By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES � In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, opening today, rival corsairs set out to find the mythical Fountain of Youth. On board as Captain Teague for the second time, Keith Richards is braced for the usual cracks about his indestructibility.
He has heard it all, including the post-apocalyptic prophecy that "it'll be me and the roaches left," Richards says with a hoarse laugh, shrugging off his reputation as a wrinkled survivor. "I've become a cartoonish little icon. You've got to be proud of that. If you can't take the pot shots, you shouldn't be in show business."
Richards, 67, gets the last laugh as one of few in showbiz to hold the globe rapt for five decades. The raggedly charming guitarist for the Rolling Stones has crafted indelible riffs, co-written some of rock's finest classics and influenced countless players with his primal, unpretentious style, often while on a rocky and reckless trail of drug habits, legal scrapes, toxic relationships and life-threatening mishaps. (A fall from a tree in Fiji in 2006 required cranial neurosurgery. Residual damage? "A dent, a war wound," he says.)
The unvarnished tale unfolds in his highly praised, best-selling memoir, Life (which peaked at No. 3 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list), freshly out in paperback (Back Bay Books, $16.99). The tone is pure Keef.
The Boston Phoenix asserts, "He writes the way he sings ? naked, straight up, heart on sleeve," and The New York Times compares Richards' prose to his guitar playing: "intense, elemental, utterly distinctive and achingly, emotionally direct." The New Yorker declares Life "a slurry romp through the life of a man who knew every pleasure, denied himself nothing and never paid the price."
What led him down a path of decadence and carefree indulgence?
"Everybody out there gave me the license," says Richards, holed up in a hotel suite the day before the Pirates premiere at Disneyland. He's trim in all gray, save his bright turquoise high tops and a patterned scarf tied around a mop of shaggy gray hair. "People want to live vicariously, and they set me up. You want Keith? I'll give you Keith. It may not always be me, but people want to believe it."
Making peace with Mick
Richards' wildest days are behind him. He gave up heroin in 1978 and cocaine after his head injury. He has been happily married to model Patti Hansen since 1983. He's more workaholic than alcoholic, drinking vodka sparingly these days and hustling moonlighting guitar gigs as he maneuvers to reboot the Stones in time to mark next year's 50th anniversary.
That's a ticklish question in light of Life's tough love for Mick Jagger. Richards dwells on the singer's philandering and dictatorial tendencies, calls him "unbearable" and even impugns his manhood.
When Jagger read Life before publication, "the blue pencil was flying," Richards says. "Of course, he had a few issues. I said, 'What am I going to do, lie? After all, Mick, the book ain't about you.' He did give me a hard time throughout life. Trying to bring the man down to earth took a while and took a toll on me. I have great respect for the man. I love him dearly, quirks and all."
When Jagger and Richards, boyhood pals since the early '50s, met in New York a month ago, "Mick pouted a bit, as is his wont," Richards says. "I told him, 'It's water under the bridge. I want to talk about the future. We're larger than a little bitching here and there. It's only rock 'n' roll.' I love working with Mick. Maybe that friction that makes it work, that bit of sand in the oyster that makes the pearl."
The band is plowing through masters of 1978's Some Girls in search of buried gems for a reissue similar to last year's Exile on Main Street. Jagger has a solo album in the works, and Richards has collaborated with Tom Waits and cut tracks with Steve Jordan, key member of his solo band X-Pensive Winos.
"There's a Wino-ish thing in the air," Richards says. "We've got a track or two."
But a monster milestone is looming, and Richards concedes, "Timing is everything." The Stones played their first gig at London's Marquee Club on July 12, 1962. Richards' golden anniversary wish list: a 2012 studio album and world tour.
"Something's blowing in the wind," he says. "The idea's there. We kind of know we should do it, but nobody's put their finger on the moment yet. This is what we have to ask each other: Do we want to go out in a blaze of glory? We can, if Mick and Charlie (Watts) feel like I do, that we can still turn people on. We don't have to prove nothing anymore. I just love playing, and I miss the crowd."
Marking the band's 50th with a blowout tour "does indeed seem logical, even likely," says Ray Waddell, Billboard's senior editor of touring. "If they do, and if they bill it as their last, which they've never done, it will without a doubt be an international blockbuster and a lock to be among the top tours of all time."
