Keith Richards On The Stones, The Songs And 'Life' The guitarist opens up about his music, his legendary journeys on the road with The Rolling Stones and his occasionally contentious relationship with lead singer Mick Jagger in a new memoir called Life.

The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards Looks Back At 'Life'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones' guitarist, has published his autobiography. It's called "Life." And yes, it's filled with details about excess and drugs, but it's also filled with stories about growing up in post-World War II England, he was born in 1943: discovering the blues; songwriting; forming The Rolling Stones; being targeted by police in the U.S. and the U.K., who saw the Stones as a bad influence on youth; becoming megastars; playing stadiums; kicking heroin; a sometimes rocky relationship with Mick Jagger; getting older and so on.

Richards co-wrote much of the Stones' repertoire with Jagger, including "Satisfaction," "Let's Spend the Night Together," "Get Off My Cloud," Give Me Shelter," "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Beast of Burden."

The Stones' first album included several covers of American rhythm and blues songs they loved and this Chuck Berry rock-'n'-roll classic. Here's the Rolling Stones.

(Soundbite of song, "Carol")

Mr. MICK JAGGER (Singer, The Rolling Stones): Oh Carol, don't let him steal your heart away. I'm gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.

Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out. I know this swingin' little joint where we can jump and shout. It's not too far back on the highway, not too long a ride. You park your car in the open, you can walk inside. A little cutie takes your hat, and you can thank her, ma'am 'cuz every time you make the scene you find the joint is jammed.

Oh Carol, don't let him steal your heart away. I'm gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.

GROSS: Keith Richards, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming.

Now, you say in your new book that you started playing with Mick Jagger after listening to Chuck Berry records together. What did Chuck Berry mean to you growing up in post-World War II England?

Mr. KEITH RICHARDS (Musician): To us in England, and I think to people like Mick and myself and many others including probably, you know, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck - Chuck arrived - incredible lyrics, an incredible devil-may-care attitude and great records.

And I mean, at the time, we were starving in England. And the way that man hit us, I'm still recovering, I mean, the most amazing...

GROSS: Do you mean starving for good music or starving for food?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: Yes, starving for good music. We didn't - we only had, like, two radio stations in the whole country. You know, we didn't have the dial-twisting.

GROSS: And you didn't own a record player when you were growing up.

Mr. RICHARDS: No, no, no. Everything you picked up was secondhand or in a juke joint or a coffee bar or something. You know, and so music, you know, you'd oh, did you hear that, did you hear that, it wasn't immediately available to you.

GROSS: Since you were so into rhythm and blues when you were in your early teens, in your teens. I found it so interesting that you learned to sing in a school choir and that you were taunted for being in the choir. What did you like about the choir, and what did you learn from being in it?

Mr. RICHARDS: It was just a way to get out of chemistry and physics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: And I had a soprano that worked. But really, it was just about music, and it was - joining the choir, at least you got to, you know, hang around with guys that liked to sing and liked music. And I had a great choir master, who was very severe, but same, sort of taught you a lot about, you know, how to hold your notes and when to let them go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, I remember when the Stones started to record, in America we were expected to pick a team: Who do you like best, the Stones or the Beatles?

Mr. RICHARDS: That competition thing, yeah.

GROSS: And you write about, you know, when the Stones started getting going that you didn't want to copy the Beatles, and you decided to be the anti-Beatles. So what did that mean in terms of your music and your image?

Mr. RICHARDS: You know, I think if you're talking image-wise, we probably did make a sort of a decision to not be The Fab Four. They were different -basically differences between the bands.

The Beatles were basically a vocal band. You know, they all sang, and one song, John would take the lead; another, Paul; another, George and sometimes Ringo, right.

But our band set up totally differently with one frontman, one lead singer, right, and what I loved about it is that there's an incredible difference in that way between the Beatles and ourselves. But at the same time, we were there at the same time, and, you know, you're dealing with each other.

And it was a very, very fruitful and great relationship between the Stones and The Beatles. It was very, very friendly. The competition thing didn't come into it as far as we were concerned.

GROSS: Now you say your manager of the time, Andrew Loog Oldham...

Mr. RICHARDS: Oldham, yeah.

