Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the Making of 'Exile on Main Street'

Torn & Frayed in the South of France: A look back the birth of the Stones' gritty masterpiece

Mick Jagger Rolling Stones
Photograph by Norman Seeff
Mick Jagger on the cover of Rolling Stone
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"You don't get a take till Keith starts looking at Charlie and moving nearer to him, and then Bill gets up out of his chair and stands up. Then it transforms into the Rolling Stones," says Andy Johns, the engineer who recorded much of the Stones' Exile on Main Street almost four decades ago. "The rest of the time, it's just rubbish. But if Bill gets out of his chair, and Keith's looking at Charlie, you know you're getting pretty close. And it goes from 'What the hell is this?' to 'Fucking hell!' It's an off-planet experience." Though Johns' résumé as engineer and producer includes more than 200 projects, with Number One albums stretching all the way from Led Zeppelin IV to Godsmack's IV, he has never quite escaped that sweltering basement in the South of France, with Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts — still young and lithe, shirtless and sweating — grinding out limping, out-of-tune versions of songs in progress over and over and over again, until the Rolling Stones suddenly materialized. Then again, the Stones have never quite escaped it either.

Gallery: Photographs From the Making of Exile on Main Street

The 1972 Exile on Main Street will be rereleased this month in a beyond-deluxe package that includes a remastered CD with the original album, another disc with 10 outtakes, some with newly added lyrics and vocals, a 64-page book and a documentary DVD. For those who want to re-experience Exile in its purest form, there's also a remastered vinyl version of the old two-disc LP. "If I remember how this worked," Jagger says, with his famous tongue in his cheek, "you'd put a side on, and then you'd go and have something to eat, and then you'd put another side on."

We can argue some other time about whether or not Exile is rock & roll's greatest album: Back in 2003, a survey of critics, musicians and industry types led this magazine to rank it no higher than Number Seven, behind Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds, Revolver, Highway 61 Revisited, Rubber Soul and What's Going On. But even if you go by that list, the rugged, defiant, sometimes depressive, sometimes exuberantly nasty Exile is certainly rock & roll's most rock & roll album. None of the others comes as close to rock & roll's ideal synthesis of blues, country and R&B, and none approaches its gritty energy.

Unhappily, the vintage of those records — Exile is the most recent — doesn't speak well for rock's continuing vitality. And if it depresses you to think that the music's defining masterpiece came out the same year as the first hand-held calculator, how must its creators feel? Their obsession with Exile ended when everyone else's began — that is, when the last of the tracks finally got mixed — and they're long since burned out on the subject. But they're being good sports; their brand-label, Universal Music Group, has invested a fortune in this conspicuously backward-looking venture. The first words out of Richards' mouth are, "Exile on fucking Main Street, right?" He laughs when he says it, but he has spent the past year "stuck in trying to remember the past" while working with the writer James Fox on an autobiography due to be published in October. "If they'd look up the court records," he says, "they'd have more facts than I do." The other Stones and their circle have been sharing recollections for Richards' book, the new documentary required still more interviews, and now that the Exile package is finally coming out, it's the reporters' turn. "It's just gone on a bit," Watts says. "I'm sure Mick's fed up with it, because he's not a great lover of yesterday."

The Secrets Behind the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street Reissue

None of the Stones are. Though Watts has heard "the bonus tracks, I think they call them in this day and age," he says he hasn't listened back to the original album. "But I never listen to our stuff — any of that." When Universal first suggested the Exile reissue, Richards says, his reaction was, " 'I dunno, puttin' out an old record?' And then they sort of made the point that 'Hey, it's a very interesting album, it has a sort of aura about it.' " (It's hard to fool those record executives.) And now that he's revisited it, he seems more affectionate than reverent. "I mean, it's not like I've never listened to it since we cut it, of course," he says, "but listening to it all the way through now, I think it still holds up on its own. 'Torn and Frayed' I kind of liked. I love 'Sweet Virginia.' And 'All Down the Line' was a killer for me, to be able to pull that off." Jagger knows all about that "aura" — he agreed with the rest of the band that Exile was the right choice for a splashy reissue — but don't ask him to explain why fans and critics are fixated on the record. "I guess it's different things to different people," he says. "I don't know why, really. They like the kind of breadth of it, the different styles of it, the quirky bits, the rough-and-ready sound. Who knows — there's a lot of things people like about it. I think it's kind of sprawling, so that you can always find other little nugget things that you haven't heard, maybe?" This might be modesty — in effect, he's been asked to toot his own horn — but it sounds like faint praise; writers have sweated bullets for years trying to come up with fresh adjectives for Exile, and as far as I know, "quirky" is a first.

