A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones
by Robert Greenfield
A Book Review
The Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street” has a reputation like a fine wine: the older it gets, the better it seems. The double album got mixed reviews when it came out in 1972 – Melody Maker called it their best, while Rolling Stone magazine dismissed it as a promise undelivered. These days, it routinely makes all-time Top 10 lists (including Rolling Stone’s).
Robert Greenfield’s new book shows that it was a small miracle that the record was even made. The times described in “Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones” contain enough debauchery, drugs, crime and intrigue to kill most bands. Were it not for Mick Jagger’s money-lust and Keith Richards seemingly indestructible body, their experiences in their recording studio-cum-party castle in the summer of 1971 likely would have.
The Rolling Stones were then, like many rock stars of the time, British tax exiles – economic refugees living in France. They planned to make a record and quickly follow it with a moneymaking U.S. tour. Their search for a suitable location led to Villa Nellcote, Richards’ rented mansion on the French Riviera. Having the wayward guitarist always on site, so the reasoning went, would make it easier for him to show up at the sessions.
The denizens at Nellcote consumed cognac by the case, hashish by the brick, and heroin by the pound. Richards and common-law wife Anita Pallenberg arrived clean and within weeks had onerous drug habits. Not that anyone gave it a second thought, as most of the residents were equally plagued, or eventually became so.
When the band finally got around to making music, they were up against not only the stupor of drugs, but also the oppressive humidity of a brutally hot summer. Recording in a basement with sweaty walls, guitars routinely fell out of tune mid-song. A single small fan, the inspiration for “Ventilator Blues,” blew the dank air around. Richards and Jagger came and went sporadically.
Throughout, the band avoided the police. Richards threatened a harbormaster with a pistol after a fender bender; a police captain’s daughter nearly overdosed in Nellcote. The band’s lackeys paid off gendarmes and politicians whenever trouble found them.
Eventually, they were in one scrape too many and beat a hasty retreat for Los Angeles. Once there, engineers Andy Johns and Jimmy Miller mixed and re-mixed, turning “Exile on Main Street” into a ragged masterpiece. L.A. is Act Two to Nellcote’s Act One, and some of the scenes there are positively surreal. In one, Johns tells Jagger that he can’t imagine what “All Down The Line” might sound like on the radio. Minutes later, Keith, Mick, Charlie and Johns are in a limousine listening to the song, courtesy of a helpful station DJ:
“’And Mick said ‘what do you think?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, man.’ And he says, “we’ll have Stu play it again.’ ‘Stu, have ‘em play that again.’ Sure enough, here it was again.”
Eventually, they re-mixed the entire album. Says Richards, “you know how it is, the more you mix, the better it gets.”
Band manager Marshall Chess, who had once packed and shipped American blues records to the teenage Mick Jagger from his father’s Chicago record label, then flies the masters to New York. Five years later, Chess flees the band to save his own life, and doesn’t see them again for another 21 years.
Many others weren’t so fortunate and, as Greenfield notes pithily, “died before they got old.” In a somewhat bitter postscript, he recounts the fate of the book’s cast of characters. He spends too much time deriding the band’s incredible avarice. They are most certainly sell-outs, Jagger in particular, and deserve the criticism; it just doesn’t belong in this book.
Although sloppy in sections, Greenfield presents a vivid portrait of the rogues, drug dealers, sycophants, mistresses, servants and occasionally even the musical supporting cast that swirled around the world’s greatest rock n’ roll band. One wishes he’d done a better job with the basic facts – he cites “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as a standout track from Sticky Fingers when it wasn’t even on the album, and he places Altamont 14 months after Woodstock. Even casual fans know they happened four months apart.
But with so many hazy recollections and conflicting stories swirling around the gestation of one of rock’s greatest albums, his foggy memory can perhaps be forgiven.