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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Keith Richards at the Ritz

In which Keef holds up the price of Smirnoff shares, little Marlon holds up his Dad, Anita Pallenberg holds up the interview, and CHRIS WELCH holds his own. From the pages of Melody Maker, published in January 1979—Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

UP AT THE RITZ Hotel in Piccadilly, the air of 19th century opulence and grandeur extends to the elevators, which are panelled in polished wood. On the surface of the lift that carried me to the fourth floor, someone had scratched "Rolling MOSS!"

It was a petty piece of vandalism which hinted at the dark conspiracies that still seem to surround the Rolling Stones. Who, on this freezing January night, would know that one of the last folk heroes of rock'n'roll was in residence? Who would inscribe strange messages for him — friend or foe?

Outside the double doors of Keith's suite, one could hear the familiar sound of a rock band in occupation of expensive territory: phones ringing, a tape machine relaying insidious reggae, girlish cries, and repeated clamours for room service.

It suddenly occurred to me I hadn't interviewed Keith Richards since 1966. And that was in a hotel room too, with Mick Jagger, talking about Between The Buttons. The weird thing was, Keith seemed to think it had been only yesterday.

Keith, not long freed by a Canadian court on drug charges, a one-time heroin addict who now keeps life at bay with hearty draughts of vodka, is an extraordinarily charming man, possessing infinite patience. While his speech and thoughts are sometimes held in check by the flow of soporifics and stimulants holding their own press conference inside his head, his acerbic wit and hard-bitten worldly wisdom remain intact.

Roaming the suite were Barbara Charone, the American journalist, just completing her forthcoming book on Keith's life, and the remarkable Anita Pallenberg, Keith's lady, who is described in Anthony Scaduto's book on Jagger as "a very wicked lady, not human, extrahuman." I had a taste of the alleged wickedness when Anita set about systematically destroying the interview.

But even Anita, at her most irritating, was often very funny, and the dialogue between the pair was often more illuminating than the polite record of intentions.

Another member of this strange little circle was Marion, Keith's and Anita's nine-year-old son, a bright, good-looking kid who seemed more together than any of us. He'll make a fine tour manager one day.

Despite the inroads on his stamina made by the vodka, Keith was keen to talk about anything. It was not until a few hours had elapsed that one realised that he had been packing away enough liquor to fell a fair-sized ox.

"I don't want no tea, or coffee," he told Barbara at one point. "I just want this bottle."

KEITH: All right, leave me to it, you've heard it all before.

ANITA: I haven't heard it all before.

MM: Can we turn the music down a little bit?

KEITH: Sure!

(The conversation begins, but there is a flow of interruption from Anita, as we talk cursorily about last year's American tour. Eventually Keith betrays impatience, as Pallenberg answers yet another question for him.)

Look, darling, will you please shut up!

(His remonstrance has little effect and she keeps up a heavy barrage of Anglo-German mutterings.)

KEITH: Back to my train of thought. That was a really good tour, especially the small theatres. We didn't know half of them existed. The Palladium in New York was great. That was the last playing we did, apart from a thing at the Bottom Line with Nick Lowe, which was to celebrate my freedom. What I'm doing here is taking a look at the old country. It's two years since I've been here, and I couldn't stand the idea of having another American Christmas...you know, there's nothing more disturbing than two chicks whispering to each other.

(Keith looked crossly towards Barbara and Anita, ensconced on the couch and giggling.)

ANITA: Oh, Just throw me out. Don't mind it. I mean...y'know...all that about the Palladium, that's OLD stuff.

MM: We were just recapping.

ANITA: Keith — he's got future plans, I tell you.

MM: I'm sure we'll get to that.

KEITH: Now I've gotta think of something.

ANITA: Throw me out if you want to. (She clings firmly to the sofa.)

KEITH: I don't want it to get that far. I was saying, I came home to see my folks, which I haven't done yet. I still have a house here, at Redlands, but due to the quirks of the IRS (Inland Revenue Service), I'm not allowed to stay in it. I can look over the fence, and say, "Oh what a nice house, I wish I could go in there." I'm allowed 90 days a year in the country. I thought if you stayed away two years you could have 180 days the third year, but it doesn't work like that.

MM: What have you missed about England?

