Keith Richards calls Chicago a musical heaven for the Stones
On July 12, 1962, a band called the Rolling Stones took the stage at the Marquee Jazz Club in central London to play its inaugural show. The five decades between that date and May 28, when the Stones return to the United Center, has been filled with more than two dozen studio albums, several world tours, legendary debauchery, upheaval, and of course, that iconic songbook. Tickets go on sale Monday for the Stones’ three dates here: May 28, May 31 and June 3.
Guitarist Keith Richards talked last week about why he “can’t wait” to return to this city, which provided his band the blueprint to its sound, style and swagger via its rich R&B history.
“Chicago’s a hometown for me,” he says. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q. I did a Google search to find out how many times “Chicago” appears in your book “Life,” and it’s too many to count. This city is in your musical DNA isn’t it?
A. Yeah, that’s where I met all the people I never expected to meet and always admired from afar. Willie Dixon and Muddy [Waters] and Buddy Guy. Suddenly I was in heaven. Chicago’s kind of a second heaven to me. I’m sure there’s a lot of people in Chicago who would disagree with me! But from a musical point of view, it was incredible.
Q. You say in your book you spent a full year at the first flat you shared with Mick Jagger and Brian Jones learning Chicago blues.
A. That’s it. When the records were coming at us … every time you found something that was on the spot, it was coming out of Chicago. We were probably a few years behind it because, in those days, it took a while to travel. Every time you hit on something, it was either Chess Records, Checker. Chicago was where you wanted to be. You listened to this stuff avidly: “Who’s on guitar, who’s on drums, who’s on bass?” It was a mission!
Q. Besides Muddy, what other Chicago players turned you on musically?
A. I’m going back now to the boogie piano players, the Tampa Reds. Those guys didn’t actually come from Chicago but that’s where they recorded. [Blues harmonica player] Little Walter Jacobs, now that is a virtuoso. I know Little Walter couldn’t spell the word, but he was one.
Q. Chicago presented such a blueprint for the band, yet you never spent a considerable amount of time here.
A. I know what you mean. We always come in and do those hit and runs, it’s always under pressure of work. Actually, that’s a good idea, man, let me put that down in the diary.
Q. This 50th anniversary tour has to force you to reflect on the past. Which era of the band matters most to you?
A. Obviously there was a golden period, which basically put us all in the same spot at same time. Which was the late ’60s to early ’70s. At some time in the band, you grow and I could also say, “you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!” But that was obviously a golden period for us, and also it was an age thing, it was a generational thing. To have a band still going that’s viable after this amount of time. Now I know how Muddy felt and how [expletive] Howlin’ Wolf felt!
Q. You’ve been dogged for decades for refusing to retire. Yet no one ever says that about blues or jazz players — they are expected to get better with age.
A. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. Why stop? This is what you’re good at until you can’t make it no more. I got a bunch of guys who are ridiculously full of energy, I’ve got to do something with them!
Q. Bassist Bill Wyman is showing up on dates on this tour. How did that come about?
A. The Stones didn’t really think about it in terms of birthday cakes or carrying calendars or anything. But the 50 thing obviously began to come in from the outside and we realized that, “oh yeah, I guess it is important,” you know? So we just threw it open to any of the Stones who are still around, that if you want to join in for a song or two. Bill did it in London and [guitarist] Mick Taylor joined us and he’s going to stay with us, which is going to be great fun.
Q. I know you were upset at Mick Taylor after he quit a year after “Exile on Main Street.” Now that he’s back in contact, did you ask him why?
A. I’ve had a couple of chats with Mick Taylor about that and his great answer is: “I don’t really know.” Gee, really inspiring, Mick! But welcome back, anyway! It took us all, and himself, on another journey, but it was great to have him playing with us last year; I look forward to spreading that around a bit. Ronnie [Wood] and I, you know, we’re two guitars in the Stones, and on the records, there are at least four or five guitars, we overdub and overlay and overlay. And to have a third guitar in and add somebody else for flavor, to us, it’s a sheer luxury.
Q. I recently watched the footage of the time the Stones joined Muddy at the Checkerboard Lounge in 1981. Do you ever miss playing clubs?
A. We did a club gig in Paris. I think we’ll probably do one or two during this next round. The Stones always feel that if you can do it in a club, OK, you can do it anywhere. When you’re face to face with the audience, it’s a testing ground where everybody feels, OK, now you just expand the club. It’s necessary to do a few club gigs for us.
Q. Anyone watching a Stones shows will notice the interplay between you and Charlie. Is he always watching you to slip behind the beat, or is it the other way around?
A. I don’t know if Charlie’s watching me or I’m watching him. We do enjoy flinging the beat around a little and making some extra swing on things. And if we’re feeling really confident, we do play with each other, toy with each other — “get out of that one.” I have never tripped him up yet, man. It’s a timing thing. When comes down to it, it’s all about timing. Charlie Watts is one of most magnificent drummers in the world, especially for the Stones. And time and rhythm themselves, they start out two different things, but they can become the one thing. That’s when Charlie and I — that’s when you’ll see us smiling at each other. We’re riding this beat, we’re not making it. It’s one of those great moments when you feel yourself levitate a bit onstage. And wait for it to crash into the wall!
Mark Guarino is a staff writer with the Christian Science Monitor.