Exile On Main St. Turns 40
I gave you diamonds, you give me disease.
On May 12, nineteen hundred and seventy-two, the greatest rock and roll album by the greatest rock and roll band, smack dab in the middle of the genre's golden age, hit the streets. Recorded in a fog of mystic fumes, bad vibes, drug hysteria, bohemian hedonism, and sweltering temperatures in the dank and foreboding basement of a 19th century French villa called Nellcote, Exile On Main St. emerged raunchy, raucous and anguished. Every track reeks of dangerous liaisons, broken spirits, fueled aggression, outsider longing, and outlandish mischievousness. It perfectly captures a period of decadence and revelry unlike anything of its time. It is the sonic version of The Great Gatsby or The Grapes Of Wrath; Mick Jagger as Jay Gatsby and Keith Richards as Tom Joad, setting to music the final toll of '60s fallout and the harkening of a baby boomer dirge.
The previous summer the Rolling Stones left England en masse as tax exiles to settle in Villefranche-sur-Mer with seemingly no plan, no songs, and no semblance of boundaries, even for them. Richards, the band's unquestioned musical leader, was a full-blown heroin addict whose outlaw antics was fast becoming the stuff of legend. Jagger, beginning a second career as jet-setting celebrity, had just married Nicaraguan beauty Bianca Perez Morena de Macias beneath a spectacular crush of media. The band was a mere two years removed from burying its founder, Brian Jones, who had died mysteriously in the pool at his home, and even less than that from Altamont, the disastrous free concert in San Fransisco which ended in mayhem and murder.
Honey, got no money, I'm all sixes and sevens and nines.
So, the most powerful rock band left standing (the Beatles were gone, Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison had died within the year) packed up to live in a cavernous mansion once inhabited by the Gestapo in World War II with a lunatic junky, his crazed witch of a de facto wife, Anita Pallenberg (many claimed she could actually cast spells) and an astonishing lineup of freaks, weirdos, bandits, bikers, and pop royalty to create a timeless classic.
These sordid weeks of car-wreck creation are recalled darkly and amusingly by author/journalist, Robert Greenfield in his revelatory Exile On Main St. -- A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones.
"The Stones were so far in front of the culture when Exile came out most people just didn't get it because it was such a disjunctive leap," Greenfield told me five years ago, upon the record's thirty-fifth anniversary. "The reason it's so brilliant is that they're not just in physical exile, they're in psychic exile, and what the album is saying to people who weren't there yet is 'you're all about to be dispossessed, the culture is about to throw you out, really grim times are coming,' and because they got there early they already know the outlaw counterculture is finished, rock and roll as a statement of social protest is at an end, and they're recording the transition."
Kick me like you've kicked before, I can't even feel the pain no more.
Therein lies what separates Exile on Main St. from just any other classic rock album; it quite literally puts on tape the soul of a band, and in this case, the band. Emotions are not just hinted at or broached with expression, but gushed about, thrown around, poured out furiously through amps and bass drum kicks and cockneyed wails, ripping leads, blasting horns, groaning harps, and beer-soaked honky tonk piano. Where fear and paranoia is needed, it reverberates from our speakers, when loneliness is expressed, the listener is not cheated. And when the boogie hits the road, there is magic, real magic in the performance. It is a postcard from oblivion, a great rock band in its prime doing what great rock bands do. The sloppiness is there. The passion is there. The black arts, flesh-ripping, throat-clearing fury is all there -- pure, raw, gutsy, balls-out grunge.
"I think it's safe to say nobody will ever make another album the way the Stones made Exile", Greenfield explains. "To jam for hours, night after night, without songs or ideas. 'Let me get a riff going,' Keith would say. They were truly artists going out there on their art without limits."
Soul survivor, you're gonna be the death of me.
Originally released as a double-album (yes, kids, albums) with four sides of distinction -- funky gives way to country, then into blues and gospel, and then all-out rocking. Exile on Main St. is everything the Stones did well to imitate, negotiate and discover all in one wonderfully jumbled package. It is one, I have often said, for the time capsule. Why are the Rolling Stones so great? My answer has always been Exile On Main St.
"Having been there when they recorded it, and watching them mix it, I can say that the music in Exile very much comes from the place where it was created," Greenfield adds. "The villa was not just a house, it was some kind of a cauldron, a mixing bowl where lives were turned around. It was as if all these people were trapped together on another planet. As one of the other inhabitants of Nellcote has told me since, 'the '70s began in that place.'"
I'm the man that brings you roses when you ain't got none.
There have been other more hit-laden, influential, and traditional Stones records. Many more. But there was never a better one. Aside from the infectiously groove-maddened "Tumbling Dice" or the explosively rapt "Happy", none of the remaining 18 tracks has survived the band's decades of concert tours. This is probably why Exile on Main St. has grown in stature over the years; it is not overplayed, gutted for hits, or genuflected to like Sgt. Pepper's or Dark Side Of The Moon. Yet it consistently makes the laughingly sanctimonious glut of annual Top Ten lists and is accepted without much argument among critics and rock historians as the finest of pure rock collections.
His coat is torn and frayed,
It's seen much better days.
Just as long as the guitar plays
Let it steal your heart away.
"The Stones never make another great album after Exile," Greenfield concludes. "They make great songs, but nothing like this. It was the end of an era."
In more ways than one.