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The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street turns 40

The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, released on May 12, 1972, turned forty this past weekend.
The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, released on May 12, 1972, turned forty this past weekend.

By the spring of 1971, the heroes of the '60s were dropping like flies. The Beatles had broken up, Angela Davis and Timothy Leary were on the run, and everyone in California was becoming a born-again Christian. The previous autumn, Jimi Hendrix asphyxiated on half-digested sleeping pills and red wine, followed by Janis Joplin's lonely heroin overdose two weeks later. It was a time for hiding, not necessarily for self-reflection, but hiding from the truth that the lifestyle of the '60s either killed you or turned you into a sober religious nut making forgettable music -- and which was worse?

Despite his own attempts at hiding, death would find Jim Morrison later that summer in a Parisian bathtub. A few miles to the south, the Rolling Stones were doing some hiding of their own, recording an album in the basement of Keith Richards's rented villa in the south of France. By that time, the band had already experienced its own casualty of indulgence -- the first of the era -- in the form of their booted blond guitar player, Brian Jones, found facedown in his own swimming pool.

"Brian's death acted like a slow-motion bomb," Marianne Faithfull wrote in her memoir, Faithfull. "It had a devastating effect on all of us. The dead go away, but the survivors are damned. ...Keith's way of reacting to Brian's death was to become Brian. He became the very image of the falling down, stoned junkie hovering perpetually on the edge of death. But Keith, being Keith, was made of different stuff. However he mimicked Brian's self-destruction, he never actually disintegrated."

Shacking and smacking up with Jones's former girlfriend, actress Anita Pallenberg (a woman Mick Jagger once said "could make a dead man come"), Richards had become a mess by 1971. One night before leaving for France, he crashed his Bentley in a coke-and-margarita-fueled haze; with radiator hissing and the latest Stones release, Sticky Fingers, still blasting from the car stereo, Richards reportedly buried his stash in the dirt and took a limo to Bowden House, a sobriety clinic where Pallenberg was trying (unsuccessfully) to kick heroin. "Just get me some H!" she screamed at Richards when he called to explain.

As gonzo as this all may seem, the reason behind the Stones' retreat to France had nothing to do with sex, drugs or reinventing themselves as a band (although plenty of all three would occur as a result). Nope, the Stones' "exile" of 1971 was nothing more than an attempt to dodge the tax man. "In those days, if a band was big in England, and then left England, you didn't like them anymore. It's fucking curtains," said Mick Jagger in the documentary Stones In Exile. "And if you leave for tax reasons, that's not very cool."

Due to poor management and general obliviousness, it seemed that the Stones hadn't paid their taxes in some time and now owed the United Kingdom a considerable chunk of cash, enough for their property and assets to be seized should they remain in the country. "Tax, under the Labour government [of 1971], was 93%," said Bill Wyman. "If you earned a million quid -- which we didn't -- you'd end up with seventy grand. So it was impossible to pay back what we owed."

Yet the Stones weren't exactly living as the traveling Joad family. The group all immigrated to the south of France and centered themselves around Richards's Villa Nellcote, an enormous mansion right off the water in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small village just next door to Nice. A luxurious palace filled with mirrors and sea air, Nellcote also held a dark past.

During the Nazi occupation of France, Richards's new home had served as a Gestapo headquarters, a space in which the Nazis had not only gotten comfortable (they'd remodeled the floor vents to be shaped as swastikas), but one where they had indulged in some predictably sadistic behavior. One afternoon, a pair of friends found a metallic box with a large swastika on it in the basement. Finding morphine vials inside, the two decided to pitch the box into the ocean -- lest Keith Richards find it.

When Richards was eventually told about his new home's evil past, he characteristically shrugged and said, "It's all right. We're here now. Fuck those people." Subsequently, Richards didn't hesitate to set up a recording operation in the Villa's basement -- a section of the house that, according to one biographer, had been used regularly as an interrogation-via-torture facility by the Nazis against many innocent French citizens during WWII.

In addition to the heat turning the basement into a humid sauna where guitars wouldn't stay in tune and tired men sweated out Jack Daniel's, there were many reports of power randomly going in and out, small fires erupting and strange sounds heard in dark quarters, all rumored to be unsettled spirits of Nazi torture casualties. Working at random, unscheduled hours, the band would struggle through dozens of takes, experimenting with songs from all different angles.

"A lot of Exile was done how Keith works," remembers drummer Charlie Watts, "which was play it twenty times, then let it marinate another twenty. Keith's very much like a jazz player in lots of ways. He knows what he likes. He's very loose. Keith's a bohemian, an eccentric in the best terms."

Not everyone was so patient with Richards's erratic production schedule.

"Atlantic distributed Rolling Stones records. The deal was we'd get a dollar an album and a big budget to produce the album," said Marshall Chess, founding president of Rolling Stones Records, a vanity label established after the band's contract with Decca had expired. "[Atlantic said], 'Could you get the Rolling Stones to make an album every year or every eighteen months?' And I said, 'Yeah, I can do that.' Then I started to watch their creative process, and was amazed that Keith could fall asleep while he was doing a vocal. Mick wouldn't show up.... I was coming from [a work schedule of] making three sides in three hours: These guys were taking two weeks to get one track done!"

