Billboard Cover: Keith Richards Says 'Nobody Grows Up Until the Day They Croak'

Ruven Afanador
Keith Richards photographed on Aug. 5, 2015 at Drive-In Studio in New York City.

Fortified by a midday cocktail of Campari and soda with a double shot of vodka, Keith Richards dives right into a subject he has personally researched as deeply as anyone: drugs and the near-death experience.

It has been 35 years since Richards kicked the heroin habit that made him the iconic rock’n’roll wastoid of the 1970s -- he curtailed his cocaine usage a few years later -- but there are certain vices he will not renounce. “Eh, I love my pot,” says the 71-year-old Rolling Stone, seated for lunch one Thursday in the empty back room at Il Cantinori in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. He’s decked out in his customary head scarf, dark jacket and dress shirt unbuttoned to the navel. “Love my weed. Unashamedly a fan. A piece of good hashish now and again. But otherwise ...”

Keith Richards: The Billboard Cover Shoot

He loses himself for a moment in nostalgic reverie, then rejoins the present.

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“You know, the state of good drugs has gone down. In the ’60s and ’70s, you had barbiturates, which were great downers. And Quaaludes. These drugs were fairly simple. You took them, you pissed them out. But these new ones, the Xanax? I’m not there with that. [But] I still take Dilantin” -- an anti-seizure -medicine -- “since the knock on the head.”

Ah yes, the knock on the head. That would be one of Richards’ more innocent brushes with death. While on vacation in Fiji in 2006, he fell out of a tree, encountering a branch on the way down. For a couple of days, he felt fine, then had to be medevac’d to New Zealand for life-or-death surgery. Like all of his stories, it’s hard to parse the truth from the legend on that one -- did he really fall out of a tree? What was he doing up there? How bad was the injury?

Keith Richards Announces First Solo Album in 23 Years 'Crosseyed Heart'

As if reading my mind, Richards moves his head scarf aside, takes my fingers in his hand and runs them along a shockingly deep groove just above his hair line.

“Whoa,” I say.

“Yeah,” he replies, proudly.

This is why people love Keith Richards. Because unlike his longtime friend, collaborator and foil Mick Jagger -- “a control freak,” says Richards. “He has admitted it to me” -- Richards is the Rolling Stone who will invite a stranger to feel his head. Because even though he has been world famous for half a century, a surprisingly unguarded and quirky human lurks underneath the outlaw veneer. As he talks, he makes wild gestures and funny sound effects, cracks jokes, breaks into impersonations, laughs at least 10 different ways including snorts, guffaws and conspiratorial chuckles, and somehow maintains fine English manners all the while.

Keith Richards Calls Rap Fans 'Tone-Deaf', Thinks Metallica & Black Sabbath Are 'Great Jokes'

Richards is not just one of the greatest songwriters and guitar players in rock history -- he has become a role model for maintaining one’s panache in old age. His best-selling, wonderfully candid 2010 autobiography, Life, set the stage for this fall’s creative output: a lively and unvarnished solo album called Crosseyed Heart, his third (and first since 1992), and a behind-the-scenes documentary for Netflix, both available on Sept. 18.

Meanwhile, he just came off a 15-city swing through North America with the Stones, playing with as much vigor as he has in years. “Quite honestly,” he says, “I think The Rolling Stones at the moment are at their best.”

Away from rock’n’roll, says Richards, his life is “pretty sedentary. Mostly, everything comes to me.” He has been married for almost 32 years to the model Patti Hansen, and they live in Weston, Conn., 90 minutes outside New York. They moved there from the city shortly after the birth of their daughters, Alexandra, 29, and Theodora, 30, who have also both worked as models. (Keith has two older children, Marlon and Angela, with Anita Pallenberg, and five grandchildren ages 2 to 19.)

He eschews virtually all technology -- “Never a phone man; only number I ever knew was 911” -- and rarely goes out to -a concert or the movies. “My eyes are always on the exits,” he says. “You’re just waiting for someone to yell, ‘It’s him!’ And you’ve got to run.”