KEITH: I missed the sarcastic coppers...I'm probably a little out of touch with the music here, but most of the stuff that's happening here has lost touch with itself anyway. It's back to fads. One minute it's Bay City Rollers, then it's Punk Rock, then it's Power Pop or New Wave, then that's finished... people are back to sticking labels on things. Elvis Costello. I've 'eard his stuff. I'd sooner see him live, that's all I care about. I don't care about album production. I like Ian Dury, he's down to the bone. As long as there's something happening here, that's all that really matters. Where they went wrong with the punk thing was they were trying to make four-track records on 32-track. We were trying to do the same thing in a way. We tried to make 1964 sound like 1956, which wasn't possible either. But we did end, up with something that was our own. The gap between '76 and '62 as far as recording technology was concerned, was too big. I think Punk Rock was great theatre, and it wasn't all crap. But at the beginning I saw the Sex Pistols on TV trying to think of a few extra swear words in front of Grundy, and I thought their vocabulary was rather limited. But I've no doubt they've learnt a few words since then. The music was all incidental, like background music. You just had to see it.

ANITA: Mumble, mumble.

KEITH: Look darling, who's doing this interview?

ANITA: I am!

KEITH: The problem is if two people talk at once, you don't hear anything.

(Anita's noisy demands that the conversation should turn to future plans were now impossible to ignore.)

MM: Are you planning a solo album?

KEITH: It just so happens that I've met a few people during the past year or so, and we've got together and put some stuff on tape. That's as far as it goes, and whether it comes out or not is another thing. They've put a single out in the States of 'Run, Run Rudolph' with 'The Harder They Come', and...er...no one likes it. It's the first time I've put a record out, and it was cut at Island in Hammersmith two years ago. It hasn't been released here; we're letting the Americans suffer first.

ANITA: I find that very significant.

KEITH: Jolly good.

MM: But are you hoping to get a solo album out?

ANITA: Yes.

KEITH: No...certain executives are. I don't give a shit. I've got some stuff but I don't know if roots reggae is what people want to hear from 'me. That's most of the stuff I've done while playing with Tosh's band in Kingston. Either I cut some more to make enough for an album or I leave it in the warehouse. I dunno — I can't think about an album until I've got the whole thing in front of me. The only thing that stops me is that...

ANITA: The only thing that stops me is that I need the whole thing in front of me...

KEITH: Look, go and read your scripts. When I've got an album's worth of material in front of me, then I'll think about it. I've got Robbie Shakespeare on bass. Sly Dunbar on drums, plus two percussion men, Ansel Collins on organ, Robert Lynn on piano and Big Mao on guitar.

MM: Do you get the same satisfaction from reggae that you got from R&B back in the '60s?

KEITH: Yeah, I find that I'm drawn to it for the same reasons, and because there's nothing happening in black American music. There's probably more happening in white American music at the moment. They're going through the formula disco phase, and of course it's very popular so it's no wonder people are drawn to it. The temptation to make those records is so strong.

MM: Do Rastafarians accept you, as a white musician playing reggae?

KEITH: As far as I'm concerned, I'm not white and they're not black. It's just something you don't think about. They make me feel very comfortable when I'm on their turf and I do the best to make them feel the same.

MM: Do you have to adapt your style much to play reggae?

KEITH: Not much, I've been going to Jamaica for over ten years. '67 was the first visit and in '72 we lived there for a whole year. Ever since then I've had a house there. We lived on the beach for a long while before we realised it's the dumb thing to do. Everything goes rusty from the salt, from your guitar strings to the Range Rover. The hip thing to do is live on the other side of the road, on top of the cliff where you get a breeze even when it's really hot. People may say: "Oh, now he's doing his reggae bit." I'll go the whole way with it or just record it for fun and put it in the vaults, until it's acceptable to everybody. Five years ago there were people who said they could never get behind reggae...

ANITA: Like Keith Richard.

KEITH: Thank YOU darling... okay, f--k off.

ANITA: You baam claat, man.

MM: What DOES that mean?

KEITH: It was a cloth that they used to mop up the blood after whipping a slave.

MM: Good grief.

KEITH: That's one interpretation, but every other Rastafarian will tell you another.

(The conversation mysteriously got on to the subject of the toothless whores of Kingston, and we mentioned that until recently Keith had been conspicuous by his deficiencies in the molar department.)

