For the January, 1978 issue of High Times, Victor Bockris interviewed the unstoppable lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards. In honor of Richards’ birthday on December 18, 1943, we’re republishing the story below.
Keith Richards has been the Rolling Stones’ lead guitarist and one of rock’s leading crusaders and criminals. His most recent brush with the law came in Toronto six months ago, when he was arrested for possession of heroin with intent to sell.
High Times reached him at his new house in Westchester County, 60 minutes outside of Manhattan. Getting the interview became complicated when the president of Rolling Stones Records, Earl McGrath, tried to persuade Keith not to talk with us because it would have an adverse effect on his court case. Keith thought that was a bit soft.
High Times: Do you feel that it was your destiny to be a musician?
Richards: Well, when I used to pose in front of the mirror at ‘ome, I was hopeful. The only thing I was lacking was a bit of bread to buy an instrument. But I got the moves off first, and I got the guitar later.
High Times: Is music magic to you?
Richards: In the way that magic is a word for something that is power that we don’t fully understand and can enable things to happen. I mean, nobody really understands about the effect that certain rhythms have on people, but our bodies beat. We’re only alive because the heartbeat keeps going all the time. And also certain sounds can kill. It’s a speciality of the French for some reason. The French are working with huge great speakers which blow down houses and kill laboratory technicians with one solitary blast. I mean, the trumpets of Jericho and all that.
I’ve seen people physically throw up from feedback in the studio. It’s so loud it started their stomach walls flapping. That’s the most obvious aspect of it. But on another level, if you go to Africa or Jamaica, you see people living to that rhythm. They eat, talk, walk, fuck, sleep, do everything to that rhythm. It’s magic in that it’s an unexplored area. Why, for instance—zoom in ’ere—should rock and roll music suddenly appear in the mid-Fifties, catch hold and just get bigger and bigger and show no signs of abating?
High Times: Brian Jones was the leader, then Mick became the leader, but now there’s a feeling that, musically, you’re the leader of the Rolling Stones.
Richards: I guess it takes a long time—I mean, I’m basically doing the same thing now as I always have done. I run around trying to communicate with the rest of them, because Charlie’s sitting down and Bill’s over there and I’m more free, and I give them the tempo because early on I evolved a certain style of playing that is fairly basic. I know that I can give what’s needed to Charlie and Bill and Ronnie to keep the thing together.
High Times: And to Mick?
Richards: I hope Mick should get the whole thing. I’m trying to keep all the separate things together so that by the time it gets to the front of the stage and out into the audience, it’s jelled together.
High Times: Is the guitar an instrument you can get further and further into?
Richards: I think most guitar players feel that they’re always still learning. Nobody ever feels that they’ve reached anywhere near covering the whole thing. It’s still coming up with surprises. Although that’s not the most important thing to me.
It’s never been a function in our band to do one thing or another. We’re all doing all of it, you know. That’s what happens and that’s what interests me about it, it’s not who’s playing virtuoso. I’m interested in what people can do in terms of an overall sound and the intensity of it that can be done on that level. I mean, five people produce one thing out of five separate things going on. After all, what’s the point of dissecting everything and putting parts under a microscope and ignoring the rest?
High Times: Do you get very high off the response to your records when they’re particularly effective in some way?
Richards: Yeah, sometimes, you try to, but it’s not always that immediate. You put a record out, and then you get the feeling everybody’s disappointed with it. Then two years later you bring another record out, and you suddenly realize that they’re all holding this other record up and saying, “If only it was as good as this one.” And I know it’s not because we’re ahead of our time, because that’s not ever what we’re trying to do.
It’s not avant-garde, no, that’s not it. It’s just that when you’ve been around as long as we have, people have got their own fixed idea of what they want from the Stones, and it’s never anything new. Even though they do really want it, they still compare it with this big moment in the back seat of a car 15 years ago, and it was never as good as then. There’s so much nostalgia connected with it that you can’t possibly fight, so you have to sometimes let the record seep into their lives, let them have a good time with it first.
