Jagger acknowledges that rooting around in old music and old memories "is not my kind of cup of tea." Yet he was the one who first went through the mass of material recorded between 1969 and 1972 from which the original album had been assembled, and turned over hard drives with some 300 hours of music to Don Was, who's been the Stones' producer since 1993. "I think it was like an albatross for him," Was recalls. "It wasn't something he was particularly looking forward to. He kind of apologized for foisting it on me." Jagger also came up with the idea of an Exile documentary, as a way to "make some kind of noise." And while the basic instrumental tracks for the 10 songs that ended up on the new bonus CD were mostly solid — Richards only had to spend about an hour adding some guitar here and there — five of them (plus a short instrumental) had never been fitted out with vocals, or even lyrics, and Jagger set about finishing the job. "I listened a bit to the regular album and just sort of copped the attitude a bit. I don't know if that takes away from them or not. I mean, I could have fibbed to you — you totally would have believed me." Engineer Bob Clearmountain, who mixed the new tracks, tweaked Jagger's voice slightly "to try to make him sound more like what he sounded like 30 years ago," and it takes a close listener — Charlie Watts, for instance — to detect a telltale tightness and a thinner, more cutting timbre than he had in his 20s. "My only criticism of the new ones is that the voice sounds like it was done yesterday," Watts says. "That's inevitable. But I think Mick likes them. He was rather pleased when he gave them to me. He must've got into this."
Jagger, Was and Clearmountain tried to keep the newly completed tracks as true as possible to the distinctively rough, raw sound created by Johns and Exile's producer, the late Jimmy Miller. (Miller himself actually disliked it, and Jagger has also expressed displeasure.) Except for some backup vocalists, and a six-violin string section on "Following the River," they used no musicians who weren't on the original sessions; for one cut, "Plundered My Soul," Jagger brought Taylor, who quit the Stones in 1974, into a London studio for a couple of hours last fall to put on "those Mick Taylor lead lines." Was and Clearmountain even kept to the same placement of the instruments in the left-right spectrum. "If the piano's in a certain spot on Exile, it's in the same spot now," Was says. "We didn't try to rewrite the book on it." Purists will find these tracks, however convincing or unconvincing, less compelling than the ones that were actually finished back in the day — especially a slower, shaggier, more heartfelt 1969 version of Exile's "Loving Cup," with Richards' guitar out front. While mixing this track, Clearmountain felt tempted to trot out the technology. "I just thought, 'Man, I could put that piano a little more in time.' But we just left it, though the piano's a little bit buried in some of the places where he's really out." Was prefers this "Loving Cup" to the far more put-together version on the original Exile. Does Jagger still think they made the right choice back then? "Blimey, I don't know. I don't know if there is a right and wrong after a while. The original one sounds fine to me."
Richards, always ready with a quotable metaphor, says the guiding principle behind spiffing up the outtakes was "not to repaint the smile on the 'Mona Lisa.' It's a unique piece of work, done in a unique place, and it should sound like that." Some of the songs that ended up on the original Exile, such as "Shine a Light," "Sweet Virginia" and "Stop Breaking Down," had been recorded at London's Olympic Studios, at sessions for the Stones' previous albums Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. (That "Loving Cup" outtake also comes from Olympic.) But they did the basic tracks for the songs that most define Exile — "Tumbling Dice," "Happy," "Rocks Off" — at Nellcôte, Richards' rented villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer, on France's Côte d'Azur, between late June and October of 1971. If Exile is still a tough record to nerve yourself up for — Don Was admits that "to this day, it's much easier just to pop on Let It Bleed" — that may have something to do with the circumstances under which it was recorded. Richards now speaks of the Nellcôte period as "a fight for the band to stay alive," and undoubtedly the Stones let whatever individual and collective miseries and anxieties they were going through make their way onto the tracks.
Despite their bravado and insouciance, the Stones must have been a shellshocked group of young men that summer. Four years earlier, Jagger and Richards had been busted for drugs for the first time, the band had gotten rid of their original producer and mentor, Andrew Loog Oldham — and Richards had taken up with Anita Pallenberg, the girlfriend of Brian Jones, the band's founding member and onetime leader. Then, in 1969, they forced out Jones, who'd made only perfunctory contributions to their last couple of records, and replaced him with Mick Taylor, the 20-year-old master guitarist from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Shortly afterward, Jones turned up dead in his swimming pool. That fall, at California's Altamont Speedway, Hells Angels stabbed a fan to death as the Stones' new lineup gamely carried on with "Under My Thumb." By 1971, they had a new Number One album, Sticky Fingers — and learned that, despite their sales figures and their baronial expenditures, they were broke. Thanks to a disastrous relationship with their manager Allen Klein, each of them (except for the newly hired Taylor) owed more than £100,000 in back taxes. They'd broken with Klein, too, but he'd won the rights to their whole catalog before 1970, and due to England's confiscatory tax rate, they had no hope of paying their old bills out of new income and fled the country for France. Why France? Mostly because it was nearby and had more accommodating tax laws. And soon after the move, Jagger married the Nicaraguan-born fashion model Bianca Pérez Morena de Macías, in a ceremony in Saint-Tropez to which none of the Stones except Richards was invited. Richards and Pallenberg, meanwhile, had holed up at Nellcôte with their young son, Marlon, and had become the Lord and Lady of Misrule.
