by Jerry Thackray

As the 'Bridges To Babylon' tour reaches Oklahoma, the world's greatest rock'n'roll band gear up for a heated debate with the honky tonk woman of the '90s. Take it away Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Sheryl Crow... Keith Richards made the front page of The Mirror the other week. Live on Radio 1, the less mature of the Gallagher brothers [Liam, of Oasis] offered him, Mick and George Harrison outside for a fight.

"Yeah?" muses Keith in a hotel room in Oklahoma. "The Irish bitch? He wanted a punch-up? Oh yeah, I heard about that. Sorry I couldn't make it. I was in Missouri."

[Keith:] "He's invited me for a punch up."
"Wait," says Sheryl Crow. "Why wasn't I invited?"
Richards sighs heavily.

The idea behind this story was simple. How many times do you suppose the Rolling Stones have been interviewed? It must go into five figures. Why not spice it up a little, get some other musicians involved? In October, the Stones played a few dates in America with support from Sheryl Crow -- an artist whose latest (second) album has been compared by many critics to the Stones' classic 'Exile On Main Street'.

'Sheryl Crow' is populated by a similar cast of characters to those who once romped through Stones' songs like 'Rip This Joint' and 'Sweet Virginia': gun-toting outlaws wearing "teen perfume behind the knees", behaving with a certain boozy belligerence, a celebratory craziness. "I'd like to watch the sun come up in a stranger's arms," she drawls on 'Home', like she's angling for a bit part in 'Shine A Light'. Loud guitars, big suspicions. The whole album has a bluesy resonance and grace seldom heard in white music.

The next step was obvious: bring Sheryl together with her main musical influences Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, so they can discuss fame, the blues and...whatever the hell else takes their fancy. You think we're gonna argue with Keith Richards?

[Ronnie:] "I believe that when your number's up, it's up. I believe in fate. But if I get a bad feeling getting on a plane, I won't fly.
"When we flew over to America for rehearsals for this tour," he continues, "Dodi was two seats in front of us. A week later, he's dead! You know Jo [Ron's wife] used to go out with Dodi?"

"Do you have to tell the entire nation?!" the guilty party exclaims. "I went out with Dodi before I went out with you. Thank you very much!"

"What it all goes to show," says Sheryl wisely, "is that flying is safer than driving."
There's a commotion in the corridor outside. Keith Richards stumbles into the room, clutching a glass of something alcoholic, followed by his security man.

"Come and be closer," Sheryl Crow tells Ronnie Wood as she nestles up to him on the sofa to make room for Keith.

The scene is set thus. French windows overlook an Oklahoma City skyline that's frankly disheartening: a handful of distant skyscrapers and endless freeways, interspersed by the odd mall. A table filled with drinks is set between VOX on one side and the three co-conspirators on the other. Every now and then, a joint rolled by the able fingers of Mr Keith Richards passes hands. Ice clinks in glasses.

Frequently, Ronnie leans over to kiss Sheryl. Sheryl, still in make-up and leather trousers from the VOX cover shoot, looks like anyone's idea of serious rock chick material. No disrespect to her undoubted musical talent, but you can see why Michael Jackson picked her as his main backing singer for his 'Bad' tour. And Ronnie -- good old Ronnie, as large, languid, leery and louche as Pan himself -- Ronnie cannot believe his luck.

[Keith talking about the blues]
"I'm from down Memphis," begins Sheryl. "My only references were straight out of Memphis and Chicago."
"You are?" asks Ronnie, surprised, planting a kiss on her cheek.

In fact, Sheryl grew up in the Bible-belt country of Kennett, Missouri, where she took piano lessons at the age of five, and wrote her first song eight years later. Her late teens and early twenties were spent playing in bar bands around Missouri, before moving to LA and finding work as a backing singer, working with, among others, Joe Cocker, Sinead O'Connor and Rod Stewart.

[VOX:] Sheryl. Do you remember the first time you heard the Stones?
"I can tell you the first record which made me want to write songs -- 'Let It Bleed'. Bar none. Including Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, everything. Because it sounded like it was out of Nashville, but it was influenced by everything I loved and it had the blues in it. It sounded like a carnival, with a living, serious voodoo. Which was hard for me because I grew up a classical pianist."
"Classical?" asks Ronnie, shocked. "Shit!"
You didn't like it?
"You know why," states Ronnie. "Because she was forced to do it. Like everyone was."
"But you were good at it," says Keith with certainty.
Being the guv'nor, Keith's never wrong about anything. Especially if we're talking music. Keith has an instinct about things. He's lived it. Keith knows.
"I was forced to do it, but I could play by ear, so I could really fake my way through a lot of it."

