THE ROLLING STONES: EXILE ON MAIN ST. (1972)
1) Rocks Off; 2) Rip This Joint; 3) Shake Your Hips; 4) Casino Boogie; 5) Tumbling Dice; 6) Sweet Virginia; 7) Torn And Frayed; 8) Sweet Black Angel; 9) Loving Cup; 10) Happy; 11) Turd On The Run; 12) Ventilator Blues; 13) I Just Want To See His Face; 14) Let It Loose; 15) All Down The Line; 16) Stop Breaking Down; 17) Shine A Light; 18) Soul Survivor.
I cannot decidedly join the strong chorus proclaiming Exile On Main St. to be the greatest album ever put out by The Rolling Stones — but what I can do is put it in that vague category of «One Last Sideways Blast», you know, where you kind of feel like the artist's peak is probably behind the artist, and then the artist suddenly pulls out some concealed weapon and gives one last, totally unpredictable, and kinda-sorta-different kind of shot. Like Pete Townshend did with Quadrophenia. Like Ray Davies did with Muswell Hillbillies. Like Brian Wilson maybe did with The Beach Boys Love You — «dead end», one-of-a-kind albums that flashed a different kind of genius, stunned you into not even understanding well enough what it was all about, and then... not really followed by anything comparable in quality, or even anything in the same style.
Exile On Main St. is a pretty good title for the record, but perhaps an even better one would be something like Shine A Light On Torn And Frayed Turds On The Run — or, if you think this is a bit Fiona Apple-ish, Sympathy For The Devils would qualify just as well. After the wild party of Sticky Fingers, this is the hangover: a double album of tunes that give you... nay, the «downside of a life of rock'n'roll excess» definition probably wouldn't be sufficient, because we'd already peeked into that darkness on tracks like ʽSwayʼ and ʽSister Morphineʼ. Exile is deeper than that, and, in fact, there's hardly anything scary or shocking about these tracks — no spooky musical effects, no mock-Satanic grinning, no cheap thrills to warn you about committing sin and make you feel like you've already committed (to) it at the same time. Exile is not about how cool sinners are: it's about how even sinners are people, and about how you can have pity on them even if they're filthy rich sinners.
The circumstances in which Exile was recorded are well known: the Stones really went into «exile» in 1971, so as to avoid those draconian British tax laws, and temporarily holed themselves up at the Nellcôte villa near Nice, where much of the album was recorded in the proverbial "dirty, filthy basement" in an atmosphere of total chaos, spontaneity, and drug haze (where Keith was not even the primary offender — allegedly, his big friend Gram Parsons had to be thrown out in July for taking heroin in such doses that seemed way over the top even for Mr. Richards. Then again, look who is still alive today and who is not). All of this may be seen as just another ridiculous and disgusting episode in the life of rich-boy decadent Stones, and it certainly was: even from a basic moral point, it would probably have been more generous to give all that money to the British government than to spend it on white powder. Yet somehow, it all came together in a magnificent set of songs that definitely transcended the questionable circumstances of 1971-72, and has remained as a timeless source of inspiration.
There seems to have been no pre-defined concept, no strategic plan for Exile, and, indeed, some of the tunes ended up there just because, well well... just because. Like the cover of Slim Harpo's ʽShake Your Hipsʼ, for instance. Why is it there? Just because. Just because they probably jammed around it absent-mindedly and thought that it was good (and it was), so they put it there. But even so, there is clearly an overriding theme to the album, and it's a good one — a theme of surviving, clutching like crazy to those last straws, pulling out of seemingly insurmountable odds, getting up and going on even when iron logic tells you to lay down and die. If you want to really understand why The Rolling Stones are still active as a band in the second decade of the 21st century — put on Exile On Main St. and you will get your answer.
