As the Rolling Stones prepare to bring their 50th anniversary celebrations to Auckland, guitarist Keith Richards talks to Graham Reid.

A few minutes before the appointed time the phone rings and a scratchy voice wheezes, "Hello man, s'Keith".

And it is. No intermediary, no international call connection through a third party, just Keith Richards laughing down the line. Which is unexpected in a world where stars have minions to connect calls (and sometimes listening, in case things get "awkward" for their client) but even more so in this case. Because Richards' people asked for written questions in advance, which is unusual, and then came back with them modified.

Watch Keith Richards' message to New Zealand fans:

The Rolling Stones are coming back to New Zealand for one show in April. Keith Richards has a message for fans.

My guess is Richards never saw any of that because - as when he spoke to TimeOut in 2006 before the last Rolling Stones tour - he's his customary jocular self, although nothing much is revealed. And you wonder if he realises how far 2013 has ticked down when saying he and Mick Jagger have spoken about getting back into the studio "this year".


But here they come again, 50 years after Richards, Jagger and others formed around Brian Jones as the Rollin' Stones. And, on the evidence of the DVD film Sweet Summer Sun of their Hyde Park concerts in July, thoroughly enjoying themselves.

"Glastonbury and the Hyde Parks were amazing," Richards says enthusiastically "and we were blessed with good weather, which is rare in Britain. The whole year has been great and we played in America before that, so the reason we're coming over your way is everyone is still up and saying, 'Let's do some more'. So it was, 'Okay, let's go Downunder'."

Richards, who turns 70 this month, says he never doubted they would do more shows, it was just finding everyone in the right mood at the same time: "I'm always up for it, they can count on me," he cackles in that throaty, dry laugh.

Although not given to reflection, and having told his story in the 2010 autobiography, Life, Richards does remember when he thought the young Stones had a shot at making it.

"The first time was when I got into a recording studio [in 1963], that was like entering the portals of heaven and it grew from there. But after Satisfaction [in 1965] we all felt we had a chance of a career."

Although there was no career path for young bands such as them or the Beatles?

"Just winging it, and making it look like you knew what you were doing. That includes everybody, like promoters. It was all unmapped and you made it up as you went along."

And looking at documentary footage of their chaotic early shows or the disastrous Altamont festival in 1969 where fans, Hells Angels and even a dog were on the stage reminds you how disorganised rock'n'roll used to be.


"Ramshackle, man. That [Altamont] show was thrown together by the Grateful Dead because we had no experience of that and it was their speciality. So we arrived and thought, 'This is the way it's done'."

But would never be done that way again?

"Oh no, I draw a line there, man."

So much history with the Stones: headlines, heroin, death and yet survival against the odds. And, lest we forget, great songs coming right up to their recent Doom and Gloom, the first Jagger-Richards composition in a decade.

Do he and Mick just not cross paths often enough to write?

"We absolutely do. We always have some work on the go and it's about getting off the hiatus and back in the studio. I think we have plans. Don't nail me down, but I got a call from Mick the other day saying sometime this year we better get in the studio.

"When Mick and I are on the road we put ideas together and one thing leads to another. Playing live gives songwriting and recording more impetus, so I'm hoping we can come out with something great over the next few months."

For their anniversary the Stones have also brought back guitarist Mick Taylor - coming to New Zealand with them - who joined them at their first Hyde Park concert in 1969 - replacing Jones who had died just days before - and was in the band for five years.

"Everyone was going on about the 50th anniversary and we thought, 'Well, there's still a couple of Stones around who might want to join in'. [Former bassist] Bill Wyman did some gigs in London along with Mick Taylor, but dropped out because he doesn't like flying. So we said to Mick, 'Do you want to continue?' and he said, 'Yeah'.

"Ronnie [Wood] and I have a great time because now there are three guitars and that gives us a bit more room to manoeuvre, that's much more fun."

But makes the ancient art of weaving, as you refer to it, a bit more complex?

"A little more embroidery."

Where once audiences would come on the basis of the Stones' notoriety, today they capture a broad demographic drawn more for the music and sense of the event.

"Yes, it's weird because, once again, no one has been here this long in a rock 'n' roll band. I think we just carried the generation along with us and some of the younger ones still pick it up. It's hard to put your finger on it.

"You expect to be rejected by the next generation because that's what they do. But there seems to be some thread in what we do that busts through all that, and thank God it's a long piece of string."

Richards says if he were to point to any album to explain the Stones he'd pick Exile on Main Street ("because it's a double album so there's more range on it"), which is hardly surprising given he largely helmed it at his tax-exile haven in the south of France as the increasingly damaged 60s turned into the seedy 70s.

Although he rarely listens to Stones' songs ("on radio, by accident"), when they reconvene they often go back to their vast catalogue "to find out how we originally played it, and to pick the essence out of it. We do quite a bit of research on ourselves when we're rehearsing."

Any career advice to young musicians from a man who never planned a career? "Perseverance. If you really want to do it and you hit brick walls, just dust yourself off and keep going."

As he has done, even after that holiday in Fiji in 2006 when he slipped from a tree just days after the Auckland concert.

"And I came right back to Auckland. Dr Andrew Law saved my bacon."

It seems opportune to mention that when he was having neurosurgery I was asked to write his obituary, just in case.

He laughs again - "put that on the backburner for a while" - and I tell him I quoted Charlie Watts, who once said, "There's something about music that likes being around Keith."

"Oh, bless him. I'll wear it like a cloak."

Who: Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
What: The Rolling Stones play Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday, April 5
Tickets: Presale 2pm Monday, Dec 9 to 2pm Tuesday, Dec 10 via; general from 9am Monday, Dec 16 from Ticketmaster

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- TimeOut