A lot of the time with records it’s the experiences that people have been through while that record’s been playing that makes it special to them. “It’s our song, darling.” That sort of shit. And the longer you’ve been around the harder it is to fight that one, ’cos you got so much other stuff which is somebody else’s song, darling. And although they’re interested and they’ll buy the new record, it doesn’t mean as much to them as the one they heard that magical night when they screwed 15 chicks.
High Times: Do you think of songs as short stories?
Richards: Some of them. I mean, things like “Hand of Fate” particularly, we got into a story. Others are just connections, almost stream of consciousness. One line doesn’t really connect to what’s gone before. People say they write songs, but in a way you’re more the medium. I feel like all the songs in the world are just floating around; it’s just a matter of an antenna, of whatever you pick up.
So many uncanny things have happened. A whole song just appears from nowhere in five minutes, the whole structure, and you haven’t worked at all. You’re playing and you’re bored stiff and nothing’s happening, oh dear, and you go out and ’ave a joint or something and euhuh! There it is. It’s just like somebody tuned in the radio and you’ve picked it up.
Some people equate good work with being difficult to do, but a lot of the time it’s the easiest thing. It just sort of flashes by you so quick that people virtually tell you. You didn’t even see it yourself. “Satisfaction” was the biggest hit we’ve ever had, and it just came boing bang crash, and it was on tape before I felt it.
High Times: It’s obvious that everyone’s life is very much involved at this point with drugs and increasingly so, and it’s not going to get less…
Richards: Oh, no way, no.
High Times: It’s something that people have to talk about, it’s something we need to know more about. Do you have any advice you could give people who read High Times about the drug situation, generally speaking, in America?
Richards: I don’t think I’m in any position to give any advice, as such, but maybe just by talking about it we can make things a bit clearer. It’s interesting that they’re lightening up on the marijuana laws slowly, and it’s accelerating. I mean, since I’ve come to the states, New York is decriminalized, and once that sort of thing happens it snowballs. Already you hear talk of a commission looking into cocaine to give that a different status.
In a way I feel it’s all a bit of a game because there’s all this flimflam about decriminalization, which isn’t legalization, and eventually what it comes down to is money anyway. If they can figure out a way of taking it over and making bread out of it, it’ll be legal. The only reason methadone’s such a big deal in America is because a lot of people are making millions on it.
High Times: But why can’t they find a way at this point to make money out of grass and cocaine?
Richards: Because I think they realize that even if they sell 20 filtered Acapulco golds, real grass heads will still be buying their stash from the man who comes over the border with it under the floorboards of his truck. If you want good tobacco, you don’t buy Newports or Marlboros. You go to some little tobacco stall and choose your tobacco.
High Times: Then you think because of the quality differences, marijuana is a very hard thing to merchandise?
Richards: ’Oo knows? Let’s just say that I can’t see myself, or anybody that I know, preferring to buy a packet of prerolled marijuana cigarettes when I know that it’s going to be grade C.
High Times: But doesn’t it seem more and more necessary to recognize that the human being is a chemical machine?
Richards: Yes. I think that what we can really say is that anybody interested in drugs and wanting to take anything ought first to find out as much as they can about what it is that they’re taking, what it is that it does to them, in order that they can compensate as much as necessary for what it is they’re introducing into their systems. Even with grass, so many people don’t take the simplest precautions.
I think that, personally, it’s purely a matter of the person concerned. I mean, it’s like a good blowjob. You know, in some states that’s still illegal. It’s just a matter of how far people are prepared to put up with so-called authorities prying into their lives. If they really don’t want to accept it, then they’ll do something about it because there’ll be no way they can enforce it.
The other way, I think, is from the government. They ought to do a lot more about educating people about drugs, rather than just trying to scare people by keeping them in the dark about everything, including possible ways of getting off really heavy drugs, because it can be done perfectly painlessly. That isn’t the main problem. As they’ll all say, disintoxication is 5 percent of the battle; 95 percent is keeping them off anything when you send them back. But ‘ow do you know when all you’re doing is keeping them on methadone all the time? You don’t give them a chance that way.
