The Rolling Stones

Exile on Main Street

by Michael Stephens


Rock and Roll Noir

I first saw the Stones in the fall of 1973 on the Goat’s Head Soup tour. At that time, they were the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World. Since 1969 they had released in miraculous succession, Let It Bleed, Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Goat’s Head Soup signaled the beginning of a decline that wouldn’t end until Some Girls, but that wasn’t so apparent in 1973. When the Stones walked on stage at the Manchester Colliseum, they were 10 feet tall. Keith wore gray velvet pants with embroidered butterflies, a ripped brocade jacket, and the early ‘70s Keith hair: legendary, rock and roll’s definitive incarnation. The best moment of the show was that entrance and the first chord. For just a moment we were in touch with whatever higher reality the Stones represented to our befuddled young minds. But when Jagger began dancing, I instantly saw that it was fake, that he was just putting on a show. We were in the second row, about 15 feet from the stage. In preparation for communion with their Satanic Majesties, we had rolled 12 joints, with the titles of Stones songs on each one. We had already smoked about four numbers, and from the moment the Stones burst into action, it was shockingly clear that Jagger’s gestures were as exaggerated and rehearsed as Kabuki theater. Zero spontaneity. He was playing to the back of the house. It was calculated. It was showbiz. It sucked.

What made the phoniness even clearer was that a few weeks previously, at the same theater, I had seen Neil Young & the Stray Gators on the Tonight’s the Night tour. Neil Young looked as frazzled that night as he does on the cover of Tonight’s the Night. The theme of the tour was a parody of glitter rock. The stage was dressed with a bare light-bulb hanging over a palm-tree. The band wore T-shirts that said, “Welcome to Miami Beach: Everything Is Cheaper Than It Looks”. Neil and Nils Lofgrin talked from the stage to members of the audience about movies and music. It was about as showbiz as open-mic night at your local bar. But when they played I understood for the first time why concerts can be more than just seeing rock stars in person. By some trick of timing, Tonight’s the Night had not, as yet, been released in Britain. The band played the album from beginning to end, including the bookend versions of the title song, to an audience who had never heard the songs before. The music was not a copy of a record, it was coming into being right now, and it was played, just for us, tonight. It was raw. It was rambunctious. It rocked.

cover art

The Rolling Stones

Exile on Main Street

US: 12 May 1972

Exile on Main Street is the Stones recording, for the last time perhaps, in the torn and frayed spirit of the Tonight’s the Night tour, with no makeup, no fake-up, and no over-written, self-mythologizing songs like “Sympathy for the Devil”. Just staying up all night at Keith’s place, rocking the house down.

The black and white covers of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street suggest a shared aesthetic: bare-bones arrangements and stark contrasts of light and shade. Exile‘s cover develops a further black and white connection: with the murky world of film noir. On the inner sleeve, in a movie theater lobby, a poster of Joan Crawford in a terror-stricken pose is surrounded by stills from classic noir films. Framing this centerpiece are repeated images of the lyrics: “I gave you the diamonds / You gave me disease”. Signature noir themes of alienation, greed, betrayal, revenge and the search for truth in an untrustworthy reality are echoed throughout the Robert Frank cover photography.

Pictures of 1940s and 1950s vaudeville freaks on the front mirror the images of the Stones on the back. Mick Jagger stands outside a porno theater, beside a huge tongue protruding from grinning lips, over the words “Sweet Taste of Joy”. Bill Wyman holds up a newspaper headline: RESCUER STABBED. This image is encircled by scrawled words: “I don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus, just want to see his face”. Stoned kids in seedy backrooms huddled around huge fetishistic jukeboxes; the designs evoke alien artifacts and Catholic altar-pieces. In the midst of this chaos, a priest, dressed in white robes, carries a cross; it’s not quite clear if he is a Pope, a black evangelist or a Klu Klux Clan member. The underworld and the celestial are interwoven in Exile‘s mood, in a raw, feel-over-form, blues-gospel musical manifesto that has become the Rosetta Stone for artists like Jon Spencer and The Laughing Hyenas who want to extract the nitty gritty of the blues while leaving behind the 12-bar cliches that bind most blues-rock artists to sterile mimicry.

