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

Rolling Stones Mick Jagger Keith Richards
Chris Walter/WireImage
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards onstage in 1971.
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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.

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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."

Much the same can be said in 1971 about the state of the relationship between Keith Richards and his partner in musical crime, Michael Philip Jagger. One of the major themes that runs through the making of the new album is the ever-increasing tension between these two brothers-in-arms. Like so much going on at the table tonight at Nellcôte, it is not so far wrong to say that the difficulties between them began in earnest during the making of Performance. Brian Jones, who founded the Stones only to lose his band to Mick, the woman he loved to Keith and then his life as well, was the one who first taught both Mick and Keith that it was no big thing to have it off with each other's women, because no female could ever come between two Rolling Stones.

Nonetheless, Mick had seriously crossed the line three years earlier. Day after day as Keith sat brooding in his Rolls-Royce outside the house in Lowndes Square in London, where Performance was being shot during the fall of 1968, Mick was carrying on a torrid affair with Anita — the best friend of Marianne Faithfull, then Mick's girlfriend. Mick and Anita getting it on together, even before the cameras, was one thing. Mick's insistence on continuing to pursue Anita, while he and Marianne were on holiday with Anita and Keith in South America after the film was done, was quite another. Two lesser or perhaps more ordinary men, despite how long they had known each other and how much brilliant work they had done together, would have come to blows and stopped speaking right then and there.

Not Mick and Keith. The two were joined not only at the hip but the pocketbook as well. They were also particularly English in their steadfast refusal to ever confront one another directly about anything. Like the slightly naughty schoolboys they still often seemed to be, each would instead snidely slag the other behind closed doors to a neutral third party while continuing to work together. Because Mick is currently off cruising through the Mediterranean with his brand-new bride, the lovely Bianca, the Stones are now doing no work at all on their new album. In his palatial villa by the sea in the south of France, Keith has to find some means other than recording to while away the time.

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And so it is that once dinner is done, Madeleine D'Arcy and Michele Breton accompany Keith and Anita and Spanish Tony up the stairs to Tony's bedroom where, in his words, they all decide "to unwind by gulping down a few Mandrax tablets followed by hefty swigs of Courvoisier. The combination produces oblivion almost as quickly as a bonk on the head from a cowboy's gun. In less than an hour, all six of us had flaked out on my vast Louis XIV bed." Regaining consciousness at five in the morning, Tony hears "whispers and faint gigglings from two people on the other side of the bed." Thinking at first that it must be Keith and Anita, he discovers instead that it is Tommy and Anita, who then begins to gently moan. "I could feel the bed shake as Tommy climbed stealthily onto Anita," Tony writes, "and then they were making love, gently at first and then violently. All the time, Keith and Michele snored on in blissful, drugged unawareness." When the pounding stops, Tony falls asleep once more. In the morning, he wakes up "to find Keith and Michele stretching themselves and gradually coming to." Tommy and Anita are nowhere to be seen. When he is asked if any of this is true, Tommy Weber will later say, "I can't remember any of these things. It could have happened, but I really wouldn't have been that vulgar."

Nothing much is said about anything at breakfast, and then Keith and Tony roar off in Keith's XKE to have a look at a speedboat for sale in the neighboring harbor of Beaulieu. Anita, Tommy, Michele Breton and French photographer Dominique Tarle, according to Tony, follow along behind in a rented gray Dodge driven by Dave Powell, Keith's chauffeur and aide-de-camp. As Tony and Keith head for the harbor, Tony takes it upon himself to tell Keith in a very Victorian manner that while they were all passed out the night before, Tommy took "a liberty" with an unconscious Anita. "He had his hand up her dress," Tony says, "and he was fondling her. It wasn't anything serious, but I thought you should know so you can tell the guy to piss off when we get back to the house this evening."

While it is true that Tony literally cannot bear the sight of Tommy and would be more than happy to do anything in his power to damage his standing with Keith, his comments may have more to do with business than friendship. Tommy — who up to this point in his life has had but a nodding social acquaintance with cocaine — won the unlimited respect of those at Nellcôte earlier in the summer when he brought with him to the south of France about a pound of the white powder, which he concealed in money belts strapped to the bodies of his two young sons, eight-year-old Jake and six-year-old Charlie, also known as "Boo-Boo." Tommy is now so completely ensconced at Nellcôte that Tony views him as not only a direct threat to his position as a member of the inner circle but to his livelihood as well. Although Tommy will later say, "I wasn't part of any supply route there at all," this seems to be precisely what Tony thinks at the time.