GROSS: Played the competition, played the difference between the Stones and the Beatles to the hilt. What did he do to try to emphasize what was different about the Stones?

Mr. RICHARDS: I don't know. He had worked with the Beatles in a PR capacity, and he had a falling-out with Brian Epstein, who was the Beatles' manager. And I guess what Andrew thought was that the Beatles can't be the only four guys in England, or four or five or whatever, you know, that there's other things out there.

And he'd heard about us, came by and realized that here was a room to maneuver, that we're not trying to compete with the Beatles. We just want to make records.

And at the same, he saw how, from the image point of view and how to present the Stones, was to be not the Fab Four. We forget, you know, the neat haircuts and the suits and stuff. 'Cause, well, quite honestly, Andrew found out there's no way you're going to get the Stones into suits very long. You know, we'd sell them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Your first album was mostly covers of rhythm and blues songs. And you say that your manager of the time, Andrew Oldham, wanted the Stones to write more originals. So he basically locked you in a room and had you start writing.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And the first song you co-wrote during this episode was "As Tears Goes By," which Marianne Faithfull had a big hit of. But you say you couldn't have given it to the Stones. They would have laughed you or thrown you out of the room. Why? Why did he think I love that Marianne Faithfull recording. Why do you think do you think it's a bad song or just the wrong song at the wrong time for the Stones?

Mr. RICHARDS: No, I just think I'll tell you what. I think that when you're just starting to write songs, but you have a band, you know, it'll take you a while to figure out how to write for that band.

So first off, we had to write just a song, one song. Hey we weren't Mick and I wanted to get out of that kitchen. We'd have come up with anything, you know. But we worked, and we came out with "As Tears Go By."

And because Marianne did it, and it did very well, it gave Mick and myself a confidence that, well, at least we can write songs. And then the next step is, can we write songs for the Rolling Stones? Can we actually walk into the room with the guys and say: Let's try this on for size? And it took us a while to get there.

Meanwhile, we were learning our game and cutting our chops, you know.

GROSS: You have a great story in your book about how you co-wrote, well, how you got "Satisfaction" started. You co-wrote the song with Mick Jagger, but you originated it, and you didn't know you were doing it. Can you...?

Mr. RICHARDS: I wish all the songs could come this way, you know, where you just dream them, and then the next morning, there they are, presented to you.

But "Satisfaction" was that sort of miracle that took place. I had a I had one of the first little cassette players, you know, Norelco, Philips, same thing, really. But it was a fascinating little machine to me, a cassette player that you could actually just lay ideas down and, you know, wherever you were.

I set the machine up, and I put in a fresh tape. I go to bed as usual with my guitar, and I wake up the next morning, I see that the tape is run to the very end.

And I think: Well, I didn't do anything. You know, maybe I hit a button when I was asleep. So I put it back to the beginning and pushed play and there, in some sort of ghostly version, is (singing) da, da, da, da, da - I can't get no satisfaction.

And so it was a whole verse of it. I won't bore you with it all. But - and after that, there's, you know, 40 minutes of me snoring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: But there's the song in its embryo, and I actually dreamt the damned thing. You know, and I'm still waiting for another dream.

GROSS: So, do you think you kind of did that while sleepwalking or something?

Mr. RICHARDS: Oh, I wasn't walking. I was lying down, and I did it lying down, darling. I don't know about you, honey, but I do most of this stuff lying down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You said as usual, I went to bed with my guitar. Did you always take your guitar to bed then?

Mr. RICHARDS: It always has to be at hand, even now. I have to...

GROSS: Because?

Mr. RICHARDS: I have to know where it is in case I have another dream.

GROSS: In case you get an idea?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. So do you always have a recording device on hand, too?

Mr. RICHARDS: No, not anymore. I rely upon my memory more now.

GROSS: So you still have your guitar in case an idea comes to you, and...

Mr. RICHARDS: Absolutely. Where would I be without it?

GROSS: Okay, so you bring this germ of a song, basically the first verse, to Mick Jagger, and then you flesh it out into a more complete song. What's the process between you and him in making a full song out of what came to you?

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, at least in those days, and pretty much throughout the whole thing, is I'll come up with a riff, the idea and maybe the subject matter, the type. And then I'd go on to write the next one, and Mick would flesh out and finish it off and make it into a real song.

