A Strange Trip! Memories of Interviewing Keith Richards

"So, what was going to New York to interview Keith Richards like?" Read about the strange, sleepless, lonely world of the long-distance writing job. Spoiler alert! Not much about Keef himself here, that's all in the feature, just press trip weirdness and paranoia…

April 25, 2015. I’m on the 18th floor of a hotel looking out over New York at sunset. It’s not the skyline of picture postcards but the Lower East Side, a sea of ugly rusk-brown, high-rise tower blocks that stretches as far as the eye can see. Below at street-level is a basketball pitch surrounded by steel grilles, two intersecting avenues filled with cars, and a big red fire truck frantically honking its horn. I open the window a fraction and the air that rushes in is warm and smells of tarmac and garbage. It’s Monday; but technically it might also be Tuesday. I’ve been awake now for 48 hours and I’m definitely going a bit round the twist.

I’m here in NYC to interview Keith Richards, Rolling Stone and original rock'n'roll rebel. But I’m jet-lagged and on my own - no PR to hold my hand or oil the wheels - and feel jumpy about tomorrow. Presented with the infinite opportunities the New York outside my window presents, I do... precisely nothing. Until the job is done, I know I’m going to be a prisoner in this hotel room. Prisoner, jailer and spaced-out bag of nerves.

I open a bottle of Australian red wine and as it, and fatigue, take effect, I start to feel a bit trippy. I suddenly get an odd thrill from being here, on my own, invisible, untraceable (if I choose). I will be a figment of my own imagination until my meeting with Keith tomorrow, and I'm beginning to like it. It feels strangely cinematic, being here, alone in New York, like I'm a character in a film. I think of Edward Fox in The Day Of The Jackal, going through his meticulous preparations to kill De Gaulle. That’s me, I tell myself, a professional with a job to do. I don't need to go out and see the city. The thought makes me feel a bit better. And hey, isn't this what we always wanted? To be Warren Beatty in The Parallax View, the lone-wolf journalist on a mission? I take another sip of wine. This is exciting.

One of the oddest things about sleep-loss is simple arithmetic becomes almost impossible. It’s 8pm in New York, therefore it’s one in London. So I say to myself: if I work until 1am on more Keef prep – going over my notes, reading more old articles, playing Richards’ two previous solo albums again and again on YouTube - then it’ll be 6am on Tuesday in London. But thankfully it will still only be the early hours in New York City. Is that right? The building across the road has a huge clock face on the top, but it hasn't been adjusted for summertime, it's an hour out. Someone's messing with my mind. It could be me.

The Keith assignment has come at a tricky time, but then the great jobs always do. Today it’s Monday – or Tuesday? – and by Friday (or Thursday) I have to file a 10,000-word feature for Q magazine telling the story behind every single Joy Division song. The freelance life, as they say, is forever feast or famine. Last week I’d talked to Joy Division’s Peter Hook and Stephen Morris on the phone, and managed to transcribe both interviews in full. Over the weekend, by some miracle, I managed to write 5,000 half-decent words on the tracks up to Shadowplay, the first track on Unknown Pleasures.

It was 2am on Sunday night/Monday morning, when I hit that self-imposed 5,000-word goal. A taxi to take me to Heathrow was booked for 4.30am. I packed a small case for the Keith trip and lay down for an hour, but sleep was impossible. It was now dawning on me that tomorrow (or in New York the day after that) I was due to spend 90 minutes alone in the company of the man set to be MOJO’s September cover star: the legendary, decadent Rolling Stone with the sticky-out ears and throaty chuckle. The dandy who stole Anita Pallenberg from Brian Jones. The bloke who supposedly had a blood transfusion to get him clean (not true) and snorted his father’s ashes (apparently correct). Keef, the guitarist everyone who’s ever picked up the instrument wants to be.

I think more: It’ll be just me and him in a room, every music writer’s dream. I need to get some really good stuff from him - every writer’s worry. The alarm goes off and I say my goodbyes and throw the case in the back of the waiting cab.

At 6am, I arrive at Heathrow T5, with a pounding headache and patchy, sleepless vision, but nerve-ends tingling. Now I feel disorientating and adrift, like a character in a J.G. Ballard novel, the fluorescent lights blinding, the noise deafening when you stopped to listen, the gleaming duty free shops full of alien well-dressed people on the way to exotic, far-off places. Customs rigmarole awaits: shoes off, belt off, hat off, coins and wristwatch in hat, laptop in tray...

A journalist from a men’s magazine is travelling on the same plane as me, also to interview Keith. I’d met him a few days earlier at a private play-back of Keith’s new solo album, Cross Eyed Heart, the reason we're talking to him, at the Swiss Cottage office of the Stone's UK press representative, Barbara Charone. I bump into him almost immediately, say hello and suggest a breakfast pint (why not?) but he seems eager to be left alone. So I wait patiently for a gate to be announced, tea and a bagel, time dragging and speeding at the same time. Eventually I’m sitting on the plane.

