Making 'Exile on Main St.'

Page 4 of 5

Since the Rolling Stones make it a practice never to travel anywhere without having a doctor around, their local physician by this point had already been sending around what in France is called a piquer (someone like a district nurse) to administer injectibles at Nellcôte. To this point in time, the substance being injected on a daily basis is vitamin B-12. Back then, this practice was all the rage for those with money on both sides of the Atlantic who found themselves in high-pressure situations and could not be bothered to exercise in order to keep the old immune system up.

"Keith was absolutely in physical pain," says Tommy Weber. "And he knew what it was about. And he knew what it was going to do. He saw it in the world. He was actually pissed off that he had to be the person who had to keep all these people in line, including Mick, who was the whipping boy. When you realize that, you understand that Keith was free. He could go as far as he wanted to. He could allow Mick to take all the judgment of the straight world while he was able to really try and find out what the fuck was going on."

Whether it is just a simple desire to numb the physical pain that causes Keith to begin using again or the realization that with the mobile parked outside the villa, the time has finally come for him to begin work on the new album and that in order to do so, he will not only have to go down into that dank basement each night but also plumb the hidden depths of his own musical soul, an expedition he does not feel he can undertake without serious chemical assistance, no one can say for sure. "That was why he said it," Tommy explains. "Obviously, it had been weighing on his mind and he'd been trying not to start himself back up again, knowing that the work was there and the work required that level of decadence. I don't think it was being in an altered state to make the music. It was the way of life. 'It's only rock & roll, but I like it.' I like it. It was the liking, the decadent state, that gave them that fantastic self-confidence to create that incredible work."

Whatever his real reasons may have been, Keith is the one who places the order. And so the madness at Villa Nellcôte that summer begins in earnest.

At some point during the second week in June, the Stones actually begin playing together for the first time at Nellcôte. From then on, Bill Wyman remembers them working every night from eight until three in the morning for the rest of the month. However, according to Wyman, "not everyone turned up every night. This was, for me, one of the major frustrations of this whole period. For our previous two albums we had worked well and listened to producer Jimmy Miller. At Nellcôte things were very different and it took me a while to understand why."

Within the tightly cloistered world of the Rolling Stones, which Mick Jagger rules with complete dominion, there is one person he cannot control: Keith Richards. Day after day, as Keith gets high and dawdles in the loo upstairs, Mick and the rest of the Rolling Stones sit down in the basement waiting. There is nothing Mick can do to make Keith write new music to which he can write lyrics. He is squarely under the thumb of his oldest friend. Similarly, without the help of Mick, Keith cannot complete the album on which the Stones are working. Without the album, the Stones cannot tour America. Without the money they will earn there, they cannot survive as a band.

Down in the cellar, the Stones discover another problem: the humidity that tends to collect in the basements of large houses on the French Riviera during the summer. "The guitars would go out of tune halfway through a song," says Andy Johns. "Always. You'd stop them or they'd go to the end and you'd go, 'We have to do that again because we're going out of tune.'"

Despite these problems, everyone still believes that recording the album at the villa is a brilliant plan. The reason for this is simple. In the deck of cards that is the Rolling Stones, Keith has now become the grinning joker. Although he was the one who always railed the loudest at Brian for turning up so stoned at sessions that he would sometimes fall asleep on the floor, thereby forcing Keith to record all the guitar parts on his own, he now lives in a time zone that is all his own.

Late one night down in the basement, as Keith is putting an overdub on "Rocks Off," the track that will eventually become the first cut on the album, he falls asleep. In itself, this is nothing new. As Johns will later recall, "Keith used to nod out. He would play the intro and he'd be tacit for the first verse because he'd nod out and never come back in again." The mobile was equipped with a talk-back system and a black-and-white camera designed to allow whoever was at the board to see and communicate with the band as they played. Because neither worked very well, Johns spent most of his summer running from the truck into the basement at Nellcôte so he could talk to the musicians. "And I wasn't going to stop the tape and go, "Wake up!'. . . So we would just sit there and let the tape roll. You would know you were getting close if Keith came out of the basement to listen to a playback. That meant we were getting somewhere. He knew what he wanted, oh, yeah."

Regaining consciousness at three in the morning, Keith asks to listen to what he has just done, only to fall asleep once more. Deciding the night is now conclusively over, Johns leaves the mobile, gets into his car and returns to the villa where he lives with trumpet player Jim Price, easily half an hour's drive from Nellcôte. When Johns gets there, the phone rings. "Oi!" Keith says, none too pleased at having woken up only to find everyone gone. "Where the fuck are you? I've got this idea for another guitar part." Johns promptly drives all the way back to Nellcôte, where at five in the morning Keith begins doing this rhythm track that, as Johns will later say, "was spectacular. Made the song work. It was excellent. Like a counter-rhythm part. Two Telecasters, one on each side of the stereo, and it's absolutely brilliant. So I'm glad he got me back there."

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