards Drug Dealer'. Keith emerges as a selfish junkie who changed his blood more often than his socks. The tabloids loved it, of course. By this time in our chat, I felt that I could mention it, and not get shot. But Keith dismissed the book with a grin and a shrug.
'Ohh...Grimm's Fairy Stories, yeah! Unbelievable, that. When it got to the blood change bit I thought 'oh, here we go!' Marvellous. 'Then he sprouted wings...' Actually, it wasn't him who wrote it, just some hack from Fleet Street. I'm the nasty, dirty, yellow schnide. Oh nice, Tony. thanks. You're my friend! Actually, it's quite clever. The actual incidents all happened, but then halfway through each chapter the description takes off into fantasy. This guy says Mick and I buried Brian, we made sure that nobody would ever see him again...but the guy's gotta make an angle or how ya gonna sell the book? The Fleet street hack thinks in terms of headlines. Spanish Tony had been with us for a long time, and a lot of the incidents in broad outline happened, but some of the details...I just gave up on the blood change! It's surprising the number of people believe all that. No doubt some people do it.
'That one came about like this. I'd been in a clinic in Switzerland. Spanish Tony came to help us move into a house. Tony asked, "What did they do to you up there?". I could hardly remember anyway and I'd only been in there about a week. I'd just crashed out virtually, went around puking in the ashtrays, ripping down the furniture and fittings for a couple of days and then I'd sort of got better, as usual. I couldn't explain all this to Tony so I said, 'Oh, they took all my blood out and gave me some fresh blood. All cleaned up!" Slowly over the years that one sentence has become one huge..."oh, the blood change, man", y'know? It's funny - one remark because you can't be bothered to explain and before you know it that's what you are. They probably wouldn't have sold any books without that."
When it was time to wind up proceedings, I flung in some remark about how Keith must be quite pleased how all this turned out, considering the humble origins, and how many kids like him start playing guitar just for fun.
'Yeah, right. That's what I thought when we had two gigs a week - "oh great! No more schlepping round this artwork trying to get a job in an advertising agency," and I chucked it. "I'm making a tenner a week, ain't I? I'm alright. As long as I don't break strings, or a valve goes in the amplifier, I'll come out with a fiver at the end of the week - be alright!"
So it was always like that. They just added more zeroes on the end as it went on, but as far as I'm concerned, it's the same attitude since we got our first gig: "Fine, great, wow! I'm doing what I really wanna do, and they're paying me to do it!"'
And, on that note, a very pleasant afternoon drew to a close, along with the bottle of Jack Daniel's. Pleasant farewells were said, and I left the Stones office on a bit of a cloud. It's not every day you fulfil a lifelong ambition, and interviewing Keith had been more than I could have hoped for. I could look at and listen to the Stones in a different light, reflect on what exactly went into that latest creation.
I could also stagger off the train back home in Aylesbury with a Jack Daniel's grin on my face, fall into the local pub, raise a joyful fist, and bellow, 'Fuck me! I've just got pissed with Keith Richards!' And not have to buy another drink all night.
1983 came with an another close encounter with Keith. I'd taken over the editor's chair of a magazine called Flexipop! the year before. Up until then it'd been a forum for chart acts of the time like Soft Cell, Culture Club and Duran Duran. But they always tried to go for different angles than the usual 'favourite food', often with a somewhat perverted twist. Magazines like Smash Hits were selling bucket-loads, but there was only a number of ways you could apply twisted humour to someone like Simon Le Bon.
My first cover feature had been about The Clash, and I rattled off surreal bollocks on anyone and everything until the publishers - bless 'em - made me editor. This synthesised pop-pap needed raunching up, I thought. We started taking the piss relentlessly. One memorable issue featured a cartoon of a certain cross-dressing New Romantic icon naked in the shower while a psychotic pig tried to ram a salami up his tradesman's. The old queen was not amused.
I thought it would be a top move to put Keith in my new organ. After all, he was the epitome of rock 'n' roll, plus a lot of the new underground were copying his look and lifestyle - and often failing miserably. Let's have the originator! So I called then-Stones PR Alan Edwards and requested an interview.