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."

Shine a Light: Rockers on the Genius of Exile on Main Street

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.

The Stones might have imagined they'd be lying on a beach in the sun, but that "dirty, filthy basement" Jagger sang about on the 1969 "Let It Bleed" turned out to be prophetic. "There was no air down there," Andy Johns recalls. "There was this one little tiny five- or six-inch fan in a window up in the corner that revolved about 20 times a minute. It was just dreadful." And dark. "It was a strange atmosphere," Richards recalls. "It was very, very murky — and dusty. It wasn't a great environment for, like, breathing. Mick Taylor and I would just peer through the murk at each other and say, 'OK, what key is it in?' It was very Hitleresque — the last days of Berlin sort of thing." The basement was divided up into small rooms, and the musicians moved amps and drums from one to another in search of interesting sounds; one photo from Nellcôte shows saxophonist Bobby Keys and trumpet player Jim Price playing in a narrow corridor. "Keith and Mick Taylor were using these fabulous Ampeg amplifiers," says Johns, "with just two 12-inch speakers, but they were like 300 watts or something ridiculous. It was so loud. So I had to build little houses for both of the guitar amps." But despite the baffles and the separate rooms, the sound was still harsh, and it bled from track to track, which didn't make the later process of mixing them any easier; Clearmountain says you can still hear the ghosts of old vocals on certain guitar tracks.

Meanwhile, the mobile unit with the actual recording equipment stood parked outside, half-smothered in foliage. "The talkback wasn't working," Johns remembers, "and I'd have to run out of the truck, into the hallway, down the iron staircase — spiral staircase — and go, "Fellas! Fellas! Stop, stop, stop!" The musicians had to do the same thing in reverse. "Oh, man, a lot of legwork," says Richards. "If I wanted to hear a playback, it was back from the basement, up to the ground level and — it just became part of the routine." At least this annoyance was predictable — unlike the electricity. "The whole band was running all their gear off of the truck," says Johns. "And somebody had the bright idea that to save Keith money, we'd tap into the electric supply out in the street so it wouldn't show up on his bill." This gives a vivid picture of what the Nellcôte state of mind must have been; Richards was paying a reported £1,000 a week in rent. "It was like a big transformer thing, but if the voltage dropped below a certain level it would all just cut off. I mean, it's France, man. They were still using horses to plow — a telephone call would take half an hour. Apart from the fact that everything would go out of tune every two minutes because of the heat, then you had to deal with the electricity going down — and this would be when they were actually playing in tune. For the first time in four hours."

And the electrical outages had their human equivalent. "The talent, when it surfaced," says Johns, "had to cut through this sort of armor plate of boredom three inches thick. There was so much waiting around and hanging about. Bill would be there on time, I would be there on time, Charlie. But Keith's schedule was quite different to everyone else's." Wyman was particularly frustrated by the absenteeism and absented himself in turn. On some of the Nellcôte tracks, Richards or Taylor plays bass; months later, in Los Angeles, upright bassist Bill Plummer overdubbed four songs. Jagger was a frequent absentee, too; he'd moved with Bianca from Biot to Paris and was flying back and forth to the sessions. "Bianca was pregnant and having labor pains," Jimmy Miller recalled in 1977. "I remember many mornings after great nights of recording, I'd come over to Keith's for lunch. And within a few minutes of seeing him, I could tell something was wrong. He'd say, 'Mick's pissed off to Paris again.' " The all-night bouts of recording, at least, weren't unique to Nellcôte. "Our sessions start with all good intentions," Watts says. "They're usually Mick's good intentions. After about three days, you're working till two or three in the morning. Mick will turn up early as usual, and then Keith will come in much later. And two weeks down the line, Keith will be coming in at 8:00 at night. So you carry on." Richards' explanation is so disarming that you can understand why they've carried on for all these years — in addition to the fact that without his guitar, there is no Rolling Stones. "It's not me being arrogant or anything," he says. "It's just that I was asleep."

