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Down the Line

On the road with Keith Richards

I was sitting beside Keith Richards on the Rolling Stones’ plane to New York after a show. When the plane banked over Long Island Sound, he looked out the window and smiled. “That’s my home down there,” he said looking in the direction of Fairfield County. “When I see those lights, I know I’m close to everything I love.”

Keith Richards lives in a big house that backs up to a nature preserve in Weston. He lingers on his estate in the way of an aristocrat lingering on ancestral grounds, a sage old man fading toward gossamer. He’s suffered various mishaps: stumbles, falls, fractures. In 2006, he fell out of a tree in Fiji, which, according to press reports, was a palm tree, but according to Keith, was somewhat less picturesque. Two days later, while riding on a boat, he was knocked backward by a swell, banging his head a second time. I’ve been told by people close to the band that it was far more serious than fans realize. Yet Keith still carries on in the old spirit, with the old joy.

Keith Richards met Patti Hansen at the Roxy roller rink in Manhattan in December 1979. It was his 36th birthday, and he was celebrating. She was a 23-year-old Vogue model from Staten Island. And through the years, Keith has remained a serial monogamist. No matter what happened on the road, he’s been loyal to his partner. In every case I know, it was the woman who, in one way or another, left him. One, Linda Keith went off with Jimi Hendrix. Next, Anita Pallenberg chose junk. Thirty-plus years later, Keith is still with Patti Hansen.

Keith and Patti raised two daughters in Weston, a few miles from where I live in Ridgefield. I first heard of this bucolic pocket of rolling hills on the Stones’ plane as Keith mumbled his way home after a show. He blessed the place, and I’ve aged from early-middle age to middle-middle age myself here, raising my own children a bike ride from the Richards estate. Now and then, when I go to Luc’s Café here, Keith is at the bar with a glass of vodka in front of him and a big hat on his head. On such occasions, owner Hervé Aussavis puts on a playlist consisting almost entirely of reggae. Keith drinks, listens, smiles, and laughs. He wears sunglasses and soft shoes with buckles. I nod to him and say hello and he acknowledges me and says hello back, but it’s impossible to say whether he remembers or has gotten into the famous man’s habit of seeming to remember everyone.

Interviewing Keith is the opposite of interviewing Mick Jagger. Mick is crystal clear, Keith is hard to understand. Mick’s sentences are concise, Keith’s are circuitous. Now and then, Keith laughs for no apparent reason, as if the humor of his life suddenly occurred to him, and that laugh often gives ways to a coughing fit. He seems to proceed by free association, from non-sequitur to non-sequitur. When recording Keith, you worry you’re getting nothing in your nets but catfish and tires. But when Keith’s tapes are transcribed, you realize you’ve hauled in a bounty. Whereas Mick’s answers, clear and precise, revealed little, Keith’s mumbled responses were candid, sharp, and surprising.

When I asked Keith about his feud with Jagger, he said, “You make it personal, but from this distance it seems the main thing bugging Mick and myself, without us realizing, was knowing that we couldn’t keep doing what we’d been doing forever. The band. We had to do something else if we wanted to take it further down the line; we had to be something else. We’d reached a plateau. At that point, after we’d gone off and made solo records, the band either breaks up or it weathers the storm. I never doubted it. Not really. But there was always that chance. All that infighting. We were trying to break out of the vacuum of being exclusively the Rolling Stones. There was something missing.”

When we spoke, Keith sat in a velvet chair, red with ornate wooden arms, like a king in a fairy tale. A Telecaster is his scepter, a skull ring his signet. Here’s a monarch who’s been too long at the banquet, getting high on mead. His face is riddled but handsome, romantic. Marianne Faithfull once described him as a tortured, Byronic soul. Dark and wasted, stripped to the struts, as disillusioned as an existentialist, who knows that the only truth is what you create with your guitar. “You’re talking to the madman,” he told me, laughing. “The original lunatic.”

There’s a kind of reassurance in talking with Keith. There’s nothing you’ve done he’s not overdone—nothing you’ve suffered, he’s not survived. You confess to him as you confess to a whiskey priest. Keith is Methuselah, perhaps not infinitely wise but infinitely experienced. Because I could not think of what to say, I asked about his lifestyle.

He laughed. “I haven’t got a lifestyle,” he said. “I’m just me. I do what I do. What’s my lifestyle? I don’t know. I drag it on a chain behind me. Junkie and madman, should be dead, mythical genius. It depends where you come from and how you look at me.”

I asked what he hoped to accomplish with yet another tour. “Don’t you ever say to yourself: ‘We’ve done it’?”

“Nobody’s taken a rock ’n’ roll band this far. So why quit?” he said. “Why not find out exactly how long we can keep it going? The boys are playing well. And what I really know is the music of this band, and if one of them felt they weren’t cutting it or couldn’t do it or didn’t want to, it wouldn’t happen. The only reason this is happening is because we want it to. And you don’t really need any reason other than that.”

“Has performing changed over the years?”

“The feeling of doing it has always been the same,” he said. “You can be feeling like dog—- with five minutes to go—you might have a fever or maybe you drank the wrong water—but the minute you hear ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones,’ you’re cured. When you come off, you feel great. It’s a cure for everything. I recommend it for everybody.”

According to Keith, rock ’n’ roll only lives in front of a crowd. “We can’t exist by ourselves,” he told me. “We might sound fantastic in the rehearsal and who even knows? Only the band. We need the final ingredient, which, for the Rolling Stones, is the audience. It’s that give and take: we take energy from them, then give it back. It’s a two-way street. Onstage you’re three seconds ahead of life. You know what’s going down just before it does. There must be a fortuneteller up there when it’s going well because you’re looking at your fingers, thinking, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t do what I’m doing.’ That’s what the audience does for a band.”

“I’m always amazed,” Keith added, “when I look around the room just before we go onstage—there’s Mick, there’s Charlie, here’s me—and realize, that’s it. That’s all it is and that’s all it ever was. Just mates that met way back and we’ve known each other since before rock ’n’ roll.”

I asked Keith if he could explain the Stones’ continued success.

“I don’t examine it too closely,” he told me, “but by some mysterious ingredients, this band is interesting to people. I like to think that it’s because we’re a good band. And it’s as simple as that. But I’m not sure that really covers the whole ground. There’s something about the chemistry between these guys. The good times and bad times, too.”

“How long do you think the Stones will keep playing?”

“I don’t know. How long am I going to live? I was number one on the death list for years, so I’m not into predictions.”

He took a swig of something, grimaced, smiled, cleared his throat, then started asking me questions: What did I think of the new record, the rehearsals, hanging out? When I tried to explain what the Stones have meant in my life—the poster in my brother’s room, that first record, the junior-high talent shows—he interrupted me, “What year were you born?”

“Nineteen sixty-eight.”

“I can’t imagine that,” he said, smiling. “What’s it like to live in a world where the Stones were always there? For you, there’s always been the sun and the moon and the Rolling Stones.”

Keith laughed quietly—dull wheeze, muted hack—grabbed his doctor’s bag, stood. Time to rehearse. But before he left, he paid me a compliment that’s carried me through many hardships: “I’ll tell you what. Charlie likes you,” he says of drummer Charlie Watts. “He really likes you, which is very unusual. It’s not every decade Charlie will do an interview and say, ‘I like him. That is an interesting fellow.’ That’s very rare. You’ve got the gold medal for that, boy.”

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