I scan the seats: the other writer seems to have missed the flight – then it strikes me. Of course, he’s been booked into business class, lucky chap, that’s why he’s being so elusive. I’m in economy but who cares? I spend the whole eight-hour flight on my laptop, transcribing and editing the interviews for yet another feature due in this week – about guitarist Keith Levene’s short time in the fledgling Clash.

I drink two cups of white wine with each of two in-flight meals, but they have little effect. I don't talk to my next-seat neighbours. I've long stopped feeling tired and just feel slightly weird. At JFK, I run for Customs and get through border security remarkably quickly, within 30 minutes, a record. I then wait another 30 minutes or so for the other writer to emerge, as we’re booked into the same hotel, and so can share a cab into Manhattan. I phone his number but it goes through to voicemail. Maybe he wasn’t on the plane after all. I try again and he picks up. He says he’s ALREADY at the hotel and checking in!! He has a big story that’s due in this week too, and needs to get on with it. OK...

I really am on my own. I queue up for a fat yellow cab and ride into town. The driver is from Puerto Rico but, strangely, fervently follows Liverpool FC. He gives an eloquent account of their then manager Brendan Rodgers' pro and cons; I join in the conversation and try to enjoy it. It’s 4pm NYC time and bright and sunny; sleep won’t be for a while.

***

Now I’m in my hotel room. The sun is coming up: I wake up. It’s 7.30am. Whichever way you measure it, it’s definitely Tuesday. I pull back the curtains and look at the apartment building with the huge clock face on the roof that hasn’t been re-set to summertime. I see a large statue of a man waving. I stare at the clock trying to work out the real time back in the UK and give up. OK maybe it’s around noon in London. I’m still half-dressed, the state I was in when I dozed off.

I try to go back to sleep then remember that I have to meet Keith Richards after lunch. Keith bloody Richards. There’s the bottle of red wine, empty, and some cashew nuts on the table by the window, which I can reach from the bed. Notes and magazine articles are spread everywhere. I turn on the giant TV – Fox News, following the riots in Baltimore with endless but mesmerising repeats of helicopter shots of angry mobs looting a supermarket.

I pull myself together. I’m a bit spacy, but I’m the assassin, I tell myself, I’m Edward Fox in The Day Of The Jackal, I have a job to do. I suddenly feel very alone again – maybe no one knows I’m here, or cares. To sharpen myself up, I run through the Stones’ albums in chronological order. By the time I reach Between The Buttons my mind’s drifted off, worrying that I won’t be able to recall all the collaborators on Keef’s new album. So I test myself on that, saying them out loud to the room: Steve Jordan, Waddy Wachtel, Aaron Neville, Nora Jones, Larry Campbell the pedal steel player, the late Bobby Keys…

I’m hungry now, but don’t feel like eating. I shower and head down for an early breakfast anyway. The free breakfast is a small, bland parfait but the coffee (which I don’t usually drink) is bitter and strongly aromatic and gives me a boost. Like drinking diesel. Four hours to go. Shall I write some more Joy Division? No. That would feel wrong. Go for a walk? Maybe.. but no. I then remember that I have another urgent job to do – a 140-word review, OF ALL THINGS, Bill Wyman’s new solo album, which I’ve already played once and thought sounded like really a bad Ian Dury rip-off. Shall I play it again and make notes? No. That would feel even wrong-er.

So I log into Youtube on my laptop and watch Keef-related R&B and blues footage – Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, Big Bill Broonzy. I phone home to check I still exist. No one answers, so it’s entirely possible I don’t. Maybe I died in the night and I'm a ghost. I look at my notes again.

It’s now noon. I try to stand far enough away from the mirror in the coffin-sized bathroom to try to check what I look like. I look tired and puffy and crumpled and altogether a bit shit. I leave the hotel for the first time since I arrived here, walk 15 minutes to Uni-qlo on Broadway and buy an inexpensive dark blue cotton shirt. The weather’s crisp and sunny. I go back to the hotel and put the shirt on. I feel better. I check my assassin’s tools are in order – a small Olympus digital Dictaphone (check), fresh batteries (check), my notebook (check), a hardback copy of Keith’s book Life (check).

My phone rings with an NYC number – it’s Richards’ office. He won’t be there until 3pm. I casually say, “No worries!”, then stare yet again, spacily, at the clock across the road telling the wrong time, the brown high-rises and far-off bridges.