KEITH: Miraculously, due to abstinence and prayer, my teeth grew back! I think I was just late developing. Nothing an expensive operation couldn't prolong. Considering all the thumping hearts of the last year, I feel quite good: But I don't feel that a great weight has been lifted from my mind. They've put in an appeal in Canada, so we're back to square one. I don't have to go through the whole case again, but if the appeal judge says the trial judge was wrong, then I'm back where I started. But I never thought much about it anyway, not until I had to go to Canada and stand in the dock. It was very boring having to sit there and listen to it all. I thought the judge was fair and that the Canadians knew enough to leave well alone. Now they've turned it into a stupid internal squabble. It's Canada v. The Rolling Stones. The trial judge did his best to please everybody. I don't have to make any more appearances, only in concert in from of the blind. How can you appear in front of the blind? Cut whoever I have to play for, the blind, deaf or bubonic plague vicitims, I'll do what I've always done anyway. I'm leaving it all to the people who set shows up, but I guess it'll end up in Maple Leaf Gardens. We'll do it, probably with the Stones, and Peter Tosh.

ANITA: Sid Vicious will be the next.

KEITH: Sid — yeah. He's been a silly boy. Just because he woke up with a knife in his hands, he thinks he done it. I have a feeling he didn't. It was probably some very sharp New York dealer. Nobody deserves a trial, whether it's in Canada or New York. I mean, I didn't screw Margaret Trudeau. Ah, hah! But in that case — who did? Who ripped the flimsy bathrobe aside? I end up feeling that I have to pay for the Rape of Canada. But I didn't have nothin' to do with it. And as far as I could see they were after Trudeau anyway, because you've got a civil war brewing there. Both sides were trying to use me as part of their internal conflict. But they're the bastards that make us all-important. It's not as if I, or anybody involved with us, has ever gone around saying, "Oh it's great to be on dope. Everybody should do it." Whatever my lifestyle is, or whatever my problems, I don't encourage others to follow me. Thinking about the bust, what disappointed me was that not one of them was wearing a proper Mounties uniform when they burst into my hotel room. They were all in Anoraks with droopy moustaches and bald heads. Real WEEDS, the whole lot of 'em, all just after their picture in the paper. Fifteen of 'em, round me bed, trying to wake me up. I'd have woken up a lot quicker if I'd seen the red tunic and Smokey Bear hat. I was taken down to the jail and I asked them to give me a couple of grams back, just to tide me over.

MM: Do you ever regret starting to take drugs?

KEITH: No, I don't regret nothin'. I just got bored with it [heroin]. It would take more than the Mounties to turn me off something, if I really wanted to stay on it. Because I know damn well that in those pens (penitentiaries), you can get as much as you want. The first day in Wormwood Scrubs, during the first exercise period, I was tapped on the shoulder and some geezer said: "Want some hash?" I said: "Lay off! I wanna get out of here!" That was years ago. Can you imagine what it's like now? All you've gotta do is bend over twice or have the right amount of tobacco, and you've got whatever you want. I still remember that f--king screw at the Scrubs, when Mick picked me up in me Bentley — which was a bit much, he should have used a minicab — I remember the screw shouting at the gates, "You'll be back, we'll get ya!" You were in Rome doing Barbarella, darlin.' (Keith addressed Anita, still keeping up her monologue from the sofa) while I was doing time.

ANITA: Na, na, na, na, na.

KEITH: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes — we won't talk about that anymore. We'll argue about that later.

MM: Do you feel healthier now?

KEITH: Different. I suppose you could say healthier, although I must say, in all fairness to the poppy, that never once did I have a cold. I'm gonna blurt it out now, right? The cure to the common cold is there — but, of course, they daren't let anybody know because you'd have a nation full of dope addicts. This winter I've had two colds. But I don't recommend drugs to anybody. What's really wrong is 12-year-old kids on the street scoring dope that's got strychnine thrown in, to give you extra flash for fun. That's wrong, because it retards you. I know one junkie in London who started at 14, and kicked the habit when he was twenty. And then his voice broke. It slows down the metabolism. The worst thing is the ignorance of people taking things without knowing what they're doing.

MM: And you need the appropriate life style and freedom to be able to indulge.

KEITH: I don't know if it's that. Half the reason I got drawn into it was because I didn't have a lot of freedom and time off. If I'd have had the freedom and time I could have dragged myself off to somewhere remote for three months and cleaned myself up and pulled myself together. But in this business, you find there's always something that has to be done, a new tour or whatever, and before you know it, five years has gone.

