The Rolling Stones – Exile On Main St. – 5/12/1972

A breaking point came for the Rolling Stones in 1970, when they finally broke free from Decca Records and label bigwig Allen Klein. The severing of that business relationship was messy, both parties fighting tooth and nail for what they considered “mine.” It was like a divorce and the push-and-pull over custody rights for the kids.

They followed in the footsteps of the Beatles, forming their own record label, conveniently called Rolling Stones Records. Sticky Fingers was released under their new label, but the freedom that brought would soon turn to license as they fled England under the threat of the British government turning their liberty into prison time. The British police didn’t try to bust them on drugs, their tactic in the 60s, but unpaid taxes. It licked Al Capone, but not the Rolling Stones.

They relocated to Paris, and Keith rented a villa near Nice called Nellcôte. There they sank into drugs, chaos, and all sorts of debauchery. Bassist Bill Wyman recalls this as the most frustrating period of his entire time with the Stones. They couldn’t find the right studio space, so they recorded in Nellcôte’s basement, as well as the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio parked outside. Not everyone would show up most days, no one listened to long-time producer Jimmy Miller who had earned his stripes, and there was an attitude of frenetic lack of direction. Their productivity, however, was top-notch. Somebody was working on something every day from 8 in the morning ‘til 3 the next morning.

The capstone, however, was the drugs. Millions of dollars worth of drugs flowed through Nellcôte on a weekly basis like a diamond-studded sewer. Heroin, cocaine, pot, hashish, angel dust, LSD, you name it. There were no limits to the Stones’ excess or lack of control. Keith Richards in particular was using heroin on a daily basis; his system didn’t know how to function without drugs anymore, so he kept it stocked. I really don’t know how in the world he’s still alive.

While the Stones were breaking down, though, their music was reaching a fever pitch of quality, depth, soulfulness and greatness. It seemed as though their heights of glory and musical triumph were matched by the descent of their personal lives, and as one got higher, the other got lower at an equal speed. They eventually reached rock bottom/heavens high, and that moment is captured on the entirety of Exile On Main St.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues

The song “Stop Breaking Down” is the entire thing in miniature, I think. Yet another Robert Johnson cover, this song explains in simple and exquisite terms the basic problem with drugs. The Stones’ cover of it is simply dripping with irony. “Stop Breaking Down” is like the pebble at the center of Jupiter, with the cloud surrounding it being the irony (the red spot is Mick’s voice).

The Robert Johnson original is about a drug dealer who deals to “Saturday night women,” or prostitutes, and how they’re completely enslaved to the drugs he sells them. His main tactic is hyperbole, something used by not just dealers but salesmen in general. The refrain goes like this:

The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby / It’ll make you lose your mind

This song has been covered many times, most notably by Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, Lucinda Williams and the White Stripes, but the Rolling Stones’ version changes the lyrics just a tiny bit. Some people won’t even notice. The effect, however, is extremely significant as it turns the hyperbole into a cautionary statement, and turns the meaning of the whole song.

The stuff is gonna bust your brains out, baby / It’s gonna make you lose your mind

…shudder…

Take it from your Uncle Mick, kids: don’t do drugs. They’ll tear your soul out and make you a slave. And you don’t wanna look like your Uncle Keith, do you? No one wants that…

Next: Balls-to-the-wall Stones like never before (and never again).

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