Finally, it’s time to go - 2.30pm NYC time, 7.30pm UK time, when people in the MOJO are getting home from the office. I walk out of the hotel and round the corner. An old black guy with a rakish gap in his teeth is setting up a stall on the street selling second-hand vinyl records. On the top of a pile is an early Everly Brothers compilation. I ask him to put it by for me. “You English?” he enquires brightly. “Yeah.” “Good choice!” He says he’ll keep it one side. I feel good. It’s an omen. Keith loves the Everlys. I think about buying it there and then and giving it to Keith as a gift. Then I think, Fuck it, he probably has all the Everlys records he’ll ever need. He’s Keith Richards, for chrissake.

For the first time since I was offered this assignment two weeks ago I feel excitement rather than anxiety. I’m ready.

***

Jane Rose, Keith’s manager and the woman who helped him through the extended cold turkey that was Richards’ late ’70s, keeps an office high above Broadway. When I finally knock on the door she ushers me in: she’s lovely, a friendly, warm, world-wise New Yorker.

The extraordinary encounter with Keith that followed is covered in detail my 5,000-words MOJO cover story, and it’s best to read about it there. http://www.mojo4music.com/21145/mojo-262-september-2015/

Suffice to say, Keith was a great interview, from his faintly comical presindential-style arrival to his theatrical departure. But there were certain nuances and protocols I didn’t have space to talk about, or weren't appropriate to mention. The rules of engagement, as originally set out to me by Barbara Charone (and no doubt coming from source via Jane Rose; the two New Yorkers are old friends), was to keepthe interview strictly to Keith’s new solo album and not to mention of his 2010 Life autobiography, in which he famously wrote that Mick Jagger had a tiny penis and was “unbearable”. Life, it seems, is now old history.

Of course, as everybody knows, keeping to that brief was never a reality, though to my utmost credit I managed for 20 minutes to keep the conversation rooted in the making of the Crosseyed Heart album, or thereabouts. But the truth was that Keith was disarmingly up for talking about anything. I mean, anything. It was like planning a bank job for weeks, only to find the vault open with note saying, “Please take all the money.” The problem for me, with 45 minutes of free-form chat now available, was where to stuff all the bank notes. And which particular safety deposit boxes to rob, to possibly extend an already over-extended metaphor too far.

The majority of our conversation is reproduced in the article, but we did deviate and talk about some other things. I told him about my granddad, a bus driver and odd-job man from Camden Town, who in the early ’70s retired to a council bungalow that virtually abutted Keith’s house at Redlands in West Wittering, the one famously raided in 1967 when Marianne Faithfull was there. Since Keith has tried to close the public footpath skirting the property, which I used to walk along as a kid, maybe mentioning that fact wasn’t a good idea.

We also talked for a good five minutes about Chuck Berry, and I hope one day Keith’s summation of the great man will one day make it into print.

Other details that didn’t make the piece include: Keith’s unnaturally brilliant white teeth; his physical smallness, rather upending the idea of him being a dangerous, pirate-y menace (though I’m sure he’s had his moments); and the fact that when he finishes each sentence he makes a long, gutteral noise like a sleeping giant exhaling.

At around 6pm, our chat ended (as the MOJO piece begins) with Richards’ remarkable act of violently smashing a bag of ice on the floor, as a prelude to fixing us both one of his famous ‘Nuclear Waste’ vodka and orange cocktails. A private drink with Keef. Boy, that was some moment.

***

Early the next morning, Wednesday, I walk down to Ground Zero, Soho, to look at the Freedom Tower. The previous night was spent back at the hotel room, my new-old Everlys Brothers record on the bed, writing, OF ALL THINGS, the Bill Wyman album review. I slept OK, the best for four days/nights. Today, New York is buzzing, the air early-morning crisp and the sky sunny. As I wend my way back to the hotel through the back streets of Soho, I imagine how Mercer Street must have looked, felt and smelt in the days of the New York Dolls and Lou Reed. I finally get to enjoy the city for a few moments, my mind free to wander.

I need to be back at JFK at 4pm, and there’s another 5,000 words on Joy Division to write for Friday, so I return to the hotel and fire up my laptop in the bar, a cold beer covered in condensation in hand, and begin tapping away about Ian Curtis, "four, 12 windows, ten in a row..."

I’ll be home in London by this time tomorrow, though New York will then still be in tonight’s darkness. But sleepless nights and shifting time zones and deadlines never troubled Keith Richards, who’d notoriously stay awake for days in his prime, chemically enhanced, and with this thought in mind I walk up Broadway and lose myself in the city’s infinite and exhilarating bustle, thinking: yesterday, I interviewed Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones…

Next: reminiscences of flying to Jamaica to interview Island Records' Chris Blackwell and nearly drowning in the lagoon at Golden Eye.

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