I'd come up with the ideas. Mick turns it into a finished product, you know. And we were working so hard in those days that you couldn't write them fast enough. So any idea, I came, I'd shove it to Mick, and Mick would work on that, and I'd have another idea, with a little luck.

GROSS: Now, how did the line I can't get no satisfaction come to you at a time when you should've been having a lot of very satisfying, gratifying moments?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: Darling, I don't know. I dreamt it.

GROSS: True, okay.

Mr. RICHARDS: I mean, nobody's ever satisfied, right? And it was just a phrase that obviously, you know, was buzzing through the mind, and whether you could express anything or enlarge on that idea of because otherwise, I can't get any satisfaction is kind of, you know, sort of moaning.

But if you then you can take it and expand it, which Mick did brilliantly. There it is. I mean, these things are all made out of little sparks of ideas that come to you, and you're lucky to be around to grab them. And that's kind of basically the process of how we work.

GROSS: Okay, so let's hear "Satisfaction." This is The Rolling Stones. My guest is Keith Richards, and he's written a new autobiography called "Life."

(Soundbite of song, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction")

The ROLLING STONES: I can't get no satisfaction. I can't get no satisfaction 'cuz I try and I try and I try and I try. I can't get no, I can't get no.

When I'm drivin' in my car and that man comes on the radio and he's tellin' me more and more about some useless information, supposed to fire my imagination, I can't get no, oh no, no, no, hey, hey, hey, that's what I say.

GROSS: That's The Rolling Stones, and my guest is Keith Richards, and he's written his autobiography. It's called "Life." Now that cassette that you mentioned, that you used to write down the idea for "Satisfaction" in the middle of the night that so surprised you when you played it back in the morning, that cassette or one just like it was also really helpful to you in coming up with a kind of transformative guitar sound.

Would you describe how you would plug your acoustic guitar in motel rooms, into the cassette machine?

Mr. RICHARDS: I'll try. Yes, no, it was a good question. You know, I'll try because there I am, I now have my hands on the best amplifiers in the world and the best guitars. But I'm trying to translate another sound in my head that I can't find through conventional means.

I was, at the time, finding it I always play a lot of acoustic guitar, and the cassette machine, in those days, before they had things on them called governors, which mean that you could not overload the machinery, I would just shove the acoustic guitar and use basically, I would use the cassette player as an amplifier, basically, and overload the acoustic guitar so it becomes an electric guitar.

But at the same time, you see, you still have that feel of an acoustic, which is totally different to an electric. So and I'm still looking for the perfect example of this, but I'm going to keep going.

GROSS: So what you would get is like an electrified acoustic guitar that was also distorted.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, exactly. You've got it, Terry. You've got it. That's it. I was trying to get the quality and the touch that you can get from an acoustic guitar and then overload it and make it sound like an electric guitar.

But at the same time, you have that original acoustic touch because, you know, this gets complicated, because guitars are strange animals. But there's a touch that you can get off an acoustic guitar that you'll never get off an electric.

And so I was trying to figure how to electrify the acoustic feel and still translate it, and so that was the name of the game. That was it.

GROSS: Now, it was surprising enough to me to read how you did this in your motel room, but then reading how you did it also in the recording studio was fascinating, that you wanted that sound so much that you brought in the cassette machine and plugged your acoustic guitar into it.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yes, I mean, I took these ideas, and the Stones were in the studio, and we were all looking at it and saying: It doesn't have what you had on the, you know, on the original idea.

And so finally, after many attempts to try and reproduce this sort of idea, you know, with amplifiers and, you know, conventionally, I think it was Charlie Watts, maybe. Let's go back, you know, to how you did it in the first place and work it from there, you know, which is why you've got "Street Fighting Men" and "Jumpin' Jack Flashes." There are no electric guitars at all. It's just overloaded acoustics.

I don't know. I like that denseness, of color, feel that you can get out of that. And it's an experiment I might take up again once they start making cassette machines again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you think "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is a good illustration of what you were doing?

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, yeah, and "Street Fighting Men" is probably another great example of it.

GROSS: Which one would you rather hear?