Within weeks I got the call...Keith would be doing one interview - and he wanted it to be me. It turned out he'd seen the Zigzag piece and loved it. He wanted to hang out and talk some more. Well, I'll be the Devil's scrotum!
This time the venue would be his favourite Savoy Hotel in London. Around then, whenever he was in London, Keith booked the same suite as used by Frank Sinatra. He seemed to like the fact that the living room view was a brick wall - no spies! - and you could get round-the-clock Shepherd's Pie and Jack Daniel's.
When I arrived Keith was out shopping. So I sat chatting with Alan Edwards, who a few years later would find himself looking after Elton John instead. Ironic one that: Keith's had always found the self-important little crooner a pain in the arse, and incurred Elly's bitchy wrath when he later dismissed his work as "Songs for dead blondes".
Pretty soon the pair arrived. Keith was wearing his battle-grey designer jacket, white shirt and jeans. Even compared to our last meeting, he looked obscenely healthy and happy. When I thought back to the tragic figure in that court-room in Aylesbury only a few years before I glowed myself. This time Keith greeted me like an old mate with a massive hug, catch-up chat and prompt offering of a long line of in-flight refreshments. He happily posed for polaroids, even insisting on taking some himself. The interview went on for about three hours and the fun didn't stop there.
When the subject of punk rock came up, Alan Edwards, who had been butting into the interview to Keith's gathering irritation, added that only one band came out of the whole punk generation, which was still a fresh memory in '83. Yeah The Clash, I said automatically. 'Two then - the Stranglers and The Clash,' said Alan, who happened to be looking after the Stranglers at the time.
'The Clash and the Stranglers,' agreed Keith, democratically. 'And they're least punkish out of the whole lot! Compared to the Sex Pistols - because that's your definition of punk, right? Snotty little...pukey little...that's a punk, right? I've never understood why anybody would want to put that particular label on themselves and be proud of it. [Adopts sneering tone] A punk's a punk, hur hur! The phrase that still hangs on is New Wave, which came out at the same time. People still use it now. In a way it's more valid, because each wave that comes in...it doesn't really mean anything. New Wave? My next album - that's new fuckin' wave baby! It's the last thing I've done that's gonna hit the shore. Take it or leave it.'
He talked about the way the Stones' first manager Andrew 'Loog' Oldham thrust the group into the newspapers as a planned strategy, thus ensuring fame and notoriety.
'We had it down. That's where we learned it all from. That's why we'd turn up at the Savoy dressed in clothes where we knew we weren't gonna get in. You have to have a tie and a suit - 'specially in the early Sixties - to get in these places. We'd deliberately turn up and make sure there were a couple of photographers around. That is what it was based on. We played the game of manipulation of The Media. I mean, Malcolm McLaren is a half-assed Andrew Oldham."
'A Clockwork Orange' fascinated the Stones at the time and peppered Oldham's sleeve-notes for the early Stones albums: "Yeah, and I was into it as he was. We used to go round in his American car with his chauffeur-cum-bruiser and beat up people on the way. It was great fun. We'd build a brick wall in front of somebody's driveway in the middle of the night. Cement and everything - six foot brick wall...spend all night doing it. Especially if it was somebody that we'd made a phone call to who had to be in London at six o'clock in the morning. Whizz out of their stately home at five in the morning and bash straight into this brick wall built right across their driveway!".
Keith expounded on the way he presented himself to people while having to live up to his monstrous image. 'Thing is you're one of the Rolling Stones. You're Keith Richards Of The Rolling Stones and you play that game to a certain extent, because it's what you have to do. As long as I ain't bullshitted by being Keith Richards Of The Rolling Stones, I don't give a damn. I don't mind bullshitting other people! You want this Keith Richards? You want that Keith Richards? Then there's your Keith Richards! You know me better, even though we've only met a couple of times, cos I can talk to you, in a way that I'd never talk to [tabloid journalist] John Blake. I give him his version of Keith Richards. If I thought it served a purpose I'd stick him up against a wall and put a knife to his throat. And he'd write about it and get a scoop. I'd just need the opportune moment to do it. I don't see why I shouldn't. I'd dearly love to. And not just him either.'