Ronnie: "Last night, Mick was talking to Keith in a huddle backstage, just before the bridge comes out..."
Keith: "...And he goes: 'My hands are freezing. I don't know how you guys do it.' This is very un-Mick. He goes: 'I picked up that guitar on 'Miss You' and I didn't touch a fucking string.'"
Sheryl: "It was freezing when I was on stage."
Ronnie: "I bet your nipples were fucking huge."
Sheryl: "They were as hard as a..."
Ronnie (making the appropriate hand gestures): "Hey, you can get Radio Luxemburg on them."
Sheryl, what does it feel like to be called "new", when you're a thirtysomething?
"Cheeky," warns Ronnie, suddenly protective.
"I don't feel so new anymore," she laughs. "Every day is a new adventure. Who would ever have thought I'd even meet these guys?"

"Keith's kids and my kids turned us on to Sheryl," her new protector reveals. "She's got soul."


Go for it, Ronnie. Don't hold back on VOX's account. If you wanna place your head on Sheryl's lap, you go right ahead. Keith certainly doesn't care. Seen it all before, mate.

"Since 1963," starts Keith, "I've worked with some great chick singers. Veronica Bennett, Ronnie and The Ronettes..."
"You were quite intimate with her, weren't you Keith?" interrupts Woody salaciously.
"Yeah, we'll leave that out...Then there was Tina Turner, Etta James, Mary Clayton -- and the reason I'm sitting here, talking with this one [Sheryl] is that's she's in the mould, baby. And they've learnt to play guitar, too -- and that fascinates me. And she's a nice size! She's a great size."
Who's the new Mick Jagger?
Keith: "There isn't one."
Courtney Love?
Keith: "I wouldn't wish that on my own best friend."
Sheryl: "Why do you think it's Courtney? Mick Jagger had a serious music thing going..."
She's the new rock'n'roll outlaw.
"There's no such thing," states Keith firmly. "Mick Jagger is a nice bunch of guys."
Is there any advice you can give Sheryl about coping with fame, being a relative newcomer 'n' all?
"Keith, tell me how it goes," Sheryl mock-whines. "How does it work?"
"Fame is a..."
"It's a coat of paint," she interrupts, pleased with herself. Ronnie rewards her with a kiss. It's not often someone has the balls to interrupt Mr. Keith Richards.
Keith continues, anyway...as one assumes he always does.

There's a knock on the door. It's Ronnie's bodyguard with his harmonica. Ronnie grabs it, shows it off proudly to Sheryl and VOX, and starts wailing into it.

"That's very good, Ron," Keith remarks sarcastically. "We'll call you. Give me that fucking thing!"
Keith is working right now. And if there's anything Keith hates more than being interrupted while working, then VOX doesn't want to be around to see the results. He grabs the harmonica from Ron's grasp and goes over to the French windows to hurl it out into the night.
Fortunately, the windows have been closed, thus giving Ron time to rescue his property.
"Don't, don't, don't! This is for Sheryl!"
"Is it?" asks Keith, mollified. "Oh, I'm sorry."
"He's giving me a lesson," Sheryl explains. Deferential to Keith, Sheryl seems to be warming rapidly to Ronnie. Keith calms down and returns to his seat, handing the harmonica back to Ronnie.
"You said that at just the right time," he growls.
"Shit, man," says Ron, still upset. "You think I got him to fucking bring it down for bollocks?"

