Rolling back the Main St legends
As the rolling stones' classic, Exile On Main St, is reissued, Keith Richards separates the facts from THE myths with Pierre Perrone
When Keith Richards announced he was going to write his autobiography three years ago, most people didn't believe the Rolling Stones guitarist could remember enough to justify the $5m fee.
Yet, here he is telling me it will be published this October. "I'm waiting for some proofs to come back. It's kind of weird reading about your own life. Who'd be interested in that?" he laughs, sounding not unlike Jack Sparrow, as portrayed by his friend Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
"But then, I realise there is a lot of interest, so . . . Talking to some of the people that were there and their version of events to try and correlate it all was very interesting, a kind of kaleidoscopic bunch of experiences," he says. He's left his home in Weston, Connecticut, an hour's drive from New York, something he often does with his wife, Patti Hansen, to visit their two daughters. Now he's at the Mercer Hotel, a luxury establishment in New York. No one bats an eyelid when he lights up. The old devil.
Ostensibly, we're supposed to discuss the remastered, expanded version of the Stones' masterwork Exile on Main St, the album whose genesis in the basement of Nellcote, the villa Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Riviera in 1971, has become a cornerstone of the Keef legend.
Whatever the era, and the fact that he looks older than 66, his recollections are sharp and give the lie to doubters who say he has not been the same since April 2006, when he fell from a tree in Fiji and had to undergo surgery in New Zealand.
That accident added yet another chapter to the already hefty tome of Stones lore, one that Richards has contributed to over the past 45 years, blurring the line between truth and fiction for his own amusement as much as to help cover his tracks. "Someone asked me how I managed to clean up. I was sick of answering that question so I told him I went to Switzerland and had my blood changed. I was just fooling around. That's all it was, a joke."
Exile, the quintessential Stones album and favourite of hardcore fans, is so close to his heart, though, he won't tell fibs about it. So how did the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world end up on the Cote d'Azur in 1971?
"The full weight of the British establishment came down on us. First they thought they could get us with the dope busts and it did not work," states Richards, referring to the police finding minute amounts of cannabis resin, Italian prescription pep pills in Mick Jagger's coat and Marianne Faithfull naked in a rug at his Redlands property in Sussex in February 1967, and the subsequent trial and prison sentence (his conviction was overturned for lack of evidence).
"Then they put the financial screws on us," he continues, hinting at the parlous state of the band's finances after a costly split from Allen Klein, their notorious American manager.
"There was a feeling in the air that we'd reached a schism, a breaking point with certain people, Klein included. To keep the band going, we had to leave England. There was a lot of determination that we could do what we do anywhere. France was convenient," he explains.
"It was a little crazy, a bit of an experiment because we'd never recorded outside of a studio before."
They had used the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio to capture their farewell-to-the-UK dates in March 1971 and to cut demos at Stargroves, Jagger's country pile in Berkshire, but it really proved useful when parked on the French Riviera. "Having the truck made it possible. The thing actually worked," stresses Richards. "It was a pretty unique way of making a record. There was something about the rhythm section . . . it had a certain sound that you couldn't replicate. Believe me, lots of people have tried."
The guitarist is adamant that extra-curricular activities didn't deter the group from focusing on music. "Yes, you can call it a vibe, it was a thick one," he says with a smile. "Of course, there were drugs, but it didn't affect the work. We were making a record, we didn't have time!
"The gendarmes were very reasonable in their Mediterranean way. Sometimes, they just wanted to come around and have a look. You stand outside the front gate with the sergeant. 'Monsieur, excusez-moi.' Usually, things would settle down and you'd say: 'Come in, have a cognac."
Exile also saw the Stones explore a more gospel-flavoured, soulful direction. "Yeah, strangely enough, once we were in the middle of France, we started to dig deep into American music. After all, basically, that's what we do," reflects Richards.
Exile on Main St is reissued by Polydor today