Making 'Exile on Main St.'

Gunplay, go-carts and chemical assistance from a local doctor as the Rolling Stones make their masterpiece in the south of France

September 21, 2006
Rolling Stones Mick Jagger Keith Richards
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards onstage in 1971.
Chris Walter/WireImage

In the spring of 1971, nine years into their existence as the world's greatest rock & roll band, the Rolling Stones learned to their great dismay that they were not only broke but would also have to leave England to avoid paying British income tax. They decamped to the French Riviera — aptly described by Somerset Maugham as "a sunny place for shady people," where all forms of aberrant behavior had always been tolerated so long as the bill was always paid on time — and began recording their new album in the basement of Villa Nellcôte, Keith Richards' sumptuous mansion by the sea. The result was the Stones' only double album, the classic Exile on Main Street.

Perhaps life at Nellcôte has become too peaceful for Keith Richards. Perhaps he just feels bored. Perhaps, as "Spanish Tony" Sanchez — whom Marianne Faithfull once described as the "dealer by appointment to the Rolling Stones" — would have us believe, Keith is simply reacting to what happened the night before. Whatever the reason, the never-ending need for chaos with which Keith seems to have been born suddenly kicks in with a vengeance and all hell breaks loose.

It all begins one night during a dinner at Nellcôte attended by Keith, his longtime companion Anita Pallenberg, Spanish Tony and Tommy Weber, a fabulous character right out of the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. Tommy, who grew up on the estate in the English countryside where Charles Darwin once lived, was a professional racing car driver until a broken neck put an end to his career. Now thirty-three years old, with long blond hair hanging to his shoulders, he can usually be found walking around the villa barefoot in loose trousers and a flowing shirt that he may not have remembered to button up the front. Down on Nellcôte's rocky little beach, Tommy can sometimes be seen sunbathing in the nude, establishing beyond all doubt that he is one of the truly beautiful people on the planet. Although no one talks about it, Tommy and Anita look so much alike that they could be twins hatched from a single egg. Together, they make a stunning pair. Based on what Spanish Tony insists happened later that evening, Tommy and Anita may have already reached the same conclusion.

But then at Villa Nellcôte that summer, Anita was always the center of attention. How could she not be? The woman was a natural wonder, as well as a force of nature. Though she rarely went swimming, the outfit she preferred to wear around the house was a microscopic leopard-skin bikini that left nothing to the imagination yet made everyone wonder how she might look without it. Anita had first come to the band as the girlfriend/female mirror image of lead guitarist Brian Jones, who always liked to refer to himself as "the undisputed leader of the Rolling Stones." Together, Brian and Anita became the very first alpha couple of rock. Unable to be faithful to anyone for very long, they fought and fucked and paraded their ambiguous sexuality in public for all to see. When Brian finally became too much even for Anita, she left him to live with Keith, who by then had also fallen in love with her. At the rock & roll round table occupied by the Rolling Stones, Anita was the key. Whoever possessed her had the power. But as time would prove, no one could keep her for long. For in the end, she belonged only to herself.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Exile on Main St.

Lest anyone doubt that we are now entering purgatory and the road we travel will be littered with lost souls, consider the other two women also at dinner this evening at Nellcôte. One of them is Madeleine D'Arcy, a beautiful blond dancer for whom Spanish Tony left his wife and two children some years earlier. In a photo he took of her that summer, Madeleine stands by the front door of Nellcôte in an impossibly short minidress and a pair of stacked platform high-heel hooker shoes. Her bare legs are strong and muscular. Her hair is thick and lustrous, and she has a huge smile on her face.

Two years later, she would be turning tricks in Brighton for fifteen pounds a night to support her heroin habit. Her dead body, bruised and battered beyond recognition, was discovered by her close friend Marianne Faithfull. "She had been taking methadone in an attempt to withdraw from heroin," Tony would later write, "and somehow the drug had driven her into an inexplicable frenzy. She'd banged her face again and again against a bedside cupboard until she was battered, bloody — and dead." Beside himself with grief, Tony shoots heroin for the first time two weeks after her death. In "Lady Madeleine," a song on Marianne's 1977 album, Dreamin' My Dreams, she sings, "And I walk down the avenue/And I'm missing you, Lady Madeleine/And Spanish Tony don't know what to do/His strange world has all fallen through/And he wonders, was his love in vain?/And I think I might go quite insane."

Also sitting at the dinner table at Nellcôte that night is Michele Breton, a very thin and boyish-looking French girl with short-cropped hair and shockingly full breasts who along with Mick Jagger and Anita appears naked in the bathtub scene in Performance, the life-imitates-art-even-as-it-imitates-life psychodrama of a movie in which a Cockney gangster on the run (James Fox) has his mind blown after being drawn into the bent world of a fading rock star (Mick Jagger) and his beautiful omnisexual companion (Anita Pallenberg). Just seventeen years old when the film was shot, Breton would never make another movie and seems to have been cast in the role of Lucy primarily because she had already participated in a ménage à trois with writer and co-director Donald Cammell and his girlfriend, the Texas-born model Deborah Dixon. As had Anita.

Stoned on hashish and psychedelics during filming, Breton would spend the next five years of her life drifting around France and Spain. Busted for possession on the Spanish island Formentera, she lives for a year in Kabul shooting morphine. During this period, she sells her passport as well as all her belongings. Deciding to give up intravenous drug use after an LSD trip, Breton goes to India, where she is hospitalized for three months. She then returns to Kabul, travels to Italy and eventually settles for thirteen years in Berlin, where Mick Brown, an English writer working on a book about Performance, finds her in 1995. "I've done nothing with my life," she tells him. "Where did it start going wrong? I can't remember. It's something like destiny."

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