High Times: Do you think alcohol addiction is as hard to kick as drug addiction?
Richards: Yes, I think so. All these things are very individual. One drug’ll have a different effect on one person than on someone else. I can booze for weeks and months and get lushed every night, and then, because I have a change of environment or whatever, I can stop and just not miss it. I just can’t stop smoking cigarettes for the life of me. I’m as addicted to that as the biggest junkie is addicted to heroin. But then, millions of us are. That’s something else.
Booze is something that I can take or leave, but it’s a poison. I do feel there’s that double standard that we all talk about. I consider booze to be far more harmful than any other available drug, far more damaging to the body, to the mind, to the person’s attitude. The way some people change on it is amazing, and then, goddammit, every morning when you wake up you’ve got a cold turkey whether you like it or not. You know, just because it’s called “the hangover”… It seems to me to be the most uneconomical and inconvenient high you could possibly have, ‘cos every morning you’ve got to pay for it. I mean, even a junkie doesn’t have to do that unless he decides to stop or runs out of stuff, but even if you’ve got bottles of booze in the morning, you’ve still got a hangover. And it just seems so vague putting yourself through those constant incredible changes. That’s what I think really does you with booze.
High Times: Do you pay a lot of attention to taking care of yourself physically, considering the amount of work you do?
Richards: I don’t pay that much attention to it, just because I’ve never had to. I’m very lucky in that everything’s always functioned perfectly, even under the most incredible strains and amounts of chemicals. But I think a lot of it is to do with a solid consciousness of it in a regulatory system that serves me. I never take too much of anything. I don’t go out for a big rush or complete obliteration. I sometimes find that I’ve been up five days, and I’ll collapse and just fall asleep. But that’s about the only thing that I do to myself, and I only do that because I find that I’m capable of doing it.
High Times: Have you read William Burroughs’ statement in Junky: “I think I am in better health now as a result of using junk at intervals than I would have been if I had never, been an addict.”?
Richards: Yeah. I agree with that. Actually, I once took that apomorphine cure that Burroughs swears by. Dr. Dent was dead, but his assistant, whom he trained, this lovely old dear called Smitty, who’s like mother hen, still runs the clinic. I had her down to my place for five days, and she just sort of comes in and says, “Here’s your shot, dear, there’s a good boy.” Or, “You’ve been a naughty boy, you’ve taken something, yes you have, I can tell.” But it’s a pretty medieval cure. You just vomit all the time.
High Times: What’s the new cure they’re working on in London at the moment?
Richards: There’s a Dr. Paterson who’s been working on an electro-acupuncture cure that she’s developed from a colleague in Hong Kong. Her husband was a Fleet Street journalist, a real hustler, so he figured they could market it. It’s a little box about six inches by two inches with two wires coming out. one on each side. You plug one of these wires into each ear and they put out a beat that you can regulate yourself. As long as the beat is going on, you don’t feel any pain. I had Dr. Paterson and her husband flown over from England, and they stayed with me during the cure. I kept this thing plugged in for 2 1/2 days. Anita and I did it together. You wake up in the morning and you feel all right. You can read a book, have a cup of tea. Things you could normally never do on first days getting off.
High Times: We live in a time where so much could be done medically to the system. With the correct medical information or supervision, we could take drugs all the time.
Richards: Look at the astronauts. I mean, they’re completely chemically regulated from the minute they start that thing until they come down. I think the sooner they realize that, they’re gonna have to take notice of it and they start learning and they start teaching people more about certain things… I don’t think any drug is harmful in itself. All of them have their uses and their good sides, so it’s the abuse of them and the fact that, because of their so-called illegality, one has to get them from dubious sources, so you never know what you’re actually getting. Maybe you’re getting what you’re after, but it’s mixed with strychnine, which has happened to several people I know.
High Times: Have you ever been in a dangerous situation with drugs?
