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Fresh Air's summer music interviews: Keith Richards

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we begin a weeklong series featuring a few of our favorite music interviews from our archive. Jay-Z, Lizzo, Rosanne Cash, Smokey Robinson and Pete Seeger are just some of the people in the series. To start it off, we have the interview I recorded with Keith Richards, a founding member of The Rolling Stones, who is still the band's guitarist. He co-wrote much of the Stones' classic repertoire with Mick Jagger, including "Satisfaction," "Let's Spend The Night Together," "Get Off My Cloud," "Gimme Shelter," "Sympathy For The Devil" and "Beast Of Burden." A four-part BBC series about the Stones, with each episode focused on a different member of the band, has been showing this month on Epix and is also streaming. I spoke with Keith Richards in 2010 after his autobiography, "Life," was published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Keith Richards, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. Now, I remember when The Stones started to record that in America, we were expected to pick a team. Who do you like best - The Stones or The Beatles?

KEITH RICHARDS: The competition thing, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And you write about, you know, when the Stones started getting going that you didn't want to copy The Beatles and you decided to be the anti-Beatles. So what did that mean in terms of your music and your image?

RICHARDS: You know, I think if you took an image wise, we probably did make a sort of decision to not be The Fab Four, I think. They were different. Basically, the differences between the bands - The Beatles were basically a vocal band, you know? They all sang. And one song, John would take the lead, another Paul, another George and sometimes Ringo, right? And our band's set up totally differently with one frontman, one lead singer, right? And what I loved about it was there's an incredible difference in that way between The Beatles and ourselves. But at the same time, we're there at the same time. And, you know, you're dealing with each other, you know. And it was a very, very fruitful and great relationship between The Stones and The Beatles. It was very, very friendly. The competition thing didn't come into it as far as we were concerned.

GROSS: You have a great story in your book about how you co-wrote - well, how you got "Satisfaction" started. You co-wrote the song with Mick Jagger, but you originated it and you didn't know you were doing it. Can you...

RICHARDS: I wish all the songs would come this way, you know, where you just dream them and then the next morning there they are presented to you. But "Satisfaction" was that sort of miracle that took place. I had a - I had one of the first little cassette players, you know, Norelco (inaudible) Philips - kind of the same thing, really. But it was a fascinating little machine to me, a cassette player, that you could actually just lay ideas down, you know, wherever you were. I set the machine up, and I put it in a fresh tape. I go to bed as usual with my guitar, and I wake up the next morning, I see that the tape has run to the very end. And I think, well, I didn't do anything, you know. I said, maybe I hit a button while I was asleep, you know? So I put it back to the beginning and pushed play. And there in some sort of ghostly version is (vocalizing) I can't get no satisfaction. And so there is a whole verse of it. I won't bother you with it all. And after that, there's - I don't know - 40 minutes of me snoring.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARDS: But there's the song in its embryo. And I actually dreamt the damn thing, you know? And I'm still waiting for another dream.

GROSS: Now, how did the line I can't get no satisfaction come to you at a time when you should have been having a lot of very satisfying, gratifying moments?

RICHARDS: Darling, I don't know. I dreamt it.

GROSS: No, true. OK.

RICHARDS: I mean, nobody's ever satisfied, right? And it was just a phrase that obviously, you know, was buzzing through the mind and whether you could express anything or enlarge on the idea of - because otherwise I can't go - satisfaction is kind of, you know, sort of moaning. But if - then you can take it and expand it, which Mick did brilliantly. You know, there it is. These things are all made out of just little sparks of ideas that come to you, and you're lucky to be around to grab them. And that's kind of basically the process of how we work.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear "Satisfaction." This is The Rolling Stones. My guest is Keith Richards, and he's written a new autobiography called "Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(I CAN'T GET NO) SATISFACTION")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I can't get no satisfaction. I can't get no satisfaction. 'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try. I can't go no, I can't get no - when I'm driving in my car, when a man comes on the radio, he's telling me more and more about some useless information supposed to fire my imagination. I can't get no, oh, no, no, no. Hey. Hey. Hey. That's what I say.

GROSS: That's The Rolling Stones. And my guest is Keith Richards, and he's written his autobiography. It's called "Life." Now, that cassette that you mentioned that you used to write down the idea for "Satisfaction" in the middle of the night that so surprised you when you played it back in the morning, that cassette or one just like it was also really helpful to you in coming up with a kind of transformative guitar sound. Would you describe how you would plug your acoustic guitar in motel rooms into the cassette machine?

