My Date with Keef
It was early 1989, and Keith Richards was on his final day at home before flying off to the Caribbean to record with the Rolling Stones for the first time in four years. But first, he had a TV interview to get through. The tape had just started to roll and the interviewer – that would be yours truly – was all set to ask the initial question when Keith sat forward in his armchair, and asked the crew to delay for a moment.
“Jane, darling,” he enquired of his personal manager Jane Rose, who instantly materialized from the open-plan kitchen.
“I asked you for a drink.” He held up a tall glass that contained a couple of ice cubes and a small serving of a brown liquid. “This… is a fuckin’ puddle.”
The clock had barely struck noon in the middle of the working week, but this was Keith Richards’ world, where he called the shots; even his manager, in essence, was just visiting. Jane Rose picked up the glass, sheepishly headed back to the kitchen, and returned with it suitably filled to the brim with Jack and coke. The inimitable Keith Richards, who had recently confounded many of the world’s leading medical experts by making it to his 45th birthday – which he celebrated, in concert, leading his own band through a lengthy series of shows – took a large sip, grinned, and then gave me the nod. “Let’s go.”
I was still relatively new to New York City. I had made the permanent move over from London the previous year, on something of a wing and a prayer. Although I had been earning good money in England subbing for various magazines, writing freelance, with my first book behind me, and producing reports for a French rock TV show initially entitled Rock Reports but now going by the name Rapido, I wasn’t happy. I had discovered New York City and it had made London seem provincial by comparison. Without the weight of a relationship or a mortgage (unlike most of my friends in their early-to-mid-twenties) and without my own business (Jamming! having folded a couple of years earlier), I saw no reason to stay in an increasingly grim Thatcherite Britain. I had been issued an H-1 visa for my first trip to the States (a junket to LA in 1986 when I briefly wrote for the NME) and during one of many sallies back and forth, an immigration officer, of all unlikely candidates, had let me know that it allowed me to legally reside in the USA if my income was hailing from overseas. I felt like fate was tipping its hand.
I made the rounds of the various outlets I free-lanced for, told my editors that I was relocating, and requested that they continue to commission me from what would now be overseas. They all made positive noises – but for the entity that was paying me best and providing the most enjoyable work. For when I went to Paris to tell Rapido of my major life shift, my producer Gilles Verlant appeared genuinely upset. For one thing, he’d have to find another freelancer in the UK (though how hard could that possibly be)? But for another, Rapido already had someone working for them in America – and not just anyone, but a prominent French rock journalist. Gilles suggested that I pitch ideas once I move over and that he’d do his best to commission some, but he wouldn’t be calling me with major assignments the way he’d been doing so frequently in the UK. Those would go to the resident Frenchman.
And so they did; I got the crumbs. Still, almost as soon as I moved over, Rapido was syndicated to the BBC, with debonair French host Antoine des Caunes presenting in comically fast English, and all of a sudden, a show that nobody knew or much cared about back when I lived in England was the subject of non-stop discussion and fascination with all my British friends. Thanks to its new-found popularity on the world’s most famous TV network, Rapido went from politely waiting its turn for major interviews to being actively sought out for them.
That would explain why Keith Richards made himself available for an interview in New York City on his last day at home. And it would also explain why the show’s resident American-based French rock critic couldn’t make it: he was to be found in Jamaica at the time, where Rapido had secured the co-operation of Bob Marley’s family for some kind of special. It must have looked like a dream gig to him at the time – and I’m sure it still was. But Keith Richards, Caribbean-bound himself, wasn’t going to wait for the journo’s return. One man’s Jamaican junket being another’s New York landfall, I was invited to step in. I didn’t need to be asked twice.