Mr. RICHARDS: I love them both, honey. Don't ask me to cut the babies in half.

GROSS: All right. So we'll go with "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, go there. All right, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So here's the Rolling Stones, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and my guest, Keith Richards, playing the kind of plugged-into-the-cassette-machine guitar that he was just describing. And he has an autobiography called "Life."

(Soundbite of song, "Jumpin' Jack Flash")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I was born in a cross-fire hurricane, and I howled at my ma in the driving rain. But it's all right now. In fact it's a gas. But it's all right. I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash, it's a gas, gas, gas.

I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag. I was schooled with a strap right across my back. But it's all right now. In fact, it's a gas. But it's all right, I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash, it's a gas, gas, gas.

GROSS: So, The Rolling Stones become global stars, and as you become global stars, you write about how you go to concerts and girls are throwing their underwear and themselves at you. And you say, armies of feral body-snatching girls began to emerge in big numbers about halfway through a first U.K. tour in the fall of '63. The power of teenage females of 13, 14, 15, when they are in a gang, has never left me. They nearly killed me. If they get their hands on you, though, they don't know what to do with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So...

Mr. RICHARDS: It's true.

GROSS: ...would you describe one of those experiences for us, what it was like for you early on when that started to happening?

Mr. RICHARDS: I suppose the most graphic is trying to leave a theater in, I think it was in the north of England, Bradford or somewhere up in the north, and they brought the cops out to kind of control the crowd, which was consisted of basically just young teenage girls, you know. Everybody rushes through, the whole band, they get through, they get in the car. I'm the last one out of the stage door. And silly me, I was wearing, you know, a kind of chain around my neck and some chick from the left got hold of one side and some chick from the right got the other side. And to cut a long story short, quite honestly, I woke up in the garbage can and to see the Stones' car without - minus a door, zooming off in the horizon and I'm just left lying there with a, you know, maybe a half a shirt and a shoe. And then everybody just left me. And you see what I mean, it's crazy. It's a...

GROSS: So, do you think they just wanted to, like, touch and grab what you were wearing as a souvenir or something?

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, they don't know. Once they get there, what are they going to do? Kill you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: You know, and, you know, bless their enthusiasm and it's more than any that's controllable. I guess that's what I'm trying to say about it is that there's, you know, there's the testosterone, the hormones are boom and, suddenly you find, you know, I thought I was a guitar player, you know, and the next minute youre...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: ...stripped naked, lying on the floor and your fans have left you there. That's the way it is, you know, but I mean, things like that happened nearly every day and it's crazy.

GROSS: Then there are the songs that you describe as anti-girl songs that the Stones did like Stupid Girl, Under My Thumb, Out of Time, Yesterday's Papers. And this is where I've been so ambivalent about some of the songs -Stones' songs like Under My Thumb. Under My Thumb is so catchy. I mean, I think it's just like irresistibly, irresistible, what's going on like melodically and rhythmically in there. And then, you know, I catch myself singing along, and what am I singing? You know, like, about this girl whos like under his thumb.

Mr. RICHARDS: You know, it's got - it's...

GROSS: And so, anyways, were you ever ambivalent about that?

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, let me try and break in here, Terry.

GROSS: Go ahead. Thank you.

Mr. RICHARDS: Let me break in here and say...

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. RICHARDS: can take it as, you know, male-female, like or it's just people. I mean, it could be about a guy. It couldve been, you know, this is just a guy singing, you know, that probably youre actually under her thumb and you're just trying to fight back. You know, and these are all sort of relationships and stuff. And I wouldn't take it as any sexist, I can't even go there, you know, cause I don't think about it. I just think we know what some people are like and then those things happen. And anyway, I didn't write the lyrics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Cut to the chase.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Off the hook.

GROSS: All right. So my guest is Keith Richards and here's "Under My Thumb."

(Soundbite of song, "Under My Thumb")

Mr. JAGGER: (Singing) Under my thumb, the girl who once had me down. Under my thumb, the girl who once pushed me around.

It's down to me, the difference in the clothes she wears, down to me. The change has come. She's under my thumb. And ain't it the truth babe?

Under my thumb is the squirmin' dog who's just had her day. Under my thumb a girl who has just changed her ways.

