The International Writers
NASTY, JUNKY, FUNKY, LOWDOWN COUNTRY BLUES
"Exile On Main St." Turns 35 This Week
I gave you diamonds, you give me disease.
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 sixties 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 benath a spectacular crush of media. The band was a mere
two years removed from burying their founder, Brian Jones, who'd died
mysteriously in the pool at his home, and even less than that from Altamont,
the disasterous free concert in San Fransisco which ended in mayhem and
Honey, got no money, I'm all sixes and sevens and nines.
Mick Jagger by Andy Wahol
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 (John Lennon puked all over the place in an LSD frenzy)
to create a timeless classic.
sordid weeks of car-wreck creation are recalled darkly and amusingly
by author/journalist, Robert Greenfield in his revelatory
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 this week.
"The reason it's so brilliant is that they're not just in psychical
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" 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 recalls. "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
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" 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
"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 seventies 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 gin-soaked
"Happy", none of the remaining 18 tracks has survived the band's
decades of concert tours. This is probably why "Exile" 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.
coat is torn and frayed,
much better days.
long as the guitar plays
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.
© James Campion May 5th 2007
'All this happened, more or less'
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. "Slaughterhouse Five"
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