Go with a smile!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Exile on Main Street

For some reason they’re re-mastering “Exile” now and not at some major anniversary of 1972. “Exile” is my favourite Stones album, and the last and greatest of their acknowledged masterpieces. (The other 3 being “Beggar’s Banquet” – which lent its name to a record label, “Let it Bleed” and “Sticky Fingers”). They ruled the roost in the immediate wake of 1970, as though the demise of their rivals, the Beatles, energized them and allowed them the freedom to fulfill their billing as the “best band in the world”.

Some aspects of the album have passed into legend. They fled Britain to escape paying hefty taxes, so they really were tax exiles. They moved to a mansion at the south of France. The recording sessions were rowdy and decadent, and probably very disorganized, this probably was reflected in the music. This was the beginning of Keith Richard’s long-standing heroin habit. That would probably reflect itself in the Stones’ spotty output over the subsequent course of their career (but they were probably also creatively exhausted as well). Gram Parsons, another very talented smackhead was around at the sessions, jamming around with them. Probably he overstayed his welcome – in any case, Mick Jagger was keeping a close watch on him, wondering if Gram Parsons was going to supplant him as Keith Richard’s main creative partner. No danger of that, though – he died of an overdose a few years later.

I found this album on a cassette when I was 16. I had heard a lot about that album so I bought it. I was not impressed. It sounded quite ordinary and murky. I think that was the reaction of a lot of people who listened to it for the first time, because the general critical reaction to the album was that people were vaguely disappointed with it. Later on, though, small bits and pieces caught on through the sonic sludge, and today it’s far and away my favourite Rolling Stones album (second favourite is “Let it Bleed”, but that one is a distant second). If you were to ask most people to name their favourite, it would most probably be “Exile” as well.

There weren’t any outstanding singles on “Exile”. No “Sympathy for the Devil”, no “No Expectations”, no “Gimme Danger” or “Brown Sugar”. So why is this their best album? Because – and this is probably a concept foreign to the iPod generation – albums are evaluated as a whole, and in spite of this being one of their their longest albums, it is also the most cohesive.

“Exile” was called a double album because you needed 2 LPs to fit everything on, even though later on everything could fit onto 1 CD. Typically double albums are a grab bag of varied artistic styles, and it is the traditional symbol of the artist expanding his horizons. On the good side, it is probably a reflection that this is a fertile stage of the artist’s development, because otherwise he doesn’t have that much stuff to work with. On the bad side, maybe he really doesn’t have that much stuff, and a lot of it is filler. A lot of the left field ideas come up, and sometimes the work lacks thematic consistency, sometimes the quality is uneven. As usual, the Beatles have managed to make the definitive double album – their white album. Just as white is a mixture of all colours, that was, for better or worse, 4 solo projects cobbled into one.

But then again, double albums have this great advantage in that there’s always more quantity, it always has more ideas bouncing off each other, and the sheer novelty of much of the material will usually offset the lack of coherence. Size does matter. Everything else being equal, the lady with the bigger tits wins.

Somehow, “Exile” managed to have the best of both worlds. It’s extremely rich in different styles and musical ideas, and yet everything hangs together. Everything looks like it’s of a piece. The cover photograph conveys this perfectly. It’s a pastiche of a lot of photographs. Some of them are of freaks, some of them are gypsies, some of them are of perfectly ordinary people. No one detail stands out from the background. Yet because this is a black and white rendering, everything is filtered through the same lens. Everything looks of a piece, everything looks like it belongs together.

This album did not have a picture of a toilet bowl on the cover (“Beggar’s Banquet”), did not misappropriate the title of a Beatles’ album (“Let It Bleed”), and did not have an Andy Warhol picture of a crotch in tight jeans (“Sticky Fingers”). It wasn’t calculated to shock or offend. Those 3 albums had their gems but always included 1 or 2 awkward songs that made me want to press the skip button. There are no such songs on “Exile”.

I liked “Exile” the best because it felt the most natural of all the Stones’ albums. The informal setting of the French villa came through there, and there’s this feeling they’re right there in front of you, in your bedroom, playing that music in their pajamas. “Exile” is your favourite pair of shoes, not the most stylish or expensive, but the most comfortable and most lived in.

I don’t know if the Stones were also stressed out about their situation. There was plenty to fret about. A few years before, a fan was murdered in one of their concerts. Brian Jones was dead. They weren’t able to make music in London. They probably had pretty squalid surroundings. Maybe they weren’t thinking that much about making loud and bold statements, which was why they just wrote a lot of unassuming songs about real life. I always felt that this was their most emotionally real album, that I was hearing the real Rolling Stones, rather than the ones that felt that they had to make shocking stuff like “Bitch”, or “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Midnight Rambler”.

There were songs about gambling. There were songs about sin and redemption. There were straight out rockers, there were piano ballads, and gospel choirs. Rock and roll, country, the blues, and all of it was blended into this thick rich soup, where you no longer knew what belonged to what. All the songs here have titles, but when they pop into my head, it’s not as an individual piece, I just think, “this is an Exile song”.

I don’t know if they have done something as unpretentious as this. Much of this music, one realizes, could only be made by a band at the height of their powers, and yet they seem utterly relaxed. Maybe some of them were too distracted by the turmoil going on that they just got much less self-conscious when making the music. Perhaps I'm only saying this in hindsight, that it seems like the end of a long plateau, that this is a band that's cruising on their experience and enjoying the fruits of the hard work of the previous years.

Maybe they should have broken up right after that. But then again, this is also the band of Keith Richards, one of the toughest people around, who should have died a long time ago, but remains inexplicably alive.

A review of this album noted that this is more of Keith Richard's album, because it's more in his wild and rambling style rather than in the Mick Jagger calculated to shock / offend mode. (He even gets to sing on a couple of songs). No wonder Mick Jagger should look at it many years later and stuffily declare that he doesn't understand what the fuss is about. I've always preferred Keith Richards over Mick Jagger.



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