Keith was very much in the news at the time, having just emerged victorious from a public fight with Mick Jagger over the soul of the Rolling Stones. The creative push-and-pull had been there all along, of course, but it had escalated into a proper tug-of-war when the singer refused to tour the Stones’ 1986 album Dirty Work, choosing instead to focus on a solo career he had already embarked upon with 1985’s She’s The Boss. Richards went public in his disappointment – even in 2010, in his autobiography Life, he still called it “The big betrayal” – which might explain why, when Jagger then released his follow-up solo LP, Primitive Cool, in 1987, it included a song entitled “Shoot off Your Mouth.” If such an attack was meant to put Keith in his place, it would be safe to say that it backfired, enormously. The guitarist responded in kind, recording a solo LP of his own, for which both the title, Talk Is Cheap, and the song “You Don’t Move Me” appeared to be in direct retaliation to Jagger’s own jibe – an assumption Richards readily confirmed in interviews, mainly conducted with rock journalists who tended to favor the guitarist over the singer to begin with.
Talk Is Cheap out-performed the widely derided Primitive Cool not only with the critics, but in the charts, and to drive the point home, Keith embarked on his first ever solo tour, evidently enjoying himself as he fronted a band he named the X-Pensive Winos for “when I noticed a bottle of Chateau Lafite introduced as light refreshment in the studio,” according to his autobiography. The result of the heavyweight bout was Richards’ unanimous victory on points, and Jagger’s sheepish return to the Stones right around the time the group were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame at the start of 1989. Jagger and Richards then headed off to Barbados to write songs together; the rest of the group subsequently flew down for rehearsals; and the morning after our interview, Keith was all set to join the band at George Martin’s AIR studios in Montserrat to record what would become Steel Wheels – “a day late, as usual,” as he quipped.
Securing an interview on the eve of such a momentous occasion was a coup for Rapido, but predictably, it came with conditions, as stipulated in an advance phone call with the aforementioned Jane Rose. We would be limited to twenty minutes. And this was to be very much an interview with Keith Richards about (and touting) Talk Is Cheap. The first question about Keith’s feud with Mick Jagger, or the future of the Rolling Stones, Jane warned me, would be the last question of the interview. Jane had a fierce reputation, and I could understand why. I wasn’t going to argue the case. At least not with her.
As was public knowledge, Keith lived in a vast triplex above Tower Records at the time, at 4th Street between Lafayette and Broadway, in the heart of downtown Manhattan, a stone’s throw from East and West Villages, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side. Cher was his next-door neighbor. It was the very definition of a Des Res, and we were grateful for the invitation to conduct the interview on his home turf.
Still, when we arrived, somewhere around 11am or noon, it was evident that Keith had to be roused. That was fine; it always took us a while to set up the lights properly, and the less pressure we were put under the better. But it was merely the first of many indications that the caricature of Keith Richards and the real thing were essentially one and the same. For when he did finally make it into the living room for introductions, it was as if he had come straight from Central Casting. Everything about him, from the slightly lop-sided grin, to the mussed-up hair, the well-worn visage, the tight jeans, the cap t-shirt, the lit cigarette and the drink already in hand, was exactly what you would expect if you were to ask for a cartoonist’s caricature. So, too, was the most important aspect of all: his affable yet affirmative nature. The Rolling Stones’ legend had been built largely on the complementary yet contradictory nature of their leaders, and if Jagger was seen by many – especially in the light of his disappointing solo albums – as the jet-setting, control-seeking, money-hunting, trend-following, fit-freaking lothario superstar, Richards had long presented himself in contrast as a down-home, old-fashioned, who-gives-a-fuck, trend-adverse, battle-ready, decidedly decadent blues guy.
I asked if we could get some “B-roll,” something perhaps with the New York skyline in the background, and he was immediately game. He led us up and out to one of his deck balconies, where he promptly tripped over his daughters’ plastic tricycles.
