Some say rock is dead. For Keith Richards, it always has been.
Strange, coming from the architect of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.
“It sounds like a dull thud to me,” says the Rolling Stone. “For most bands,
getting the syncopation is beyond them. It’s endless thudding away, with
no bounce, no lift, no syncopation.”
He has even less regard for heavy metal. “Millions are in love with Metallica
and Black Sabbath,” Richards says. “I just thought they were great jokes.”
Not that he’s about to jump on the hip-hop bandwagon either.
Keith Richards has kept the Rolling Stones’ sound alive for more than
50 years.”Rap so many words, so little said,” laughs Richards, 71.
“What rap did that was impressive was to show there are so many tone-deaf people out there,” he says. “All they need is a drum beat and somebody yelling over it and they’re happy. There’s an enormous market for people who can’t tell one note from another.”
If speeches like this aren’t likely to win friends or influence people, they’re ideally suited to a guy who has built a peerless career answering to no one but his own muse.
Speaking to the Daily News in his manager’s downtown Manhattan office, Richards comes off as both a take-no-prisoners critic and a born charmer. He follows every put-down with a wink. (Stay tuned for barbs about The Beatles, Mick Jagger and narcissistic lead guitarists.) Clearly, Richards is a man with a lot to say about music, as well as a burning desire to make more of it himself.
The icon admits to his frustration with the Rolling Stones’ long absence from the studio. Ten years have elapsed since their last studio work, “A Bigger Bang.” And that’s only made Richards more excited to finally get new music out, via a solo album, coming Sept. 18, titled “Crosseyed Heart.”
It’s Richards first solo work in 23 years, though he fully admits he’d rather it be under the Stones banner. “I had no intention of making solo albums,” Richards says. “I always thought, I’m a Stones man. None shall leave!’ At the same time, we had years of spare time and I wanted to work.”
Richards had been tinkering away at the new album, in between lucrative Stones tours, for more than four years now. He says the initial push came from drummer Steve Jordan, with whom Richards created his two previous solo albums, in ’88 and ’92. Jordan asked the guitarist, “how did you cut ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ or ‘Street Fighting Man?’ RIchards told him he just went into the studio and found that diamond hard sound with Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts.
“Steve said to me, I’m a drummer,'” Richards recalls. “Why don’t we go into this studio, just the two of us, and see what happens?”
The pair began co-writing material and, over time, the guitarist says, “the damn thing started to blossom under me.”
To flesh it out, Richards went about reassembling the band that cut his other two solo works, the X-Pensive Winos, which also features session guitarist extraordinaire Waddy Wachtel, keyboardist Ivan Neville and bassist Charlie Drayton. No mere pick-up band, the Winos had already developed a grinding, organic sound as well-synched as the Stones’. “We all gravitated together and I realized I had the potential for the other best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world,'” Richards says.
At the same time, he calls the Stones “my baby.” He refers to that band’s inner workings as a “painful democracy,” marked by what he admits are ongoing tensions with frontman Mick Jagger.
Richards wrote about some of them in his acclaimed, 2010 autobiography “Life.” In it, he painted Jagger as something of a snob. “I’ll reinforce that,” he says. “His daughter, Georgia Mae, was sitting around in my room and she said, ‘oh, you know what dad’s like. He’s such a snob. He can come off that way even to me and the rest of the band,” Richards says. “He comes on the plane and doesn’t say, Hey mate.’
“He’s preoccupied with something really boring,” he adds. “He’s a control freak. He likes to know everything that’s going on. He lost himself a bit in the details.”
Even so, Richards makes sure to say of Jagger, “he’s a hell of a frontman,” and “I still love him dearly,” while adding “your friends don’t have to be perfect.”
Richards’ love of lobbing barbs reared its head recently when he called The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album “a mish-mash of rubbish.”
He tells The News he wasn’t impressed with another Fab Four milestone their historic 1965 gig at Shea Stadium. “As a band, they weren’t in sync with each other,” Richards says.
In fact, Richards moved on from his Beatles fandom a long time ago. “When it got to (seeing the guru) Maharishi (in ’67), I gave up,” he says with a cackle.
The candor Richards first established in “Life” made the book so popular it set off a trend in publishers signing every rock star alive to pen their stories. Its blockbuster success took Richards by surprise. “I got the Norman Mailer Award for Christ’s sake,” he says. “I mean, I’m a guitar player!”
In the tome, Richards both reveled in his seminal bad-boy image, and gave it fairer context. Despite his image as Decadence Incarnate, he’s been married to the same woman for three decades, has five grandchildren and, last year, wrote a children’s book.
“I can drag that image around the Keith with a bottle of bourbon in one hand and a joint in the other,” Richards says. “It’s a ball and chain. At the same time, I take it as a privilege to be taken into people’s hearts and minds. I feel like I’m doing all these things that they can’t do in a 9 to 5 job. In a way they’re saying, Go ahead, Keith.’ They’re giving me license…and I’ve taken full use of it.”
Not that he goes that far with it these days. Drug-wise, all Richards does regularly is smoke pot. When asked about it, he quickly says, “Would you like some?”
Richards calls pot “just a lift. It gives you a slightly different perception of your surroundings. To me, pot is just fun. And I’m glad to see the rest of the country is coming around to my way of seeing things.”
The world will also likely come to embrace the charms of “Crosseyed Heart.” It contains some classic Stones-like riff-fests, like the single “Trouble,” along with a range of songs that reiterate Richards’ love of blues, country and soul. Yet the core sound of the disc that unmistakable “Keith Richards” riff remains. His swinging, syncopated series of swipes and fingerings remains one of the most recognizable, imitated, and thrilling sounds in modern music. It’s as individual, and seminal, as a Chuck Berry riff or a Bo Diddley beat.
Richards credits its creation to the phase where he, and Stones drummer Charlie Watts started “to find the spaces between each other. This is a clich‚, but it’s what you don’t play. You want to leave a little space here and there.”
“Why don’t you just shut up and let the f–g thing groove,” the legend says. “That’s the problem with most guitar players. They can’t shut up. They’re playing fantastic stuff but if you don’t give it some room, you’re not going to appreciate it. It becomes a me-me’ ego.”
The M.O. of the Stones counters that. It’s essentially a band with two rhythm guitarists (Richards and Ron Wood), bouncing off Watts’ drums to create something alive in the moment. That wily frisson explains why, in their sustaining live shows, the Stones have been able to beat life into songs more than 40 years old. Richards’ sensitivity to the dynamics of his bandmates makes a sharp contrast to his cranky bluster about the wide swath of music he doesn’t admire. In fact, by keeping his band’s sound alive for 50 years, Richards has proven himself remarkably adaptable and open.
“If you’re in a band, you have to sublimate yourself to each other,” he says. “What’s the point of being in a band when you want to be numero uno? It’s got nothing to do with flash and all to do with keeping the pulse going.