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.”