A conversation with Richards goes a lot of places in a short time. There is virtually nothing he won’t offer an opinion on. Such as:

Donald Trump: I do find him refreshing. He’s cut through a lot of crap, and eventually ... well, can you imagine President Trump? The worst nightmare. But we can’t say that. Because it could happen. This is one of the wonders of this country. Who would’ve thought Ronald Reagan could be president?

Race relations in America: I don’t think you can heal racism with the stroke of a pen. Or even with a generation or two. It has to come organically, really. All I know is that I’ve had more fun with black people than with white people.

Firearms: I like a good gun. I have a shotgun and a nice little antique thing that [producer-musician] Don Was gave me. But I don’t keep them around the house because I’ve got kids and grandkids running around.

“Keith [always] seems comfortable in his own skin,” says Was. “I attribute this to the fact that he’s a very enlightened cat, and that age and experience have given him a wise, Zen perspective.”

Richards says he loves to read -- a recent favorite is Look Who’s Back, a comic novel about Hitler returning to life in the present day. And though he makes exceptions for Florence Welch (whose last name escapes him at lunch) and Ed Sheeran (who opened for the Stones in June), he can’t tolerate most contemporary music. When I try to draw him out on Taylor Swift, he stops himself. “Oh, I don’t want to sound like an old man,” he says, harrumphing loudly before dissolving in laughter.

Richards certainly leaves a strong impression on his younger peers. “He was exactly what I expected,” says Sheeran. “I got to spend an hour with him in his dressing room before my support slot with the Stones in Kansas. He was amazing. He had a painting of Jerry Lee Lewis with a whiskey glass, balancing on a mic in his dressing room, and just kept telling me everything in life was about balance, all while blasting Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.” He adds, “I’d love to emulate his longevity, but perhaps remember a bit more of it.”

As separate as his personal life is from Jagger’s -- neither he nor any of the other Stones attended the funeral of Mick’s girlfriend L’Wren Scott after she committed suicide in 2014 -- their relationship is an unavoidable part of any meaningful conversation with Richards. The day of the lunch, it has been a month since their last show together, and they haven’t spoken since then. “Sent him a note on his birthday” -- his 72nd, on July 26 -- “two days late,” says Richards. “I said, ‘I know you don’t want to be reminded, ha ha ha.’ ”

Did he get Jagger a gift? “Probably sent him something. That happens automatically. ‘Mick’s birthday: Case of wine.’ Oh, I love the man dearly. Sometimes, you know, he makes life so difficult for himself. But otherwise ... you know, I don’t get involved. He has his own people for that.”

Richards and Jagger grew up in Dartford, a charmless town an hour outside London, but didn’t become friends until they were teenagers and fatefully bumped into each other on a train platform. The year was 1961. Richards was attending art school, Jagger the London School of Economics, and they bonded over a love of American blues. They knew what they wanted to play well before they had a clue how to play it.

Positioning themselves as the scruffy, parentally disapproved alternative to the choirboy Beatles, the Stones practically invented the hedonistic rock’n’roll lifestyle. The groupies. The binges. The mysterious early deaths of friends and acquaintances. But as their fame matured in the ’70s, they had divergent ways of coping with it -- Richards hit the junk, Jagger the jet set.

Somehow, they clung together until 1985, when Jagger made his first solo album and Richards vented his feelings in public.

“Ninety-nine percent of the male population of the Western world -- and beyond -- would give a limb to live the life of Mick Jagger,” he said in 1988. “And he’s not happy being Mick Jagger.”

When Richards made his own first solo album, Talk Is Cheap, that year, Jagger woke up to the possibility that he wasn’t the only valuable asset in The Rolling Stones and the show went on. Though they never regained the ability to write classic new songs together, their concerts are a greater spectacle than ever. Since 2012, when they celebrated their 50th anniversary, they have sold more than $400 million in tickets (according to Boxscore).

Richards maintains a willful ignorance of the band’s business -- he waves away any talk of money. What interests him about touring, he insists, is simply the chance to keep playing. “It feels like home,” he says of performing in front of 50,000 people. “That’s what I say to Ronnie [Wood, the Stones’ other guitarist]. Now we get some peace and quiet.”