It's hard to feel too sorry for these high-end refugees — and to their credit, the Stones didn't seem to feel sorry for themselves. "Hey, what's so difficult about cutting a record on the Riviera?" Richards remembers thinking. "You know, lying on a beach in the sun? Jesus Christ, who could ask for anything more?" Still, they'd had homes, and in some cases young families, in England, and Watts, for one, didn't even speak French. "As a true Englishman," Wyman wrote in his autobiography, "I viewed exile in the South of France with misgivings. . . . But my reluctance to go was overridden by our desperate financial state." Once they'd landed — Wyman in Grasse, Jagger in Biot and Watts, who didn't like the Côte d'Azur, on a farm six hours away — they went looking for a studio in which to record a follow-up to Sticky Fingers, which had been released as they skipped out of England in April. "We suddenly had to leave everything, where we knew how to work and where we were used to working," Richards says, "and now — boom, out you go. How do we put it together somewhere else? We figured that in Cannes or Nice or Monte Carlo or Marseille there would be a decent studio to work in. And forget about it. I mean these cats are all there cutting these French jingles. So, to cut a long story short, we remembered we had our own mobile recording truck." Since they'd already used it at Stargroves, Jagger's country home in Berkshire, for parts of Sticky Fingers, what could go wrong? "And then," Richards says, "everybody suddenly turns their eyes to me and looks at my basement. So the meat of the matter was done at Nellcôte, down in the bunker. I'm living on top of the factory. And quite a factory it was."
The Nellcôte mythology, the often-told tales of decadent privilege, outlaw pleasures — one of which was Richards' heroin habit — and the house's supposedly sinister history, has inevitably colored the response to Exile. Richards still maintains that the majestic 1890s mansion, with its pillars, mirrors and billowing white curtains, had served as a Gestapo headquarters during World War II; the principal evidence seems to be gossip, and the swastikas that both he and Johns saw on the basement heating vents. (That would have been a surpassingly odd way of honoring the Reich; the swastika, which dates back to antiquity, was a common decorative motif long before the Nazis.) The room where Watts stayed, Johns recalls, "looked like a very expensive hooker's room. It had some sort of pink motif and a very large bed. In fact, I remember bonking some bird in there one night and getting discovered." The house was overrun with such louche visitors as Gram Parsons — who was so inelegantly wasted that he was asked to leave — and equally louche locals. "We called them the cowboys," Johns says. "There were four or five of these cats that would just sort of do runs, if you know what I mean." At one point, work had to stop because somebody stole a bunch of guitars. "It's the South of France, what do you expect?" Richards says. "I mean, they stick up casinos down there, you know? Actually, I got most of them back. And I got the guy that did it. But that's another story." He gives a piratical laugh. "He ain't around no more."
Smack and swastikas! High rollers and lowlife criminals! Bonkable birds and Anita Pallenberg in her leopard-pattern bikini! ("It never came off," Johns says. "For two months. A bit rank.") Nellcôte's opiated opulence seems to fit Exile's dark, ragged sonorities, its general air of sexy menace and its beat-up, bottomed-out lyrics: "Kick me like you've kicked before/I can't even feel the pain no more." In the world of Exile, a lover is a "partner in crime," and the heartbroken yearn for the comforts of heartlessness. Even "Rip This Joint," a pastiche of such old-school rock & roll barnburners as Little Richard's "Rip It Up," has an edge of desperation: "I'm gonna raise hell at the union hall/Drive myself right over the wall." Some lyrics seem to allude to the band's money problems — "I never kept a dollar past sunset/It always burned a hole in my pants" — and others to Nellcôte's all-night madness: "Heading for the overload. . . . Can't describe the scene . . . the sunshine bores the daylights out of me." According to Johns, "Ventilator Blues" was specifically inspired by the basement's stifling atmosphere — "Everybody's gonna need a ventilator/When you're trapped and circled with no second chances" — but the Stones were also feeling the heat in a less literal way. And who can resist reading "Torn and Frayed" as Jagger's oblique portrait of Richards? "You think he's bad, he thinks you're mad/Yeah, and the guitar player gets restless . . . Joe's got a cough, sounds kind of rough/Yeah, and the codeine to fix it/Doctor prescribes, drugstore supplies/Who's gonna help him kick it?/Well, his coat is torn and frayed/It's seen much better days/Just as long as the guitar plays/Let it steal your heart away."
But after all these years, the Mick-and-Keith drama is old news, and rock stars doing drugs no longer seems uniquely scandalous; by rap-video standards of decadence, Nellcôte seems almost homey. So the reissue of Exile might be an opportunity to hear the album as what it always was: not just a masterwork but a triumph of sheer work, under surprisingly adverse conditions.
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