Someone's knocking on the door. Ronnie's wife sticks her head round the corner.
Keith: "Mind your head. It may get squashed in the door."
Jo [Ronnie's wife]: "Ronnie. Can I have a word with you?"
Keith (stern): "No, you can't. We're working. Go away."
Ronnie (joking): "What? What? Did my horse win?"
Jo: "Alright, I'm going."
Keith (nasty): "Go away."
Ronnie (friendly): "Come in, say hello."
Keith (even nastier): "We're busy."
Jo: "I'll come back later."
Keith (slowly and with emphasis): "Go away. Go a-way."
Ronnie (trying his damnedest to ignore the threat of Keith, and not succeeding): "We'll meet you downstairs."
Jo: "You're not going to..."
Keith (with absolute finality): "Josephine. Go away."
Jo closes door.
Sheryl: "I need a husband, so we can tell him to go away."
Keith: "Ronnie's lucky. He's got me to do it for him."
Sheryl, what do you think of the contemporary sound on "Bridges to Babylon"? Perhaps we should call it the new, radio-friendly "Exile". Got a problem with that?
"I love it," the singer enthuses. "We've been playing it non-stop on our bus."
"You play it?" asks Keith, genuinely and surprisingly touched.
"Oh yeah," Sheryl confirms eagerly. "We listen to it, thinking how many bands have been influenced by the Stones, but how it's so much better than all of them."

Sheryl starts to say something, but she's interrupted by a ferocious argument, which has just broken out between Ronnie and Keith. Keith objects to Ronnie claiming that Ronnie works all the time. Then, as suddenly as the storm began, it's over. Ronnie and Keith burst into laughter at the sight of our open mouths.
"Sorry about that!" chuckles Ron.
"You can put that in parenthesis later," commands Keith.

It's time to wrap this up. Keith wants to eat -- and you don't argue with the guv'nor. VOX asks Ronnie if he'll do one of his sketches for posterity. The guitarist immediately picks up a biro and starts drawing the journalist's face on a nearby napkin.
"What's most important is to catch the lights," he explains. "You've got these great lights, like planets, shining in your eyes."
"Like a candle in the wind," says Keith wickedly, knowing full well the controversy which has recently raged around his remarks pertaining to Elton John and Princess Di ("He only ever writes songs for dead blondes").

"Not that again," shudders Sheryl.

Ronnie continues drawing: "You heard that Elton recorded a follow-up single for Mother Theresa? 'Sandals in the Bin'."
"That was Ronnie Wood." Keith spells his name out. "R-o-n-n-i-e W-o-o-d. Let the man hang."


From small-town Missouri to touring with the Stones -- Sheryl Crow, this is your life.

VOX: How does touring with the Rolling Stones compare to being on the road with Michael Jackson? Is the craziness similar?
Sheryl: "It's totally different. The only similarity is the size of the rolling carnival. A lot of people. Other than that, there's no comparison."

VOX: Is it destabilising?
Sheryl: "It's a strange experience. In our lifetime, we probably won't have the opportunity to play stadiums and there aren't really any bands who can do that anymore. The Stones are one of the few bands who can. For us to play before them, it's really a departure from what we're used to. It's great. All of us are such great fans; it's a real honour. The practice of playing stadiums only means you're exaggerating the visual part of it."

VOX: What do you think about the comparisons made between you and the Stones?
Sheryl: "I don't read music magazines much. I have better things to do. A lot of what is thrust upon you, visually and otherwise, is insipid -- it really gets inside your brain. A lot of what's written is so contrived and I think musicians aren't treated with any respect. No one is. Everyone in the public eye is open to scrutiny. There aren't that many magazines which talk about that makes an artist tick. It's more a 'dish' thing. I'd rather be reading books."

VOX: Have you read the Stones book, A Journey Through America With..., that was written round the 'Exile on Main Street' tour?
Sheryl: "I love that book. I read it before I even knew the Stones, at the beginning of this tour, about 16, 17 months ago. It got so inside that you find yourself standing by the side of Keith Richards onstage, thinking what the whole pageantry of rock'n'roll is about. The Stones formulated the whole definition of rock'n'roll. They were bad boys. Rebels, anarchists, but really intelligent and coming out of blues. They're the most influential rock band ever."

VOX: Was it their outlaw status that attracted you?
Sheryl: "It was their whole mystique. I was very young. When I discovered the Rolling Stones, the outlaw thing was very mysterious, especially for a small-town Missouri girl. You felt you were in on something you weren't meant to be watching."

VOX: Is your motivation for making music different now to when you started out?
Sheryl: "No. I still want to write the great song. That's one interesting thing about the Rolling Stones. They play 25 songs and you know every one of those 25 songs. And if they didn't do those 25 songs, they have two more sets of 25 songs that would be equally as recognisable. That's so amazing, that you can have that many hits in the space of a career....that's what keeps me writing songs. You want to write the song that is 'Angie' or 'Yesterday'."