When I ask him if The Grateful Dead’s three farewell shows during July 4 weekend, which grossed an astonishing $55 million, fired up his competitive juices, the answer is apparently yes, though not because of anything to do with money. “The Grateful Dead is where everybody got it wrong,” he scoffs. “Just poodling about for hours and hours. Jerry Garcia, boring shit, man. Sorry, Jerry.”

In 2007, when Richards received a $7 million advance to write his memoir, nobody thought all that much of it -- sure, Bob Dylan had just written a good one, but rock autobiographies tended to be lazy and self-serving, and it was easy to see Richards’ following suit. What could he even remember? He teamed with British journalist James Fox, who intended to build the book around a series of long, intensive interviews. It was trickier than he expected.

“I remember our first negotiations. I said, ‘Keith, we’re going to have a slight problem if the music’s this loud,’ ” Fox has said. “And he said, ‘Well, that’s kind of too bad.’ ”

When it was published in 2010, Life was showered with critical acclaim from all quarters -- assessing his romantic history, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd anointed Richards “the consummate gentleman” -- and sold a million copies in the United States.

Various unflattering stories about Jagger, including the unforgettable reference to his “tiny todger,” caused discord, but Richards feels like he defused the situation by pointing out all the worse stuff he had kept out of the book.

After Life’s publication, those close to Richards noticed him winding down precipitously afterward. “He even mentioned the word ‘retirement,’ ” says producer-drummer Steve Jordan, who has worked with Richards on all of his music outside of the Stones for 30 years, “which to me was crazy. Musicians like Keith don’t stop playing until they stop breathing.”

Jordan knew better than to try to win an argument with Richards. He figured the way to go was to gently coax him back into the groove. He proposed that they get together once a week in New York and play for a few hours, nothing too strenuous. When that started going well, Jordan suggested twice a week. Then it was three times. Pretty soon, new songs were coming along.

“The idea I had was, ‘This should be a real solo album, a lot of Keith,’ ” says Jordan. “He doesn’t necessarily think like that. He likes being in a band; it’s natural to him. He doesn’t mind drifting off to the side and letting someone else take the spotlight. But after the book and everything, I saw that people had a lot of interest in Keith himself.”

Crosseyed Heart is unlikely to win Richards legions of new fans. Nor is it intended to (although the super-hot Republic Records is now his label). One of his long-simmering creative differences he has with Jagger, says Richards, is that Jagger wants the Stones “to sound like what he heard in the club last night,” whereas he wants something more elemental and improvisational. When he’s with the Stones, Richards prefers to “walk in with nothing and ask Charlie [Watts, drummer] to set up a beat,” then build the song from that.

So that’s what he did here, with Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and various guests. Every song has the feel of a first take, loose and undoctored. There is a rendition of the Lead Belly classic “Goodnight, Irene,” and a handful of ballads, including one with Norah Jones that might have seemed like a play for buzz a decade ago, but not so much anymore.

Keith Richards Wants to Record a Rolling Stones Album Next Year...After South America Tour

Richards’ immediate plans are to play some small gigs with his own band in the fall, then get back together with the Stones for a triumphal march through South America in early 2016, possibly followed by the recording of a new Stones album. The news from their last get-together was that Wood, a legendary drinker, was faring well with his latest stab at sobriety. “He’s got an iron will, man,” says Richards.

Wood, says Richards, told him that he felt the imperative to clean up after being arrested for assaulting his 21-year-old girlfriend in 2009. “Ronnie suddenly realized -- this is what he told me -- that he was going to turn into his dad, who was a bit of a wife slapper,” says Richards. “And he didn’t want to go there. And I’ve since told Ronnie, ‘You spent all this money on booze and drugs, and you’re exactly the same without it.’ ”

It’s almost comical, Richards’ depiction of his buddy Ronnie still battling, at the age of 69, not to turn into his father. But this is an article of faith for Richards, the idea of a youthful inner life that everyone shares.

“Growing up never really stops,” says Richards. “Everybody thinks you reach a certain age and you’re a grown-up, but it’s not true. Nobody grows up until the day they croak. I’m sure of it. Because to me it’s still the next day and what do we do and how are we going to do it.”