Arriving at Beaulieu "in a shower of warm summer rain," Keith and Tony go looking for the harbor master's office so he can direct them to the person selling the boat. Suddenly, another brand-new Jaguar, this one an XJ6, tries to squeeze past them in the narrow road. There is an ugly ripping sound as the other Jaguar's bumper scrapes along the side of Keith's car. "All of Keith's pent-up anger seemed suddenly to explode," Tony writes. Through the open window of the car, Keith screams, "What do you fucking think you are fucking well doing?" Ignoring the "sputtered apologies" of "the genteel Italian couple in the XJ6," Keith then adds, "You fucking stupid foreigners. I'll smash your fucking heads in."

Before Tony can stop him, Keith pulls "a huge German hunting knife" from his leather satchel, jumps out of the car and screams, "You stupid fucking idiot!" at the "old man" driving the other car. Hearing the commotion, Jacques Raymond, the harbor master, whom Tony describes as "a broad-shouldered six-feet-two giant of man," comes out of his office. Ushering the Italian couple inside, he waves Keith away, which only serves to further enrage him. Since the harbor master speaks no English and Keith does not know a word of French, Tony does his best to calm things down. It is then that Keith brandishes the knife. The harbor master lets fly with a roundhouse right. Down goes Keith. Ever the loyal foot soldier, Tony responds by hitting the harbor master in the face, thereby "knocking the Goliath onto a table."

Getting to his feet, Keith rushes out to the XKE. According to Tony, Keith returns a moment later with his son Marlon's toy Colt .45 pistol in his hand, thereby pioneering the concept of using a fake weapon to further inflame a real situation. Pushing the Italian couple to the floor, the harbor master promptly pulls out his own revolver. Unfortunately for Keith, the harbor master's gun happens to be real. Terrified that the harbor master may turn the gun on him, Tony grabs the toy pistol from Keith's hand, flings it to the ground and begins shouting in French that Keith has no pistol.

Seconds later, the sound of approaching sirens can be heard. Both men dash for the safety of their cars. As they do, Keith tells Tony to take the XKE while he hops into the Dodge. Hurtling back to Nellcôte at a speed he conservatively estimates at between 140 and 150 miles an hour, Tony roars up the driveway, leaps out of the car, bolts the villa's big wrought-iron gates shut, puts the Jag in the garage and waits.

While Tony seems only too pleased to portray himself as the hero of the day in his book Up and Down With the Rolling Stones, it was his nemesis, Tommy Weber, who kept the situation from boiling over. "I was actually in the harbor with Jake and Charlie and Marion," he recalls. "I think the three boys were in the E-type and I had my car as well. One of the port uniforms tried to grab Keith and took a swing at him, and he missed Keith and nearly hit Marion. At that point, Keith pulled out a .38. And then a whole battle started." Tommy's son Jake, who was waiting in the car at the time, distinctly remembers being told that it was Keith who opened up the harbor master's face by punching him with his right hand, the one on which he wore his heavy silver skull ring, thereby proving that his signature piece of jewelry was not only ornamental but also of great use in a brawl.

"I," says Tommy Weber, "knowing the complexity and the politics of the whole thing, get the kids in my car and take them back up to Nellcôte to 'clean the place up' before we have a big, big bust, which is obviously going to happen. Even though we had protection from the local prefect, we didn't have enough protection from the Customs, and this was the harbor. So I knew it was really serious. Keith and Spanish Tony were having a lovely time having a serious 'Western brawl' with all these uniforms. Later, I'm told they thought I was running out on them, but I knew they were quite capable of looking out after themselves. So I took the kids to get them out of the situation and also to get up to Nellcôte to warn Anita and everybody there to clean up whatever was lying about because we were going to get a spin. And that was exactly what happened. I took the .38 and dumped it in the harbor, and Keith told the police that it was Marion's toy gun. I was the one who had taken the gun off Keith in the harbor. I had to disarm him or he would have used it."

When the police come to Nellcôte to speak with Keith the next afternoon, he explains that because of the harbor master's unprovoked attack, Marion banged his head on the ground and so Keith now intends to sue the man for assaulting his young son. The Stones' lawyers and the police then get together to discuss the matter. How much money changes hands during this meeting, no one can say for certain. That evening, however, the chief of police comes to dinner at Nellcôte. Keith provides him with a few autographed Rolling Stones albums. And, as Tony writes, "that was the end of that little problem as far as he was concerned."

Despite what Tony claims transpired in that crowded bed at Nellcôte the night before the punch-up, Tommy goes right on living at the villa. But then as a couple, Keith and Anita have already weathered so many storms of every conceivable nature that physical fidelity would seem to be the least of their concerns. All the same, doing it with someone else while your partner lies passed out beside you does seem a bit much even for them. But then, as Keith once said from the dock at Old Bailey, "We are not old men. We are not worried about petty morals."

On June 7th, 1971, after a four-day drive from London, the Rolling Stones' recording truck, also known as the mobile, finally arrives at Nellcôte. For a solid month before Mick left on his honeymoon, he and Keith had scoured the French countryside for places where the band might record. "Of course," road manager Jerry Pompili would later say, "no one liked anything. We wasted a month, and then in the end they decided to do it in Keith's house. Typical Stones."

