“THIS is a rough one, man,” admits the ultimate rock and roll survivor, Keith Richards.
Even this reliably cheery soul sounds more subdued than usual when he considers 2020, the year Covid-19 turned everything on its head.
The Rolling Stones rascal views the pandemic as a great leveller . . . challenging to rock gods and mere mortals alike.
Calling from his home in rural Connecticut, he continues: “We’re all connected now, aren’t we? I just hope everybody can keep their pecker up.
“A vaccine is the most hopeful thing on the horizon but we’ve all had to get used to a bit of hardship.
“We need to take care of each other. A little less selfishness always goes down well.”
As ever, Richards has a wonderful way with words. He likes to riff when he talks almost as much as when he plays guitar but I detect fewer piratical cackles than last time we spoke.
The chief reason we’re hooking up is for him to summon up another time, another place, when people thronged to rock concerts for exhilarating nights out.
As Christmas 1988 approached, he took his “other” band, the X-Pensive Winos, on the road in the US to promote his debut solo album, Talk Is Cheap, his first foray outside the Stones.
‘I WAS EXPECTING TO WORK A LOT THIS YEAR’
On December 15, they played a near mythical gig at the Hollywood Palladium, later released as a live album to beat the bootleggers.
Now it’s getting the full reissue treatment as a whopping bells and whistles box set as well as more modest CD, vinyl and digital editions.
Richards remembers a night high on atmosphere. “I hadn’t listened to it for quite a while and was wonderfully taken aback by what a great little band we were,” he says.
“It was a particularly good place to record a live show because it was an old ballroom made of wood.”
On the recording, you hear Richards cry out: “Welcome to the Palladium, a stage I’ve been thrown off many times.”
He’s mainly referring to the moment in 1972 when his hero Chuck Berry put a stop to his impromptu attempt to join in.
“I always took it as an honour,” he says. “Chuck was Chuck and he could be quite prickly. He also had a very warm and charming side.”
Thanks to Covid, we’re all connected now
The memories have made Richards realise he’s missing the things he loves so much due to Covid restrictions . . . recording new music and playing live.
He says: “I was expecting to work a lot this year and I usually get that feeling, ‘OK open the cage!’ I was just about ready when they slammed the door on me.
“It’s been a very strange feeling all round but I’m sure everybody else is affected just as much.
“This is a new one on us all and I’m trying to sit it out. I did manage to squeeze in a session a couple of months ago in New York with (chief Winos collaborator) Steve Jordan but under strictly controlled conditions. It’s hard making a record with a mask on, man.”
At home, Richards prefers not to have a formal studio set-up. “I’m not that organised,” he explains. “I tend to write songs on scraps of paper, then I knock them around on the acoustic guitar.
“I don’t find concentrating helps . . . I wait for the muse.”
So, what else has he been up to in lockdown? “I’ve been in hiding, basically,” he replies. “Hunkering down with the family and a few friends because we have to stay in a bubble you know.”
“I’ve been out to a restaurant with outdoor seating a couple times but now it’s getting a bit chilly so we’re eating in. Thank God the wife’s a good cook, bless her heart!”
‘MICK AND I TALK ONCE A MONTH’
Just last year, legendary hell-raiser Richards told me he’d cut down on booze and fags but recently he’s taken even more radical steps to stay alive and well.
“Now I’m a non-smoker and a non-drinker,” he confirms. “It’s tough under these conditions but so far, so good.”
He’s also enjoyed seeing much more of his wife, Patti, mother of his daughters Theodora and Alexandra.
“It would be quite a shock for me if she wasn’t with me,” he says, imagining a time when normal life resumes.
“And my daughters are here right now. They’ve just gone out for a walk with the dog.”
Contact with the other Stones, however, has been limited and strictly long distance. “Mick and I talk maybe once a month, Ronnie occasionally,” says Richards, before joking, “Charlie never speaks on the phone but we’ve communicated by sign language.”
He adds that Jagger and Wood are “hanging in there, man, just like the rest of us. I mean everybody’s just trying to wear their masks, wash their hands and socially distance . . . you’ve got to laugh really, haven’t you?”
As for keeping fit, the 76-year-old says: “We’ve got a little work-out room in the basement. I treadmill occasionally but I had no need to during the summer because I’ve got a big garden. I took walks and kept moving.
“Winter’s going to be a bit rough but with a bit of luck I might get out to the islands in January, to Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos. I like to go south for the winter!”
So, has he been worried about contracting the virus? “Oh yeah,” he replies. “In this particular area, New York and Connecticut, it was very heavy at the beginning.
“It’s been pretty well controlled since but this is about the only place in the whole country where it is.”
Lockdown has also given Richards time to reflect on the impact of George Floyd’s horrific death and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests.
“It’s made people realise that these things can’t be left lying around simmering on back burners for ever. They’ve got to be addressed,” he says.
