A Pleasant Afternoon with Keith Richards

If Keith Richards had been a sounder sleeper,
perhaps his greatest hit would never have
been written. Similarly, if he’d been a just
a regular mortal leafing through that magazine
a couple of years later, perhaps he might have
missed one of his finest titles. But the success
of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” transformed him
from a mere world class guitarist into a true songwriter.

“I remember after ‘Satisfaction’ got to number
one–bang bang at the door. Where’s the follow
up?” he recalled. “I mean every twelve weeks
you had to have another one ready. The minute
you put out a single, you had to start working
your butt off on the next one, and the bigger
the hit, the more pressure there was on the
follow-up. But it was an incredibly good school
for songwriting in that you couldn’t piss around
for months and months agonizing about the
deeper meaning of this or that. No matter what
you were doing, like touring and recording, you
had to make damn sure you didn’t let up on the
writing. It made you want to search around and
listen for ideas. It made you very aware of what
was going on around you, because you were
looking for a song. It might come in a coffee
shop, or it might come on the street, or in a
cab. You get a heightened awareness. You listen
to what people say. You might hear a phrase at
a bus stop. Instead of accepting life, you start
to observe it. You become an outsider rather
than a participant. You’re listening for it every
moment, and anything could be a song; and if
you don’t have one you’re up the creek without
a paddle. For instance, with ‘Ruby Tuesday’ I
saw this picture in some fashion magazine that a
chick had lying around her apartment. It was this
great ad for jewelry-rubies. Also, it happened to
be Tuesday. So she became Ruby Tuesday. I was
just lucky it wasn’t Thursday, I guess.”

As the ‘60s turned the corner and Bob Dylan
and The Beatles led the way from Tin Pan
Alley fluff into something harder and heavier,
Richards and his lead singer collaborator
also needed to up the ante. “I’d say Lennon
definitely felt a strong urge not so much to
compete with Dylan,” Keith surmised, “but Bob
did spur him to realize he could dig deeper.
Mick and I felt that, too, although maybe we
didn’t feel it as strongly as John. The differences
between John and Paul were always greater
than between Mick and myself.” Keith cited
“Symphony for the Devil” as the Stones’ most
Dylanesque song. But his description revealed
how Richards influenced Jagger just as much
as Dylan did. “Mick wrote it almost as a Dylan
song; but it ended up a rock ‘n’ roll Samba.”

“Sympathy for the Devil,” was just one of
a number of songs the pair wrote, including
“Mother’s Little Helper,” “19th Nervous
Breakdown,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Gimme
Shelter,” and “Street Fighting Man” that gave
the band a much darker reputation than their
immediate peers. To some extent Keith said this
was a media creation. “You use every available
tool in the kit. You get a general feel for what
people want to hear from you and when you’re
good at providing it and they like it–oh, you
want more? Here’s more. And I’d just come up
with a line or a song and lean on it, push it, go
for it. Nobody writes a song or makes a record
to put it in a back drawer.”

Eventually the songwriter returned to his
roots as a guitarist. “To me, songs come
out of being a musician. Playing. I cannot write
to poetry, rhymed couplets, and things like that.
I can write a song out of a chord sequence, a
riff, and eventually come up with lyrics to fit
onto it. But the other way around – no way. I
don’t write songs as a diary. None of them are
autobiographical, but in some sense they’re
a reaction to certain emotions. Some of the
happiest ditties I’ve written come out because
you’re feeling exactly the opposite and you write
to counteract that feeling. I was feeling
anything but happy when I wrote ‘Happy.’
I wrote ‘Happy’ to make sure there was a
feeling like that.

“The important thing to me is to sit
down with an instrument. You might
spend three or four hours going through
the Buddy Holly songbook and then out
of nowhere there’ll be a little crash, and
there it goes. All it takes is a split second.
It might be an accident – a mistake that
sets you off. It’s a matter of sitting down
and playing more than with any definite
intention to write. All you’ve got to do
is be receptive and recognize it when it
happens, because it can come from the
weirdest angles. Rarely do I write a song
totally by myself. Even if I actually do
write it by myself, I always like to have
someone around playing along with me
going, yeah, yeah. I’m a band man – a
group man. I can’t sit there alone in a
room and say, it’s songwriting time –
ding, ding, ding! I work best when the sun
goes down. I’ve eaten, had a few drinks,
and I’ve got some good buddies around. I
love sitting around with an acoustic guitar
and whacking out songs with friends and
family. Somehow they never sound as
good as they do that first night on the
living room couch.”

Keith works differently with Ronnie
Wood than he does with Jagger. “When
Ron and I sit down together to play we’re
two guitarists. Whereas with Mick and
I there’s maybe more of an idea in our
heads that what we’re after is a song at
the end of what we’re doing. When Mick
comes in with a song, usually he’s got it
worked out pretty much. He may need
a bridge to be written, or a different
beat, or to turn it around a little bit. Over
our whole period, maybe 50% of the
time he writes the lyrics and I write the
melody. But that’s a far, far too simplistic
explanation. We write in every conceivable
combination of ways. It’s really an
incredibly elastic arrangement – especially
when you’re writing with a partner for
a band, a specific unit, rather than just
writing a song to see who you could sell
it to. Some songs hang out for years before we
feel happy with them and resurrect them and
finish them off. Others, in two takes they’ve
come and gone and you’ve got to relearn it off
your own record to play it later. Lots of times
you think you’ve written four different songs
and you take them to the studio and you realize
they’re just variations on one song.

“When we’re doing an album I come in with a
handful of riffs and some songs. One or two will
be fairly well-defined. Others, it would be – this
could be dynamite for the Stones, but I have
to wait until we all get together in the studio to
find out. I can’t take it any farther by myself as
a song, or a structure, or an idea until I’ve got
their input. If there’s no kiss of life, if everybody
walks off to the toilet, then you know you’ve
got to drop that one and go on to something
else. But when you just sort of pick up your
guitar when the studio is virtually empty, people
are telling jokes in the back room or playing
dominoes, and then within two or three minutes
they drift back, pick up their instruments, and
begin whacking away, you know they’re into it.”

From his years dedicated to the craft, Keith
has come to view the songwriting experience
as somewhat metaphysical, though he’d be the
last to put it that way. “I never care if I have
anything down on tape, or if the tape runs out
and the song disappears, ’cause they all come
back eventually. I’ve written songs and lost
them and found them ten years later. Once it’s
there, it’s there. It’s just a matter of how long
it takes before it comes back out again. I find
the more I play, the more I’m into it, the songs
pour out. I don’t have a problem with being
non-prolific. That’s all psychosomatic. Music
isn’t something to think about – at least initially.
Eventually it’s got to cover the spectrum, but
especially with rock ‘n’ roll, first it has to touch
you somewhere else. It could be the groin; it
could be the heart; it could be the guts; it could
be the toes. It’ll get to the brain eventually. The
last thing I’m thinking about is the brain.”

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