When he visited NPR's New York bureau to speak with Morning Edition, Keith Richards wore his reputation on his sleeve as he lit up cigarettes between questions, just inches from our very expensive microphones. And he had war stories to share — like the time he and Bobby Keys, The Rolling Stones' late sax player, were guests of Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion and managed to set a bathroom on fire.
The 71-year-old guitarist has lived a life filled with moments like that one. In a 2010 New Yorker profile, writer David Remnick even marveled that "through it all, the Grim Reaper was denied a backstage pass." Five years later, Richards says the rumors of his immortality are greatly exaggerated.
"Of course I'm not, but I love the idea of it," he tells Morning Edition host David Greene. "I mean, I wouldn't mind being. I don't know if I could handle all of the stress and memories that I'd know at 150 years old. But I've defied other people's version of mortality, I suppose."
Richards has been busy the last decade or so — touring the world, writing a best-selling autobiography and a children's book, and even popping up opposite Johnny Depp in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
One thing he hasn't done lately is cut new music with the Stones. So, this year, Richards tried something he's only done twice before: put out a solo album. Crosseyed Heart, on which Richards is backed by his band The X-Pensive Winos, arrives Friday, alongside a new Netflix documentary about his life.
"I was at sort of a loose end, and I realized there is one thing missing out of my life, the most important thing: recording," he says. "I made the first two [solo albums] because the Stones were in one of their hibernations — and basically, I probably made this one because the Stones were in hibernation at the time."
Richards has spent a lot of time over the years waiting on his friend Mick Jagger. Apart from Lennon and McCartney, it's hard to think of another songwriting team whose relationship has been so closely followed — and when Richards released his 2010 memoir, Life, fans learned it hasn't always been the most stable alliance.
"I think the relationship is actually still in flux, or still growing — it isn't fixed. Sometimes he can get up my end, and I have no doubt that I can certainly piss him off sometimes," Richards says. "At the same time, there's a chemistry between us that we both recognize and that we know works. In a way, we're both trying to come to terms with each other. Most guys, you know where you stand with. Mick and I don't quite know how we stand with each other, and we never have."
One place where he and Jagger have always found common ground, however, is in their love for the blues. Richards says that in the band's early years, The Rolling Stones were determined to turn London on to what the masters in Chicago had been doing for years.
"At that time — 18, 19 years old — you know, you're still very young and idealistic," he says. " 'People should know about rhythm and blues and Chicago blues, and we'll do our best to give you our version of that.' And it bloody well happened."
Music fans know where the story goes from there. In a recent interview with NPR, Buddy Guy named the Stones among the artists who, in the 1960s, helped push blues music into the mainstream while still acknowledging its pioneers. Richards and his bandmates have even gotten to jam with their idols — like the night in 1981 when they joined Muddy Waters onstage at Chicago's Checkerboard Lounge.
"I was dressed for business in a white shirt and vest. I said, 'We're going to be on stage with Muddy, man. This is serious,' " Richards says. "I mean, I didn't realize this until later: These guys, they were incredibly grateful for The Rolling Stones, because we revived interest in the blues in America.
"Isn't that amazing?" he adds with a note of quiet amusement. "Some English band turns up, and turns America on to its own great music."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
So the list of people we would allow to smoke in our studios near our expensive microphones - it's pretty short, but this guy's on there.
KEITH RICHARDS: Cool, yeah.
MONTAGNE: That's guitarist Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, lighting up in our New York studios, as he spoke to my colleague, David Greene.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Richards is now 71. His wild hair is all gray. And he's been busy the last decade or so. He's toured the world, wrote a best-selling memoir and also a children's book. But one thing he hasn't done is cut new music with the Stones.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Yeah, if I could stick my hand in my heart...
RICHARDS: There's a little bit of a loose end, and I realize there's one thing missing out of my life, you know, the most important thing, recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I said, I know. It's only rock and roll, but I like it.
GREENE: So he did something he's only done twice before. He put out a solo album.
RICHARDS: I made the first two because the Stones were in one of their hibernations. And basically, I probably made this one because the Stones were in hibernation at the time, and...
GREENE: You were getting a little restless, and...
GREENE: Mick Jagger hadn't called you and said, let's go out again.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMNESIA")
RICHARDS: (Singing) Don't know who I am, forgotten my name.
GREENE: Keith Richards does not seem to mind the solo work. He says he flexes different musical muscles than when he's working with Mick Jagger. Jagger and Richards - they're one of popular music's most successful songwriting duos, but things have been famously rocky between them at times. For this new album called "Crosseyed Heart," Richards called up his other group of pals from his solo band, the X-Pensive Winos. He has his share of war stories with them, too.