One of Exile's greatest tracks, however, happened when everybody but Richards was missing in action. "It just happened on an afternoon when nobody was there," he says. "I had an idea, and there was nobody around. Then Bobby Keys turned up with the baritone sax, and Jimmy Miller." Miller, a more-than-accomplished drummer, sat down behind Watts' kit — and out came the basic track for "Happy." "We'd already finished it before the rest of them turned up." But it wasn't all happy accident. Another canonical track, "Tumbling Dice," took far longer to nail. "We had more tape on that one than anything else," says Johns. "There must have been at least 30 two-inch reels on 'Tumbling Dice.' I mean, Keith sat there one afternoon just playing the reprise for about six hours. Just round and round and round and round. Sitting in a chair with his legs up on something." Richards doesn't remember this, but he admits it sounds plausible. "If I haven't got it right, I'll just do it until I get it," he says. "I must bore other guys to death, man." Richards wasn't the only one confounded by the song. "Charlie had a hard time playing the out-section," Johns says. "You know, where it breaks down before the end? He had a mental block on it." So, again, Miller got behind the drums; the finished version has Watts, double-tracked, up until the point where the rhythm section drops out, then Miller, double-tracked, for the long, stately conclusion. I can't top the description by the guitarist John Perry, in his 1999 track-by-track analysis of Exile: the drums' re-entry, he writes, "sets the whole great edifice in motion, like a liner finally leaving the slipway and fully entering the water."

Miller came to think of Exile as "Keith's album," and most of its indelible guitar moments — that unbearably sad intro to "Tumbling Dice," the rhythm and overdubbed solo on "Happy," with its jabbing, pleading sound — belong to him. Mick Taylor never got a chance for the full display of his chops, as he had on the long coda to "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" from Sticky Fingers; he's just rolling up his sleeves and getting to work on "Rocks Off" when the track pointedly fades out. From the perspective of 2010, Taylor's overdriven, Claptonesque leads on such songs as "Shine a Light" can sound dated — his scorching slide guitar on "All Down the Line" is one brilliant exception — while Richards, playing with more heart than technique, remains timeless. Johns remembers a night at Nellcôte when Richards chewed Taylor out for playing too loudly. "I don't know what it was about, some internal politics, you know. 'Cause Mick Taylor was playing rings around him, you know? He was faultless." Today, though, Richards says he loved working with Taylor. "Before that it would have been Brian and me. Brian got more difficult as he went along. Especially after I stole his old lady — you can imagine. But with Mick Taylor, I had to sort of figure out a new way of playing. It was far more like a separation between lead guitar and rhythm guitar. Working with Brian, we used to just, like, pass it between, and there was no particular division there. But Mick Taylor was such a virtuoso, and I was just very raw. I'd say, 'I got the chords, baby, and I got the rhythm, and I got the riff — come up with something.' He still amazes me — if I had my way he'd still be in the band." Generous as this is, Ron Wood's job is probably safe; still, Taylor freed Richards from being miscast as a conventional lead guitarist — as on 1968's "Sympathy for the Devil" — and allowed him to give his grungy antiheroics full play. Richards came away from Nellôcte more fully himself; Taylor came away with the one co-writing credit during his tenure with the Stones, for the slide-guitar-based "Ventilator Blues."

The Stones finally left France in November 1971; the long summer was over, but the place was getting too hot for them. (The following year, The Times of London reported that "three young Frenchmen, who police said provided 50 grams of heroin to the Stones and their entourage each week" during the Nellcôte summer, showed up at a hearing in Nice to tell their stories. Eventually, Richards and Pallenberg got suspended sentences, in absentia, for using and trafficking in cannabis.) The band spent the next few months in Los Angeles, adding Jagger's vocals, background singers and instrumental tracks from the likes of Plummer and keyboard player Billy Preston, and, most grueling of all, mixing the whole thing. It didn't turn out well — or, if you prefer history's verdict to Miller's and Jagger's, it turned out brilliantly. "By all record-making standards," says Was, "the vocals are insanely low. You listen to 'Tumbling Dice,' and it's ridiculous — ridiculous, but it's one of the greatest rock & roll songs ever recorded. It's beyond judgment." Back in 2003, Jagger said he'd love to remix Exile, "not just because of the vocals, but because generally I think it sounds lousy." Today he just seems resigned. "I was right there in the room, so I'm just as much to blame for it as anyone else. If you want to hear the vocals louder, then I should stick it all up on iTunes so you can mix it yourself."

The Rolling Stones on the Cover of Rolling Stone

That "anyone else" would be Andy Johns, who manned the mixing desk — "Jimmy was sort of there, but he was burnt out too" — and soon found he had a mess on his hands. "I'm not saying I recorded the tracks poorly," says Johns, "but the sound was unusual, shall we say. And Mick was sort of driving me up the wall. One night I said, 'Look, man, I can't fucking tell what this is going to sound like on the radio.' He went, 'Well, let's have someone play it on the radio.' So he hires a limousine with a phone in it — obviously, this is long before cellphones — and I'm in this bloody great Cadillac limo with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards, and it's all on me now because Andy mentioned the radio. And Mick picks up this telephone and says, 'All right, have him play it now.' And we hear, 'Hey, you folks out there, we have a surprise for you, blah blah blah blah blah.' The song finishes — I think it was 'All Down the Line' — and Mick looks at me and says, 'What do you think, then?' I say, 'I can't really tell.' 'Well, I'll have him play it again.' So he gets on the phone — 'Have him play it again.' This is power, right? And it's very surreal for me. I mean, is this really happening? I'm only 21." According to Johns, Jagger finally told him, " 'I've had it with this bloody record. Here's the tapes, there's you, there's the mixer. You got two days.' And I sat there without splitting for two days and mixed the rest of the album on me own pretty much." The result speaks for itself — though it says different things to different people — loud and clear. Or at least loud.

