NEW YORK • Sometime around 2011, Keith Richards was ready to retire from his life in rock 'n' roll. Approaching half a century with the Rolling Stones, he had done it all.
"I know what luck is. I've had a lot," he reflected in an interview this month.
He is the archetypal rock guitarist: the genius wastrel, the unimpeachable riff-maker, the architect of a band sound emulated worldwide, the survivor of every excess. Onstage, he is at once a flamboyant figure and a private one, locked in a one-on-one dance with his guitar, working new variations into every song.
"I never play the same thing twice," he said. "I can't remember what I played before anyway." With the Stones in "hibernation" after a tour that ended in 2007, Richards took 2 1/2 years "immersed in my life twice" to write (with James Fox) a best-selling memoir, Life, that re-examined his many sessions, tours, trysts, addictions, mishaps, arrests and accomplishments. After Life was published in 2010, he was enjoying being a family man and a grandfather. Retirement was a real possibility.
"I thought, that's the craziest thing I ever heard," said Steve Jordan, Richards' long-time co-producer and drummer on his solo projects. "He felt comfortable with where he was and what he had done and what he had achieved. But knowing Keith, to not have him pick up an instrument and play, it was weird. When you're a musician, you don't retire. You play up until you can't breathe."
Jordan nudged Richards in a different direction: back into the recording studio to make his first solo album in 23 years, Crosseyed Heart, to be released on Sept 18.
"I realised I hadn't been in the studio since 2004 with the Stones," Richards said. "I thought: 'This is a bit strange. Something in my life is missing.'" It is a straightforwardly old-fashioned, rootsy album that could have appeared 20 years ago. The instruments are hand-played, the vocals are scratchy growls and the songs revisit Richards' favourite idioms - blues, country, reggae, Stonesy rock - for some scrappy storytelling. The album was recorded on analogue tape.
"I love to see those little wheels go around," Richards said.
Eased onto a couch at his manager's New York office, surrounded by merchandise from this year's Rolling Stones tour and memorabilia dating back decades, Richards, 71, alternated between a Marlboro and a drink. He was wearing an ensemble only he could pull off: a striped seersucker jacket over a black T-shirt decorated with a Captain America shield, black corduroy jeans and silvery-patterned running shoes. A woven headband in Rastafarian red, gold and green held back his luxuriantly unkempt grey hair. A silver skull ring was, as usual, on his right hand as a reminder, he has said, that "beauty's only skin deep".
In a conversation punctuated by his wheezy, conspiratorial growl of a laugh, he was a man at ease with himself as a rock elder.
"It's all a matter of perspective and which end of the telescope you're looking at," he said.
"Nobody wants to croak, but nobody wants to get old," he said. "When the Stones started, we were 18, 19, 20, and the idea of being 30 was absolutely horrendous. Forget about it! And then suddenly you're 40, and oh, they're in it for the long haul. So you need to readjust and, of course, kids happen and grandchildren, and then you start to see the pattern unfolding. If you make it, it's fantastic."
Richards has outlived many of his long-time musical collaborators, most recently the Stones' saxophonist Bobby Keys, who made one of his last studio appearances on Richards' album. Born the same day as Richards, he died last December.
"You get used to losing good friends," Richards said. "They keep croaking on me." His enduring attachment is to music and to his guitar.
"I get into a very warm relationship with the guitar. I sleep with it at times," he said. "There would be no Satisfaction if I hadn't been sleeping with the guitar in the bed that night. Apparently I woke up in the middle of the night and hit a button on this new thing at the time, a cassette machine. But I did this all either in a dream or in my sleep and wrote Satisfaction. Without the guitar being right next to me, I wouldn't have done it. Not that I sleep with it every night - the old lady would complain." (He has been married to Patti Hansen since 1983.)
A new documentary, Keith Richards: Under The Influence, was directed by Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, 2013) and will be shown via Netflix beginning Sept 18. It includes recording sessions for Crosseyed Heart, glimpses of the Rolling Stones' past and Richards' return visits to cities such as Chicago and Nashville, Tennessee.
The "influence" of the documentary's title is musical, not pharmaceutical, as Richards recalls all the idioms he has absorbed, among them flamenco and jazz.
His solo career started amid strife in the Rolling Stones, a period in the late 1980s that he has called the band's "World War III". Mick Jagger, his partner in songwriting and producing, had chosen to make solo albums with younger, au courant collaborators. Richards decided to dig into his own, bluesier music, anchored by Jordan on drums, with whom he had backed Chuck Berry in the tense 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.
For Richards' first solo album, Talk Is Cheap, in 1988, they assembled a band of seasoned studio musicians, including Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Ivan Neville on keyboards, who would go on to tour with Richards as the X-Pensive Winos and make a second album, Main Offender, in 1992. Talk Is Cheap featured You Don't Move Me, a direct taunt at Jagger's solo efforts: "You lost the feeling/Not so appealing." Things are more diplomatic now. The Stones endure, with concerts planned in South America early next year.
"Healthy competition is okay," Richards said. "Mick and I's relationship is, we've known each other longer than anybody else. We've known each other since we were four or five years old. There's been a lot of gaps in between, but at the same time, you've known somebody from the playground. We twist and turn. I mean, yeah, now and again we have beefs because we're like brothers in that respect, and what brothers don't have beefs now and again?"
Crosseyed Heart, Richards said, is the first album he has made without a deadline. Jordan described the sessions as "very civilised", just one or two afternoons a week.
"Which is very different from the other albums," Jordan added, "when we would start at midnight and end at 8am." The album gathered momentum after a tentative start.
"He felt rusty," Jordan recalled. "But his facility started coming back to him, and then the fire started to return, and the energy got ramped up, and then all of a sudden we were making a record."
NEW YORK TIMES