RICHARDS: I'll try. Yeah. No, that's a good question. Yeah, I'll try. Because there I am - I now have my hands on the best amplifiers in the world and the best guitars. But I'm trying to translate another sound in my head that I can't find through conventional means. I was at the time - I always play a lot of acoustic guitar, and the cassette machine in those days before they had things on them called governors, which means that you could not overload the machinery, I would just shove the acoustic guitar and use basically - I would use the cassette player as an amplifier, basically, and overload the acoustic guitar so it becomes an electric guitar. But at the same time, you see; you still have that feel of an acoustic, which is totally different to an electric. So - and I'm still looking for the perfect example of this, but I'm going to keep going.

GROSS: So what you would get is, like, an electrified acoustic guitar that was also distorted.

RICHARDS: Yeah. Exactly. You got it, Terry. You got it. That's it. I was trying to get the quality and the touch that you can get from an acoustic guitar and then overload it and make it sound like an electric guitar. But at the same time, you have that original acoustic touch because - you know, this gets complicated because guitars are strange animals (laughter). And - but there's a touch that you can get off an acoustic guitar that you'll never get off an electric. And so I was trying to figure how to electrify the acoustic feel and still translate it. And so that was the name of the game. That was it.

GROSS: Now, it was surprising enough to me to read how you did this in your motel room. But then, reading how you did it also in the recording studio was fascinating. They - you wanted that sound so much that you brought in...

RICHARDS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The cassette machine and plugged your acoustic guitar into it.

RICHARDS: Yes. I took these ideas, and we - the Stones were in the studio. And we were all looking at it. And then - it doesn't have what you had on the - you know, on the original idea. And so finally, after many attempts to try and reproduce this sort of idea, you know, with amplifiers and, you know, conventionally - I think it was Charlie Watts maybe who (inaudible), but let's go back, you know, to how you did it in the first place and work it from there, you know, which is why you got "Street Fighting Man" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash," is there are no electric guitars at all. It's just overloaded acoustics. And I don't know. I like that denseness of color or feel that you can get out of that. And it's an experiment I might take up again once they start making cassette machines again.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So do you think "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was a good illustration of what you were doing?

RICHARDS: Yeah. Yeah, and "Street Fighting Man" is probably another great example of it. The...

GROSS: Which one would you rather hear?

RICHARDS: I love them both, honey. Don't ask me to cut the babies in half.

GROSS: All right. So we'll go with "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

RICHARDS: Yeah. Go there. All right, yeah.

GROSS: So here's the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and my guest, Keith Richards, playing the kind of plugged-into-the-cassette-machine guitar that he was just describing. And he has an autobiography called "Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUMPIN' JACK FLASH")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) One, two. I was born in a crossfire hurricane. And I howled at the morning driving rain. But it's all right now. In fact, it's a gas. But it's all right. I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash. It's a gas, gas, gas.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Rolling Stones guitarist, Keith Richards, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones guitarist who co-wrote many of the songs in the Stones repertoire with Mick Jagger. I spoke with him in 2010.

Then there are the songs that you describe as anti-girl songs that the Stones did like "Stupid Girl," "Under My Thumb," "Out Of Time," "Yesterday's Papers." And this is where I've been so ambivalent about some of the Stones' songs like "Under My Thumb." "Under My Thumb" is so catchy. I mean, I think it's just, like, irresistibly irresistible what's going on, like, melodically and rhythmically in there. And then, you know, I catch myself singing along, and what am I singing? You know, like, about this girl who's, like...

RICHARDS: You know, I just got - it's...

GROSS: ...Under his thumb. And so anyways, were you ever ambivalent about the...

RICHARDS: Let me try and break in here, Terry.

GROSS: Go ahead. Thank you.

RICHARDS: Let me break in here...

GROSS: Yeah.

RICHARDS: ...And say, you can take it as a, you know, male-female, if you'd like. Or it's just people. I mean, it could be about a guy. It could have been - you know, this is just a guy singing, you know, that probably, you're actually under her thumb and you're just trying to fight back. You know, and these are all - these are relationships and stuff. And I wouldn't take it as a - as any, you know, sexism. You know, I can't even go there, you know, where I don't think about it. I just think, you know, we know what some people are like, and then, those things happen. And anyway, I didn't write the lyrics.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Cut to the chase.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Off the hook (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER MY THUMB")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Under my thumb, the girl who once had me down. Under my thumb, the girl who once pushed me around. It's down to me. The difference in the clothes she wears, down to me. The change has come. She's under my thumb. And ain't it the truth, babe? Under my thumb, it's a squirming dog who's just had her day. Under my thumb, a girl who has just changed her ways. It's the way she does just what she's told down to me. The change has come. She's under my thumb. Say, it's all right - under my thumb.