After the interview it was time for some fun. 'Fresh supplies' were obtained and Keith greeted an ever-growing stream of visitors who'd heard he were in town. Soon it was like a mini-party in there.
At the time I was working at a Soho club called the Bat Cave, which was at the forefront of the burgeoning glam-goth movement. It eschewed the seriousness of the Gothic movement for silly fun and frolics with glam rock, disco, outrageous stage acts and the odd band. I tried to inject a rock 'n' roll element, which meant playing the Stones when I deejayed. I had to do so that night and, much to my surprise, Keith decided he was coming too. He went on about it for hours, deflecting incoming phone invitations from the likes of Pete Townsend with a sharp 'Nah, I'm going to the Bat Cave with Kris.'
Unfortunately, just as it was time to leave Keith's lawyer turned up and he had to have a meeting. 'Gimme a call from the club, I still might be able to make it', he said and scribbled down his room number plus 'Mr Hannay' - the alias he'd chosen for this particular stay. [Mr Hannay was a character in famous movie 'The 39 Steps'].
The whole club was buzzing about a possible visit from Keith. I called Mr Hannay about three hours later, from a pay phone situated right next to the dance-floor. He'd just finished his meeting and by now the party was in full swing, 'Come back for a night-cap,' he said. Still not quite believing all this, I returned to the Savoy for another ten hours of rampant imbibing, dub reggae and top Keef anecdotes. Unfortunately - and unsurpisingly - I can hardly remember any of them!
He did let me try on that legendary skull ring though, and also showed me the maker's catalogue. 'It's there to stop me getting big-headed and remind me that beauty is only skin deep. We all look like this under the surface.'
One thing I do remember is getting a crash course on [music hall comedian] Stanley Holloway, along with Max Miller. 'You've gotta hear this guy!' said Keith with a huge grin at about seven in the morning. At this point Keith started talking about his love of the great comedians. He didn't have much time for your non-funny Ben Elton-type wankers, but went on for ages about vintage music hall-era greats like Flanagan and Allan and the Three Stooges. And, of course, Tony Hancock and Tommy Cooper. He whacked on Stanley Holloway and knew every line: joining in, pointing and cracking up frequently at the gentle East End humour with piano accompaniment.
Quite a 24 hours, that. My first proper sesh with Keith and he was more than the perfect host. I was expecting an aching hooter and came out with splitting sides. Next day I went looking for a Stanley Holloway album and found a compilation called - wait for it - 'Brahn Boots'! I dug it out when I was writing this and, when I visited Keith twenty years later, before one of the 'Licks' gigs, gave it to him. 'Ah, great, Stanley!' he said with a cackle.
One night the following year, I was sitting at home one night in Wandsworth, South London. Funnily enough, by then I'd also hitched up with a girl from New York called Patti. We'd had a slight tiff, so I was feeling a bit low. Then the phone rang:
'Kris?' said a familiar voice.
'It's Keith here. I'm in town for a few days. Wanna come over for a drink? Savoy Hotel. Just you, right?'
Well, I'll be the Devil's Scrotum for a second time! Within minutes I was out of the door and on a 77 bus to The Strand. I suppose in a bit of a shocked condition. I have never maintained the male groupie mentality, but it isn't every night that you get a phone call from your all-time musical hero inviting you over for a drink. Interviews are fine if you get on - as had happened on our previous encounters - but they're an arranged scenario. Here I was going for a sesh, at the man's invitation.
I duly arrived at the front desk in the auspicious foyer and gave the password name, which could've still been Mr Hannay. It was the same suite as before. Knocked on the door. A grinning Keith answered himself. Expecting a full-blown party to be in full swing I was quite surprised to find him on his own, apart from a guy called Alan Clayton. He turned out to be the singer in the Dirty Strangers, which Keith had enthused about on our previous meeting.
The Dirty Strangers were a London-based band who had been playing blues-based rock 'n' roll around the pubs and clubs for years. The Dirties proudly flew the rock 'n' roll flag in those New Romantic times, mainly playing the pub circuit. A chaotic but hugely enjoyable knees-up. Decidedly un-trendy, they seemed to remind Keith of his early days. Alan had met Keith in '81 through a mutual friend called Joe Seabrook, who was his minder - they'd been nightclub bouncers together.