MM: Did coming off drugs affect the way you play or write?

KEITH: I would like to say...hum...actually, after watching stuff I've done when I know I was out of my brain, and don't even remember the show, da da dum...not really. I mean, I'd like to say it did, to encourage anybody to get off it, but the only difference, now I'm off it, is I enjoy what I do much more. Also I can remember enjoying it. One show was just like another...it was like a tunnel that got smaller and smaller.

(Keith ruled out the possibility of his doing shows on his own outside of the Stones, and talked about his working relationship with Mick Jagger.)

KEITH: For what I do and for what the rest of the band does, I don't think I could do it any better else, where, in a different set up. Sometimes I might do the odd song along, and that's the way we've always worked. Mick might say, "Your rough tape has got the best feel, why don't you do that one?" But we still work closely on songs. We enjoyed making Some Girls, it was the most immediate album we'd done in ages, and you can't argue with seven million sales, as far as acceptance goes. I don't think there's that much between it and Black & Blue or Goat's Head Soup. It's just that suddenly the timing clicks. That's the thing in this lark, it's the timing. It could just as easily have bombed. 'Miss You' wasn't specifically recorded as a disco single, it was just another track for Some Girls. 'Hot Stuff' was disco-ish too, and so were some others if you want to dig down. All that really matters is that it took off, at the right period in the band's evolution.

MM: The bass riff on 'Miss You' had a lot to do with its success.

KEITH: Bill is leaping ahead. Charlie is so magnificent you expect him to go on getting better, and if it doesn't get better at a session you sorta moan at him, "Why aren't you better than last time 'cos you always are!" Bill tends to go more in cycles, and in the last couple of years I haven't seen him so happy and playing so well. Something like 'Miss You' proves it.

MM: What's the origin of the Glimmer Twins pseudonym for you and Mick?

KEITH: Glimmer Twins came from the infamous cruise from Lisbon to Rio in Christmas '68 with Mick and Marianne, Anita and myself. We met this very vivacious woman. When she got drunk, all she would ever say was, "Who are you, Won't you give us a glimmer?" I just loved the way she said it, so we became the Glimmer Twins.

MM: Whatever happened to Nanker and Phelge?

KEITH: That included the whole band, it wasn't just me and Mick. Phelge was the name of a guy that lived with us in Edith Grove at World's End, who was one of the most disgusting people that I've ever known. I've forgotten his real name, but he was known as Phelge and he was the sort of guy who would meet you on the stairs of your slum with his streaked Y-fronts on his head, and nothing else, and he'd say: "This is Phelge — welcome home. Unfortunately I haven't made enough money this week to help chip in with the rent, so instead I'll entertain you and be as disgusting as possible for the whole week." He was the sort of guy who would nail up the john while you're in there and lower a tape recorder in through the window and capture the moment when the victim couldn't get the door open. He ended up with a whole reel of tape and every time it got to the bit where they flushed the toilet you'd hear a roar of applause. It was a great tape — unfortunately nobody kept it.

MM: And Nanker, who was he?

KEITH: One of Brian's inventions and deserves to stay with him.

ANITA: (Censored interruption in which she revealed that Brian Jones had once done something very peculiar to a chicken.)

KEiTH: He was always very good with his hands.

MM: Do you still enjoy playing R&B tunes like 'King Bee'?

KEITH: If we have a session suddenly come up, to warm up we do the old Richmond set, just to get the chops together. We do 'Route 66' and 'King Bee'. I'd play you a tape of us jamming, but unfortunately it went up in the Hollywood fire. Don't ask me what happened — I was asleep.

MM: You do seem to have a lot of dramatic events in your life. Do you get the feeling someone is following you around?

KEITH: Mmmmmm... not really. I've had two or three houses burnt down. Redlands burned down once — the roof went with the whole top floor.

MM: That was two fires. What was the third?

KEiTH: Londonderry Hotel. I should have got a medal for that one.

ANITA: Keith! Keith! It's Marlon.

KEITH: Here's my man, he's the one who straightened me out.

(And nine-year-old Marlon came in armed with Action Man toys, anxious that the mysterious conference should come to an end and that Dad should take him down to Redlands. Keith and Marlon embraced and the boy turned away from the photographer.)