GROSS: Let me ask you about your relationship with Mick Jagger. You grew up in the same neighborhood. You've known him since you were a boy. You were obviously very close for a long period of time, co-wrote so many songs together. But at the same time, you write about how...

RICHARDS: Hey; there’s problems down the road, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, about how in the beginning of the ‘80s...

RICHARDS: Let me preempt you (laughter).

GROSS: Yes, go ahead. Go ahead.

RICHARDS: You know, I mean, do you think in a 50-year relationship doing this stuff that there's not going to be some conflict, some disagreements? Of course there's going to be…

GROSS: But you describe him as having become unbearable in the early '80s. What...

RICHARDS: At times, yes. So am I.

GROSS: What made him unbearable in those times?

RICHARDS: Attitude, you know? It's all in the book. And I don't want to expand on it with you, Terry. What I’ve said is in the book. I - you know, I can't say anything more than that. I don't wish to.

GROSS: But let me quote something that you say in the book. And this was - you write how, you know, in the early '80s - this is right after you had kicked heroin. And you said, (reading) Mick seemed to like one side of me being a junkie, the one that kept me from interfering in day-to-day business. And you say that after you kicked, you wanted a more active say in what the band did. But apparently, Mick Jagger didn't really want you to have one? Do I read that right?

RICHARDS: Yeah, you know, he got used to holding the reins. And that became - that was a bit of a shock to me at the time, but I lived with it. And anyway, we, you know - actually, what happened is that we ended up sharing the reins again. But at the time, yeah, that did shock me - or disappointed me, I’d say. I mean, shock I'm beyond, you know? But - and I’d leave it at that, quite honestly. It was a bit of a surprise to me at the time. And also - but it gave me more of an insight into Mick himself, you know? I said, hey; man, you know? All right. Go for it, you know? (Laughter) I mean, it's only rock 'n' roll, honey.

GROSS: So just one more question about this, which is when you were performing onstage together during this period of great friction, do you feel it onstage? Did you try to prevent the audience from feeling that friction?

RICHARDS: No, get out of here. This is a bunch of guys that have been together for yonks, you know? I mean, you don't carry stuff like this onto stage. These are things that just happen. And you deal with them. And you get it over with, you know? Forget about it. It's - I mean, this is not some angst or big deal, you know? You know, of course, guys have fights. Brothers have fights all the time. That's what it's all about. It's - you know, to pick one thing out and say, like, oh, there's a festering wound, what rubbish. No, you know? We're brothers. We get along. And we fight sometimes. And I don't think I can express it any better than that.

GROSS: So I'm going to play "Beast Of Burden." Do you want to say anything about writing it or what you're playing on it?

RICHARDS: No, I loved it. Just another one that came very natural, sitting around with Mick and then (snapping) here's one. And Mick - see; I write songs for Mick to sing, you know? That's what I do. I mean, you don't get "Midnight Ramblers” out of nowhere. You don't get "Gimme Shelters" out of nowhere. I'm writing for this - I say, man, I know this guy can handle this. And nobody will ever be able to handle it any other way. What I do is write songs for Mick to sing. And if he picks up on it, baby, we got, you know? If he doesn't, I'll just let it sit on the shelf.

GROSS: What are the qualities in his voice and in his personality that you feel you're writing for?

RICHARDS: He's an outstanding performer. Hey; you're talking about a mixture of James Brown and Maria Callas, here, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARDS: I got you.

GROSS: That's good.

RICHARDS: Yeah. And to have to work with such an outsized personality, ego and say, hey; whatever it takes, it’s there and you’ve got to - you know, and you’ve got to go for it. And sometimes it doesn't work, and a lot of times it does. And so you just keep on pushing, you know?

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure. And, you know, all best to you. Thank you very much.

RICHARDS: Hey, Terry. Thanks very much. Good try, honey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAST OF BURDEN")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I'll never be your beast of burden. My back is broad, but it's hurting. All I want is for you to make love to me.

GROSS: My interview with Keith Richards was recorded in 2010 after the publication of his autobiography, "Life." We're going to take a short break. And then we'll listen back to my interview with another great rock guitarist, Brian May, a founding member of the band Queen. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAST OF BURDEN")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough? I'm not too blind to see. I'll never be your beast of burden. So let's go home and draw the curtains. Music on the radio - come on, baby. Make sweet love to me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.