Not, as is commonly supposed, sometime perhaps in the 1980s, when the Rolling Stones' decline in creativity was on obvious display, but earlier. A lot earlier. Like, say, 1972 at the latest.
Those who like Exile on Main St. like its denseness, its mystery, its swampy commitment. Accidentally and amid no little chaos, we conjured up something dirty, impenetrable, and, in parts, compelling. But I think its murk promises depths that aren't there. There are decent but no major songs on Exile. Let's go back an album, to Sticky Fingers. I wrote "Brown Sugar." Mick Taylor wrote "Sway" and most of "Moonlight Mile," and made "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" his own. Keith and I together did most of the rest, like "Wild Horses," but, in the end, he didn't write most of the thing's best songs.
From there, there's Exile. Some nice tracks— "Rocks Off," "Happy"—but there is no "Gimme Shelter" or "Let It Bleed." Chords that once threatened society in some significant now way rarely radiated outward.
The next few years were difficult. I don't want to say Keith wrote no songs. He did. But successively, in each album, the process became more difficult, as both his capacity for the job declined along with the quality of what he did write. He mocks the disco songs—"Hot Stuff," "Miss You," "Emotional Rescue." But what would the commercial impact of those albums have been without those immediate hits? We were being outsold by everyone from Supertramp to the Doobie Brothers as it was. At the same time I had to come up with tracks and weasel promising material out of our cohort and not give up songwriting credit, which I accomplished in all but one or two cases.
The resulting albums are, with perhaps the exception of Some Girls, flaccid and unconvincing. The aforementioned disco hits. A little lyrical naughtiness ("Starfucker," "Some Girls"). The earnest ballad in which the incorrigible Stones display some unexpected touches of maturity ("Memory Motel," "Waiting on a Friend"). Lots and lots of undistinguished filler, clavinet playing by Billy Preston, Motown covers … And for some of the good stuff Keith wasn't even there. For It's Only Rock and Roll I did the title single with Woody and Bowie. Taylor and I constructed the splendid "Time Waits for No One," a fantasia, alluring to this day, for percussion, piano, and guitar. (I don't think Keith has ever let us play it live.) ("Sway," either.)
I will testify that Keith was intermittently sentient during some part of the recording of Some Girls. Yes we were fully Manhattanized at this point, because I live here and that's what I found interesting. The geographic location of Keith's talent, being nowhere, wasn't available for evocation.
By the time of Tattoo You I was exhausted. Entirely drained of ideas. I told Chris Kimsey to ransack the archives. "Start Me Up" was a very old song, with some 20, 30, 40 takes as a reggae ... and one with a real rock guitar. It turned out to be our last real hit, and the arc of our career would look a lot different if we hadn't found it. With it, we could plausibly least claim to be hitmakers in the 1980s. "Waiting on a Friend," that symbol of our new-found maturity, was, if memory serves, from a centuries-old session with me and Mick Taylor. About our work from the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, the less said the better. Can you sing a single chorus from Dirty Work? Name a single track? We certainly don't play songs from those records in concert if we can help it.
I go into such detail to describe the arc of our decline accurately but also note this sad corollary: Keith brought something out of me, way back when. Through Exile, I felt I had to rise to his songs. When he checked out creatively, I lost something important. While there is some spark, I guess, in "Some Girls" or "Shattered" or whatever, however contrived, I know most of the other songs sucked. In the 1980s and '90s it got worse. I could conjure up only the most banal cliché or the most pretentious polysyllabic nonsense. Compare "Sympathy for the Devil" with "Heartbreaker." One Godard made a film about. The other is a TV movie. I literally wrote a song called "She's So Cold" and then, a few years later, one called "She Was Hot."
Now, Keith went through the same thing. I think this is why Keith lost himself with heroin and now drinks: to stave off the pressure to match himself and dull the knowledge that he can't any more (and, back then, couldn't). It's trite, maybe, but there's a reason a guy spends a decade in a haze, and the three decades since in a stupor. Keith's rancor is almost entirely based on the fact that it was not, in the end, easy to keep the appearances of what in the public mind is the Rolling Stones, and the process wasn't always pretty. But I did it, and, among other things, to this day it is hardly in the public mind that Keith Richards hasn't written a significant rock 'n' roll song in nearly 35 years.
For that I get Keith's book.
Why did he write it? Or, rather, having decided to write it all down, why did he devote so much of it to carping about me?
Well, he's not talking about me, really. He's just trying to get my attention, I think, in the end. The remaining part of the rancor comes from the fact that he knows he lost me, many years ago. It's funny—Keith doesn't write good rock songs much any more, but what he does do, every four or five years, is craft a beautiful little ballad. Since Tattoo You Keith's written and sung a couple of tracks per album. (We had a huge fight about his putting three on Bridges to Babylon; I didn't like it, but didn't have anything else to offer, even with three years since the previous album. Why one of the songs I did write is now co-credited to k.d. lang is a matter to be discussed on some other day.) Generally, one of these is a throwaway, and the other ... is something gorgeous. Put them all together along with songs he wrote solo and sang from the early years—"You Got the Silver," "Happy," and so forth, all the way up to "Thru & Thru" and "All About You"—and you have a CD of no little power and emotion. (I've done it.)
These songs are more honest than his book. In "The Worst," he says something about "I'm the worst kind of guy/ For you to be around." That's a song that might ring true for many people. It makes me think about how Keith lost me only after I lost him. In an older song, he explains a worldview I find a bit disturbing, and I would like to point out that since from most peoples' perspective I have flirted the edge of total decadence my entire life I can make that observation with some authority:
Slipped my tongue in someone else's pie
Tasted better every time
She turned green and tried to make me cry
Ain't no crime
Again, the honesty is bracing. I think Keith puts just about any of his manifold urges on a par with hunger, and I think we can agree the world would be a dangerous place if that was the norm. It explains many, many of his actions over the years. In the book he tells the story of going to meet Patti Hansen's parents for the first time—drunk, holding an open bottle of Jack, and with one of his fucktard friends in tow. You can imagine how the evening ended. I'm sure Keith thinks it's OK. ("Being nervous ain't no crime.") ("Oh, shut up, Keith," I think.) With that perspective—and the added benefit of being rich and famous and having most of his deplorable actions do nothing but burnish his image—Keith's way in the world has been, in a certain way and ignoring, for the moment, the people who died, a blessed one.
I certainly bless it. I stood by him and propped him up and didn't fire his ass for many, many years. It would have ended the Stones, of course, so maybe I was being selfish. In a way, even comatose he had a marquee name; as my meal ticket, you might say, it suited me to let him doze. I took the reins until, when he finally woke up, he found that he had no place in the management. He's angry about that, too. Yes, let's let Keith Richards have a hand in overseeing an operation that generates $1 million a day in revenue. I don't know what else I could have done. Later, one grows older and becomes more informed about such things, and I saw I was supposed to have held an elaborate ceremony called an "intervention." Society could have effectively halted the upheavals of the 1960s simply by requiring all of us to "intervene" with one another. In any event, considering half our circle was on heroin and the rest were coke fiends, I think it wouldn't have been efficacious in our circumstances.
He talks about me, too, in his solo songs, less subtly: "I'm so sick and tired/ Of hanging around/ Jerks like you." People ask me why I let him put these on the album. I think: Oh, why not? It's a great song, and he can sing it, and he can write the book, too. He's trying to get my attention. To connect. To have it be how it once was. At our age, I think there's no basis for it. Keith celebrates his own unchanging character, and I have had quite enough of that.