It's down to me, yes it is, the way she does just what she's told. Down to me, the change has come. She's under my thumb. Say it's all right.

GROSS: Let's talk just a little bit about Altamont, which was the music festival in which - at the Altamont Raceway in California...


GROSS: ...which one man was stabbed to death and three others died accidentally. This was a free concert and you describe how you'd asked the Grateful Dead - by you, I mean The Rolling Stones - had asked the Grateful Dead to help organize it because they had a lot of experience with free concerts and...

Mr. RICHARDS: Exactly.

GROSS: ...the permits that you'd expect it to get for Golden Gate Park and another place or two fell through and by that time Altamont was the only place available.

Mr. RICHARDS: It was, yeah.

GROSS: So when you are on stage there, at what point did you know things were really taking a bad turn and that this wasn't like a Woodstock concert, this was - there were some really nasty things happening in the audience?

Mr. RICHARDS: There was the potential for nasty things and nasty things did happen. From my point of view, I was amazed that that was all that happened. Meredith, who went down in the scene...

GROSS: The man who was killed - stabbed to death.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yes, the man who got - he was asking for trouble. And you have the Hells Angels there. Basically from my point of view, I'd say I realized this thing was getting dodgy just by looking at the Angels.

GROSS: Who were hired to do the security. I think I might have neglected to mention that.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, like, you know, yeah, the Grateful Dead's guys and they said, oh no problem, you know, these guys, we work with them and blah, blah. And it's like, okay, we just want to know how to do it, we just want to throw a free one, you know. Also, a unique time for America, 1969, back when there were no cops around. There were - it was just, just go off and do what you want to do, you know. There was no, in other words, control except what people could exert themselves. I think you throw a show. You say, I want it to be free. Everybody come. Then it's up to everybody else how they conduct themselves.

And it was a very, very weird feeling in the middle of nowhere. You know, Altamont is basically, you know, Mars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: And there's nobody else to turn to accept who, the Hell's Angels. I'm not going to turn to them; theyre all on acid and Thunderbird wine. And, you know, basically it was - it - we did, I think we did actually an incredible job if you look at the whole video of it, the footage of it, that it didnt get out of hand. I mean, there was that point where it could've really got out of hand.

And I think by just saying, stop it, we ain't going to play or da, da, da, somehow there was a check there and we managed to prevent a much larger disaster. And, but youve got to wing these things. You dont know what's going to happen, you know.

GROSS: Did you decide at that point what would be the best song to play to quiet things down as opposed to amp things up?

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, I dont know about whether it was the right song to play, but I think we went into "Sympathy For the Devil."

GROSS: That's what I thought. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: But, yeah. But I think we just wanted something with a rhythm, just yeah, it didnt really - by then nobody could hear what anybody was singing or saying or anything. It was just like...

(Soundbite of clap)

Mr. RICHARDS: ...hey, you know when theres a fight in a barroom and the band stops and then, you know, some stuff goes down and they're like...

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. RICHARDS: some music, whatever it is, we don't give a damn, just play, you know, just divert attention and try to get people into a pulse. You know, I mean, so whatever it was we chose to sing about.

GROSS: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Mr. RICHARDS: Thats a good call. And it's very hard to pick out. No, no, there's nothing I would have done differently. I wouldve had to, you know, how do you deal with things that are just...

(Soundbite of snap)

Mr. RICHARDS: ...snapping at you straight at the face and youre on the line? I can't think of anything where I said, oh, I wish I'd done that or I should have done that.

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Keith Richards and hes written a new book about his life and his life with the Rolling Stones. It's called "Life."

Let me ask you about your relationship with Mick Jagger. You grew up in the same neighborhood.

Mr. RICHARDS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Youve known him since you were a boy. You were obviously very close for a long period of time, co-wrote so many songs together. But at the same time, you write about how and...

Mr. RICHARDS: Hey, they're problems down the road. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. About how in the beginning of the 80's...

Mr. RICHARDS: Let me preempt you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yes, go ahead. Go ahead.

Mr. RICHARDS: You know, I mean, do you think in a 50-year relationship doing this stuff that there's not going to be some conflict, some disagreements? Of course, there's going to be.

GROSS: But you describe him as having become unbearable in the early '80s. What...

