In his memoir Life, Keith Richards describes his worst conflict with fellow Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger as “World War III.” It was 1986, and the group had just finished the album Dirty Work. Richards wanted to take the album on tour. It would be their first time on the road in four years. The guitarist was breaking out in rashes that only faded when he took up his instrument to play with the band. But then a letter – a letter! – arrived from Mick Jagger. In the missive, he said that he preferred to continue pursuing his solo career, which he had started with the 1985 album She’s the Boss. He was preparing a second, Primitive Cool, for its 1987 release. That’s when World War III broke out. But it wasn’t the end. No music group in the history of rock has lasted as long as The Rolling Stones: this year marks 60 years since they formed in 1962. The group has splintered many times, but it has grown resilient. And now they have even begun a European tour
Although money is a good incentive to keep the band going, the group’s fans love to appeal to romanticism as the main reason for the duo’s long-standing relationship. There is no better story of the pair’s bond than one that Richards himself discovered in 2010 in a letter he found among his Aunt Patt’s papers. Keith, at 18 years old, had narrated to his mother’s sister the exact moment the flame of the Rolling Stones was lit. The encounter with Mick Jagger in a train station is well-known, but the passion that fills the story is revealing. “You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles but one mornin’ on Dartford Station I was holding one of Chuck’s records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs y’know came up to me. He’s got every record Chuck Berry ever made and all his mates have too, they are all rhythm and blues fans, real R&B I mean (not this Dinah Shore, Brook Benton crap) Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Chuck, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker all the Chicago bluesmen real lowdown stuff, marvelous. Anyways the guy on the station, he is called Mick Jagger.”
That is the force that unites the pair: their love for the blues, for music. But not even Muddy Waters could prevent the two from knocking heads from time to time. Richards’s most dangerous moment occurred in 1977, when he was arrested by Canadian police in Toronto with a significant amount of heroin. Richards had been using it for almost 10 years. In the mid-seventies, it was difficult to be around him. In some recording sessions, he would excuse himself to go to the bathroom and stay there until 6pm. “I have to say that during the bust in Toronto, in fact during all busts, Mick looked after me with great sweetness, never complaining. He ran things; he did the work and marshaled the forces that saved me. Mick looked after me like a brother,” he notes in his memoir.
Richards went on trial for drug possession in 1978. He faced a possible seven years in prison, but was sentenced to pay a $25,000 fine, enter a rehabilitation program and perform two benefit concerts to benefit the blind. (Jagger has surely never forgiven Richards for having to play for free.) When the guitarist began to emerge from the narcotic fog into sobriety, he realized that he had lost his influence over the group. All control now rested with Jagger. And it made sense: if he hadn’t taken over the wheel, Richards’ opiate drift would have sunk the Stones. The problems started once the guitarist recovered his clarity of mind. The singer was in charge, and he was no longer willing to give 50% to Richards.
The 1980 album Emotional Rescue closes with a beautiful ballad called All About You, a song Richards sang from the heart. Dedicated to his friend in those moments of conflict, he sang: “Why must I spend it with you?/If the show must go on/Let it go on without you/So sick and tired hanging around with jerks like you.” It ends with the most heartfelt line Richards has ever publicly dedicated to Jagger: “So how come I’m still in love with you?”
By 1981, the two musicians barely communicated. They released Tattoo You, a good album, thanks to their sound engineer, Chris Kimsey, who found gems among the recording sessions from their previous work. Jagger recorded in the morning and Richards in the evening. They never crossed paths. The album tour was a great success, but the guitarist most remembers is Jagger telling him to: “shut the hell up.” But the relationship between the two musicians continued: in 1983, even when the chemistry had faded, Richards married Patti Hansen, his current wife, and Mick was his best man.
Around this time, Keith’s supporters began calling Jagger “Her Majesty,” among other things. Richards had an ingenious idea. He discovered an English writer of romance novels, Brenda Jagger, in a library. From then on Brenda became a stand-in for Mick, so they could insult the vocalist to his face without him realizing: “that bitch Brenda.” Jagger assumed they were talking about someone else. At that point, The Stones had a 20-year career behind them. They had started out covering Chuck Berry for audiences of 100 people. Over the years they had become the biggest band in rock and roll, with stratospheric revenues, high pressure, conflicting interests, inflated egos and the wear and tear of being around one another all the time. Their generational peers, The Beatles, only lasted 10 years and also ended on unpleasant terms. Understandably, after two decades, the Stones were finally facing their biggest crisis.
With Third World War declared, Jagger offered an interview to Rolling Stone magazine to promote his second solo album, Primitive Cool. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and this is one of the low moments. I love the Stones, I think what we’ve done is wonderful, but I also think it’s done. At my age [he was 46 years old at the time of the interview] and after all these years I have to do something else in my life. I feel like I have the right to do it.” That statement is the closest the group has come to breaking up. Jagger’s solo albums include rock, but also somewhat artificial songs that tried to tap into 1980s dance music. Fed up with Jagger’s disinterest in the band, Richards released his first solo album, Talk Is Cheap, in 1988, which was more popular with Stones fans than Jagger’s album.
The pair’s solo careers never took off. Richards performed in Spain in 1992 in venues with just over 1,000 people. It was nothing like the Stones’ audiences, although, on the other hand, it was a pleasure to enjoy the musician in a more intimate setting, without giant videos or the stadium circus. But it was time for the duo to come back together, heal the damage and return to selling out stadiums. The two swallowed their pride. In 1989 they reunited for the recording of a new album, Steel Wheels. That same year they went on tour, the first in seven years.
Keith describes their current relationship in Life: “Mick and I may not be friends – too much wear and tear for that – but we’re the closest of brothers, ad that can’t be severed. How can you describe a relationship that goes that far back? Best friends are best friends. But brothers fight.”
The Stones of the sixties and seventies will never return. But the 78-year-olds have realized that they are too old for narcissistic fights. And on their European tour, they may even exchange a sincere smile.