Soul Survivors: Exile on Main St. Enters its Fifth Decade

Alex Koenig is tumbling dice. The spring of 1971 was a tumultuous period that all but guaranteed a burnout– the Rolling Stones owed more in taxes than they could pay and escaped their native...
By    June 6, 2013

stonesAlex Koenig is tumbling dice.

The spring of 1971 was a tumultuous period that all but guaranteed a burnout– the Rolling Stones owed more in taxes than they could pay and escaped their native Britain as tax exiles. The chemistry between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had grown out of sync; the former sought to break away from his band’s white-boy blues reputation, and the latter’s productivity came in diminishing returns due to an escalating heroin addiction.

“I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just these drunks and junkies,” Jagger told The Guardian in 2010.

This could have easily been the beginning of the end, a cataclysmic eruption that would make the Sex Pistols’ dissolution seem amicable in comparison. If the origin of Exile chronicles a band nearly falling off the grid, its outcome is a band ruggedly regaining their composure– an ideal itinerary for travel-weary vagabonds searching for truth.

Pick up the original vinyl LP. It features a gatefold cover and 12 perforated postcards with a sequence of image inserts. The man responsible for Exile’s inimitable cover art was Robert Frank, the free-spirited Swiss photographer. Jack Kerouac famously referred to Frank’s published photo collection, The Americans as “that crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of a jukebox or funeral.”

The chopped-up “collage” of circus freaks on the front of Exile is actually a single shot ostensibly taken in front of a wall of a New York City tattoo parlor, whereas the back of the LP displays film frames of the Rolling Stones themselves. This mirror-image juxtaposition was no accident— it was a tongue-in-cheek representation of the band’s iconoclasm.

Twelve black-and-white photos were displayed on the set’s postcards, and each were taken by Norman Seef, a Johannesburg native who moved to America and quickly sought to explore the inner dynamics of the creative process. Each band member stands in front of what appears to be ship cargo, donned in dark suits and fedora hats as a woman wearing a white wedding dress stands in the center. For a record whose history has grown transparent, the photographs preserve Exile’s aura of mystery.

Exile’s recording sessions took place in Richards’ dank basement of Villa Nellcôte, Richards’s rented house in the south of France. Among the guests were Richards’ witchcraft-obsessed girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (she claimed she could actually cast spells) and an array of freaks, weirdos, thieves, bikers, and pop royalty. As Tommy Weber, the hasty-driving, drug-dealing member of Richards’s inner circle at Nellcôte, reveals in the documentary Stones in Exile, “There was cocaine, a lot of joints. If you’re living a decadent life, there is always darkness there. But, at this point, this was the moment of grace. This was before the darkness, the sunrise before the sunset.”

The LP plays as both homage and evolution of American roots. “Rip This Joint” flails with white-hot romp akin to the gems of 50s rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran. “Ventilator Blues” culls the claustrophobic, time-bomb paranoia of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and couples it with true-to-life turmoil. “Everybody’s gonna need a ventilator/When you’re trapped and circled with no second chances,” the words a figurative testament to the temperature rising within the group.

Yet for all the record’s forays into the standard tropes of blues, R&B, and gospel, nothing here should be classified as a pale imitation. It’s not even blasphemous to say that the covers live up to their initial offerings. “Stop Breaking Down” hammers with the afflicted spirit of Robert Johnson’s ghost, while the Stones’ take on Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” would birth the boogie-rock that permeated the airwaves during the 1970s.

Keith Richards, for all his indulgent, drug-fueled impulses, proved to be perhaps the most economical guitar player of his time. He used his fret board like a painter’s palette, with each broad stroke brimming with purpose. Mick Jagger, who would later dismiss Exile due to his perceived lack of creative involvement, possessed his most immaculate vocal range, capable of transitioning from belted blues numbers to plaintive ballads at the drop of a hat.

Notwithstanding their star power, it was crucial that Jagger and Richards acquired a supporting cast with an understanding of the Stones’ musical vision. There’s no beautiful buzz of “Lovin’ Cup” without Nicky Hopkins’ juke joint piano, and try gliding along to the suave strut of “Rocks Off” without Mick Taylor’s toddling bass line.

Lyrically, the compositions of Exile swim through the veins of counterculture ideologies, debauchery, and after-hours junkie rushes; it makes you wonder why Martin Scorsese waited until the band’s twilight years to siphon their story to the silver screen. “Joe’s got a cough, sounds kind a rough, Yeah, and the codeine to fix it. Doctor prescribes, drug store supplies, Who’s gonna help him to kick it,” sings Jagger in “Torn And Frayed,” a lyric perhaps more autobiographical than he let’s on.

Like the most emotionally rich Scorsese films, there is a latent sadness to Exile’s narrative as the record devolves into darkness in its final third. “I don’t want to talk about Jesus, I just want to see his face,” Jagger sings amid evangelical arrangements, implying a profound need for spiritual salvation. Belied by its uplifting harmonies, “Soul Survivor” is actually a hangdog mediation on a lost love. “Oh yeah, when you’re flying your flags / All my confidence sags / You got me packing my bags.”

Though Exile’s songs appear to be arranged in an ad hoc fashion, the sprawl of new material was difficult to assemble into a concise product of commercial art. Richards told The Chicago Tribune, “We tried to make a single [album], but it became impossible, like cutting babies in half.” Fortunately, the Rolling Stones soldiered on, crafting the sterling soundtrack of dreams slipping through brittle fingers; a golden baby born after a season in hell.

Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street

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