When Keith was visiting London during the period when Mick was busy, he wanted to hang out with mates. Alan had been up to the Savoy several times already, even though he was working on a building site at the time, and sometimes had to go to work straight from an all-nighter with Mr Richards!
Keith had a problem. He was due to fly to Jamaica the next day and, being Keith Richards, could not board the plane with the bag of killer weed and added extras someone had left in the room. 'Our mission tonight is...' There were also several bottles of Jack Daniel's lined up.
So in we went and I embarked on one of the most remarkable nights of my life. I wouldn't say memorable! Refreshments were broken out and, within an hour, we were chatting, joking and, it must be said, giggling a lot. The three of us approached our consumable-obliterating task with gusto. As ever, Keith's mighty boom-box was blasting out the dub and it struck me how relaxed he was. Away from the press officers, assistants, hangers-on, and with no microphone in front of him. Jokes were exchanged of a toilet nature and the music hall tapes came out.
Keith has been portrayed as many things, and I've always found him friendly and accommodating when doing the interviews. But here he was just hanging out with the boys and having a laugh. It's an old cliche, but he could have been a top bloke you'd met down the pub. It was like, in a life nobody could call normal, Keith Richards could unwind in his home town without any outside pressure, hassle or duty to perform.
But it was inevitable that the guitars would come out. I was sitting about three feet away as Keith picked up a large Gibson accoustic and started picking some mean and lowdown blues. He used it to punctuate his words as he talked. Close up, Keith's guitar style is awesome. He goes on about how he'd stand next to Jerry Lee Lewis and have to stop playing as his jaw hit the floor. I wasn't playing anything - can't! - but that didn't stop my own chin crashing into the carpet as Keith closed his eyes and let fly into his own personal heaven. Chords richocheted between scattershot flourishes and fills, delivered with either brutal power or gentle affection. He struck, stroked and steered the instrument with a sublime motion that goes way beyond mere skill. For those minutes Keith was in the dark heart and soul of the original blues. No wonder his hero is Robert Johnson. When Keith first heard the music of the blues' greatest legend, he asked Brian Jones who the other guitarist was. If this had been a record, I would have been asking who were the other two, although occasionally he'd simply twist your heart with one solitary groin-snarling note.
At Keith's insistence, Alan played one of his songs. Looking a trifle nervous - who wouldn't? - he acquitted himself just fine with 'Gambler's Blues'. And got a round of applause back.
Next it was Keith's turn again. It couldn't be. Fuck me if it wasn't. 'Wild Horses'. Five minutes later Keith and Alan were still trying to scrape me off the ceiling.
The night went on. A bit of Max Miller, fresh supplies of Jack, more strumming, more of everything, until at around six in the morning Keith came out with his own piece d'resistance. Mischievous gleam in his eye, he bounded over to the phone and dialled room service. 'Just you wait until you try this!'
Soon the trolley turned up, the porter wheeled it in, receiving a twenty pound note for his trouble and Keith unveiled...shepherd's pie! With peas.
Over the years, the man's obsession with shepherd's pie has become legendary. In 1984 it was a littler known fact, but he was obviously already a connoisseur as we stuffed ourselves. It was probably half the reason he stayed at the Savoy! It was certainly top of the list of things he missed most in the UK, along with PJ Tips teabags and brown sauce.
As the sun began to stream in through the window, Keith tottered into the bedroom and commenced a phone call which went on for over an hour. It must've been to Patti, as he chuckled contentedly and spoke low and affectionately, with a massive smile on his face. Eventually, he came off the phone, walked in, and looked around. 'Aah, fuck the plane!' and we started again. Only for a while though. We were all drifting off. Me and Al said our warm goodbyes, with Keith telling me to call him the next day to see if he was still around.
Next day I called the Savoy from a phone box in Tooting, where I had just been to sign on. Got through to Keith immediately, who was laughing. We swapped 'good night, wunnit?' type chat, but he couldn't meet up. Keith was finally going to make that plane.
