There are those who contend that Exile on Main St., the Rolling Stones' most-lauded album (albeit only in retrospect), works better as an idea than an album. I agree, but I also think that's what cements it as the band's masterpiece. To be sure, there's nothing on the album as good as "Gimme Shelter," "Sympathy for the Devil" or "Brown Sugar," to say nothing of the rest of the group's three better-constructed albums. What Exile does primarily is capture a feeling; it just so happens that this feeling contains the whole of rock 'n roll, from its attitude (the down 'n out rebel/aristocratic celebrity dichotomy) to its musical roots (R&B, rockabilly, C&W, soul and blues).
The band recorded the double island while hiding from tax collectors in the south of France in Keith Richards' luxurious villa, hardly the makings for a return to the humble origins of rock. But as fancy as their exile was, it was still exile, and the Stones were still at the time dealing with the ghost of Altamont (Sticky Fingers began this journey with its nightmarish tunes "Sister Morphine" and "Dead Flowers"). Freed from their old label and left to their own devices out in the Riviera, the Stones devolved to levels of bacchanalian excess impressive even for them; the legacy of Exile owes as much to the photographs of Dominique Tarlé, who documented their lascivious orgy in stark, black-and-white clarity.
Sorting out who even played on the album can be tricky, with producer Jimmy Miller filling in for Charlie Watts behind the kit on "Happy" and "Shine a Light" and damn near everyone but Bill Wyman playing bass throughout. Truth is, little of the album was definitively cut with the band's mobile in Nellcôte, but those images are so tied to the sound of the album and the shoddy disrepair with which the group cobbled together these cuts that we may as well just print the legend. After all, despite "Let's Spend the Night Together" and the Altamont debacle, it was Tarlé's visualization of Exile that serves as the modern bedrock of the cultural perception of the Rolling Stones as one gigantic, cocaine-snorting nostril sniffing its way up a Colombian Everest. Somewhat amusingly, those photos may be the reason for Exile's reputation over the actual album, which contains only a few tunes ready for easy radio play, an anomaly for a band now synonymous with classic rock, who enjoy more than a baker's dozen of tracks that receive consistent airplay today. How could their "best" album seemingly contain no hits?
No one thinks this at first, of course, not in the face of the one-two punch of "Rocks Off" and "Rip This Joint." Even the newly remastered edition, a powerhouse update that brings out the bass and scrubs the tracks without cleaning them, the murkiness of the Stones' intriguingly sloppy, incoherent and flailing rockers remains fortunately intact. "Rocks Off," dominated mainly by Jim Price and Bobby Keys' brass as vocals and other instruments fade in and out of fuzzy distortion, sets the tone for an album whose tone is anything but assuredly set, the raucousness of the trumpets belying its desperate lyrics recounting Richards' need to get high just to numb himself from the world. Yeah, these guys are partying hard, but the comedown in just on the horizon, and they cannot outrun it. Even the haphazard production values capture this dichotomy, both the result of all them being too smacked up and distracted to put in hard work even as the fuzziness reflects a certain fatigue.
"Rip This Joint," meanwhile, establishes the aesthetic of this loose and disjointed album, ironically in its tautest number. Just under two and a half minutes, "Rip This Joint" runs the gamut of American rock and its roots, running through country, R&B, even New Orleans jazz. Its exaggerated speed, far faster than anything recorded by Holly or Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis, serves to literalize the exuberance of early rock 'n' roll and its effect on youth. Hell, it even points to future movements in the genre, prefiguring as it does hardcore punk in its incomprehensible wash of guitars.
Both of these opening numbers are tight enough to hook the listener, yet loose and ramshackle enough to prepare him or her for what's about to come. The one-two punch gives way to a loose collection of sounds and snatches of lyrics sufficiently hopeful and despairing to make the case for this album, by a bunch of nouveau riche Brits lounging in a stew of heroin and nubile, willing flesh, standing as perhaps the singular collection of the American songbook. In those opening numbers is the sound of musical independence, the Stones' escape from taxation and their old label lining up to the country's true birth, and both contain the undercurrent of uncertainty and fear that such shifts engender even in the most committed radicals. As the album moves into "Shake Your Hips" and "Casino Boogie," this doubt rises fully to the surface, as the old party mood fades into a perfunctory motion, the revolutionary fervor having cooled into the realization of the burden that comes with freedom.
Oh, but let us move away from this fleeting and tenuous connection, as are far too self-absorbed to belabor something as grand as a historical connection. The lyrics of Exile on Main St. in nearly every case refer to the band, even when they filter a song's perspective through an imaginary protagonist. Exile simply happens to be more resonant than even the sharpshooter accuracy of Jagger and Richards on their previous handful of albums because the band scrambles together the issues weighing on them. "Torn and Frayed," a country-soul mash-up that comes so close to the level of pioneering country/rock crossover artist Gram Parsons that you wonder if Parsons (who visited the band during recording) felt a bit of pressure, could be about either Brian Jones, the Stones' original lead guitarist who'd died of an overdose in 1969, or Keith Richards, who seemed at the time to be heading to an early grave of his own. The unnamed guitarist's state of being, synecdochically defined by his almost Dickensian "torn and frayed" coat, crumbles, but no one cares. "Well his coat is torn and frayed/It`s seen much better days./Just as long as the guitar plays/Let it steal your heart away," Jagger sings as if preparing himself to replace Keith's cold, vomit-choked corpse in a year or two. "Shine a Light," influenced more by the gospel roots of American music, serves as a more touching tribute to Jones. Originally written before Jones' death but with the band's knowledge of his growing addiction, the later-refashioned "Shine a Light" plays both in the moment and in retrospect, describing the band's reaction as their friend drifted away with the added pain of knowing the ultimate result.
What I noticed with Exile after my first listens years ago is that its supposed sprawling nature has been vastly overstated. At less than 70 minutes long, the Exile doesn't even make the most of its double-album format, which could have packed another 15 minutes worth of material (whcih, considering how only one song makes it to the five-minute mark, could have allowed for up to five more songs to make the cut). Furthermore, its pacing moves quite deliberately through its musical hodgepodge. Each side follows a loose structure of vibe and roots music explored, from the proto-R&B shuffles of the first side to the desperate soul of the third. Amazingly, the Stones, regarded to that point (and beyond) by detractors as blatant thieves of Afro-American style, sound not at all like copycats in the various modes of Exile; in every case, this band sounds as if they'd been born to play whatever is currently falling out of their poorly recorded instruments. Most of the band's previous forays into country, save the masterful "Wild Horses," typically showed a group about as far out of their comfort zone as they were peddling psychedelia in the Summer of Love via Their Satanic Majesties Request (more so, even, as that underrated album still hasn't had its fair shake despite its issues, especially in the much punchier mono edition floating out there in the ether). Give one listen to Side Two's "Torn and Frayed" or the moving "Sweet Virginia," however, and you'll hear a band that could have backed Gram Parsons any day.
Side Three showcases a band who made their reputation by posing as bad boys now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Happy" presents Keith Richards on guitars and vocals and Jimmy Miller on drums as the invincible drug hound rallies from his stupor long enough to express pride of it before slipping back into his lethargic daze, and the excellent but sadly named "Turd on the Run" is a better soundtrack for getting into a drunken brawl than "Street Fighting Man." However, the third side also shows the group retreating slightly in the face of becoming what had previously been just an act. Both the murky, folksy, downright swampy "I Just Want to See His Face," which boasts one of Jagger's most distinct and affecting vocals performances ever, and "Let It Loose" draw deeply and, more importantly, convincingly from gospel and soul, imbuing the record with a genuine pleading not expected from the preening rockers. Not since the rampant fear of "Gimme Shelter" had the band sounded so fragile and unsure.
Nothing compares to "Ventilator Blues," however. Taking its name and mood from the sweltering, airless basement where the band recorded while at Richards' villa, "Ventilator Blues" captures the Rolling Stones at an emotional nadir, the uncomfortable heat of the location bringing out their bad side. Without referencing either Jones or Altamont, the song's lyrics describe a scene every bit as apocalyptic as that of "Gimme Shelter," only this cataclysm is insular and seedy, not spread out over a planet in trouble. In that sense, it captures why Altamont, which the Stones barely planned (as can be seen in the documentary Gimme Shelter), has become the symbol of the death of the counterculture, as it casts aside social concerns in favor of the entitled preoccupations that defined the Me Decade. However, as Mick spits out his double-tracked vocals like a man confessing to his priest that he's about to kill someone, Jagger finally becomes a true bluesman. Few would jump out of their seats to rush to Jagger's side and defend his vocal abilities, but people always sold him short. He didn't try to ape Delta bluesmen because he thought they were cool; he deeply loved Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and all the others. His raspy whine is merely the result of his coming to terms with the fact that, hard as he may try, he will always be a white Englishman. It's an aural compromise between the eternal flame of race music and the technical crunch of white noise -- incidentally a compromise that extends to the entire band on the album's most well-known track, the distorted reggae of "Tumbling Dice." But his singing on "Ventilator Blues," combined with the sinister, choked nature of the instrumentation, works as a better and more convincing blues tune than the group's cover of "Stop Breaking Down" by the King of the Delta Blues himself, Robert Johnson found on Side Four.
If the plaintive country of Side Two and the dangerous and desperate soul of Side Three wore you down, never fear, for the Stones end their excavation of America's musical roots with good ol' rocking blues on and above the level they mastered in the mid-'60s. "All Down the Line" and that Johnson cover are stomping numbers that get the blood pumping after the one-two-three punch of "Ventilator Blues," "I Just Want to See His Face" and "Let It Loose" froze it. The aforementioned "Shine a Light" brings the mood back down, but it's fitting for a benediction to come at the end. At last, the Stones sum up the experience of the album itself with "Soul Survivor," a mid-tempo number that releases the battered and bewildered listener back into the real world.
"Everybody needs a little help sometimes," Jagger sings on "Tumbling Dice," and the central contradiction among the album's many contrasts is how much that's true and false of the band at this stage in their career. Cobbled together with anyone who was on-hand to play, Exile on Main St. perversely sounds like a group effort despite how much of it owes to Bobby Miller and Bobby Keys (his sax makes everything better). Hell, Mick Taylor, Jones' replacement, who despite his his contribution to Sticky Fingers might as well have been a hired hand at the time, provides the most solid anchor for the band's loose experimentation. By far the most technically proficient musician to ever play for the band, Taylor played honest, emotional blues through the flair of a jazzbo. His fluidity powers a number of songs through what might otherwise have been stagnant, scattered jams, most notably on "Ventilator Blues," where his slick slide guitar riff earned him a rare joint credit with the Glimmer Twins. (Taylor's full talent was best on-display live, particularly in the widely-circulated bootleg of the band's 1973 show in Brussels on the Goats Head Soup tour, a show heavy on Exile material. The entire bootleg is essentially one long, invigorating guitar solo, and I suspect that the band never released the scorching album officially because it would have been the best advertisement in the world for Talyor's solo career when he suddenly and acrimoniously split from the band.) And yet, in the middle of it all are Jagger and Richards, still capable of pulling themselves away from their vices to write some of the best tunes of all time. No other record so convincingly runs through as many genres as Exile without forcing itself to cover genres too-disparate to allow consistent flow, something this album contains even with its clashing moods and styles.
Perhaps what makes the record most special, however, is that it shows the band caring more about the music than their image, something they rarely did before and have never done since. After Exile met with mixed reviews and Richards slipped further into his addiction, Jagger, the professionally minded one of the bunch, began to assert more control and threw the band at every fad that might lengthen the Stones' career. Not until 1981's Tattoo You would they put out a great record from start to finish that sounded like a band making music they believed in instead of cashing in on trends. I have not always, or even often, made it through Exile on Main St. in one sitting, yet whenever I have been away from the Rolling Stones for any length of time, for some reason it is always this album that brings me back to them. Of course, when I do listen to it, the reason becomes obvious: the band most routinely singled out as bourgeois poseurs, even above Led Zeppelin, managed to make the rock record about rock, in all its contradictions and contrasts.
The remastered deluxe edition of the album is by far the best edition of the album to date, cleaning up the shoddy production while retaining its intentionally muddiness. What's a particular treat, however (and especially for those who've triple-dipped by now), is a bonus disc of alternate takes, as well as archived tracks partially re-recorded by the band, including work from departed Stones Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor. You can understand why these didn't make the final cut, but the "new" tracks "Plundered My Soul" and "I'm Not Signifying" are the best thing the band has put out since Tattoo You, and some of the alternate takes are dynamite. The scrapped version of "Loving Cup" contrasts with the tight version found on the album proper with a far looser structure, the metaphorically intoxicated innuendo of the album cut swapped out for a literal drunken swagger. This alternate take is better than the one that made the album, and in many ways it captures the album's overall mood of a deflated party better than any one track on the record (for a more in-depth look at this curious case, check out Ben Ratliff's fascinating view on it for the New York Times in an otherwise mixed re-appraisal of the album as a whole). Also worth more than a few spins is a considerably more defiant edition of "Soul Survivor," sung by Richards with feral menace that contrasts with his more enticing outlaw tone on "Happy." The remaster itself justifies buying whatever numbered copy of the album you're on, but these bonus cuts, while not nearly as comprehensive as they might have been, are fantastic and more-than-welcome additions.