Mr. RICHARDS: At times, yes. So am I.

GROSS: What made him unbearable in those times?

Mr. RICHARDS: Attitude. You know, and its all in the book and I don't want to expand on it with you, Terry. What Ive said is in the book. I, you know, I can't say anything more than that. I dont wish to.

GROSS: Well, let me quote something that you say in the book and this was...

Mr. RICHARDS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You write how, you know, in the early '80s, this is right after you had kicked heroin and you said, Mick seemed to like one side of me being a junkie, the one that kept me from interfering in day-to-day business. And you say that after you kicked, you wanted a more active say in what the band did.

Mr. RICHARDS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But apparently Mick Jagger didn't really want you to have one. Do I read that right?

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, that was that he got used to holding the reins and that became - that was a bit of a shock to me at the time, but I lived with it. And anyway, we, you know, actually what happened is that we ended up sharing the reins again. But at the time, yeah, that did shock me or disappointed me. I say, I mean shocked, I'm beyond, you know. But, and Id leave it at that, quite honestly. It was a bit of a surprise to me at the time and also but it gave me more of an insight into Mick himself. You know, I said, hey man, you know, all right, go for it, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: I mean, it's only rock n' roll, honey.

GROSS: So, just one more question about this, which is, when you were performing on stage together during this period of great friction, do you feel it on stage? Did you try to prevent the audience from feeling that friction?

Mr. RICHARDS: No, get out of here. This is a bunch of guys that have been together for yonks, you know, I mean, you don't carry stuff like this onto the stage. These are things that just happen and you deal with them and you get it over with, you know, forget about it. It's, I mean, this is not angst or big deal, you know.

You know, of course, guys have fights. Brothers have fights all the time. That's what its all about. It's, you know, to pick one thing out and say, like, oh, it's a festering wound, what rubbish. No, you know, we're brothers. We get along and we fight sometimes and I don't think I can express it any better than that. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: In describing your approach to songwriting, you talk about vowel movements - that's vowel with a V, as in A-E-I-O-U.

Mr. RICHARDS: That was with Warren Zevon. That's was, yes, my conversation with Warren.

GROSS: And explain what a vowel movement is.

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, a vowel - you know what vowels are, right?


Mr. RICHARDS: I mean, there's the ooh's and the ee's and the ahs and the ahh, you know, without the consonants. And it's where they come sometimes in a record that will either make or break a record. It was about choosing the right sound at the right time to put the right ooh or ahh and whether a word should contain that vowel or not.

Warren Zevon said to me, said, damn it, he says my problem is consonants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: You know what I mean? This is a songwriting thing, you know?

GROSS: But you actually use like oohs and ahhs in some of the writing.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, I think about them...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RICHARDS: ...and whether they're in the right place. Yeah. I mean, if youre a songwriter you got to think about things like that. I mean, the wrong sounding vowel in the wrong place can ruin a good record, you know?

GROSS: Now is a Beast of Burden a good example of that? Like in the bridge, in the am I rough enough, ooh, you know, the oohs there in that bridge?

Mr. RICHARDS: Yes, exactly. I mean there's, you know, we worked an awful lot on where to put the oohs and the ahhs and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: got to laugh about this because when you're tearing to bits like what it is you actually do, it's kind of weird, right? It's very important whether you go e, ooh, ahh, ooh, uh, et cetera, when you're making a record because the wrong vowels in the wrong places might trip everything up. So you concentrate on everything when you're writing a song or making a record. You know, it's sometimes probably you concentrate too much. But, at the same time, yeah, you know, I concentrate on vowel movement.

GROSS: So I'm going to play "Beast of Burden." Do you want to say anything about writing it or what you're playing on it?

Mr. RICHARDS: No. I loved it. It's another one that came very natural, sitting around with Mick and...

(Soundbite of snap)

Mr. RICHARDS:'s one. And Mick see, I write songs for Mick to sing, you know, that's what I do. I mean, you don't get "Midnight Rambler's out of nowhere. You don't get "Gimme Shelter" out of nowhere. I'm writing for this, I say man, I know this guy can handle this and nobody will ever be able to handle it any other way. What I do is write songs for Mick to sing and if he picks up on it...