Richards: No. I don’t know if I’ve been extremely lucky or if it’s that subconscious regulatory thing I’ve gotten, because I’m not extremely careful, but I’ve never turned blue in somebody else’s bathroom. I consider that the height of bad manners. I’ve ‘ad so many people do it to me and it’s really not on, as far as drug etiquette goes, to turn blue in somebody else’s john. You suddenly realize that somebody’s been in there for like an hour and you ‘aven’t ’eard a sound, and I think it’s such a drag, because I think it’s a drag when people do it to me, thumping on the door: “Are you all right?” “Yeah! I’m having a fucking crap!”
But people do do it. I mean, if somebody’s been in the john for hours and hours I’ll do it, and I know ‘ow annoying it is when I hear the voice comin’ out: “Yeah, I’m all right!” But sometimes I’m glad I’ve done it, because we’ve knocked the door down and there’s somebody going into the last stages of the colors of the rainbow and that’s really a drag. The ambulance comes and… clear everything up. Because you can’t pretend ’e’s just fallen ill or something.
High Times: Rock is like drugs in a way, because people listen to it to cure their pain. Rock music makes you feel good, brings you out of yourself under any circumstances at all.
Richards: It will do that for you in a way. Maybe why drugs are so associated with rock music is that the people who actually create the music no longer get that feeling from rock unless they’re actually playing it. I mean, they can’t put a record on and just feel good anymore because it’s just so much to do with part of their business. So you turn to other things to make yourself feel good. It’s a theory [laughing]… I don’t know. That’s my excuse, anyway.
High Times: But in a way, you’re addicted to the guitar, right?
Richards: Yeah. There’s another thing. Now maybe it’s because rock and roll’s such a tight formula. The most important thing is, because the formula is so strict, it’s the variations that come about within this format that are the things people turn onto. Because it’s the same old thing again, but there’s one or two slightly different ways of doing things that make one record stand out different from another. And it’s when you’re into it to that degree of trying to find…
High Times: How much do you think you keep being successful because you work so hard?
Richards: I think it’s probably got more to do with it than even we realize, because it’s very easy to be lazy when you don’t have to work. I’ve found it’s very dangerous for me to be lazy. I develop lots of nasty habits, which are not good for me, whereas if I keep working—and in a way it’s just like a compulsion—I’ll keep myself together. The minute I relax and let it go, I just sort of drift. I can drift into anything. I’m fair game!
High Times: Well, I know Mick is, but are the rest of the members of the band into working like that?
Richards: Yeah. Charlie loves to be at home, but that’s his own little battle, ’cos he also likes to work. If Charlie could find a way of being on the road every night, but also being at home, he’d do it. Ronnie lives for nothing but playing, and that’s the way Mick and I have always been. What we’ve got to push for now is a way to work regularly and to work a lot more varied venues in a lot more varied places, to get off the old warpath.
For instance, if they lay an American tour on us tomorrow, I can name 90 percent of the cities we’re gonna go to. Rock and roll tours don’t go to Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, North or South Dakota. They don’t exist as far as rock and roll’s concerned. But it can’t be that people in there are not interested. They’ve got radio stations, and the same records are number one. It comes down to the agents and promoters who are totally into country music in those areas. So the only people who go there are country musicians.
It’s amazing to me that in America, in this day and age, they can still keep these very rigid separate circuits. They are slowly breaking down, but I remember 10 or 12 years ago in America the black circuit was just totally separate. But the amazing one is the country music one, which is still rigidly separated from anything else. And for music which is in lots of ways so similar… when you come down to the basis of it and trace where it all comes from, one of the major influences on rock is white country music. That’s 50 percent of it. The other 50 percent is black music. And the fact that those two just… it’s apartheid, you know, so they’re not white, they’re rednecks.
High Times: Have you thought at all about doing a concert tour like Dylan’s Rolling Thunder? Is it totally impossible for you to do that still?
Richards: No. I think that’s the way things have really gotta go. I can’t see going around forever playing bigger and bigger baseball parks and superdomes. I think audiences have gone about as far as you can go with it. In fact, I think a lot of people probably don’t go because they just can’t stand to go to those places.
