News that the Rolling Stones would in April release a remastered version of Exile On Main Street, complete with three songs never before released, is an event the anticipation of which led Tulip Frenzy to reach for the top shelf in the library. Around these parts, we don’t have a headful of snow, but we have roads full of it, which makes getting out of the cabin treacherous, and encourages contemplation of deep thoughts, to wit, “Is Exile the Stones’ greatest album? Or perhaps more apt, is the making of Exile, followed by the Stones ’72 tour, the greatest of rock myths, up there with the motorcycle-shredded Dylan recording The Basement Tapes, or the Beatles, having bickered their way through Let It Be, deciding to end fittingly with Abbey Road.”
Having pondered it, we think the answer to both questions may be yes.
We have before us Bufffalo Tom frontman Bill Janovitz’ superb book, a track by track analysis in the 33 1/3d series entitled, natch, Exile On Main Street. We have Robert Greenfield’s 2006 book, Exile On Main Street: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones, as well as his ’72 tour classic, STP. We finally got our hands on both the DVDs of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, and Robert Frank’s tour film, C*cksucker’s Blues. Like we said, it’s been a long few weeks with few outlets. We do not have Dominique Tarle’s book of photos, Exiles, because that goes for about $4k, and we admit we didn’t go back to the bible — Stanley Booth. But still.
Greenfield’s book on the making of Exile, published many years after the fact, does a superb job of creating the mise en scene, as he actually was, for a time, at Nellcote, Keith Richards’ tax-exiled home in Villefranche-sur-Mer in the South of France — the former Nazi headquarters, a sprawling villa with a basement suitable of being remade into a recording studio, though as “Ventilator Blues” would illustrate, not much air. Thirty-five years after the fact, years after being approved by Keith to do the definitive Rolling Stone Magazine interview and being invited on as a journalist member of the ’72 Stones Touring Party (STP), Greenfield has no reason to cover up Keith’s junkie behavior, and he lays it out in full. Judging from his book, it is a miracle Exile was recorded, given the dysfunction of the band — Mick freshly married to Bianca, who was pregnant and wanted to stay in Paris, well away from the band and the record they had to record; Keith and Anita Pallenberg getting deeper and deeper into smack; virtually everyone else, save Charlie and Bill, falling down the junkie rabbit hole. Amazing the record ever got made.
What Greenfield’s book lacks is the same thing his Stones tour book lacked: a sense, or even an acknowledgement, of the primacy of the bloody music. (Compare STP to Michael Lydon’s brilliant, majestic Stones ’69 tour chapter in his great book Rock Folk. Lydon could cover the wackiness of a Stones tour AND serve as a great rock critic, groking on the music; Greenfield can paint a picture of what went down in the Playboy Mansion when the Stones stayed there, but we don’t get a real sense of just how magnificent the Stones were when they played that same night in Chicago.) In his book on the recording of Exile, we know who was sleeping with whom, we learn the really sad story of Gram Parsons hanging with Keith and partying with him, and then being banished because when he was around, all they did was play guitar in the garden and shoot smack. But we don’t get what we really need, which was a view of how, exactly, was “Tumbling Dice” recorded, what happened the night they finally got “All Down The Line” in the can, etc.
Martin Elliott’s The Rolling Stones Complete Recording Sessions is, of course, even more useless, with hilarious sentences like this: “The problems of recording in a family situation at the villa were evident. Tempers became frayed, the band being particularly annoyed when Keith Richards would disappear for hours as he put his son, Marlon, to bed. He would reappear in the early hours ready to record until dawn.” Isn’t that something?
Bill Janovitz does the far better job of just listening to music and telling us what he hears. If you put together his insights as a musician with some of the interviews with Andy Johns and others over how the album was actually made, you do get a sense of the prodigiousness of Keith’s drive to get what he was hearing in his junkie-addled head onto the vinyl that emerged in May 1972. Janowitz has a pretty fascinating point of view that many of songs revolve not around Mick writing about some woman, but about the Mick-Keith relationship, and I admit, I will never again listen to “Soul Survivor” without thinking of Jagger’s point of view that his “partner in crime” was drowning in smack.
Of course, it’s all there in the music, that clotted sound, that turgid flow. Whole genres emerged from Exile: Alt.country came from the 2nd side, for example, and the classic Stones sound that launched a thousand bands sprang from the 4th side.
Watching Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones is a reminder that, on the ’72 tour, the Stones reached the high water mark, not just for themselves, but maybe for the art form: musically, and in terms of the tour mythos, and certainly in terms of a single band’s tour having an impact on the culture at large. I remember what it was like to be going to the Stones’ concerts that summer: you felt as if you were entering the most important room in the world. And of course it was.
We await the remastering of Exile On Main Street. Spring can’t arrive soon enough.