Much of Exile‘s uncooked aura comes from the unfinished, record-it-while-it’s-fresh, state of the songs. Apart from “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy”, none of Exile‘s 16 songs ever show up on Stones greatest hits albums, probably because most of them are no more than rough ideas: one or two verses and a chorus (“Ventilator Blues”, “Sweet Virginia”, “Just Want to See His Face”, “Soul Survivor”) with no bridge, no third verse, no resolution. At a time when the singer-songwriter was being placed on a pedestal, and the “art of songwriting” was ascending towards the precious, neo-classical mini-operas of Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Elton John, Exile sacrificed song to feel and structure to mood. Exile is chaotic, loud and inarticulate, dirty and dangerous, full of dark corners, radical mood swings and unpredictable twists. It is not about these things it is these things.

Side one. “Feel so mesmerized, can’t describe the scene, feel so hypnotized, all that inside me.” “Rocks Off”, establishes the theme of escape into a flickering interior dimension, a movie for the ears that blends influences from monochromatic eras. 1930s blues and gospel, 1940s jazz and country, 1950s greaser rock: a musical genre that has never quite existed. “Rip This Joint”, with Bill Plummer on uprite bass and a hopped up tempo that anticipates the Ramones, is a twisted, cocaine-fuelled, “Rock Around the Clock”. Slim Harpo’s “Hip Shake” is an immediate contrast: shuffling, funky, back country Mississippi dance music. “Casino Blues”‘s half-drowned lyrics evoke snatches of conversation from speakeasy characters: “judge and jury walked out hand in hand / was that Hattie Black?” Raucous, sore-throat harmonies from Mick and Keith, and Charlie’s drums spilling out of the speakers on the ride out. “Tumbling Dice” is the album’s most perfect noir image: two ivory cubes with black dots, binary testicles, rolling and tumbling.

Side two. “Sweet Virginia”, gets Nashville so messed up that she kisses the Blues’s funky black ass. “Torn and Frayed” is about, “barrooms and smelly bordellos”, where a pale English rock star’s pain might be semi-real. “Joe’s got a cough, sounds kinda rough, Yeah and the codeine to fix it, Doctor prescribes drugstore supplies, Who’s gonna help him to kick it?” Not Keith, I imagine. Then “Black Angel”, a cheesy tribute to Angela Davis that doesn’t know whether to treat the imprisoned freedom fighter as Joan of Brown Sugar or Saint Jemima. But hey, it’s the ‘70s, the Stones could basically give a shit, and you know Angela loved it anyway. “Loving Cup” is a big-screen send off, closing out a side of safety-off, raw-ass country-blues-soul-rock . . . whatever. Stones.

Side three. “I need a love to keep me happy”. God bless Keith Richard. “Turd on the Run” takes off at an insane pace on harmonica, upright and drums, with a lyric about diamonds, disease, holding her pants while they rip off, throwing her in the shower, and making her sweat and scream. It’s all good fun until it dead-ends in a dark alley. “Ventilator Blues” is where rock and roll noir gets pistol-whipped by Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre and wakes up double-dipped in dark slime. On the chorus, stone cold horns kick in, and Jagger sings like murder in the first degree: “Everybody walking round, Everybody trying to step on their creator”. Turn that UP. This is blues of an insane intensity from the no-mind school of Howling Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle”, with fish heads filling the air and stump juice everywhere. It segues into the candle-lit, swamp gospel of “Just Wanna See His Face” and “Let It Loose”.

Side four . . . hell. Listen to it yourself. “Soul Survivor” is the last song. It’s not really a song. More like wreckage afloat. Jagger sings like a raging demon: “I’m a soul survivor, it’s gonna be the death of me”. The riff is gray, like storm clouds and oceans, grainy gray. Sounds like dancing debris and chaos churning. Turn it up. Shut up. Let it roll.

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