I meet Keith Richards at the Dorchester. I’m early and, it turns out, so is Keith. This is unexpected. Everything else, however, is exactly as it should be. Legs like twigs, encased in black denim. Green high-tops and a matching emerald green shirt, worn open, with chains a-dangle. A complicated bracelet on his left wrist (“It’s handcuffs,” he snuffles. “They’ll never take me again, heheheh.”) Crazy hair held up and together by a black towelling bandana. And beneath it, a face of creases and folds, shadows and light.
None of this conveys his warmth and charismatic presence, however. He’s much friendlier than you might expect and, at 72, more energetic. He chucks himself around his chair, grabs cigarettes, lights up with fervour. He’s full of beans, as much an advert for the long-term dissolute as Mick Jagger is for careful health maintenance.
His energy is made more powerful by the way he uses his voice. There aren’t many silences with Keith. His words are slurry and lengthened, and while he’s thinking, he sometimes makes a sound like a low engine: “hnnrrhhnnnrrrr”. He laughs all the time. He laughs to indicate the end of his sentences, his thoughts, his answers; starting off seriously, then making a quick joke and guffawing. Perhaps it’s an interview technique, but it’s clearly a well-established one, and very contagious. I start laughing too. He’s a tonic.
Keith, it turns out, is excited about talking to Radio Times. “Send us a copy!” His mum Doris (who died in 2007) was a radio fanatic. When he was little, she’d spin the wireless knob between the Home Service and Light Programme. “There was no stereo, it wasn’t even invented, no record players,” he remembers. “There was the radio, and my mother was the whizz of the dials. If I’ve got anything to do with music, it’s from being brought up by Doris. Music everywhere. If there was silence in the house, something was wrong.”
Keith was an only child and Doris was his rock. He still occasionally slips into the present tense when talking about her, but tells me about when she died. “She said: ‘Why me, Keith?’ And I said, “You’re 93, Mum.” That was the best line I could come up with. And she said, ‘This morphine’s not bad, you know.’ And those were her last words to me.” Cue laughter.
His mum wasn’t perfect – parents never are – and, when Keith was young, they clashed over his love of animals. He was uninterested in adult concerns (“when they’re arguing about the rent and the insurance”), and retreated into his own world. As part of this, he decided to have “a little pal”. His mum was not a fan of pets, but Keith managed to keep a mouse, which he carried in his pocket; and a cat, which he thinks his mum drowned. “It must have been p***ing her off more than I realised. She just said, ‘It’s gone away.’ I did a painting of the cat and wrote MURDERER under it and put it on her door. I called it Gladys. It was a traumatic time.”
Now, he has dogs. “At the moment, only two. Because two died. They reached the end of their string, and they looked at me and said, ‘I’m leaving now.’ I did love them. You know, you cuddle up if you find yourself alone or whatever. I’ve always thought animals are a natural part of a house. But also you have to know that… I mean, you know me, I’m going to hang on for ever!… but you need to know, ‘I’m going to see this pup die.’ It gives you a sense of space and time.”
Space and time… Before meeting Keith, I watched a rough cut of a new Julien Temple film Keith Richards: the Origin of the Species, which covers the guitarist’s early years, from birth to 18, ending just as the Rolling Stones take off. It’s a wonderful weave of archive, animation and an extended interview with Keith himself.
One of the things that strikes me most is how long ago it all seems, how close to the Second World War (Keith maintains that the first sound he heard was the whine of German bombers), how far Keith’s childhood is removed from today. This is, of course, partly the Stones’ fault: they and the Beatles were Year Zero for contemporary youth culture, completely reinventing pop music so that everything that came before seems ancient history. But this isn’t true, especially for Keith. As the film reminds us, he existed before the Stones and he has a great recall for that time. “Memory is a weird thing. One little phrase will trigger it,” he says.
We talk about him being in his school choir. Aged 12, he and two other friends at Dartford Tech sang together very successfully, performing in concerts, including one for the Queen in Westminster Abbey. “We were the three best sopranos in the South East.” But, when they hit 13 and their voices broke, the school made them redo the previous year because they’d missed so much work through singing. It still rankles.