U2's 360 tour just surpassed the record $558 million set by the Stones' Bigger Bang tour, and the Irish quartet is expected to gross $700 million before 360 ends in July, according to Billboard Boxscore. It also holds the record for attendance with 7 million tickets sold, pushing the Stones' Voodoo Lounge, with 6.4 million, to second place.
"If they were to pass U2 and reclaim the record gross, it would probably be driven by ticket prices as opposed to attendance, as the unprecedented capacities on 360, as well as the sheer number of shows, is what drove that band's historic numbers," Waddell says. "If the Stones go out, there is no reason they wouldn't command the highest ticket prices in history, at least on the top end. And it would be worth the price."
Can the Stones reclaim the touring crown?
"I don't know and I don't care," Richards sniffs. "So what? U2 made a few mill more, or maybe not by the time the gross is done and you look at the net. Meanwhile, (Broadway's) Spider-Man is going down the tubes. And I don't think they played to 2 million people in Brazil, which we did (in 2006, the largest rock concert ever).
"U2's a good band, so why not? I hope another band eclipses both of us. Bono's an interesting guy. I wouldn't say he's my favorite guy to hang with."
Film is ?bizarre other world?
He finds Pirates star Johnny Depp more simpatico. Richards joined Disney's franchise at the behest of Depp and plays the father of his character, Jack Sparrow, a wry, mumbling buccaneer largely inspired by the guitarist.
"I get to shoot somebody," Richards says. "It's fun and a change, a bizarre other world. If you're used to rock 'n' roll, books and movies are fairly tame."
The swashbuckling pair became drinking buddies off set, though Richards says he's not the guzzler he was.
"Johnny loves red wine, and I'll drink anything that's available," he says. "If there ain't any around, I don't drink. If I think, 'I can handle this better with a drink,' I'll take it. Compared to the other stuff I did, a drink is gnat's piss."
As for that other stuff, Richards says his pharmaceutical consumption, while copious, was cautious. "I don't recommend it for anybody else," he says, adding with a cackle: "I'm not human, after all. It's not something to emulate. It was done out of innocence."
Not simply an occupational hazard, drugs "helped you make the gig, especially if you're working 350 days a year," he says. "You can't be vegetarian and straight and play rock 'n' roll."
You can be monogamous, Richards discovered. He had three children with Anita Pallenberg and flings with Ronnie Spector and Marianne Faithfull (partly as payback to Jagger for bedding Pallenberg) before settling down with Hansen.
"If you're married to Patti Hansen, you don't want to switch," he says. "She's the most wonderful woman in the world. I love her more every day. If anyone can keep me on the straight and narrow, she's the one."
Hansen survived bladder cancer after being diagnosed in 2007, a scare that sent her usually unflappable husband into a tailspin.
"I didn't handle it that well," he says. "I had to pretend everything's cool because someone has to not freak out, but it was a terrible jolt."
He was less taken aback when the couple's daughter Theodora, 26, was arrested in March for scrawling on a Soho convent wall and possessing marijuana.
"That was a wake-up call for her," her father says. "She went to the tank for the night, didn't say, 'Do you know who my dad is?' She went to court, did her community service. I admire the way she handled it."
Richards is no stranger to the blunders of youth. Writing Life brought those lessons into sharper focus.
"I realized how stupid I could be at times," he says. "What a dummy."
Lasting bond with a guitar
The redeeming love story at Life's core is between Richards and his guitar.
The book, a notch above most rock autobiographies, "is terrific when Richards writes about the music," says Greg Kot, co-author of The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock 'n' Roll Rivalry.
"That band, that sound was his mission, though it was eventually derailed by heroin. The human relations, they all fell by the wayside, whether it was with Mick Jagger, friends, associates, wives, children. He treats all of them far more blithely than he does the music, which remains sacred."
Life is on the shelf, but Richards' life isn't. Overwhelmed by reaction to the book, he may consider a sequel.
"Not a lot of cats get to be No. 1 on their first bash at it," he says. "I might fill in the gaps later. It's not the Bible, but I didn't realize what a task it would be. You try being Keith Richards twice in one lifetime."