A simple (maybe even simplistic) view of the album states that it is good because it is so encyclopaedic — because it takes all those bits and pieces of Americana, from rock'n'roll to blues to folk to country to gospel, roughly sews them up together in one huge tapestry, and puts an irreverent Stonesy twist on everything. That may be so, but a perspective like this would not suffice to explain the album's greatness. After all, with the possible exception of the gospel touch that is really quite new to the album, the Stones had already proven themselves as masters of «Americana with a twist» on the 1968-69 records, and «much more of the same» wouldn't necessarily translate to «better than the same used to be». Yes, essentially the bad boys of rock'n'roll just wanted to get together one more time and record some more of that rootsy music — but the hand of fate ensured that this time at least, there would be a common tug, a common yearning, a common spirit behind that music: the spirit of suffering, escape, relief, and redemption.
For some people, maybe, a song like ʽSweet Virginiaʼ is merely «the Stones doing another country number», and why should anybody bother with the Stones doing country at all, when everybody knows the Stones can't do country as good as Merle Haggard? For me, though, ʽSweet Virginiaʼ merely uses the country idiom to convey a totally one-of-a-kind feeling. The slow, draggy tempo; the gutter-soaked harmonica blasts; vocals that suggest total loss of blood and its complete replacement by alcohol; lyrics painting a picture of being totally and utterly wasted — "tryin' to stop the waves behind your eyeballs" — where even the promised land of California no longer offers any respite; and, most importantly, that hard-to-describe feeling of «being on the brink» — the slightly stuttering tempo, the slightly disorganized network of lead and backing vocals that still somehow manages to pull itself together in time for the chorus and its forceful resolution: "come on, come on down, you got it in ya, got to scrape that shit right off your shoes". And if even that resolution does not suffice to put you back on your feet in your darkest hour, then how about Bobby Keys' sax solo? The most powerful and disciplined melodic element in the song, it crashes down from the sky like God's voice when you most need it. And the weirdest thing of all — everything about the song seems perfectly inspired, credible, convincing to me. There they were, this bunch of guys with their personal problems, but still, a bunch of rich, famous, snobby, spoiled guys in the throes of rock stardom... and they sing about themselves as if they were miserable tramps and losers, and you believe them. This, really, is what makes it all so incredible.
To me, the whole record really stands on two spiritual pillars of hope, one of which is ʽSweet Virginiaʼ (yes, so much more than «just another country song»), and one, near the end, is ʽShine A Lightʼ — dare I say it, the best gospel song ever written and performed like this by mortal man, and I am not taking these words back even in the presence of half a dozen Mahalia Jacksons. The reason why is simple: traditional black gospel, more often than not, is steeped in fire-and-brimstone Old Testamental values, with a bit of formulaic happy-as-shit Christianity on the side. What the Stones do here is write a song about what really matters — humane compassion for the fallen. "When you're drunk in the alley with your clothes all torn / And your late night friends leave you in the cold grey dawn / Just seemed too many flies on you, I just can't brush 'em off / Angels beatin' all their wings in time / With smiles on their faces and a gleam right in their eyes / Thought I heard one sigh for you / Come on up now, come on up now" — had to take the time to type that all up, because it is probably the most beautiful, tear-inducing verse ever written by Mr. Jagger, and one for which I'd be ready to forgive a million of "I bet you keep your pussy clean"'s. If you have not already done so, do take the time to listen to the song more attentively — it is not «just a gospel number», it is a song where the transition from slow, sloppy, dying-dog verses to the ecstatic chorus really matters. Who is it all about? Brian Jones? Marianne Faithfull? Gram Parsons? Keith Richards? All of them, really — and all those other people who could not resist temptation, yet even in their worst, filthiest moments deserve all the compassion that they can get from us. Remember — "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance"; this is precisely what ʽShine A Lightʼ is all about, and it's gorgeous Christian bliss, at least from the point of view of this particular not-too-Christian reviewer. (Good thing young Mick Taylor understood that, too — his soloing on the song also seems to transcend the usual blues limitations and soar straight to Heaven like an overpowered set of fireworks).
