From the Archive: The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards Looks Back on 40 Years of Making Music
Here's an interview with Keith Richards from the October 2002 issue of Guitar World magazine. To see the cover of that issue, and all the GW covers from 2002, visit our 2002 GW covers gallery.
Keith Richards moves like a shadow along a cobblestone West Village backstreet. It's a hot summer day in New York City and Keef is in earth tones -- a sandy brown bomber jacket, reddish brown headband, moccasins. For some strange reason, each passing year seems to make this quintessential English rock star look more and more like an American Indian -- a brave or a shaman, with his creased visage and prominent nose.
Out here in the open, on a public street, he has an uncanny ability to blend in with his surroundings -- to tread lightly and stay close to the ground. Ex-junkie street smarts combine with the self-preservation instincts of a man who's spent his entire adult life dodging hysterical rock fans.
The guitarist seems to grow taller and more confident as he leads the way into the cool, quiet safety of a chic, sparsely furnished office. Here, for the next two hours, Richards will reminisce about the life and times of the Rolling Stones, sometimes called the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.
"We've decided not to make too big a deal of this, knowing that everyone else will," he says, his entire loose-limbed body undulating with infectious laughter.
Not that the event will go entirely unmarked. The Stones are doing a massive tour and they're releasing 40 Licks (Virgin), a double-CD set of greatest hits that also features a few new tracks, including the ballad "Losing My Touch," sung by Keith.
"But honestly," Richards insists, "the last thing we thought of was all this coinciding with the 40th anniversary. It just so happened that it did. And we realized, with some shock, 'Oh God, they're gonna rub it in, man.' We could just see someone designing a stage for us with a big Four-O as a backdrop."
Richards indicates that a sizable box set of Rolling Stones rarities and outtakes is in the works, but it's still down the road apiece. For now we'll have to content ourselves with 40 Licks. And with killer Stones tracks like “Satisfaction,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Brown Sugar,” “Happy,” and “Tumbling Dice” all included, there are plenty of reasons for contentment. Old fans can remember just what made the Rolling Stones one of the most important groups of the entire rock era, while new ones can discover the gutsy howl and crossfire hurricane of the Stones in their prime.
The Rolling Stones sprang up in the early Sixties as the dark, Dionysian antithesis to the Beatles’ sunny exuberance. Scruffy yet dandified, unabashedly raw, they seemed determined to shatter every taboo they could find. Long before the birth of heavy metal, they were cozying up to the Evil One with album titles like Their Satanic Majesties Request and songs like “Sympathy For the Devil.” They predated Goth by several decades, putting death in Top 40 with “Paint It Black.” Years before the glam era, they became the first rock band to pose in drag, on the picture sleeve for their 1966 single “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In the Shadows?” They repeatedly antagonized the politically correct with works like "Brown Sugar," "Some Girls" and Black and Blue. The Stones were busted for everything from urinating in public to drug charges both trumped up and well substantiated. They've known the inside of jails and the salons of high society.
Musically, the Rolling Stones awakened young, white baby boomers to America's rich blues heritage. Richards made his mark as a resourceful and fiercely original guitar stylist, whose capoed, varisped, open-tuned riffs seemed to spring from some ancient Delta source. They continue to elude guitar transcriptionists and other upholders of rational analysis.
The Stones' deep blues roots have enabled them to weather many a storm. At their inception in 1962, they were a sextet. But pianist Ian Stewart was deemed to possess insufficient visual appeal by an early manager, so he graciously assumed the reduced role of road manager and session keyboard man. That left Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and the mercurial guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones -- a gifted yet troubled blues fanatic whose initial leadership of the band eroded as Jagger and Richards emerged as one of rock's greatest songwriting teams. Jones left the Rolling Stones in 1969 and was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool shortly thereafter -- a sad and mysterious death that still draws speculation as to what really occurred.
Jones was succeeded by Mick Taylor, a technically more accomplished, although less versatile, guitarist and an alumnus of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. With Taylor on board, the Stones scaled the heights of album rock glory with classics like Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. But by 1974, Taylor had jumped ship. His successor was affable Faces vet Ronnie Wood. While less of a virtuoso than Taylor, Wood has meshed with Richards more closely than any other Stones guitarist, in a style that Keef has often called "an ancient form of weaving."
Ian Stewart died in 1984. And in 1993 Bill Wyman relinquished his long-standing role as the Stones bassist, leaving Jagger, Richards and Watts to soldier on. This grizzled triumvirate of original Stones, supported by a well-chosen cast of musicians and singers, has become one of rock and roll's most venerable institutions.