RICHARDS: We managed to set a bathroom on fire in the Playboy mansion (laughter).
RICHARDS: We didn't notice the curtains had caught fire while we were just sitting around in the john and smoking (laughter).
GREENE: Stories like that bring to mind your life. And you've talked about sort of being dogged by your old image in your years past.
RICHARDS: Yeah, I don't mind. In a way, I think it's almost an honor, even if it's not the whole you, you know. I mean, it's like old Keith, you know (laughter). And that's what people have really given me, that freedom to never say, yes, sir, to anybody unless I want to.
GREENE: The writer David Remnick wrote that somehow the grim reaper was not invited backstage with you and that you are somehow immortal. Are you immortal?
RICHARDS: Of course I'm not. But I love the idea of it, don't you (laughter)? I mean, I wouldn't mind being, but I don't know if I could handle all of the stress and memories at 150 years old. But I have defied other people's version of mortality, I suppose.
GREENE: You wrote in your book that sometimes I miss my friend. And that was referring to Mick Jagger, and this was a number of years ago. And it makes me wonder how are things today? How are you two getting along?
RICHARDS: I think the relationship is actually still in flux or still growing. I mean, it isn't fixed. You know, sometimes he can get up my end, you know (laughter), and I've no doubt that I can certainly piss him off sometimes. At the same time, there's a chemistry between us that we both recognize and that we know that works. But in a way, we're both trying to sort of come to terms with each other. I mean, most guys, you know where you stand with. Mick and I both don't know quite how we stand with each other, and we never have.
GREENE: The album opens with a real old-fashioned blues number.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROSSEYED HEART")
RICHARDS: (Singing) Oh, I love my sugar, but I love my honey, too.
GREENE: Wasn't it a love of the blues that brought you and Mick Jagger together in the very beginning?
RICHARDS: Absolutely, yeah. And it was what brought all of the Stones together at the beginning, a burning desire to turn London onto what these guys in Chicago were doing and had been doing for years.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST WANT TO MAKE LOVE TO YOU")
MICK JAGGER: (Singing) I don't want because I'm sad and blue. I just want to make love to you, baby, love to you.
RICHARDS: At that time at, oh, 18, 19 years old, you know, you're still very idealistic. People should know about rhythm and blues, and we'll do our best to give you our version of that. And it bloody well happened (laughter), you know?
GREENE: Yeah, it wasn't long before the Stones were playing with the very guys who inspired them, blues greats like Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. On a memorable night in 1981 at a Chicago club, Waters was performing. The Stones knew they would be called up on stage, and they came ready.
RICHARDS: Let's dress for business in a white shirt, a black vest. And so we're going to be on stage with Muddy, man, you know. This is serious.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY, PLEASE DON'T GO")
JAGGER: (Singing) Oh, baby, please don't go.
MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Oh, baby, please don't go.
JAGGER: (Singing) Oh, please don't go.
WATERS: (Singing) Oh, baby, please don't go.
RICHARDS: I mean, I didn't realize this until later. Those guys, they were incredibly grateful for the Rolling Stones because we revived interest in the blues in America.
GREENE: And I do want to tell you, Buddy Guy told us that very thing when we interviewed him recently.
RICHARDS: Oh, he did?
GREENE: He's a great - another amazing bluesman.
RICHARDS: Oh, OK, so we connect.
GREENE: Well, I want to play you a little bit of tape. It was from when we interviewed Buddy Guy, and he was basically describing Muddy Waters on his deathbed. He had been diagnosed with cancer. No one really knew how sick he was. And this is how Buddy Guy described that moment to us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
BUDDY GUY: He was profane. I can't say what he said.
GREENE: (Laughter) OK.
GUY: He said, oh, just keep playing that (expletive) blues, and don't let that blues die. And I'm fine. The next couple of days, I think, that's when I got the call from the media and asked me what did - how did I feel about he had passed.
GREENE: You keep playing those blues.
GREENE: Have you...
GUY: Don't let the blues die. That what he said.
RICHARDS: Man, that is incredible, yeah, bringing me to tears here, yeah. I mean, Muddy Waters turned us on to - we just thought we'd do it in - pardon the pun - a pale imitation (laughter). I mean, that was - the whole beginning of it was just to do that. I really had no idea that, you know, that in the meantime, you were going to revive the blues in America (laughter). I mean, that was, you know, come on, you couldn't write that script.
GREENE: Keith Richards, thank you. It's really been a pleasure talking to you.
RICHARDS: Hey, David, thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODNIGHT IRENE")
RICHARDS: (Singing) Well, I read good night.
MONTAGNE: David Greene with Keith Richards. His new album, "Crosseyed Heart" is out today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.