“All these gold cups and awards for the choir, and they strew them around the assembly hall, and then we were just like ftttphhttrrrp – squelched! It wasn’t fair. But that was when the idea of rebellion took seed. Before that it was all, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ But around then, it changed. Like, ‘Maybe we can carve a new path here…’ ”
Keith and his friends went on a deliberate campaign to get expelled (they succeeded). How does he feel about authority now? “I’m more interested in what other people feel about authority. There’s cameras everywhere. Big Brother has arrived, and we all think it’s for our own safety. Maybe it is, maybe it ain’t… I don’t know about a society where you all think you have to spy on each other. And I don’t want to get too deep, but I could live without religion. Everybody’s looking over their shoulder! There’s an element of fear. And certain guys have engineered it that way. Maybe it’s good to be frightened for a while, I don’t know. But it’s in the air, that element of fear… I’m used to cops, I ask for it – I don’t wish it on society. But it’s there, whether you wish it or not.” He takes a breath.
“It’s a vicious world. Meanwhile, we’re sitting here talking (puts on posh voice), ‘Is Britain In or Out?’ Personally, I don’t give a damn. Personally, I’d invade France. I’d be very Henry VIII, I’d be Edward III about it. Hahaha…”
He’s turned piratical again. It’s his default mode, his specialist role. I assume he dresses as he does because it’s his uniform: in the same way as Mark Zuckerberg puts on a similar grey T-shirt and jeans every day to go to work, Keith dons his outfit to become “Keith”. He himself recognises that it’s a character. “Bullets bounce off… You become this icon and you can’t do anything about it. You want Keith Richards, I’ll give him to you.”
That’s also what filmmaker Temple sets out to do. He’s a massive fan of the Stones but, specifically, of Keith. He wants to put Keith in front of young people, make them realise nonconformity is liberating, that rebellion is a possibility.
“I don’t want to blow smoke up his arse,” says Temple, “but who he is, is something magical to me. Jose Mourinho thinks he’s The Special One but he’s wrong. It’s Keith. I want him to inspire other rebels.”
Which is a lovely idea, but I’m not sure that many people could carry it off with the panache of Keith. Or the dedication. Most of us stop rebelling by middle age, swap partying for telly and tea. It took Keith until he was 62 to pack in taking cocaine, after he banged his head when jumping from a tree in Fiji.
And yet despite his rebel role, Keith has been married for 33 years to Patti Hansen, and fathered five children (two with her, three with Anita Pallenberg; one died as a baby) and five grandchildren. Day to day, he sees himself as “a family man”. And that extends to his band, too. He says he “invented” his job for companionship, and he is lovely about the other Stones: “I want to be buried next to Charlie Watts.”
We digress onto the Beatles. He loved them as friends, especially John, though he “excommunicated” them when they started hanging out with the Maharishi: “a f***ing operator… A sucker job, hehehe… But you have to think what had being the Beatles done to the Beatles? They wanted somebody else to take them away, they didn’t want to be God any more, they plugged it all onto the Maharishi.” As a side point, he comments, “Musically, the Beatles had a lovely sound, great songs, but the live thing? They were never quite there.”
We return to his own band. He tells me that the Stones have recently been practising at Mark Knopfler’s studio. Does he play at home, on his own? I wonder. He jokes that “Tuesdays is piano, Wednesdays is guitar” and says he picks up an instrument as and when he wants, but likes the camaraderie of playing with others. “I count so much on people I work with,” he says. “I need the energy and the spontaneity of it.”
Why does he think the Rolling Stones have lasted longer than other bands? “Well, they’re not really bands,” he says. “They’re groups. We’re a band. And a real band sticks until it dies! These bands, they become big, but they’re generational. Just for their one decade. They literally go when their testosterone goes… I mean, we work hard, no one takes it for granted. We’re still looking to make our best record and put on our best show. The Stones have managed to be part of life without being passé.
“Also, what else are you going to do? I’m here, on the other end, and I’m looking at life from here… This is what happens. It’ll happen to you, it’ll happen to everybody that’s going to read this. Life changes as you go along, and the thing is, it never stops. You never grow up, you just learn a little more. I ain’t getting old, I’m evolving.” And he laughs again, and so do I.
Keith Richards: the Origin of the Species premieres Saturday, 9pm BBC2