Exile on Main St by Robert Greenfield

“Those seeking a track-by-track analysis of Exile on Main St. detailing how each song was recorded, overdubbed, and mixed … are hereby advised to consult the works mentioned at the end of this book, this sort of travail having always been the bailiwick of rock critics as opposed to rock writers.”

So writes Robert Greenfield at the start of the final third of Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones, his account of the drama surrounding the making of the band’s legendary 1972 double album. Indeed, readers looking for insight into the technical minutiae of the record’s production have a number of existing texts to consult, including Bill Janovitz’s entry in the “33 1/3” series. In fact, it isn’t until nearly halfway into the book that the band begins congregating in the now-notorious French basement with no ventilation to make what many will deem the album of its career, and even then, such documentation takes a backseat to the dissection of power struggles and the psychological powder keg that is the band’s chemistry. Greenfield is far less concerned with the music than he is with tabloid-esque gossip (many incidents in the book become questionable when told from so many conflicting viewpoints); he is, as he so definitively points out, a rock writer and not a rock critic, and is more inclined to plumb the shadowy depths of the characters at the heart of this tragedy of sorts. This is not to say that his book is a glorified, hardbound tabloid, though it does traffic in excessively lurid accounts of drug-fueled misbehavior. (By all accounts, the summer spent making Exile on Main St. certainly was a season in hell.) While the Stones’ long-running association with vice is so well documented in the annals of pop lore that it continues to be a wellspring of parody, Greenfield manages to present a picture of debauchery devoid of all ironic traces.

Greenfield follows the tax-evading Stones first to Villa Nellcote, Keith Richards’s 19th-century mansion in southern France where the recording of Exile would finally and arduously begin, and then on to Los Angeles, where they would complete and mix the record. The book favors Richards (who Greenfield deems “our hero”, “our antihero”, and “our Jesus of Cool” in an early moment of effusive iconography) and his then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who fluctuate between heroin addiction and futile detoxes; most of the book’s action (drug smugglings, bust-ups with the local authorities, infidelities, negotiating the priorities of the hangers-on — in effect, all the things going on at Nellcote while the band waited around for something resembling a recording session to occur) places at least one of the two in the starring role. In contrast, Greenfield does his best to passively condemn Mick Jagger’s absenteeism (“It would be tempting to call him the villain … but that would not be fair to anyone, Mick most of all”) and selfishness (“Because Mick had an agenda, he was always prepared to play a dazzling variety of games to achieve his aim”), though he does manage to eventually acknowledge the creative importance of the uncomfortable friction generated between Jagger and Richards.

Greenfield has written of close encounters of the Stonesian kind before: S.T.P.: A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones (1974), his firsthand account of the band’s 1972 post-Exile tour, is a good, if often unflattering portrait of the band blazing a Dionysian path across the US. Where that book was fueled by an in-the-moment immediacy and insider access, Exile on Main St. is marked by a reliance on the quoted perspectives of others, as if all this distance from the actual events requires a reinforcement of talking heads. After a strong start in Greenfield’s electrifying, rock ‘n’ roll-infected language, the book becomes increasingly dependent on quotes from outside interviews and previously published books, so much that at times its construction is no more complicated than a series of cuts and pastes.

Another hindrance to Greenfield’s style is the recurring failure to suppress snarky flare-ups, which erupt as contemptuous, unintentionally hypocritical asides. He belittles music critics, yet repeatedly incorporates their quotes and opinions into his own text. He takes Paul McCartney to task for selling out to sponsors like Fidelity (“he now bears little real resemblance to who he used to be”), only to go on to defend the similar actions of the Stones, the band that arguably invented rock ‘n’ roll whoring to the highest corporate bidder. In one particularly embarrassing moment, Greenfield calls out a number of authors on their factual inaccuracies (“Next time you want to check a fact about the Stones,” he smugly writes, “please feel free to call me”), only to commit a glaring error of his own two paragraphs later by incorrectly asserting that “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” can be found on Sticky Fingers. All this righteous posturing distracts from the narrative itself, distorting its no-bullshit prose into downright surliness.

Despite its fly-on-the-wall intimacies, first-hand accounts, and genuinely insightful portraits (special attention is given to the band’s alienation of Mick Taylor, the Stones’ brief and best lead guitarist), Exile on Main St. fails to confront the most obvious of questions: Exactly how did one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential albums emerge from all this sturm und drang? If the Stones’ last truly exceptional album — a record they don’t particularly admire — is a work of genius, how was said genius manufactured by a collection of torn and frayed consciousnesses? Greenfield’s book avoids hypotheses and sticks to the realism: These are the Stones as-is, plainly if not shockingly candid, reduced to mere men both callous and indifferent. Unfortunately for them, the music’s always been more interesting.