KEITH: Marlon, now look at the camera.

MARLON: No! (Meanwhile, Anita fixed me with a steely gaze.)

ANITA: Christ you are a star. Ho, ho, ho.

(She mimics my deprecatory mirth. The constant barrage is becoming unnerving, but unfortunately there are no blunt instruments to hand.)

MM: Are the Stones going to play in England this year?

KEITH: We gotta. We gotta play England and Europe this year. F--k movies. There's nothing concrete, and I can't say when or where. Originally we were going to come to Europe last year, but it was big mouths in Paris that blew the whole deal. We were going to play the Palace, which I like very much. When you read about it they always say it's Paris's attempt at a Studio 54, in fact it's a real theatre and holds about 2,000. In New York they ruined a perfectly good theatre by filling it with faggots in boxing shorts waving champagne bottles in front of your face.

MM: The last time you played in England you got criticised because of the bad sound.

KEITH: Well, when we were playing at Earl's Court it wasn't until the last night they realised that the balcony there was solid steel, behind the plaster, and that's where the weird echo was coming from. It helps a band like Pink Floyd, when you want a very spacey sound, but for a band like us that uses a lot of middle and bottom — forget it, there's no way you can get the Sound across. It just sounds like endless feed-back. But I know we were playing good at Earl's Court, and I'm the first to say when we're playing bad, I'll tell ya. I have the tape from Earl's Court and those shows were some of the best on the tour.

MM: Do you still get a kick out of playing?

KEiTH: Look, this is the sort of band that if it didn't get a kick out of it, would retire the next day. There's nobody in this band you can persuade to do something, unless they wanted to. Charlie hates going on the road, but he likes it enough to still pack his suitcase. He only ever carries a hold-all with a change of clothes in it, because he likes to pretend he's going home the next day.

ANITA: Not like Rod Stewart. His suitcases have got wheels.

KEITH: Rod cancelled that Lyceum show, didn't he? That was a cheap trick. The diplomatic excuse was that the band had got laryngitis. But how many shows can you do with Billy Peek without puking?

MM: Is he that bad, Keith?

KEITH: Oh, maybe that was a bit extreme. But I listened to that single Rod put out, and I look at the peroxide hair, and I like the guy, I always have done, bit I feel like saying: "Now look, cunt, you don't need it." I was just thinking there isn't a band left from when we started that has still got the original line-up, now that Moony has kicked the bucket. Ashes to ashes.

ANITA: That was the best comment of the whole interview.

(The waves of verbal static from Anita increased to such a pitch at this point that Keith was eventually goaded into asking her to vacate the premises, an invitation she gracefully declined. Meanwhile we turned to the barriers in outrage, which have been finally smashed asunder.)

MM: Is it possible for the Rolling Stones to shock people anymore?

ANITA: They can't, they're past it.

KEITH: We never did anything consciously to shock people. All we ever did was answer the call of nature.

ANITA: Oh, gosh.

KEITH: It's true. If you're consciously trying to shock people, you might as well forget it. The comparison between Malcolm McLaren and the Pistols, and Andrew Oldham and the Stones — well, it was just too obvious. Too obvious to work, and it didn't work. I'm sure Johnny Rotten sussed it was a set-up and went along with it, and the others couldn't think of enough swear words to keep it going. "You, you, b-b —bastard."

ANITA: So, they'd got a speech defect, so what.

KEITH: I didn't say they had speech defects, I said they couldn't curse properly.

(Keith discussed further the perils of Sid Vicious, and mentioned that he used to stay at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where the murder of Nancy Spungen took place.)

KEITH: There was a guy called Zimmerman on the floor above making a f--king row with a guitar all day, and next door there was this Nico with a harmonium, with a hole in her windbag. If you let the maid in to clean your room, everything would be gone. You had to be a certified dealer to get a job as a bellboy.

(Marlon increased his demands to be taken down to Redlands. Keith tottered towards the tape machine and played some Stones demos and jams.)

MM: What's the next Stones album going to sound like?

KEITH: You're talking to the wrong man! I'll write it in the studio when we get there. This is all pure bluff.

(Keith disappeared, and for an hour or so we sat listening to Anita chatter gaily about her modelling career. Marlon re-entered the room, announced that Keith had gone to sleep. I found him lying on a bed, Marlon keeping watch. "Goodnight. Keith," I whispered.)

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