Playing Air Guitar With Keith Richards
It Was a Pretty Good Afternoon, Bourbon Included
After I wrote about my sober epiphany in 2010, I heard privately from many people I respect and admire who struggle with the same malady. It is heartening that opening up about alcoholism helped others. That is the point of recovery, the one most effective way to avoid relapse: Help others.
But there is one often heard assertion in recovery that still makes me roll my eyes. That's when people say: "My worst day sober is better than my best day drinking." And I'm saying to myself, What? You must have been doing it wrong! Were you a sommelier in training who learned to smell, swirl, and spit out the wine?
Then again, most people don't get to spend an afternoon drinking a bottle of bourbon with Keith Richards, which concluded with the two of us playing air guitar together. That was a wonderful day.
I spent a lot of time interviewing Keith in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, starting with a Manhattan hotel interview to promote the Stones' 1982 concert film Let's Spend the Night Together. Without prompting, though, Keith went into an extended explication of his heroin addiction for many years leading up to 1977, the year when Canadian police searched his Toronto hotel room and found enough smack to potentially charge him with heroin trafficking. The first mention of Keith in my story was "sipping a bourbon and ginger ale," and that's the way it always was. For the next ones, I was an active participant, four interviews in about five years.
In 1987, it was for his galvanizing presence as musical director and band leader, for director Taylor Hackford's Chuck Berry 60th birthday anniversary concert and documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock N' Roll. Keith's first solo album, Talk is Cheap, followed in 1988. We met in Los Angeles, since there was a gala release party where tout le frickin' monde of Keith's acolytes, including Slash from Guns N' Roses, members of Ratt, Faster Pussycat, and about 500 big-haired beauties attended. Still, it was nothing like the open casting call for a David Lee Roth video I attended at a club one Saturday morning in L.A., where the contestants wore as little as possible, bikinis and lingerie and high heels, and one walking around totally naked. I was there, with my pen and notebook. I had learned to maintain eye contact with those I interviewed. But speaking to this woman, I was not sure where to look, or not look, so I mostly looked at my notebook while trying to stretch out the interview, for which I had no questions except for "did you take 'Sunset Strip' literally" and "where are your clothes?" as long as possible.
In 1989, the Stones were back together for the Steel Wheels album and tour, for which I went to Birmingham, Alabama, to interview Keith before the show hit New York, and we got together again in 1992 to talk about his second solo album with the X-Pensive Winos, Main Offender.
What made the Keith interviews so enjoyable is that he does not deal in packaged quotes or rehearsed, boring answers. He is always attentive, intuitive, and thorough. He is also a kind person. He knows he is Keith and you are not, but for a star of his magnitude, he does not hold that against you, as another Rolling Stone might. In one interview, we warmed up by talking about our kids, and I told him I was a divorced dad with a five or six year old daughter. A year later, Keith asked: "How's your daughter?" Most people in show business would not remember I had a daughter 15 minutes after the interview ended.
Then there was the social lubricant: the bourbon, usually Maker's Mark, but occasionally Rebel Yell, a regional taste whose brand grew exponentially when Stanley Booth or Robert Palmer or one of those writers who spent time in the South with Keith, mentioned it in a story in Rolling Stone. If Prohibition were still in effect, I could have been risking jail time when I flew to interview Keith in Los Angeles for the Talk is Cheap release, a bottle of Rebel Yell for him in my suitcase. As our interview was at noon at the Mondrian in West Hollywood, we just enjoyed a social sip. Which I suspect from reading recent more recent interviews in the UK music press that Keith has cut down his imbibing quite a bit: I've read of ceremonial toasts at the end of the press sessions, nothing like our full-bottle spread over hours like our head-to-head for Hail! Hail! Rock N' Roll, on an afternoon in New York at the office of his manager, Jane Rose. She was kind enough to book our meeting on an afternoon on which Keith had no other appointments; it went on for a few hours.
The movie was not quite finished, and had not been synched with the music. A few days before the interview, I was shown a cut of the movie so I would understand the gist of the thing, how mercurial Chuck Berry was, the emotional extremes that Keith must have gone through with his often unappreciative guitar idol. There were plenty of questions about the new project, and Berry's influence on the Stones, and Keith's disappointment with Mick and his solo albums (in 1987 he released Primitive Cool, two years after She's the Boss, derailing Stones touring and recording plans, in Keith's view). After a few hours we were just really drinking and hanging out, everything about the Chuck Berry movie covered, so he asked: "Would you like to hear some rough mixes?"
We both stood up, probably to see if we could stand up (mission accomplished). Keith put on a cassette tape of these new versions of Chuck Berry songs, and we both stood next to the audio deck, instinctively playing air guitar together. You won't be surprised to learn that Keith was the superior air guitar player, but I did my best to maintain some sort of rhythm.
When I teach Craft of Interviewing at St. John's, I talk about what the rules of engagement should be when it comes to drinking or other forms of indulgence with an interview subject should be. First, you've got to be stone cold sober when you walk in the room. Clear eyed and clear headed. If in a restaurant, where the question is especially germane, you wait to hear what your subject orders. If Steve Martin wants a glass of wine with lunch at a French restaurant on Madison Avenue, you may order a glass of wine. But don't order whiskey and a beer. Stay level. Once, as a favor to a publicist, I agreed to have a drink with the singer of an Ohio biker band that was third on the bill at the Palladium on East Fourteenth Street. We went into a dive bar around the corner, and he told the bartender: "Gimme the worst bourbon you got." Looking at the mid and top shelf, I realized that even the best bourbon in this joint would not pass FDA approval for use on humans, so I ordered a beer. Bottled.
I say you don't have to take anything, while expressing regret that I turned down a joint from Bob Marley when I was a rookie reporter for the Village Voice. It was 10 am at his manager's suite at the New York Hilton in 1973. This was when Marley and the Wailers were making their New York debut, opening for Bruce Springsteen for five nights in July 1973 at Max's Kansas City. I was standing next to the bass amp at the show the night before the interview and I could not hear anything the next morning. I could hardly understand Marley anyway because of his heavy patois. Reggae lingo and Rastafarian theology were still new in the U.S., the references to "I and I" and what "jah" say a total mystery. When Marley lit a giant spliff and offered it to me, I said, no thanks. He said, "you no smoke?" And then I said these words, that made me feel like the dweebiest suburban loser to ever appear in a John Hughes movie.
"Oh, no, man, I smoke! Just not now."
My lesson to my students was that I was trying to act like a professional journalist, that I was trying to maintain some distance. Marley was unforgiving in mocking my refusal of the sacramental herb.
"You smoke, but not now? When do you smoke? Yah, you smoke, not now?" Marley was scornful. I tried to become invisible, but it did not work. I was 23, though; I already knew that once I started, I wouldn't be able to stop; I'd have to stay high all day. Which of course would not have been the worst thing to happen. I'd done it before. I did not know then that the offer to smoke with Marley was like being given the chance to get in the ring with Muhammad Ali, having him not just explain, but demonstrate, what it was like to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. "I'm gonna stand here, Wayne, and you try to hit me," Ali might have said. "Go ahead . . . See, I'm gone before you lift your glove." It would have been like going to church with Elvis. Or playing air guitar with Keith Richards.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.