In June 2016, I threw myself into an immersive theatre…
Exile on Main St. by the Rolling Stones was released in 1972 and initially received a muted response, Tt’s now regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made. The book, ‘Exile on Main Street- A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones’ by Robert Greenfield explores the sordid story of the album’s creation. It feels slightly one-sided, says Stewart Who?
The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. has always been part of my life. Growing up in the ’70s, the soundtrack at home consisted of Elvis Presley, Motown, a range of Country & Western and Exile on Main St.
Later, as an ’80s teenager, such sounds were unfashionably offensive to my ear, while Generation X, Bauhaus and The Cramps proved a dark and soothing tonic. Despite excursions into many musical genres in the meantime, it’s the tunes of my childhood that have endured in a way that Bauhaus hasn’t. One has to be in the mood for Bela Lugosi’s Dead, but it’s always time for a bit of Motown.
Nightmares and hysteria
Despite being nurtured on a mix of blues, country and soul, Exile on Main St. managed to rise above its influences and sear itself onto my little mind. It sounded raw, dirty and otherworldly. But, it wasn’t just the way the album sounded.
That double-vinyl, gatefold sleeve gave me nightmares of such an extremity that my mum had to hide the album in a wooden chest. If it was left lying around, demented hysteria ensued and the little Who would be unable to sleep for weeks on end.
Freaks and drug dealers
“The general tone of the time was one of anarchy — drug dealers and freaks and crazy people left over from the Sixties, all defiant and distorted,” says John Van Hamersveld, designer of the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.
The cover shot may look like a collage, but it’s actually a photograph taken in 1950 by Robert Frank of the wall of a tattoo parlour somewhere on Route 66. One of the cover ‘freaks’ is a black guy with 3 snooker balls in his mouth.
For some reason, that particular image was unspeakably terrifying to yours truly. A man in a gorilla suit, hiding in a doorway, with glinting eyes, merely added to the terror that the artwork provoked. It’s also quite ironic that some 30 years later, after much consideration, Exile on Main Street is probably my favourite album of all time.
Bearing all that in mind, it was quite thrilling to pick up Robert Greenfield’s Exile on Main Street- A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones. The circumstances surrounding the recording of the album are rock and roll myth and mystery.
Legend has it that a hot summer was spent, smacked-out and tense at Villa Nellcote, Keith Richards’ decadent mansion in the south of France. Somehow, between the nodding out, drug smuggling, tax evasion, mobster-courting and bed-hopping, the album was recorded in the villa’s airless basement.
Initially, Greenfield’s apparently omniscient, authorial voice proved so annoying as to be almost unbearable. He decides for us, who should be admired and who should be viewed with a critical eye.
“Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Keith Richards is our hero. And the situation in which he finds himself trapped that summer at Nellcote is the source of our drama. Without the help of his best friend and fellow songwriter Mick, who has already betrayed him with the woman he loves, Keith cannot complete the new album on which the Stones are working.”
Not so heroic
Yes, Keith is a god, if you worship at the Church of Rock and Roll, no doubt about that. However, there’s no such thing as a heroic heroin addict. When they’re using, they abuse everyone else around them, no exceptions. Afghanistan was almost sucked dry by the amount of heroin consumed in that mansion every week, but it wasn’t just Richards who lapped up the smack.
The Stones hosted a a colourful circus of visitors that included William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern, Gram Parsons and Marshall Chess (who was running the Rolling Stones’ new label).
Parsons was asked to leave Nellcôte in early July, 1971, due to his obnoxious behaviour and an attempt by Richards to clean the house of drug users as the French police were onto them. The entire episode is like Carry On Junkies and it’s hard to tell if it was heaps of fun or dreadfully miserable.
Despite Greenfield’s reverential tone, the narrative is so compelling that the reader learns to ignore the source and enjoy the ride. It’s a shocking, excessive and fiendishly fast rollercoaster through the celebrity-peppered lives of the greatest band in the world, at the peak of their creativity and hedonism.
At times, the book resembles one of those vox-pop shows, where there’s loads of talking heads and very little authentic footage. At best, it’s an exhaustively researched, gossipy homage to rock royalty, with a pop-psychology emphasis on the strained relationship between Mick and Keith.
If there’s been less Greenfield and some tangible input from Jagger and Richards, it may have proved quite seminal. Having said all that, it’s still a great read for the beach and an entertaining companion to the album.
Exile on Main Street- A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones by Robert Greenfield is published by De Capo Press priced £9.99.