“Christ, I haven’t been out here in years,” he laughed, catching his fall and squinting in the sunlight as if it would kill him. He took a look over a misty Manhattan and sat at the outdoor garden bench, calling over his dog, Creole. I made small talk about the differences between living in London and New York, having no idea that in decades to come, the casual conversation would make its way onto something called YouTube. (Nor that I would be quite so embarrassed by my ponytail. Then again, you should see what they were sporting on the floor of the Hacienda that year!) Keith let on that he never thought too much of London until he was back there, and then, “I realize how much I’ve missed this joint.” That’s how I feel about the place, too – to this day.
Glass replenished to his satisfaction, Keith sat forward in his armchair, and we rolled the cameras. I lobbed a couple of soft opening questions, complimenting him on the success of Talk Is Cheap and the birthday concert I’d seen at the Meadowlands Arena over the river in New Jersey, for which the Replacements had opened. We seemed to be off to a good start, so I decided on a follow-up that wouldn’t quite break the rules of engagement as laid down by Jane, but might perhaps invite Keith to break them on my behalf.
“To what extent,” I enquired, “did you tour purely for your own pleasure and to what extent was it to prove something to the other guys in the Stones?”
…As I hoped, Keith responded by talking about the Stones’ reunion, how the success of the X-Pensive Winos tour had played into that decision. But then, as if remembering to stay on subject, he brought the conversation back around to the generalities of music as an imperfect, inherently contemporaneous craft. “It’s really a live music, and if you can make some good records, then great. But really, that is the lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll – performance.”
A few minutes later, I tried again.
“That rough edged sound, that loose sound of your record, seemed very deliberately at odds with Mick’s solo album. Was that true…”
And this time it worked. Keith didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, he reminded me, but he concurred all the same. “It was an indication of the difference between Mick and myself at this particular stage… of our development.” He laughed at his careful choice of words, but he was up and running now and there would be no turning back. In theory, Jane could have called off the interview at this point – we had used up our twenty minutes just hanging out on the deck, and now I had stepped into forbidden territory – but Keith was on a roll. Jane kept quiet, the tape kept rolling, and Keith kept talking. And talking. And talking. Within minutes, we were laughing about a Spitting Image skit that had Mick and Keef sparring in a Mothercare store, and Keith admitted that having bared their animosities in public, neither of them had even brought up each other’s vindictive songs when they’d met in private, back in January, for a peace-keeping summit. They’d laughed about the insults they’d hurled in print, instead,
You can, thanks to someone with access to the master reel, listen to and watch the interview in its entirety, on YouTube. (Unfortunately, who ever uploaded it disabled embedding, so I can’t display it on this page.) In doing so, you can see just how relaxed Keith was that day. I’d love to take credit for putting him at ease, but in all honesty, I think it was just par for the course. Having seen off Mick Jagger’s potential desertion from the Stones by cop-opting his adversary’s tactics, and making the battle look like enormous fun in the process, what possible reason would he have to be stressed by hosting a young Brit and a two-man TV crew for whatever passed as “youth” TV on the BBC these days?
But Keith was more than just the perfect interviewee; he was quite the gracious host. Several years later, I would travel to John Entwistle’s mansion to interview him for Dear Boy. He, too, was a late riser, given to kick-starting his day the way he had ended the night. With Bob Pridden as company, John made coffee, poured it for the two of them, and then emptied most of a bottle of Remy Martin into various refills during the course of my first C-90’s worth of recording, without offering his guests as much as a glass of water on an uncommonly hot English summer’s day.
There was no such rock star rudeness from Keef. During a pause in the interview – to change tapes, most likely – he called for another glass of Jack and Coke and then caught himself.
“This isn’t right. You boys should have a drink as well. Jack and coke?”
As it happened, Jack and coke was very much my liquor of choice in those days. I usually didn’t hit it until the clock had struck mid-night, as opposed to mid-day, but when in Rome… I graciously accepted the offer. And my camera crew politely declined. It wasn’t so much that they were dedicated professionals – although certainly, that much was true. It’s that they were teetotal. The cameraman, an Isreali immigrant called Tal, tried telling Keith as much. He might as well have said he was a Martian.