“This pandemic has magnified the extent of the problem but has probably accelerated progress.”
For a musician whose heroes since the early days have been great black artists such as Muddy Waters, Solomon Burke, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed, he finds continuing racism baffling.
‘THE US IS SITTING ON A POWDER KEG’
“Especially in the US. They’re sitting on a powder keg and I’m in it!” he decides.
Next I ask Richards if he’s missing Britain, where he still keeps Redlands, the country pile on the south coast he bought in 1966 when the Stones were chief rivals to The Beatles at the top of the charts.
“If I wasn’t stuck here with the family, I’d be happy to go through all of this down in Sussex,” he says.
With no prospect of playing live shows in the foreseeable future, Richards’ returns to that memorable night in December, 1988, when he assumed a role more commonly associated with Jagger.
“My abiding memory of the Winos shows is the lessons I learned about being the frontman,” he says.
“With the Stones, I can go up the front or I can retire with Charlie and concentrate . . . I have a choice.
“As frontman, I learned so much more about Mick’s job. It was great fun, a great experience and I put it to use when the Stones got back together.”
The show began with Take It So Hard, a great riff-laden blast that would grace any Stones album, and it came with a great bit of theatre.
“We kicked off low-key in darkness rather than slam, bam, here you go ma’am,” says Richards. “I got that idea from Little Richard on the first ever Stones tour.
I learned how to be a frontman like Mick
“He would have the band play Lucille in total darkness and finally appear from the balconies or the back of the theatre or anywhere, you never knew.
“He just played the crowd and it was always a very interesting beginning to a show, so I nicked it.”
The Winos set was dominated by high-octane rock ’n’ roll, mainly from Talk Is Cheap but with Stones belters Happy, Connection and Little T&A thrown into the mix.
There was room for an aching ballad called Locked Away, which Richards “loved playing”.
“I was surprised — or maybe I shouldn’t have been — how easily the Winos songs were translatable live. It was a simple, natural progression for me.”
They also included a reggae song, Too Rude, another form of music that Richards holds dear.
“It’s the rhythm that gets me,” he says. “I was living in Jamaica just as reggae was exploding . . . Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come and Bob Marley and The Wailers brought out Catch A Fire.
“There was a feeling of Jamaican music becoming recognised. In a way, it was like early Sixties England when British bands suddenly exploded.”
Another highlight of the Winos set was Time Is On My Side, a song covered by Irma Thomas and, soon afterwards, the Stones in 1964.
This time out, it was sung by a member of the iconic soul trio Labelle. “Sarah Dash kills me, man,” says Richards of her towering performance. “The Stones got it from Irma Thomas so, to me, it was a female song. We put it back into its real context.”
Richards recalls the relaxed attitude backstage. “As a band, they were all old friends. Steve Jordan (drums) is my main man. I’d known Ivan Neville (keyboards) for years.
“Waddy Wachtel (guitar) and I always wanted to play together. The great Bobby Keys (saxophone) was a Stones sideman and I first met Sarah Dash on a Patti LaBelle tour in the Sixties. Not to forget Charley Drayton (bass).”
He still laughs at how they got the name X-Pensive Winos after raiding his wine cellar and drinking his 1930 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. “That’s why they’re expensive!”
Our thoughts turn back to the outfit that will be 60 years old in 2022, the Rolling Stones, the greatest ever rock and roll band. “I’m just hoping that some time next year, or as soon as possible, everybody can get back together again and have a damn good time,” says Richards.
The pandemic not only put a stop to a 15-city North American tour in the summer but also disrupted work on the next Stones studio album, the first of original material since 2005’s A Bigger Bang.
“Everything is in the air until we can actually get together safely in a studio again,” says Richards. “And by then we might feel differently about what we want to sound like, so it could be a bit fractured.
‘LIVING IN A GHOST TOWN WAS PROPHETIC’
“Half of it will be pre-Covid and the other half post-Covid. Hopefully there will be a post-Covid!”
At least, the Stones were able to release new song for our times, Living In A Ghost Town, in April.
Richards says: “We had four or five tracks for the album including Ghost Town and just as we were looking at pictures of lockdown everywhere, Milan, London, Paris, I called up Mick and said ‘Hey, it’s maybe time for Ghost Town, man’.
“In a way, it was prophetic and it was nice to be the first ones to get the amp on Covid-19, if you know what I mean.”
Just recently, Jagger posted a home video of himself singing a politically charged new song, Pride Before A Fall, but Richards knows little about it.
“I think it’s something he’s cooked up during this period. I guess he’s getting antsy. I haven’t checked it out yet . . . a private venture, I guess!”
Does he think there’s a future for the X-pensive Winos as well as the Stones?
“It’s a possibility,” he answers. “I’m always in touch with those boys still and I see Steve Jordan when I can.
“Like with the Stones, it’s impossible to make any real plans at the moment. I just sit around and try to write some songs . . . that’s basically what I do.”
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