High Times: When you get off these exhausting tours, what do you do?
Richards: Aaaahhh, that is the weirdest time. Yeah.
High Times: It must be a real difficult transition.
Richards: That’s my problem period. If I don’t find something to do right away, that’s when I’ve found that I’ve been getting incredibly lazy, but also incredibly restless because you’re so used to being hyper every day, and suddenly you’ve got nothing to do and you think “aaah… nothing to do, great!” And you sit back for five minutes and then you say “Phew!” You’ve got nowhere to go, and you walk around the room ten times and it’s… it’s… WEIRD!
High Times: Do you hang around with each other or does the group completely separate?
Richards: These days everybody just fragments too, so suddenly you’re alone from all these people who you’ve been incredibly close to for two or three months. Sometimes Ronnie and I are with each other for five or six days on the trot. Other people have been to sleep six times and we’ve seen six dawns. You can’t even remember the last time you slept because you’ve got this memory…
It’s funny, you know, when you sleep everything is so neatly put into compartments of that day and that day, and I did that on that day, but if you stay up for five or six days the memory goes back into one long period with no breaks at all, and days don’t mean anything anymore. You just remember people or specific events.
High Times: If you all keep in good shape, do you think you have another 15 years?
Richards: Oh yeah. I hope so. There’s no way to tell. We know a lot of the old black boys have kept going forever. A lot of the old roots boys, the old blues players, and as far as we’re concerned they’re virtually playing the same thing. They kept going till the day they dropped. They still are. B. B. King’s close to 60. Jimmy Reed died last year, and he was going to the end. Chuck Berry’s still going. Muddy Waters just had one of his biggest albums ever. Howling Wolf kept going to the very end. Sleepy John just died last month; he was preparing to go on a European tour… I mean, Elvis was the one that I would have said, but he happened to have went early.
It’s a physical thing. There’s no denying that there’s a high fatality rate in rock and roll. Up until the middle Sixties the most obvious method of rock and roll death was chartered planes. Since then drugs have taken their toll, but all of the people that I ‘ave known that ‘ave died from so-called drug overdoses ‘ave all been people that’ve ‘ad some fairly serious physical weakness somewhere.
Brian was the only one amongst us who would ever get ill. He was the only one of us who missed some gigs because of health, and this was before he was involved with any drug at all, and a couple of other guys I’ve known that have died from overdoses weren’t particularly strong physically, and they probably went a lot quicker because of the fact that they were on drugs. But they’re not people who you would have said would have lasted forever anyway. Meaning, I guess, that a lot of the time drugs just accelerated what’s going to happen anyway.
High Times: At this point do you believe anything’s going to get better, or do you think the Stones might not be able to continue doing what they’ve been doing?
Richards: I can’t see any real obstacles in the way as long as the Stones don’t just sit on their asses, as long as we try and do things that we think are beneficial for all concerned.
High Times: So you don’t worry about members of the group getting fucked up?
Richards: No, not now…
High Times: I mean, you’ve survived so much.
Richards: Exactly. The thing is that whatever’s happened, nobody’s ever felt alone. If anything’s happened, somebody’s always rallied around, and not just the Stones. Friends, other bands, other musicians and just other people generally, people not connected with the music business, just friends and people we don’t even know, but you find they’ve been taking an interest in you. We all feel that as long as you don’t feel isolated and completely cut off from everything, you’re okay.
I feel very hopeful about the future. I find it all very enjoyable with a few peak surprises thrown in. Even being busted… it’s no pleasure, but it certainly isn’t boring. And I think boring is the worst thing of all, you know, anything but boring. At least it keeps you active.
High Times: Do you ever get worried that they’ll finally get you?
Richards: Well, if they haven’t done it by now, no. It must be fairly obvious to everybody now that they’ve ’ad a go with trying. If they try again, I don’t see any real way they can get away with it just because they have been trying to get me and it never works that way.