Despite making two attempts to clean up before heading to France, Keith Richards's dependence on heroin set its hooks in deeper than ever before while living and working in Villa Nellcote. While the basement had been transformed into a (semi-) functioning recording studio, the main floor of the house had become a Bacchanalian circus of drugs and sex.

John Lennon -- enduring a methadone treatment of his own -- reportedly passed out in his own vomit at the foot of the grand staircase while visiting that summer. Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Ringo Star, along with many others, visited for Jagger's wedding to Bianca in Saint-Tropez -- the celebrations of which raged on for days afterward.

"I didn't mind it one bit," said Stones saxophone player Bobby Keyes, speaking in a thick Texan drawl. "Didn't mind all the pretty girls out there in the countryside. Yes, sir. South of France, a young man in his twenties, a rock-and-roller, that's a mighty good combination. I tell ya, that's when yer shittin' in tall cotton."

With Marseille's connections on the right, and Italy's Mafia on the left, getting drugs in the South of France was not difficult: Thousands of dollars in heroin flowed out of Nellcote. While social with his booze and pot, Richards was quiet about his heroin use, often telling his bandmates he had to go upstairs to put his son Marlon to bed, then would take hours to return, shooting smack and playing his guitar in the second floor bathroom. All while the crew waited patiently for him to return, all of them too intimidated to go upstairs and check on him.

But Richards's narcotic-zen schedule -- producing only out of inspiration; no use for a clock -- was seemingly necessary for him to get into a space of transcendent creativity. "I never plan anything," Richards says in Stones in Exile. "Which is probably the difference between Mick and myself: Mick needs to know what he's going to do tomorrow. Whereas I'm just happy to wake up and see who's hanging around. Mick's rock; I'm roll."

Constantly bickering -- especially when sleeping with one another's girlfriend -- Jagger and Richards were in a state of awkward tension throughout the recording of Exile. "What happens when Michael Philip Jagger, the unquestioned lord of the manor whose droit de seigneur has never before been challenged by anyone, suddenly finds himself a perpetual guest in Keith Richards's palatial mansion by the sea in the south of France?" asks biographer Robert Greenfield in Exile on Main Street: A Season In Hell With the Rolling Stones. "Mick cannot leave. At least not for very long. Whenever he does, work on the new album grinds to a complete halt. But even when Mick is there, there is nothing he can do to make Keith come up with new music to which he can write lyrics."

Though music would be made and lyrics would be written.

Known today as one of the greatest albums in the Rolling Stones catalogue, Exile on Main Street contains not only some of the best Richards guitar licks, but a host of Jagger's greatest lyrical contributions. "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me," he declares on the opening track, "Rocks Off," cleverly stating his distaste of French summers (which, at Villa Nellcote, were blinding) while simultaneously laying out the ethos of the Rolling Stones party lifestyle. "Tryin' to stop the waves behind your eyeballs," he says with an Opry twang on the countrified "Sweet Virginia," singing about speed addiction.

"They were the worst bloody band on the planet, the worst bunch of musicians in the world, they could be for days at a time," remembers Exile engineer Andy Johns. "Really fucking horrible. And you sit there wondering how on earth are we going to get anything out this. They would play very badly, and that's how they played most of the time, very poorly, and out of tune. Most of it had to do with attitude. They did take a long time in those days, so Bill and Charlie were kind of waiting for the real spark to happen before everyone really bothered. ...But, when it happened, they were transformed almost instantly from this dreadful band into the Rolling Stones and blow you away. It was almost magical."

After six months of recording, the band was spent and ready to get out of France. They'd had their equipment stolen by junkies, and the tensions between the band and the French police were getting serious. "Suddenly it was getting cold and autumn," remembers Richards. "So we got all this stuff we recorded into a truck. And I think Mick and I were looking at each other and thinking we'd drained it. We'd drained each other and everybody else."

"We always went to L.A. to finish our records," explains Jagger. And Exile was no exception. While the band had laid down some pretty impressive tracks in Nellcote, there were still vocal overdubs and mastering to be done, as well as some bits and pieces of songs that required assembling and lyrics -- some of which were done utilizing William Burroughs cut-up method, a technique they'd learned from the man himself during his visit to Nellcote earlier that summer. The party continued in L.A. hotel rooms, with televisions thrown from balcony windows and celebrities like Marc Bolan and Neil Young joining in on the fun.

After its release,Exile on Main Street was criticized for being too long, too directionless and without any real hits. With the exception of "Tumbling Dice," the critics were right at least about Exile's lack of radio appeal. In its day, it was considered a failure. Though in the years to come, the album would be championed for the same reason it was once vilified.

Similar to the trials that Wilco would endure decades later attempting to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the machinery of the music industry had difficulty placing Exile on Main Streetand was not sure how to promote it. Was it a country album or a rock album? Southern blues or R&B? It simultaneously looked to the past with songs like the Robert Johnson cover "Stop Breaking Down," and the future with the proto-punk "Rip This Joint."

Exile on Main Street is now known to many as the last great Rolling Stones album (this depends mostly on your feelings about Some Girls). It is heralded as the measuring stick which all future kitchen-sink double albums (such as Prince's Sign o' the Times or OutKast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below) are compared. The fact that the record took several years to be recognized for the gem that it was proves that -- like waiting for Keith Richards to come out of the bathroom and record a song -- some things take time, but they're worth the wait.



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