Keith Richards talks exclusively about his long friendship with Tom Waits in the new issue of Uncut – on sale now.
A happy accident waiting to happen, the relationship between Tom Waits and Keith Richards began when Richards accepted a “flippant” suggestion by Waits to his record company that they invite Keith to play on Rain Dogs in 1985. “I said, ‘What about Keith Richards?’” Waits later recalled. “I was just joking, but somebody went ahead and called him, and he said, ‘Yeah’. I said, ‘Now we’re really in trouble…’” Richards came in to the studio in New York, drank some Cutty Sark, and played on “Blind Love”, “Union Square” and “Big Black Mariah”. Waits standard line was that the Stones guitarist was working off a cash debt.
Since then, the pair have regularly collaborated and convened, notably on Waits’ Bone Machine, featuring their co-write “That Feel”, and Bad As Me. Their musical bond stems from a genuine and warm personal connection. Richards calls Waits “a real rhythm man”, while Waits sums up Richards in typically idiosyncratic style, likening him to “a frying pan made from one piece of metal. He can heat it up really high and it won’t crack, it just changes colour.”
In this extract, Richards recalls Waits’ unconventional studio techniques, how they write together and how Waits almost made a rare appearance at Willie Nelson‘s birthday concert earlier this year…
“[For Bone Machine], we somehow ended up in Tom’s studio/playroom in California, somewhere near Monterey. We played around and fooled around. We sort of fell into each other and started to strum along. I was impressed by the amount of weirdo instruments he had hanging around. It’s an amazing collection. I thought, ‘Hello!’ He had a Mellotron, like an early version of the synthesiser, which was loaded entirely with train noises. He had so many drums and a lot of percussion. I realised listening to his stuff that he had a lot of rhythms going on in his head and in his body, and when I saw the drums that made sense. I understood more about his music. He’s an African rhythm man, basically. It is all about the groove, and the groove is another word for the Grail. People search for it everywhere, and when you find it you hang on to it.
“How do you write with Tom? You actually sit back and say, ‘That’s good, Tom! And that’s good, too!’ Then you throw in an idea here and there. It’s fun to watch him work, and he’s very relaxed about it. The sessions I do with him, it’ s just him and me. He has a unique angle on just about everything, and it’s refreshing to hang around with him and join in. We kick around every subject under the sun and then we get in front of the microphone and do something.
“Tom’s music is so American. Probably more folk-American than anything, but somehow modern. He’s a weird mixture of stuff; a great bunch of guys!
“I spoke to him a couple of months ago. There was a point where he was going to be at the Willie Nelson birthday party concert [at Hollywood Bowl, in April]. I was looking forward to that, but it didn’t happen. We’re in touch. I have letters from him in his beautiful writing hanging on the wall…”