VOX: A few articles written about you recently have included the phrase "The rock bitch is back". It makes me think of Chrissie Hynde.
Sheryl: "I'm totally for all that. To be perfectly frank, I don't care what people's perception of me is, as long as I'm clear about what I'm doing. People can write what they want. I'm not offended by that phrase. If that's what it means to you, that's cool. I think Chrissie Hynde is fucking awesome -- and who wouldn't want to be Mick Jagger? Right now I'd love to be Mick Jagger."

VOX: I'd love to be Chrissie Hynde.
Sheryl: "You'll be Chrissie. I'll be Mick. She's tough, man. She's like Mick. Really sensual and really strong, persona-wise. You relate to every side of theirs. It's a good combination."

VOX: Did you feel any pressue to follow up the success of 'Tuesday Night Music Club'?
Sheryl: "Not really. Honestly, I was so happy to get into the studio after touring for two-and-a-half years. By the time I got into the studio, I just wanted to make music."

VOX: What happened with the first album?
Sheryl: "You wanna hear the whole saga? I got signed to my record label by a well-known, brilliant producer [Hugh Padgham], and because he signed me I ended up working with him. It wasn't a compatible marriage. We made a record that was very 'mature' and beautiful, but wasn't what I wanted to do. The record got finished and I asked them not to put it out. So they didn't. I still believe if they'd put it out the way it was, I'd never have been heard of again. So then I sat around for a year waiting for somebody to call me. Eventually I started hanging out with Bill Bottrell and making music which ended up as my first album proper."

VOX: That's kind of unusual.
Sheryl: "It's not that unusual. You just don't hear about it that much. You wouldn't believe how many records get shelved each year. I just thought it was testament to A&M's loyalty to my development. It happens all the time. Definitely."

VOX: Do you have any personal life at all?
Sheryl: "Yeah! God, I'm the funniest girl I know [laughs]. I have friends coming out of the closets. Yeah I do. Sure, I do. I happen to love my life when I'm touring and so I tour. I enjoy having people around, I enjoy the company of it, I enjoy travelling, I love playing music...I'm getting ready to take eight months off. I said a year, but now I'm going eight months. I'm forcing myself to take some time off and I'm really terrified about it. I don't know what I'm going to do."

VOX: You were saying last night that you find it difficult to hold down a relationship.
Sheryl: "Do I? Well, I think it's difficult for someone who's in a relationship with me, certainly -- to be involved with someone who a) is in the public eye and b) never home. That does make things a little more complicated."

VOX: What sort of person are you attracted to?
Sheryl: "Oh, I don't know. I often end up dating people I get to know on a day-to-day basis, people I work with, other musicians -- and that's a trip, because dating another musician has never proved too healthy for me. I like funny people."

VOX: Do you remember your first date?
Sheryl: "Yes [laughs]. It was a nightmare. I went out with this jock when I was like 14 and it was just so, so boring. I thought: 'Is this really what dating's going to be like?'"

VOX: You mean like that Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?"
Sheryl: "Yeah. You ever hear PJ Harvey's version of it? That's a great version. I love that record, PJ Harvey and John Parish's Dance Hall At Louse Point. I love her. She's an interesting rocker. A new twist... Anyway, that was my first date. Actually, my first date was going to see 101 Dalmatians in the Second Grade, the first time my parents ever left me with a boy. Eric Potts."

VOX: Do you think you sing the blues?
Sheryl: "Yeah, I do. And I get criticised for it as well. People have an aversion to hearing young people singing music that is considered to be derivative or retro. It's the first thing I get criticised for. I can't help it. It's what I grew up listening to, Mississippi Wallis, Bessie Smith, even Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin.... Those are my references. You mentioned Ramones last night. When I was a kid, in the '80s, when the punk scene was happening, we didn't get any of that. That never made it to Missouri. What I wound up listening to was all that blues stuff I went down the record store and bought -- Etta James, Delanie And Bonnie, Fleetwood Mac even. The reason the punk thing went over my head was that there was absolutely no soul in it, no black reference. I still go out and buy old blues music.
"My whole family were at the Stones gig in Nashville and they were blown away. On the way back, my father was asking me about Stax music and the blues and the Stones' reference points. It's very rare that people have a conversation about the actual musicians, about how it worked -- it's great to tell the story. Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper...these guys are still around and they're really nice people. You read about them on album sleeves, and then you meet them! What a fucking great life I have. I'm so lucky."

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