Keith Richards: Back with a Band
Originally printed in Guitar World, November 2005
After drugs and illness nearly destroyed the world’s greatest rock and roll band, Keith Richards tells how he and the Rolling Stones survived and got back to their roots for their new hard-rocking album, A Bigger Bang.
Keith Richards is no stranger to crisis. Drug busts, murder, mayhem, rehabs and revolutions—rock and roll’s wizened pirate has weathered all with style and grace. His boozy swagger and toxic panache have become the stuff of pop culture mythology. Chaos is his métier.
But while Keef rides above the world’s fray, life of late has dealt his bandmates a few hard knocks and nasty shocks. As work got underway on the Rolling Stones’ newest album, A Bigger Bang, guitarist Ronnie Wood was mired in the depths of drug dysfunctionality—a severe crack addiction, according to some rumors. And Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones’ mighty heartbeat since 1963, was diagnosed with throat cancer, undergoing surgery that was ultimately successful but put the drummer out of commission for a while.
“It was a reality check,” Richards says of potentially losing Wood and Watts. He gives a slightly uneasy laugh. “Mick [Jagger] and I eyeballed one another and said, ‘Jesus, no buffers. It’s just you and me, pal.’ Throughout the past year, I’ve felt that Mick and I were working more closely than we have in a long while. And I think it has something to do with what Charlie went through.”
Watts’ illness achieved what no amount of money, pleading or cajoling had been able to accomplish for years: Jagger and Richards finally put aside their long-standing squabbles and really started making music together again. As a result, A Bigger Bang is easily the best Rolling Stones album in a couple of decades: a classic cocktail of leering, three-chord rockers, epic ballads and lusty, low-slung blues.
“Yeah, it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?” Keef allows.
Richards has always said that the Rolling Stones are Charlie’s band. Yet, at the dawn of the Sixties, before Watts or any other Stones arrived on the scene, there was Mick and Keef: two awkward teenagers holed up in suburban London bedrooms, dissecting American blues and R&B records like monks studying holy scripture, and taking their first tentative stabs at creating music. A Bigger Bang is shot through with reflections and echoes of the old Jagger/Richards magic.
“Mick’s on bass, harp, piano and guitar,” says Richards. “I’m on everything except the harp. It was a good feeling.” And while Watts and Wood were eventually able to rejoin the fold, along with key Stones supporting players Darryl Jones (bass) and Chuck Leavell (piano), A Bigger Bang remains a raw, back-to-basics rock and roll album: no horns, no violins, no Latin percussion sections or backup singers, just a coterie of core players dancing around the fire of tunes that rank among Jagger/Richards’ finest. Which is saying something, considering that the duo have written many of the most important rock songs of four decades: “Satisfaction,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Beast of Burden” and “Start Me Up,” to name just a few. The new material also promises to energize the Stones’ marathon Bigger Bang tour, which will detonate in the wake of the album’s release.
“The band is really getting into these songs,” says Richards. “I think maybe because we did start this album off in such a ‘Me and Mick’ area, the stuff is eminently playable onstage. Everybody’s really up for it. The 40 Licks tour [2002–2003] was basically retro, the old hits. But now we all feel like, ‘Yeah, let’s get our teeth into something new.’ ”
Much of the Rolling Stones’ best music has been born in the crossfire hurricane of things falling apart: bandmates becoming comatose or going AWOL, police knocking at the door, someone’s girlfriend overdosing in the toilet—but the calm eye at the center of that storm has always been Keith Richards, stoned out of his brain yet mystically lucid, unsteady of gait yet unwavering on the path of true rock and roll. These days, the Keef myth is in danger of overshadowing the man and his music, particularly since Johnny Depp brilliantly appropriated those legendary lurching mannerisms in his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s hit film Pirates of the Caribbean.
But the real Keith Richards is the one whose guitar playing charted the course of rock music through several of its greatest eras. Every note the man plays is deeply rooted in blues tradition, yet transmuted into something fiercely original, possessed of uncanny rhythmic savvy and enough grit to sand Mt. Everest flat. If you really wanna swagger, study that.