Neither ʽSweet Virginiaʼ nor ʽShine A Lightʼ, the two songs that have always moved me to tears on the album (though it took some time to come up with an explanation for that), could probably have been written before the «tax exile» period. Some of the other songs here were; but even they, in the context of Exile, took on a whole new meaning. Thus, ʽLoving Cupʼ was originally recorded in the spring of 1969, during the Let It Bleed sessions (with Mick Taylor already in the band), but if you listen to that early version, you will find out that it is... just a song. Mick's vocal delivery on that version is quite straightforward and devoid of flourishes or ecstatic overdrive: in 1972, he sang lines like "Yes, I'm stumbling, and I know a play a bad guitar" with a far more personal feel, and his "give me a little drink!... just one drink!... and I'll fall down drunk!" really sounds now like a request from a hopeless figurative alcoholic — a hopeless, degraded, humiliated case whose only chance of salvation is pure love, and even that, ultimately, may not suffice. Again, ʽLoving Cupʼ is not «just another love song» — not just another cocky assertion of sexual power or a lustful voodoo ritual — it's about love as a pain reliever, love as a potion of immortality, love as the drug that can save or kill or do both at the same time. The orgasmic moment is in the middle section, exploding on the "what a beautiful buzz, what a beautiful buzz..." lines where the ecstasy is complete, and you still don't know if it's Heaven or Hell.
This feeling — it's all over the place, it's in almost everything. On the opening ʽRocks Offʼ, the sinner confesses that he "only get my rocks off while I'm dreamin'", and although the song is essentially a straightahead blues-rocker, they are not afraid to interrupt it with a freaky psychedelic mid-section ("feel so hypnotised...") that seems to suggest that dreaming might help you get your rocks off, but it can also make you go crazy. ʽTorn And Frayedʼ — a little less impressive in terms of Mick's vocal performance, but it still suffices to make you feel even more pity for the band members with their sorry autobiography ("who's gonna help him to kick it?"). Or ʽLet It Looseʼ — I've never been able to warm up to it on the level of ʽShine A Lightʼ (with which it shares the gospel feel, but not so much the tightness and catchiness of the structure), yet there is a feel of deep, eternal sorrow engraved in those Leslie cabinet-enhanced guitars, and even if nobody has ever been able to properly decode the lyrics, Mick still sings them like a man possessed, ripping himself out of the straightjacket he'd been locked in on ʽI Got The Bluesʼ (one reason why I never thought so highly of that song) and playing the «crazy sinner» card to his full potential. "Let it all come down tonight" indeed.
Not to undermine or underestimate all the rock material on the record, of course. Despite the relative scarcity of riff-oriented classic rock hits, three songs at least from here turned into perennial stage favorites: ʽHappyʼ is the ultimate Keith Richards showcase ("never want to be like papa, working for the boss every night and day"), with one of his classic minimalistic riffs and a keep-it-simple-stupid groove about baby keeping me happy that works because it's, well, genius; ʽAll Down The Lineʼ is a great choo-choo train-type melody, a cock-rocker with plenty of class and good old sublimation ("we're gonna open up the throttle", right), plus Mick Taylor gives us one more great showcase of slide guitar playing; and ʽTumbling Diceʼ... well, ʽTumbling Diceʼ is just one of those anthemic «program statements» that are so obvious, it's not clear I can add even one iota of further clarification. (Just for the record, though, all you ladies happily singing along to the chorus at every Stones show, it's about how you're all cheaters anyway, so Mick Jagger is going to dump you first because that's the way he is. And yes, the poor bastard still deserves our sympathy, much like a modern-day Don Giovanni. He's a rebel, see).
After all these things, it hardly matters if some songs here are worse than others. So I've never quite gotten the point of the ode to Angela Davis (ʽSweet Black Angelʼ), a fun acoustic throwaway that is occasionally singled out as a high point by leftist critics, despite everything about it being so firmly tongue-in-cheek (you want real political fervor? go check out John Lennon's Sometime In New York from the same year!), and I've always found the voodoo ritual imitation on ʽI Just Want To See His Faceʼ too repetitive and murky, and I still cannot bring myself to really love ʽSoul Survivorʼ as the album's final track — that trill-based riff, later shamelessly recycled on Undercover's ʽIt Must Be Hellʼ, is pretty cool, but the song on the whole is anti-climactic, coming right off the heels of ʽShine A Lightʼ. And then there's the highly problematic aspect of production — even today I still think that the album was poorly mixed, and even if its overall murkiness, with Jagger's voice too often blending in with the instruments, symbolically fits in with the spirit of the record, I am still convinced that Jimmy Miller could have done a much better job without betraying that spirit. But I guess that by this time, he was suffering from a drug problem at least as heavy as Keith's, and was no longer the same Jimmy Miller, really, who'd truly masterminded their previous three records.
