Robert Greenfield – Exile On Main Street: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones

I’ve not reviewed Exile On Main St. (the album) by the Rolling Stones for this site yet. There’s no real reason why not, except that you might vomit at the proliferation of superlatives that would fill the page, and here at KMA we do try to keep our readers from throwing up. Yes, Exile rocks. There are two camps of people out there (love it and hate it) and I love it. It’s just so ambitious and swampy and sexy and rough. Yeah, it’s great on its own, and even better when you consider it as the culmination of four great records in a row, Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and then Exile. I mean, Damn!! Most bands would kill to have even one record as cool as any of these.

Anyway, for Christmas my sister gave me this new book by Robert Greenfield, Exile On Main St.: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones (Da Capo Press, 2006). I just finished reading the book today, and Greenfield did a pretty damn good job telling the confusing, harrowing story of the summer of 1971 at Nellcote, Keith Richards’ villa in the south of France. It’s where a huge cast of characters, including musicians, dealers, junkies, hangers-on and assorted others come and go, and where most of the tracks for the album got recorded, in the villa’s dank, horrible (apparently old WWII torture rooms used by Nazis, if you believe the rumours) basement.

This book covers the interpersonal relationships in the band, the way things got handled (or ignored), drug ingestion and subsequent detoxing, and the incredible effort involved in trying to organize and record the resulting zoo into a cohesive album that could be released in good conscience as a Stones Record. It paints the same pictures of the band members as every other book on the subject: Keith, the happy-go-lucky swashbuckler guitar god, Mick the calculating, manipulative and brilliant prima donna, Charlie the calm, cool, collected jazz cat, and so on. No real surprises there, and it’s lovingly crafted, as most accounts are, because anyone arsed to write such a book would, of course, have to be a fan of the band.

Personally, I really have no sympathy for junkies, because usually what’s happening to them they’ve done to themselves. You know, I read somewhere once (and have often paraphrased) that stories about junkies are only interesting to other junkies, and I couldn’t agree more. But these are the bullshit things that lead to the creation of one of my favourite records of all time. Would it have been the same without the heroin? Probably not, unfortunate as that is. But given the way I feel about how they got there, it’s a little weird, all the same, to hold this record up as a classic.

It’s hard to look back at the Stones’ career with any objectivity, or sense of scale. I mean, they’ve passed 40 years of making music, and while a lot of it is generally blues-based rock, their sound has also grown and morphed in many ways, so it’s hard to make any all-inclusive statements about them. It’s why everyone makes fun of their age, these days, instead of particular songs or albums – it’s easier. This book does a good job of staying focussed on that one period in their career, telling the story of 1971-72 from an outsider-looking-in perspective, trying to keep the revolving circus coherent. And at the end, in what could be called an epilogue, things get updated. Public reaction to the record has changed as time has passed. Initially, it wasn’t well liked. Lester Bangs, even, hated it. But it’s one of those records that grows on you with repeated listens. It seeps slowly into your blood and becomes essential. Like a drug. Uh-oh…

This is a good book, if you’re a fan. Will it make you want to go buy the record? Sure, but I just have to ask… why don’t you own it already? What rock have you been living under, hmmm?

Put yer words here:

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