We met again in '92 when Keith was on the road with his side project, the X-pensive Winos. I'd recently started hanging out with well-known Stones aficionados Primal Scream and it was a well-oiled rabble that caught the 'secret' gig at London's old Marquee club, then another show at the Town &
Country on 18 December. Both were belters, Keith in total control, stalking the stage like a panther, chords crackling out of his hands, which occasionally flew off his guitar in visual counterpart. Stripped of the Stones' excessive trappings it was a pure punk rock jolt and his version of 'Gimme Shelter' froze the blood. At the after-show party in the upstairs bar, our Scream Team, who had ushered proceedings along with a few happy pills, occupied the next table to Keith's family - proud dad Bert, missus Patti and son Marlon. Having met them before I made some cheery greeting, but they probably wondered who this bunch of lunatics were.
Then Keith, who was celebrating his 49th birthday, staggered in clutching a pint glass of vodka with a hint of orange. To my total surprise,he spotted me, grinned and made a convoluted beeline through the clamouring music biz mob to our table. He gave me a bear hug and 'How ya doin', man? Long time no see.' I wished him happy birthday. Of course, he was soon shepherded away into the throng, but that made my night. And you should have seen the look on Primal Scream's faces. They went back to the studio, where they were supposed to be recording what became Give Out But Don't Give Up and continued the party until morning, in Keith's honour [Any excuse!].
Last time I saw Keith was during the 2003 'Licks' tour. Global affirmation of the Stones longevity and ability to still do it like nobody else. I'd started knocking about with Alan Clayton again, who showed me this amazing gift Keith had given to him - the Gibson Hummingbird on which he wrote many of the Stones' late 60s classics. Alan went on some of the 'Licks' tour as Keith's travelling companion and was inspirational while I was writing the book.
My 40 years of following the Stones came full circle when me and my girlfriend Michelle went to see them at Wembley Arena that September. Alan had said he'd ask Keith if we could come back and say hello. When we got to the gig Alan found us and said 'Follow me'. He'd had a word with Keith and it was alright to pop back and see him while support band The Darkness squeaked away. Led by we went through a few doors, up a corridor and into what turned out to be Keith's dressing room.
Big sound system, low lights and a well-stocked fridge. Vic Reeves and his girlfriend lurking in the corner. Michelle walked in and took her shoes off. She was nervous about meeting him for the first time. 'No need,' I'd already said.
When we walked in Keith was in the centre of the room in conversation with a guy making a biopic of Gram Parsons. It was already surreal but very chilled.
Keith ambled over, hand extended, big grin. The usual 'How ya doin', man?' and bear hug. People have said you don't see Keith for years, then you do and it's like you saw him last week. He looked great, in a green military-style jacket, black bandana and stuff swinging about in his hair.
I introduced him to Michelle. 'Hi darling,' he said, as he kissed her hand with a gentlemanly flourish. Her nerves evaporated. Soon, Ronnie Wood came bouncing in, accompanied by his old mate Jeff Beck. A few minutes later Patti Hansen showed up. It turned into the best twenty-minute party I've ever been to.
It was great seeing him again, and he signed my programme '20 years on, one love'. We chatted a bit. He didn't really have to fill me in on what he'd been up to over the years, so I told him some of the incidents that had gone on my end. We agreed that smack was best left behind now. I can't believe how relaxed and friendly the atmosphere was. But it was one of those blurry, dream-like moments that go in a flash.
Then it was approaching show time so Keith and Ronnie had to getchanged. Cheery goodbyes as they hopped up and down into their stare stridesand Mr Clayton led us off on the nearest cloud. When Michelle left she asked Keith if she could give him a kiss. He obliged with a hug thrown in.
The Stones' set was an electrifying charge through some of their greatest moments and we were in the thick of the crowd near the stage. One of the best gigs I've ever seen and one of those nights you cherish forever.
So I've finished the Keith book and now I'm doing Joe Strummer and The Clash. A totally natural progression, if you ask me. The connecting word is
Kris Needs - tMx 15 - 06/04