Keith Richards made a rare public appearance on Friday for an interview session with Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis at the New York Public Library (see “Keith Richards at the New York Public Library October 29” here).
Part of the “Live from the NYPL” series, Keith’s event was for his new autobiography, "Life" – held in front of about 600 people – reportedly sold out in 42 seconds, according to Rolling Stone.
42 Seconds. Blink and you would have missed the chance at one of those tickets.
Rolling Stone reports that the event had the buzz of a Stones show, complete with a film crew, security, promoter Michael Cohl and famous fans like Lou Reed and Steve Van Zandt.
Before taking to the stage, Keith was given a private tour of the library’s Special Collections room, where staff had organized several rare items, including a letter from Elizabeth I, an early Shakespeare folio and an early version of the Declaration of Independence.
One item on the tour had special significance: covered by a sheet of paper with a note that said, “We’re so proud to have this.” Richards lifted the sheet. “It was Keith’s book,” said DeCurtis. “He was just laughing so hard. Keith is very proud to have his book in this library. He’s somebody who takes the literary life pretty seriously.” In fact, Keith apparently has quite a library of his own in his Connecticut home.
Keith was brought to the stage by the NYPL Director Of Programs, Paul Holdengraber, who introduced the legendary guitarist with one of Keith’s own quotes: “Growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you.”
The conversation opened with Keith’s childhood in England. “There was rubble everywhere,” he said. “If there was a building left, fantastic.” Regular visits to his local library turned to a love of listening to music from across the pond. “You should realize that the rest of the world has been fascinated by American music,” said Keith. “That cross-saturation of ideas only possible from different cultures. You didn’t have it in Europe. We had the polka,” he laughed. “I can’t say it strongly enough. Hell, even Nazis loved the jazz bands.”
On meeting Mick Jagger on a train, Keith said, “I asked him where did you get those records?’ ‘Chicago.’ It started from there. I just wanted to steal his records.”
The two shared their love of those records – particularly the blues - with the other Stones. “We were amazed we had found each other and that we could sit around and listen to these guys — Jimmy Reed, Elmore James — and think, ‘Oh, it’s not so much the musicality of it. It’s to unveil ideas and especially unveil feeling.”
Performing their version of the blues to kids was initially a concern, until they realized the role they’d be playing in passing the musical torch to a younger generation. “(Teenagers) are not gonna hear the real guys,” Richards explained. “So (we figured) let’s do the second best — sort of as an evangelical philosophy. Why white English guys had to teach Americans about the blues, somehow I still haven’t figured that out.”
Ultimately, it was Bob Dylan who expanded the Stones’ vision. “He put a new slant on how you could write a song,” noted Keith. “Do they need to be three minutes long or do you need a little longer? Take it.”
On the alleged “rivalry” with the other hot British act at the time - The Beatles - Keith said, “They were primarily a vocal group. It didn’t really matter whether Paul or John or George was singing the lead. That was interchangeable. In the Stones we had one frontman — and we had the best.”
Decurtis asked Richards to list three pivotal life moments.“The first time we got in a recording studio and they paid us,” replied Keith. “The second was playing at the New York Academy of Music — to get on an American stage for the first time, that was a real high point of the band. The third? Well, I ain’t been there yet.”
Does Keith still defines himself primarily as a Stone. “I suppose,” he said. “After all these years, it’d be very difficult for me to separate myself from the Stones in any coherent form … Ask Count Basie what it’s like to keep vital things going after all these years and to still get off on it. Ray Charles, too. These cats could still unify though all those years. And there’s something to it you never want to let go.”
James Fox, who co-wrote Life with Richards, told Rolling Stone he was “astonished” after watching the conversation from the audience. “His humility to the people who taught him the music and he revered is something that plays through the whole story,” Fox offered. “I’ve always thought his sense of awe is one of the most interesting things about him. That side of him never altered and kept his feet on the ground. That’s what came across tonight.”
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