(Soundbite of snap)

Mr. RICHARDS: we got, you know. If he doesn't, I just let it sit on the shelf.

GROSS: What are the qualities in his voice and in his personality that you feel youre writing for?

Mr. RICHARDS: He's an outstanding performer. Hey, you're talking about a mixture of James Brown and Maria Callas here, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: I got you.

GROSS: That's good.

Mr. RICHARDS: Oh, yeah. And to have to work with such an outsized personality, ego and say, hey, whatever it takes, its there and you got to, you know, and you got a go for it and sometimes it doesn't work and a lot of times it does. And so you just keep on pushing, you know.

GROSS: So let's hear "Beast of Burden" and this is from the Stones' 19...

Mr. RICHARDS: Please do. I love that one.

GROSS: Me too. The 1978 album "Some Girls," "Beast of Burden."

(Soundbite of "Beast of Burden")

Mr. JAGGER: (Singing) I'll never be your beast of burden. My back is broad but it's a hurting. All I want is for you to make love to me. I'll never be your beast of burden. I've walked for miles my feet are hurting. All I want is for you to make love to me.

Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough? I'm not too blind to see.

I'll never be your beast of burden. So let's go home and draw the curtains. Music on the radio. Come on baby make sweet love to me.

Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough? I'm not too blind to see.

Oh little sister. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, girl. Oh, you're a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty girl. Pretty, pretty such a pretty, pretty, pretty girl. Come on baby please, please, please.

I'll tell ya, you can put me out on the street. Put me out with no shoes on my feet. But, put me out, put me out. Put me out of misery.

GROSS: So survived so many things in your life, including...

Mr. RICHARDS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...a heroin habit, a car accident, a cerebral hematoma. Of all the things that you survived...

Mr. RICHARDS: Is that what I had?

GROSS: That's what you say you had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: I didnt never knew what they called it, honey.

GROSS: So yeah, you fell out of a tree? Is that right?


GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RICHARDS: I fell out of a damn tree and bashed my head.

GROSS: So of all the things that you've survived, was there any one time where you really felt this is it?

Mr. RICHARDS: There's been a few times of flying through the air in a Mercedes upside down and hitting the ground three times where you do kind of sort of get the hint that maybe this is it. But if it ain't it, then you just carry on with life, right? I mean, boo, we all bump into death at one time or another, honey.

GROSS: What do you want from the next stage of your life as you approach your 70s?

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, I'm looking to be about 120.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: But I don't know what I'm going to do with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: Quite honestly, I think the band wants to play, the boys want to play together and hopefully, you know, we can get on the ups here and were thinking ahead. You know, I mean, I know that obviously because of this - the book and everything and there's a lot of retro going on and stuff. But as far as I'm concerned, and I think as far as Mick's concern and Charlie and Ronnie, get it over. Get over it, let's get on ahead. You know, we want to make some records and we want to do some good shows and we believe that we have it in us to do that.

GROSS: Now, you say in the book that people are always saying, oh, the Stones are still at it and theyre getting so old, you know, and, but...

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah. But they said that to Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I'm keeping a band together here. You know, I mean, they say that Louis Armstrong...

GROSS: I know exactly. That's what you say. If it was Basie or Ellington they wouldn't be talking that way. But, you know, rock n' roll was considered a youth music.

Mr. RICHARDS: Exactly. So we're here to grow up rock n' roll...

GROSS: Right. So...

Mr. RICHARDS: ...and see how far it can go.

GROSS: And that's my question: as grown-ups approaching your 70s, what's different about what you want to do on stage and what you want to sing on stage?

Mr. RICHARDS: I dont. This is - we're thinking about this, it's a good question, you know, and how do we want to do it? How can the Stones grow up? I mean, you've got to get to like kicking 70 to figure a thing like that out. I don't know. We'll find out.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure. And, you know, all best to you. Thank you very much.

Mr. RICHARDS: Hey, Terry, thanks very much. Good try, honey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Keith Richards' on a biography is called "Life."

Next week, a compilation of his solo recordings will be released called "Vintage Vinos." You can hear two tracks from it on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with Keith Richards singing "Happy" from the Stones' album "Exile on Main Street." He co-wrote it with Mick Jagger.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.