exile on main street
“The whole idea of an unreleased tune from the Exile on Main Street sessions is like hearing somebody dug up video footage of Jesus skateboarding.”
Rob Sheffield, Contributing Editor Rolling Stone
That quote A) made me spit soda all over my coffee table when I read it and B) sums up my feelings exactly. Over the past 38 years Exile on Main Street has taken on a larger than life mystique, the music itself being colored by the swirling stories of rock & roll decadence that surround it.
By now the story of the album’s recording has become part of rock & roll legend: In 1971, with tax issues looming heavily from the Motherland the Stones flee into self-imposed exile in the south of France. Upstairs at Keith Richards majestic rented villa, Nellcôte, is the hedonistic party of the summer for rock’s elite while in the basement murky music magic is being made whenever all of the Stones (read: Keith and Mick) can be bothered to show up. Days turn to weeks turn to months and come fall the team departs for Phase II of exile to labor over hours of tape and mix the album in Los Angeles.
When it was first released in May 1972 the reception wasn’t nearly what the fanfare and hype over yesterday’s reissue would have you believe. Most critics were less than effusive in their appraisal of its gritty blues-rock sound. But it has more than withstood the test of time, gaining appreciation and accolades with age and landing in 2003 at the #7 spot on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
I won’t pretend to have anything but a time distorted, bias, unwavering love for the album, being born as I was 12 years after its release. Along with Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers, Exile completes my Stones holy trinity. Even before I learned the story of that Bacchanalicious swampy summer in the south of France the music of Exile was magnetic to me. As so many critics have written, its raw edges and unforgiving grit make it the archetypical rock & roll album.
On any given day “Torn & Frayed” might be my favorite Stones song, bearing the unmistakable influence of Gram Parsons tenure at Nellcôte that summer. On any other day “Shine a Light” might be my favorite Stones song, and while it was recorded at Olympic Studios in London during the Sticky Fingers sessions it has the same earnestly dirty sound that typifies Exile.
To me Exile sounds like Mick Jagger moves, like a drunken rag doll in constant danger of flailing completely out of control. All of the songs feel like they are right on the brink of spilling over their 3:30 minutes into spastically luxurious rock & roll chaos. “Sweet Virginia” is really only slightly more buttoned up than Dylan’s famously jumbled “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”
So how does the reissue stack up? Is it really as good as Jesus on a half pipe? I can only speak to the $19.99 Deluxe Edition sans LP’s and booklets, since I don’t pay three figures for anything that doesn’t come with a boarding pass or a wristband with a beer logo on it. First of all the fidelity of the original tracks is much improved. And the alternate takes provide an interesting glimpse of what might have been, though I think they made the right decisions across the board. As for the unreleased tracks, “Plundered My Soul” is the standout for me. It could easily have held its own on the original double album, despite getting its signature Mick Taylor lead guitar part 38 years late. (Jagger brought Taylor, who has been out of the Stones since ’74 to a London studio last fall to complete the track, see David Gates’ cover story in the latest issue of Rolling Stone for more on that.)
More than any musical revelations brought about by the reissue, I just appreciate the renewed attention bestowed on one of rock’s true masterpieces. Because while it may be a little rough around the edges it is, like the Stones themselves, aging rather marvelously….
“And 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….”
….Can’t get enough Exile? (Me either, check out these links though – they help)
- Exquisite gallery of Dominque Tarlé’s photographs from Nellcôte
- Keith Richards interview on NPR
- Mick Jagger interview on NPR
- Get an early look at the Stones in Exile documentary exclusively at Rolling Stone.com
- For the inside story on that sweltering summer of ’71 at Nellcôte pick up a copy of Robert Greenfield’s Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones