Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Rolling Stones' "Exile On Main St."


I’ve written way too many words on the Rolling Stones of late, and there’ve been plenty more written over the last 50 years by others. But when a mad Australian issues a challenge (“First to a good 4,000 words on Exile On Main St. wins, um, bragging rights”), I’ve got no choice but to respond. All I ever need is an assignment.


“What a fucking ugly cover.”

That was my initial response to Exile when it arrived in the store I’d wind up working in a year later. It was the spring of ’72, and I was within rock-throwing distance of turning 15 and getting my first electric guitar. I wasn’t a Rolling Stones fan, my loyalties leaning more toward the Who and the Yardbirds (obscurantist snob that I was; I didn’t like Led Zeppelin because they were too popular), but I owned a small handful of Stones albums (the first one, Now!, December’s Children, and Beggar’s Banquet). It seems quaint now, but back then, the arrival of a new album by certain artists was a real big deal to lots of people, and there was always a modicum of anxiety over whether or not your fave raves were going to disappoint you. (Talk about your First World problems: remember that back then, the war in Vietnam was still raging.)

Recently I was re-reading St. Lester on the ‘70s Stones in Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste and was struck by what a crybaby the kid from El Cajon came across as – the kind of fan that takes a favorite band to task for changing. This wasn’t that uncommon; there was also Jon Landau’s lengthy pan of Sticky Fingers in the San Francisco-based rag that took its name from the band, in which Brooce Springsteen’s future manager compared that album unfavorably to everything they’d done before it. (It sucks not being who you were five years ago.) Funny, since for people my age -- born just a few years before the Stones came into existence -- that’s kind of where the Stones thread starts, and they were creating the template what people would mean for the next couple of years when they referred to “rock ‘n’ roll.”

Of course, latter day conventional wisdom has it that the ’71 Stones were in the middle of their greatest run, which culminated the following year with Exile. Living well is always the best revenge. The collective rockcrits of the time went through the same gyrations with Exile that they had with Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On the previous year, first lambasting it, then instantly bending over backwards to rehabilitate it. Was it payola/drugola, one wonders, or just adjusting their expectations (what they used to call “coming to terms”)?

Back to that cover, Andy Warhol’s zipper on the Sticky Fingers sleeve had been a good gimmick, but Robert Frank’s photo collage – the B&W images grainy, out of focus, seeming to ooze sleaze and degradation – was something Entahrly Other. If this was the packaging, what could that possibly portend for the contents within? Of course, it turned out to be totally appropriate.


I recently listened to Exile on vinyl for the first time in damn near 20 years and was amazed. First of all, there’s the sound: I remembered murk, and heard something a lot more immediate. The drum sound in particular was a lot more present than I recalled, perhaps because I’d done most of my listening to the album on cassette and CD. But producer Jimmy Miller was a drummer, after all, so it’d make sense for him to be attentive to that fundamental detail. I came away with a new appreciation for Charlie Watts. While he might have lacked the flash of other British drummers like Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, and Keith Moon, he had more of Fred Below and Earl Palmer in him, which made him a better fit for the Stones, who were always more roots-bound than their contemporaries.

More to the point, the songs seemed suffused with warmth, soul, and compassion, even as they described people at the end of their tether chemically, psychologically, and dare I say, spiritually. (I’m not generally a lyric listener, but once I’ve listened to something a few hundred times, a few of them inevitably sink in.) The wreckage at the end of the ‘60s lasted well into the ‘70s, and the Stones gave us as honest a reflection of that moment as anybody. In that regard, Let It Bleed’s “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” are the songs that always get mentioned, but for my money, Exile songs like “Rocks Off,” “Torn and Frayed,” and “Soul Survivor” do the job in a more practical, less existential way, while “Loving Cup,” “I Just Want To See His Face,” and “Shine A Light” reach for redemption like something off the third Velvet Underground LP. (The Stones’ secret: their albums have always been longer on slow songs than rockers.)

I’ve talked a lot of shit about the Stones over the years, and it’s largely because over the years, I’ve known so many people who used them (specifically Keef) and their “daring,” “glamorous” substance abuse proclivities as a way of rationalizing their own poor life choices. I once dated a girl who actually told me she thought it’d be cool to try heroin “because, y’know, Keef does it.” (Luckily for her, she didn’t.)

My best friend when I was a teenager was a heroin addict. He died from an overdose, aged 28, the year I joined the Air Force, although I didn’t learn of it until much later. When I think of him now, it’s with the knowledge that he was barely getting started in life when he took himself out. What a sad, stupid fucking waste, and yeah, he was one of those people who thought he had to live the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle” to be able to play (or appreciate) the music. I’ve seen that drama played out now by too many of my contemporaries and our kids, and I am not going to lie: I am tired the fuck of seeing people destroying themselves in the name of something they think is “rock ‘n’ roll.” Speed, smack, coke, whiskey and tequila, all down the line. It’s not the Stones’ fault, but it’s an aspect of their mystique that I reject.

It’s the same reason I couldn’t listen to Hendrix (the water I grew up swimming in) for a decade after college, where I encountered one too many seemingly intelligent people who’d addled themselves with acid in an attempt to “be like Jimi.” (Don’t even get me started on Johnny Thunders.) Whether Keith Richards survived his excesses due to smarts or luck is irrelevant. To this listener, at least, what makes him interesting at all as an artist and a potential exemplar is the music he made, not the self-abuse he survived. So there.


All of that business aside, is there a more distinctive sound in rock than Keef’s five-string open G tuning? I think not. Sure, he cribbed it from Ry Cooder, but for all his fine ethnomusicology and politics, has Ry Cooder ever written a song as great as “Rocks Off?” Again, I think not. Jagger sounds dazed and bleary singing, and then what in the hell is this Tijuana Brass shit? “Only get my rocks off when I’m sleeping,” sounds like he’s been on the tour bus too long. Except that by ’72, the Stones traveled by jumbo jet.

When they came back in ’69, they hadn’t been a real band in years (if you can bear it, watch their performance in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus), and they were still breaking in new boy Mick Taylor, fresh from Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, his leads pouring down like liquid silver but still not fully integrated, the guitar-weaving between Keef and Brian that defined the band for its first couple of years gone, left along the roadside somewhere after Brian got stars in his eyes. RIP, Brian – poor bastard.

So now the Adam Smith division of labor instituted itself in the Stones, with Keef the rhythm guitarist onstage. Watching Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones! – my Stones DVD of choice, at least until Charlie Is My Darling arrived – it’s hard not to notice how wooden Taylor appears. He’s a mechanic; there’s no joy in this for him. Sure, he’s concentrating really hard on playing all those good notes, but da-a-amn, son. Lighten up! You’re a Rolling Stone, for chrissakes!

Then Woody came, and we were reminded that too much unanimity in a band isn’t necessarily a good thing. While he’s a lot more fun to watch than Taylor, when he and Keef are both soloing, which is often, the sound loses its grounding and becomes downright shrill. I understand they’re getting Taylor (and Bill Wyman!) back for some arena shows. It’s been 36 years since he quit and I’ll bet he’s still wondering, “What in the fuck was I thinking?”


Listening to “Rip This Joint” on the cassette player in my ’71 Ford Torino with the Boss 302, crossing the Mississippi River at Memphis on the way to Texas, late June ‘78. The Stones are going for the land speed record for rockaroll, faster even than their rampage through Larry Williams’ “She Said Yeah” on December’s Children. And buddy, that’s fast. Pure adrenaline rush; I dare you to play this on the highway and not speed up.


“Hip Shake” is Louisiana swamp blues courtesy of Slim Harpo, the man who contributed “I’m A King Bee” to England’s Newest Hitmakers (worst album title of the Brit Invasion). The Stones dream themselves into a fictive Deep South roadhouse that exists only in their collective imagination. (All honors and praises to Jay Miller from Crowley, Louisiana, a racist redneck, but one who recorded Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown, and Lightnin’ Slim.)

Let us now try and get a sense of what it felt like for these war babies, children of a dying empire, who grew up in a bomb-gutted city, in a land where wartime rationing lasted almost until Elvis arrived, where connoisseurs worshipfully studied the music of their former colonies’ most disenfranchised citizens, made a fetish of it, devoted themselves to mastering its intricacies from records in cold-water flats, scuffling and starving, taking their discoveries into Clubland, sitting down when they played but driving the hip cognoscenti wild with their tough sound, lucked their way into a record contract because Decca had passed on the Beatles and didn’t want to make the same mistake twice, coming to America and being spit on by the straight white folks but embraced by black folks to whom they must have seemed a weird anomaly.

Joe Nick Patoski wrote it, and I believe it: Jimmy Reed kicked the door open for MLK. And the Stones played their part in this, too. They made pilgrimages to the Apollo Theater and Chess Studios. They stole guitar licks from Chuck Berry and stagecraft from James Brown, but always gave credit where it was due (unlike some of their countrymen), and even had the audacity to insist on beaming larger-than-life Howlin’ Wolf into teenage America’s living room. Once you’re grooving to the music from the other side of the tracks, it’s inevitable that you eventually have to own up to the possibility that the Other is a human being. Open that door, and there’s no going back.


Was there ever a more magnanimous man than Ian Stewart, butch as a steak and kidney pie, the ivory tickler who pulled them together and then allowed himself to be squeezed out of the lineup (but not their sound) for not having the right look?


“Casino Boogie” is a song that really doesn’t do anything for me. In his book, Keef writes that the song “came out of when Mick and I had just about run ourselves ragged,” which explains a lot. Sounds like they’re waiting for something to happen. There are a lot of songs like this on Metamorphosis.


“Tumbling Dice” was the single. Back when it was new, it seemed to lack the punch of “Honky Tonk Women” and “Brown Sugar,” not to mention “Bitch.” But then, as I said earlier, those songs were just a small part of what the Stones were really about. This is one of those songs that went right over my head when I was 15 (when I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to gamble and lose, then get up to play again), but makes perfect sense to me at 55 (like Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why”). The backup singers are crucial, one reason why this song doesn’t really work live; there’s too much ground for Jagger to cover without Clydie King and Vanetta Fields.


Side Two is the “mellow side” (like the second side of the masterful “mop tape” Tattoo You). I wish more records did this. It’s late at night as I’m writing this, and this side is the perfect record to put on around midnight when everyone else in the house is asleep.


“Sweet Virginia” is the obligatory joke country song that had been appearing on every Stones LP since Beggar’s Banquet. For my money it’s not as good as “Dear Doctor” or “Dead Flowers,” but it’s better than “Country Honk.” After Exile, they let the tradition lapse for a few albums before reviving it with “Far Away Eyes” on Some Girls. When Exile was new, this was one song you were guaranteed never to hear on the radio because of the line “Gotta scrape the shit right off your shoes.” It was still easy playing “Shock the Grownups” back in ’72.


To these ears, “Torn and Frayed” feels like the album’s first peak. I always assumed this song was about Keef, but then why would he have written this song about himself? “His coat is torn and frayed / It’s seen much better days / But as long as the guitar plays / It’ll steal your heart away.” (I know, O’Neill – quoting lyrics is cheating.)

With this song, and in many other places on the album, the idea begins to emerge that Mick Jagger – silly ass-wagging white boy, fake-ass Lucifer who got his head handed to him by the Hell’s Angels at Altamont – had a better idea of what was going on as the ‘70s got under way, and was writing about it more artfully than anybody else. (By this time, Dylan and Lennon were reduced to slinging slogans, and Townshend was too obsessed with his own band and fixated on his own navel to comment on the decade’s fallout in the broader sense.)

It was the good fortune of this London School of Economics dropout to hit American shores as the most visible member of the band their manager and resident image-monger (who’d done publicity for the Beatles, so he knew how these things worked) had positioned as the most objectionable to adults and threatening to the old order in general, right around the time when teen rebellion was becoming big business for real here, making Presley look like small potatoes.

Within a few years, the most catered-to generation of young people in history – postwar American brats, getting ready as I write this to deplete Social Security -- would be calling the tune and the changes to a greater extent than any of their Greatest Generation forebears could imagine, and the Rolling Stones chronicled their concerns o’ the moment -- from “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” to the aforementioned “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – more memorably, in simpler, more direct language, than anybody else.

The other big icons, the Beatles and Dylan, had taken themselves out of the “generational spokesman” role one way or the other, so as the turbulent ‘60s flamed out into the general malaise of the ‘70s, the Stones were the biggest mouths left standing. It was then that Jagger had his finest hour, counting up the casualties while rendering the impression that behind the trappings of celebrity and layers of security (there to ensure there were no more Altamonts as Stones tours and rock shows in general got bigger and more impersonal), he felt the same anomie and confusion as everyone else. By the time Goat’s Head Soup was served up, this would have coalesced into another pose, but for Exile’s moment, it at least felt real.


I suppose “Black Angel” could have been Jagger’s radical chic move, or perhaps the Stones were still chasing the Beatles. (John and Yoko also had a song about Angela Davis on Sometime In New York City.) If Neil Young can put the faces and names of the four kids killed at Kent State on-screen in a concert movie released in 2012, perhaps this story bears a brief retelling here.

Davis was an activist African-American college professor – Communist Party member, Black Panther familiar -- who was jailed in 1970 after purchasing firearms used in the takeover of a California courtroom that resulted in the deaths of four people, including a judge. Seventeen-year-old Jonathan Jackson, killed in the incident, had been attempting to free his brother, George Jackson, and two other black inmates at Soledad Prison – the “Soledad Brothers” -- who were accused of killing a white prison guard. George Jackson was killed in an uprising at San Quentin in 1971, days before he was scheduled to stand trial. The other two Soledad Brothers were acquitted of the guard’s killing in 1972. Yes, kids: It was a violent time. Bob Dylan wrote a song about George Jackson, and apparently in the last decade there was a punk-blues band called the Soledad Brothers.

Davis was acquitted of kidnapping and murder charges, and continues working for prisoners’ rights. One wonders what she, a feminist and Marxist, thought about being immortalized in song by the Stones, who had a history of misogyny (“Stupid Girl,” “Under My Thumb”) and racism (“Brown Sugar”) in their lyrics. (To any angry white guys who feel like the question is “too politically correct”: How does it feel to be on the wrong side of history?)


“Loving Cup” belongs to session ace Nicky Hopkins, whose pianner carries the day (when Stu’s not around), and its lyrics are like a healing balm; they fall down and soothe like warm rain.


At the top of Side Three, “Happy” is Keef singing about himself (with lots of help from Mick on the choruses), and it’s the song he’ll be remembered for, in my ideal world. It doesn’t sentimentalize, like “Before You Make Me Run,” which makes it seem truer to the spirit of the man. If I’m going to play one of these sides first thing in the morning, this is the likely candidate.

I saw Keef toss his cups onstage once, with the New Barbarians, here in Fort Worth. It was in the middle of a vocal, and he just turned his head away from the mic for a second and blew chunks, then came back singing. Professional. My ex-wife swears it didn’t happen, but uberfan and Eight Track Museum impresario Bucks Burnett was there, and he confirms that it did.


“Turd On the Run” is a silly song that actually sounds like its title. It’s another frenetic rocker, but somehow it just doesn’t kick as much ass as “Rip This Joint” did. Mick’s harp here is a highlight. As are Charlie’s rim shots.


“Ventilator Blues” opens ominously, with a slide part that fairly oozes menace. It’s an archetypal Stones song; they could probably play stuff like this in their sleep. Some of the album’s most effective horn work is here, and Taylor takes it out with a snaky solo. Does anyone else but me find it odd that he never played anything else on record as memorable as his solos on “Sway,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” and the live “Love In Vain?” (We could argue the merits of “Time Waits For No One,” but he probably has to pay Carlos Santana royalties on that one.)


“Just Wanna See His Face” should have been on Side Two. It drifts by like a remembered dream, Jagger’s falsetto gliding over the bed of electric piano, twin basses, and tympani. It’s a spiritual, of all things, but one odd enough, if not demented enough, to have come from the acid-addled mind of George Clinton. “Relax your mind,” indeed.


“Let It Loose” is great soul music, from the Leslie-treated guitar to the backing vocals (a far cry from the ramshackle “Woo-woos!” on “Sympathy for the Devil,” hilariously captured on film by Jean-Luc Godard for One Plus One, which is at least an interesting period piece of a flick) to the horns, which really work here (and sound suspiciously close to what Jim Price had done for Mott the Hoople on Brain Capers’ “Second Love,” which was also engineered by Andy Johns and released around the time the Stones were beginning overdub sessions for Exile in L.A.).


Opening Side Four, “All Down the Line” is the album’s great rocker, nicely decorated by Mick Taylor’s slide (although if you want to hear the real business, listen to what Johnny Winter did with “Silver Train” the following year; after his version, I’m surprised they even bothered to cut it for Goat’s Head Soup). Again, the horns make it (that great 16th-note run up to those two hits), rendering latter day live versions inadequate. Is there a better example of rock ‘n’ roll as joy and abandon? I think not.


“Stop Breaking Down” has about as much to do with Robert Johnson as Eric Clapton’s version of “Ramblin’ On My Mind” on the Bluesbreakers album does, which is to say, they captured the letter of Mr. Johnson’s law (the form), but the spirit (the creeping sense of dread) evaded them. That said, it’s still good dirty fun, although not as much as Junior Wells’ version on South Side Blues Jam. As always, Keef and Charlie pull it through, with Taylor’s slide and Jagger’s harp (“Whooo!”) as the icing on the cake.


“Shine A Light” is the album’s second reference to the Christian deity or His son. It’s also the title of a Francis Ford Coppola documentary about the Stones. It’s the album’s benediction to all of us sinners, with Billy Preston providing real gospel organ and piano, and those backup singers again.


“Soul Survivor” is loaded with nautical imagery and keeps coming back to the phrase “gonna be the death of me.” So who survives?


Mick and Keef came into the Exile sessions on a creative roll, and they contrived a way to allow themselves to maximize it. Smart. And at that particular moment, they had the momentum to steamroller a double LP through the typical litany of label objections. So, did these guys realize that this was their last good shot? Or did they think that the train of their creativity was going to run forever?

I remember seeing them on TV, The Midnight Special, I think it was, around Goat’s Head Soup time, and they just seemed very mannered. I heard “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” on the jukebox in a diner in Albany and thought, I swear to God, that it was Bachman Turner Overdrive. Or maybe it was BTO’s “Taking Care of Business” that I thought was the Stones; my memory’s not clear on this. Sure, they had some good moments after that, “Memory Motel” and a lot of Some Girls, but it felt like their moment had passed, and the music they’ve released since then has never had the life-and-death quality that’s present in every track on Exile, even the lesser ones.

They’ve become a tourist destination: “My Grandparents Went To See The Rolling Stones And All I Got Was This T-Shirt.” (I saw ‘em in the rain at the Cotton Bowl in ’81; even in the Jumbotron, each of the Stones was smaller than my pinky nail.) Their catalog continues to sell (at premium prices, thanks to Allen Klein), and they periodically release new product, but that’s hardly the point. (Remember their Persian Gulf War song?) They’re a spectacle, and they make bank when they tour, every five years or so. Keef’s a best-selling author, and Sir Mick, who looks fitter pushing 70 than lots of guys half his age, has had the decency to age naturally – no bizarro George Jones plastic surgery for him. They’ve been at it for half a century now, and more power to ‘em. But if they’d broken up after Exile On Main St., their place in the pantheon would still be secure.


There, O’Neill: I took out the papers and the trash. All told, it took me about eight hours. I hope you’re happy now.


Blogger Grubbermeister said...

Christ, you can write! Not a Stones fan but as per usual with any of your posts, 'tis a good'un!

11:08 PM  

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