Keith Richards on catching COVID: ‘I’m impervious ... like Donald Trump’
Keith Richards has been in the rock ’n’ roll business long enough to recognize hype.
On the phone the other day from a recording studio in New York, the 76-year-old Rolling Stones guitarist recalled the formation of a side project, the X-Pensive Winos, as a “pivotal moment” in his half-century-and-then-some career. Then he interrupted himself, chuckling in his signature pirate-like rasp.
“Hmm, pivotal? I’m not so sure,” he said. “But it was an important part of the development of … whatever.”
Richards has had time this year to ponder his journey while at home in Connecticut, where he rode out much of quarantine — “just ducking and diving, you know?” — with his wife, Patti Hansen, and their two adult daughters.
“It’s sort of interesting in that it ain’t happened to nobody before in the history of this planet,” he said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Weren’t we the lucky ones?”
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Yet he’s been thinking about the Winos in particular ahead of the deluxe Nov. 13 reissue of “Live at the Hollywood Palladium,” an oft-bootlegged concert set recorded in 1988. The Winos came together during what Richards has referred to as World War III in the Stones: the period between 1986’s “Dirty Work” and 1989’s “Steel Wheels” when Richards and Mick Jagger were famously fighting over the band’s direction.
Miffed that Jagger decided to make a solo album instead of touring behind “Dirty Work,” Richards cut his own solo record, “Talk Is Cheap,” then hit the road with the Winos, which convened a wrecking crew of top-notch players: drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Charley Drayton, keyboardist Ivan Neville, singer Sarah Dash and saxophonist Bobby Keys.
“Live at the Hollywood Palladium” captures the next-to-last gig of a brief U.S. tour and features impeccably ragged renditions of every song from “Talk Is Cheap” — including “You Don’t Move Me,” widely understood as a Jagger diss track — along with assorted Stones tunes such as “Happy” and “Before They Make Me Run.”
As Richards acknowledges, the music won’t make you forget about the Rolling Stones. Yet it does reveal the guitarist expanding his vocabulary with heavy grooves from funk and R&B; one highlight from the live album is a slow-and-low “Make No Mistake” that showcases sultry duet vocals by Dash, known for her work with Patti LaBelle.
“The last thing we wanted the Winos to sound like was a Stones cover band,” Jordan said in a separate phone call. And in an era when rock tours were super-sizing with ever flashier production tricks, “Hollywood Palladium” documents a sweaty night that was “just about the playing,” as the drummer put it.
“No trampolines, no laser lights,” he said.
This year the Stones were forced to call off just such a high-tech outing due to the pandemic. But after releasing a new single, the lockdown-minded “Living in a Ghost Town,” in April, the band has been slowly ramping up remote work on a new studio album, its first of original songs since “A Bigger Bang” in 2005. Richards, who’s been writing in New York with Jordan and producer Don Was, said it’s been “a bit of a relief to just do what you do.”
“I was expecting to be on the road,” he said. “You get all geared up for that, then — nope. So it’s like energy transference.”
Following their appearance at a Trump fundraiser in Orange County, the Mike Love-led (and Brian Wilson-absent) Beach Boys run through their hits in Ventura.
What’s the priority for the Stones: resuming the tour or making the album?
I think at the moment it probably has to be getting a record done, because I don’t see the possibility of people getting together in crowds in the foreseeable months. So I think we work on the record. We’re just trying to figure out how and when — the end of this year or January?
The reaction to “Ghost Town” was strong. The song went top 5 on Billboard’s rock chart.
It was a shot in the dark. We’d already recorded it almost a year before the pandemic, and we had it in the can along with several other tracks that we were working on. Eerily prophetic.
Your old friend Marianne Faithfull contracted COVID. Do you know how she’s doing?
Marianne, my babe. She’s good. You think I’m gonna be the one with the roaches? That’s Marianne. Made of stern stuff, that woman.
Have you feared catching it yourself?
I’m impervious. I’m like Donald Trump — immune [laughs]. Note the hollow laugh.
How closely have you been following the election?
Politics — I’ve seen too much of it to take much notice. Things can get a little hairy, but you’re talking to the exiles on Main Street, man. We got thrown out of our own country for being too successful. Any nutty thing you can dream up, there it is. It’s just another period now.
Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys have been bickering over Love’s support of Trump. Did the Stones ever fight about politics?
We have no political differences because we’re basically apolitical. We’re just making music; we don’t give a s— about the rest of the world. And I’m English and I’m living in America, so I’m not gonna squeak hardly. I’ll just squeak a little.
Are you a U.S. citizen?
Get the f— out of here. I have a passport that says U.K. But I think globally.
A citizen of the world.
They don’t have a passport for it yet.
So, the X-Pensive Winos. How’d you explain the concept when you called guys to ask them to be in the band?
We don’t do concepts; we don’t have plans. All we need is enthusiasm, and the rest will come.
If you were forming the band today, would you use the same name?
It was the X-Pensive Winos because they drank a whole crate of Lafite Rothschild that was sent to me. I had to leave ’em alone for one day, came back to the sessions and the whole g— case is gone. But I’d have given them another crate just to get the name.
At the top of the Palladium recording, you describe the stage as one you’ve been thrown off many times. Are you referring to when Chuck Berry booted you from playing with him in 1972?
Probably. But I only remember Chuck giving me a black eye in a dressing room — wasn’t onstage exactly. I was in Chuck’s dressing room — he’d gone out to deal with some business — and his guitar case was open. I just wanted to have a look, see what he was playing those days. I picked it up, he walked back in, saw me touching his guitar and biffed me. Quite rightly, I thought — ax players don’t do that to each other.
Why doesn’t a guitarist want somebody else to touch his guitar?
I don’t give a s— who touches mine, quite honestly. But some guys get fussy. Chuck was like that about many things, not just his guitar.
Eddie Van Halen died this month. Do you remember when Van Halen opened for the Stones in Florida in 1981?
I don’t remember a thing about Van Halen in those days. I appreciated the work later on and everything, but I’m not a virtuoso soloist. People that think the guitar player has to wail away somewhere on the top end — no. I’m a guitarist — I play chords, I play rhythm. I use the guitar to project a song. I’ve never been out there, like, Wally’s Whistling Saw, and everybody’s supposed to be impressed. I’m not impressed by that kind of guitar playing. You want to listen to a guitar player, listen to [Andrés] Segovia, for Christ’s sake. Or Django Reinhardt. The rock players, they’re good and they’ve all got their little thing going. But it’s never been my bag.
Do you think about playing in the Stones differently from playing in the Winos?
I just play Keith Richards. What I do appreciate is everyone that I’ve played with — from Brian Jones to Mick Taylor, Ronnie Wood, Waddy Wachtel and loads of others in between — how sympathetic they are to me. One guitar player don’t make it for me — I need two or three guitars weaving in and out of each other. That’s what gets me off. I’m not interested in listening to solos or anything like that. I’ve heard it all before, and it’s a variation on a g—oddamn theme. What interests me is how two guitar players can play together — and how, with a bit of magic, they can sound like 15. It’s cheap at half the price.
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