But none of that really matters. Is the album overlong? Did it really need to be stretched across two LPs (even though it barely goes on for 67 minutes — for comparison, The Beatles went well over 90)? I don't know, it never really struck me as a «proverbial» double album anyway, because I never gave in to the «encyclopaedic» assessment: any real comparison to The Beatles would never make sense anyway, because The Beatles never had any single underlying idea, accidental or intentional, while Exile is really all about «turds on the run», and if this means adding a few actual «turds» to the songlist, so be it — who really cares when you have so many masterpieces falling together in a formally chaotic, but substantially cohesive manner? There are many records out there that do a good job glorifying the «bad guy» image, but how many are there asking for compassion for the «bad guy», how many are able to take the cartoonish rock'n'roll façade and show the delicately crumbling spirit behind it? This is the kind of album that shows precisely why somebody like, say, AC/DC are AC/DC, and why the Stones are the Stones — a band that is not only capable of looking deep within themselves, but of understanding what they found there, and able to convert it to music so that we could understand it, too.
All the more ironic, and tragic, is the realization that the sinner did not reach the coveted salvation. All those great bits of introspection, ambiguity, psychological self-evaluation, and even oh-so-skillful manipulation of our feelings that are so all over the place on Exile, would be almost completely (with but a few scattered exceptions) gone, beginning with the next album. It's as if this was really the last time in Stones history when Mick and Keith allowed themselves to bare it all, disclosing themselves before the public. Perhaps it was the relative lack of critical success at the time (reviews were mixed, with too many critics not getting the spirit of the record and condemning it for various technical reasons) that served as the final blow to Mick's ego: in subsequent interviews, he usually seemed quite cold about the record himself — who knows? perhaps, deep down inside, he was uncomfortable about showing so much of «the true himself» to all that "swirling mass of gray and black and white", and felt more secure when it was show business as usual, with ʽStarfuckerʼ and ʽHot Stuffʼ and ʽMiss Youʼ walling off that odd moment of accidental self-disclosure. Or maybe it was something different, I don't know. Whatever it was, Exile On Main St. has always been and probably will always remain the single greatest tribute to all «Victims Of The Rock'n'Roll Life Style», transcending clichés and being as great a statement of the Stones' ragged, earthly humanism as, say, Abbey Road is of the Beatles' luminescent, heavenly, idealized one. But do remember that it might take you a decade or so to come to that conclusion, as it took me — I'd always thought of it as a bona fide thumbs up album, but putting the finger on what is so essential about it was not so easy.
PS. On a slightly anti-climactic note, I am quite disappointed about the 2010 reissue, with 11 extra tracks — some of them are quite interesting from a historical point of view, but the band almost sacrilegiously doctored most of the outtakes by re-recording Jagger's vocals (! — yes, imagine that, a 67-year old Jagger wiping out the vocals of a 29-year old Jagger) and adding extra overdubs (backing vocals by Lisa Fischer, some new lead guitar parts from Mick Taylor, etc.); perhaps they thought this would make for an interesting experiment, but, considering that these are outtakes that weren't nearly as good as the cuts that made it to the album in the first place, and are largely important for their historical value, this seems like a quintessentially fucked-up decision. In any case, with the possible exception of ʽPlundered My Soulʼ, most of those outtakes sound like hookless grooves where they were unable to find the proper angle, so I can understand why they never made the final cut. Some priceless photos included in with the liner notes, though: the band really did look like a pack of ragged, wasted sinners during those sessions, and if you stare at them long enough with ʽSweet Virginiaʼ, ʽTorn And Frayedʼ, and ʽTurd On The Runʼ blasting out of your speakers, fairly soon you'll begin feeling like a ragged, wasted sinner yourself — with a strong urge to throw a TV set out your window or something like that. Ah, that good old rock'n'roll lifestyle... so infectious, isn't it?