In large part, the truck exists not just because the Stones have wasted so much money over the years by booking expensive studio time by the hour only to then show up late or not at all for sessions but also because of the residual guilt Mick and Keith still feel about allowing Andrew Oldham, the Stones' first manager, to boot original pianist Ian Stewart out of the band in 1963 because he neither looked nor acted like a pop star. "I think by way of making it up to him," recording engineer Andy Johns will later say, "they built the truck and said, 'Here ya go, Stu. You run this.'" The Stones have also pumped an astronomical 65,000 pounds into building what Johns will later call "the first proper mobile in Europe."

It has already been used at Stargroves, Mick's country estate in England, to record tracks that appear on Sticky Fingers as well as "Sweet Black Angel," which eventually makes it way onto Exile on Main Street.

Shortly after the mobile arrives, what in retrospect will prove to be the most significant event of the entire summer occurs. Keith and Tommy decide to spend the day driving go-carts around a local track.

Based on Keith's driving record in England, it should come as no surprise to anyone that calamity results. Deciding to have a go at Tommy, who in any vehicle is by far the better driver, Keith takes a running shot at him with his go-cart. "It definitely felt like murder," Tommy recalls. "He was trying to knock into me. He drove straight at me and the thing flipped . . . I was still trying to slow the cars down and I had him with his head in my lap, the go-cart on top of him, and his back was scraping along the tarmac. His back was like raw steak. A little later, he was looking at me and he said, 'OK, Tommy, I think it's about time you went to the doctor and get him to get us some you-know-what,' which everyone had been staying away from. And that was the beginning of it. The go-cart accident instigated the opiates."

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."

Still, with so little real progress being made down in the basement, time begins to weigh heavily on everyone. For want of anything better to do, Andy Johns and Jim Price decide to set up a casino at the villa where they live. "We bought a full-sized roulette wheel," Johns recalls, "and people would come by and we would play roulette until one or two in the morning and then it would change into poker. Sometimes craps. And we were making quite a bit of money on the craps and the roulette. We were the house. Keith came once. And he didn't want to join in. I think that was because he might lose. Or we might win. Which of course would have been an act of lèse-majesté. It was the time that he shot me up."

Johns, then twenty-one years old, has snorted heroin a few times but never injected the drug. "During the course of that project," he says, "I started using. Because it was easy to get. Marseilles was just down the road, and you could get this China White that was very powerful for not a lot of money. So I started taking this stuff. I mean, it was so fucking boring most of the time. So much waiting around."

On the night that Keith comes to visit Johns and Price at their makeshift casino on the French Riviera, Johns goes into his bedroom "to change my shirt or for some fucking reason, and Keith had a needle and a spoon, and I'd been brought up to think that was very inappropriate behavior. But I was along the path a little bit by now, and I said, What are you doing?' And he said, 'Oh, do you want to do this too?' And I went, 'Yes. OK.'And he went, 'Oh, this needle's fucked. It won't work. We'll go back to my place.' So we jump in his car and drive all the way back to Nellcôte, and he takes me downstairs and cooks something up, and he didn't inject it in the vein. He just skin-popped me. And went, 'Now, you're a man.' Which I thought, looking back on it now, 'How adolescent of him.' And how adolescent of me. 'Oh, I'll do this, too.'"

Johns then goes back upstairs and is sitting in the mobile when lan Stewart walks in, takes one look at him, and says, "Andy, what's the time? Andy, what's the time?" "And of course," Johns would later recall, "I couldn't see. So I was looking at my watch and going, 'It's, uh, I think it might be . . . well . . .' And Stu said, 'You've been hangin' out with Keith, haven't you? Ohhhh, dear, he's in trouble . . ." So Stu picked up on it within ten fucking minutes. I said, 'Stu, no, I haven't done anything.' I just lied. He knew. I didn't become a junkie per se until a little later on. By the time we went to Jamaica to do Goat's Head Soup, I was deep into it."

One of the lucky ones, Andy Johns spends the entire summer at Nellcôte yet somehow manages to live to tell the tale. The same cannot be said for John Lennon — who passed through the house during the Cannes Film Festival — Gram Parsons, Jimmy Miller, Madeleine D'Arcy, Ian Stewart, photographer Michael Cooper, Living Theatre producer Olivier Boelen, Jean de Breteuil, the highborn drug connection who supplied Jim Morrison with his fatal shot, or Spanish Tony Sanchez and Michele Breton, both of whom are missing in action and presumed to be gone as well. To say that the human toll exacted during the making of Exile on Main Street was extreme is an understatement of major proportions. But then even if you had tried to tell the denizens of Nellcôte that far too many of them would, in the immortal words of Pete Townshend, die before they got old, no one would have listened. They were all too busy getting high.

This is a story from the September 21, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1009: September 21, 2006
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