Keith Richards On 'Life' With The Rolling Stones 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.
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Keith Richards On 'Life' With The Rolling Stones

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Keith Richards On 'Life' With The Rolling Stones

Keith Richards On 'Life' With The Rolling Stones

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we begin a week-long series featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year. We begin with Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones' guitarist. He published his autobiography in October. It's called "Life." And 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." I spoke with Keith Richards in late October.

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. KEITH RICHARDS (Musician): 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, whatever, Philips, the 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, you know. 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. And after that, there's, I don't 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: 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: No, true. Okay.

Mr. RICHARDS: I mean, nobody's ever satisfied, right? And it was just a phrase that obviously, you know, 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 just 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 (Rock Band): I can't get no satisfaction. I can't get no satisfaction 'cause 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 a 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, it's 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 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, you know.

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: 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 then: 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 Man" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash." There were no electric guitars at all. It's just overloaded acoustics.

I don't know. I like that denseness of color, of 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 Man" 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 "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) One-two. 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...

GROSS: That's The Rolling Stones, "Jumpin' Jack Flash." My guest is Keith Richards, and he has a new autobiography, which is called "Life."

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 who's, 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 you can take it as, you know, male-female, like, or it's just people. I mean, it could be about a guy. It could've been - you know, this is just a guy singing, you know, that probably you're actually under her thumb and you're just trying to fight back.

You know, and these are all sort of relationships and stuff. And then I wouldn't take it as any sexist - I can't even go there, you know, because 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. All right.

We're listening back to the interview I recorded with Keith Richards. His autobiography is called "Life." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Keith Richards. He has a new memoir called "Life." It's about his life and the life with The Rolling Stones.

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 expected 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: Yeah, 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, 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. 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; they're all on acid and Thunderbird wine. And 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 didn't get out of hand because 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, and we managed to prevent a much larger disaster. And, but you've got to wing these things. You don't 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 don't 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 didn't 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 there's 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: That's a good call. And it's very hard to pick out. No, no, there's nothing I would have done differently. I would've 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 you're 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: 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 ah, 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 ah 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 ahs 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 you're 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 "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 ahs 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, ah, 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 Ramblers" 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 you're 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, it's there, and you got to, you know, and you've 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: My interview with Keith Richards was recorded last October, after the publication of his autobiography "Life." Our series featuring some of the most entertaining interviews of the year continues in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's "Beast of Burden."

Mr. MICK 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.

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