“I insist,” said Keith, or words to that effect. “Have a drink, join us.” Tal and his nephew, Ori, again declined. So ensued a rather hilarious battle of wills from which Keith finally and, one sensed, all too rarely, backed down. I suspect that Keith might have been more forgiving if Tal and Ori were recovering alcoholics. (Although you should see Alice Cooper recall Keith’s ongoing bemusement at his own sobriety in this interview with the Stones’ other legendary guitarist, Ron Wood.)What he couldn’t seem to understand was why these two had never had a drink to begin with.
There was one other off-camera exchange I vividly remember. It would, again, have been during a change of tape or some other interruption during which I always felt the need to keep the intensity of the on-camera conversation going. Keith had indicated that he’d be away in the studio with the Stones for a while, so I asked, “What plans do you have for your last night in New York City?”
“Ah, take the wife out, I expect.” He was referring to Patti Hansen, though I specifically recall him doing so in the third person. “Wine her, dine her. See if I get lucky.” He gave that classic Keef grin. At heart, he was still a boy from the South London suburbs who couldn’t quite believe his luck in life.
An hour into an interview that was meant to last twenty minutes, loosened up by what were now several glasses of Jack and coke, Keith leaned over to the acoustic guitar that was never far from his reach, and brought it onto his lap. Once he had finished railing against the scourge of sampling in hip-hop (he refused to accept my comparison to his rehashing of old blues riffs), I asked if he might play a song for the show. There had been advance indications of this possibility, but as you can tell from my nervous request, I considered it far from guaranteed. Without hesitation, Keith happily performed “Make No Mistake” from Talk Is Cheap and although he tried copping out after a verse with “That’s all I remember,” he saw it through for another minute or so. (You can catch the performance here) We tend to think of Keith for those electric Stones riffs that are part of rock music’s very fabric, but this was delicacy itself, the little flourish at the end with the right hand revealing a particular tenderness. I was sat maybe three feet away from him at the time. As such, you can understand why I think twice about going to see the Stones perform in a stadium.
Looking through the comments on the YouTube archive, I was disappointed at the number of people who insist that Keith was pumped up with cocaine during the interview. Many of them claim to be experts on the subject. Well, I lived in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when cocaine was so prevalent that some people used it in lieu of tip money. And as far as I’m an expert too, Keith was just being Keith. Sure, he had his crutch: It was Jack and coke, he got through several glasses, and as you can tell from our final section about the Neville Brothers (for a separate Rapido feature) that has been tagged on to the start of the tape, he was pleasantly tipsy by the end of it. (I trust he still got lucky with Patti that night!) But there were no repeat visits to the toilet, no trademark sniffs, no diluted pupils – and none of the drug’s trademark agitation. This was one seriously relaxed dude.
Typically puerile public comments aside, I’m glad that this has made its way into the unofficial public domain that is YouTube. I’ve often cited it as my favorite interview, and certainly my most treasured rock star encounter – if more so for the off-camera asides and exchanges, Keith’s general hospitality, and his overall performance-to-type than the depth of our on-camera exchange. (Due to the distractions of lights, cameras, the technicians operating them, and the seemingly pervasive management and/or publicity figures, TV interviews rarely match one-on-one print interviews for intimate confessions.) Hanging out, talking rock ‘n’ roll, playing guitar, drinking Jack and coke with a fellow exile/expat, Keith was thoroughly in his home domain, and seemed to be in no hurry to do anything else.
Still, all good things come to an end and finally, in the middle of the afternoon, several hours after we had arrived, the interview wound down, we packed up the gear, I took a cab back to my apartment, packaged the tapes up for collection by Fed Ex – and typed up an invoice for several hundred dollars. I had to stop myself from laughing as I did so. At the end of the day, I was still a boy from the South London suburbs who couldn’t quite believe his luck in life.