These days, Jagger and Richards downplay the stories of drama, drugs and dysfunction that cling to Exile on Main Street, which enhance its mystique while obscuring its achievement. "People like to think Nellcôte was chaotic," Jagger says, "but some of the sessions at Olympic in the Sixties were incredibly chaotic. Full of people hanging out and, you know, being a disaster. Being a lot of fun, but sort of deficient as a recording machine. Maybe some of the sessions at Nellcôte were like that, and some were just really good solid workdays." He's certainly right that the slow-chugging machinery at Nellc&ôte wasn't an aberration by the Stones' standards: The notes to Sticky Fingers — partly recorded at Olympic — give a shout-out to "Glyn and Andy Johns [Glyn is Andy's older brother], Chris Kimsey, Jimmy Johnson and everyone else who had the patience to sit thru this for 2 million hours." Richards seems to be reading off the same page as Jagger. "They talk about debauchery and everything," he says. "I mean, you can't write and record and also be debauched at the same time. I'd pub-hop now and again, and everybody's partying, you know, just the same old, same old, people getting drunk, people getting stoned, but there was nothing beyond any of the sessions we did to make Let It Bleed. No belly dancers or orgies. Though people would like to imagine that. And so would I. But no, we were too busy working, man. Actually, I was gonna bring the belly dancers in, but they got stuck in Paris." By all accounts, things went well past the point of pub-hopping, but everybody made it out alive and with their work done. After all, even serious addiction didn't keep great jazz records from being made between the late Forties and early Sixties — or great rock records from the Seventies to the present. Though granted, some people didn't make it out alive.

Anyhow, why does anybody care four decades later? By now, shouldn't Exile simply stand by itself as a creation, uncontaminated by all the backstory? If we had video of Edith Wharton, an earlier Côte d'Azur exile, pacing back and forth while writing The Age of Innocence at her villa in 1920, would five people go on YouTube to watch it? The Rolling Stones, though, like all rock stars — and a number of writers, come to think of it — sell personality as well as product. This is the devil's bargain familiar to anyone who's both an artist and a celebrity; if the Stones ever rebelled against that convention, their business sense won out long ago. So naturally the new documentary uses the myth to make noise for the Exile reissue, with home-movie-looking footage of Nellcôte showing the lads in good-bad-boy mode, water-skiing, sashaying in funny hats, splashing naked in a shower and, naturally, strumming guitars in the basement, as the voice-over interviews begin hinting at "the darkness" to come. That's the narrative we all know: trouble in paradise, starring rock & roll's rebel angels.

But those reels and reels of old audiotape in the Stones' vast warehouse — which reminds Don Was of "the room at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark" — also have a story to tell. By Jagger's estimate, 10 of Exile's 18 basic tracks came out of the five-month siege at Nellcôte: that works out to one absolute keeper every two weeks. So what did you get done in the past two weeks? "Maybe the legend is only 70 percent true," Was says, "or maybe there's more stuff that we couldn't even believe. But no matter what actually transpired at Nellcôte, when they went downstairs to make a record, no one fell apart. For all the ephemera that surrounded them, to have this kind of output, to be able to make that double album, and now with another 10 songs — and there's more, we just stopped at that point — I mean, to work at that level you have to be so good." Some of the material that's been bootlegged, on such underground releases as Taxile on Main Street, suggests the Stones weren't always so good. When they weren't hitting their sweet spot, they could sound a whole lot like, say, a bunch of impaired people jamming in somebody's basement. There must have been hour upon hour, day upon day, of tedium and despair. But this, apparently, was how they needed to work: by feeling around in the dark for magic. Did the Stones spend too much of their time at Nellcôte stoned and lollygagging? Well, what's too much? And whose time was it? Ultimately, it's never been any of our business, however luridly fascinating the legends may be, and however much the Stones themselves may invite our attention with the noise of publicity. What they actually managed to accomplish — no less than the quintessential rock & roll album — ought to shut everybody up. Of course, it never will.

This story is from the May 27, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 1105: May 27, 2010