Keith Richards is sitting with me in a suite at London’s Dorchester hotel, looking at his watch. Not for the first time, the Human Riff, the rock ‘n’ roll pirate, the reformed one-man chemistry experiment, is showing me that he’s really a great big softie. We’re discussing the return to active service, for a sixth decade, of the Rolling Stones. Their much-vaunted 50th anniversary has triggered a new compilation album, GRRR!, the retrospective film Crossfire Hurricane (starting on Saturday) and their first gigs in five years, continuing this month in London and next month in New Jersey.
But it’s Keith’s domestic situation I’m enquiring about. The Stones have been stationed in Paris for the past few weeks, putting in six or seven hours rehearsal most days, taking time out only for the documentary’s world premiere at the London Film Festival, this single day of promo, and making a video for their excellent new song Doom and Gloom. When I ask Keef whether his model-wife Patti Hansen is travelling with him on these new adventures, he shows a tender side usually hidden from public view. “Wifey’s in Paris. We have a house there, and hopefully, in about four or five hours, I shall join her again. She’s a great bird,” he cackles with undisguised warmth.
Before and after the publication of his million-selling 2010 autobiography Life, which almost caused Mick Jagger to divorce him because of its highly personal aspersions, Keith lived mainly in his Connecticut house with Patti. But then it became not so much sticky fingers as itchy ones. “I’ve been at home, the book, da da da, with the kids, feed the dog, take it for a walk,” he smiles, explaining how rock’s biggest juggernaut has rumbled back into life.
Outside the confines of interview slots, Keith will sit and talk about music all afternoon. Mick prefers to get the job done, make sure you’ve got what you need, and be done. Ronnie’s one of the most gregarious musicians you’ll ever meet, and the self-effacing Charlie hates interviews but loves to talk about his favourite jazz drummers.
Even when it’s in an uninspiring hotel room, 20 or so years of interviewing their satanic majesties is hardly what you’d call a chore. But when you’re being allowed temporary access into a 50-year relationship, there are huge sensitivities to be observed.
This time, as ever, each interview is conducted separately. I’m not aware that anyone has spoken to Mick and Keith together for decades. The night before these meetings, the band had been at the documentary premiere, at which Ronnie Wood tells me he and Keith sat together cackling together like naughty boys. Ronnie, 65 going on 19, adds, “In the early footage, Keith would nudge me and go, ‘Who’s that?’ and I’d go, ‘That’s Mick.’ Then he’d go, ‘Who’s that’ and I’d go, ‘That’s you.’”
Crossfire Hurricane, which documents the most dramatic scenes in the Stones singular tableau, has been made with their cooperation, with Mick as producer and the others as executive producers. But when I ask Mick how the premiere was, and whether people laughed and cried in the right places, he says, “Well, apparently. I couldn’t possibly sit through it in front of everyone.”
“I was pleased the way it came out; it was very much as I’d hoped,” he goes on. “Even though people might know the story, several people said, ‘I know the story, but I couldn’t stop watching it.’ I think people won’t be bored.”
Replete with riots, drug busts, the 1969 death of founder member Brian Jones, the Altamont murder and more, Crossfire Hurricane is not exactly A Hard Day’s Night. ”It is quite dark,” agrees Mick, and breaks into a smile. “Not as dark as it was in one cut, though.”
His relationship with Keith is the subject of a media obsession. Mick accepts it, but it remains difficult to address the subject without spoiling the delicate conviviality that exists as long as you remain on side with your questions. Ronnie and Keith are rather less cautious.
“The book came out and whoops-a-daisy,” says Keith. He’s brought up the subject himself, but then adds, “We don’t really need to go there. But I know Mick and I, and the Stones, are a lot stronger than a few bad jokes.”
“The hurdles between tours and stuff always get higher and higher,” observes Ronnie. “This one seemed insurmountable, with the book, the vibes, and the space between everyone. Finding a schedule, can we all get together? I never gave up, I knew it would happen, but it’s just such a bloody relief to see we’re all in the fold together.”
The things that the Stones will and won’t talk about can be revealing. Mick tends to be the captain with the collective overview, often referring to the Rolling Stones in the third person. Some years ago, he told me disarmingly, “I really don’t know why the Rolling Stones are still popular,” very much as if he was talking about someone else’s band. “You could say they’re just lucky, or you could say they get respect the longer they’ve been around. Or you could say there’s got to be some sort of work ethic in there. Maybe it’s just a combination of all those things.”
That sometimes dispassionate mood is at odds with Mick’s meticulous attention to managing the Stones’ heritage. The band don’t have a collective manager, but he’s the nearest thing to it, choosing and directing the artwork, the album titles, even the promotion campaign, to a large extent.
Even if he tends not to rave about his band mates, Mick’s fondness for Charlie is transparent, and Charlie constantly sings Mick’s praises as the best frontman in the business. Ronnie and Keith eulogise about their symbiosis on guitars, swapping between rhythm and lead in what they call “the ancient art of weaving”, and Keith spends approximately half his time in any interview in unabashed hero-worship of Charlie.
So it goes in endlessly fascinating circles, and long may it continue. With the Stones in this sort focused form, you feel that we’re not done yet.
“The guys work very hard,” says Keith. “It’s very difficult to make things look easy, and also feel in your own skin that there’s no fake. Kind of a seamless thing goes on.” Then one last cackle: “I don’t know how we do it,” and he’s off home to wifey.
Rolling Stones: Crossfire Hurricane is on tonight at 10:15pm on BBC2