God, religion and spirituality in all their piety seem very far away from where the Rolling Stones are, but are they really? The church and rock and roll are actually more married than one might think. After all, the church is a place for sinners, broken and fractured people with problems, hang-ups and unanswerable questions. The church is no place for folks who have got it all figured out, much as it may seem like a collection of sanctimonious, self-righteous prigs, or too holy for someone who’s screwed up as badly as you have. Just the opposite. Jesus came to perfect the imperfect, not save those who were already saved.
Rock and roll, in the same fashion, is a forum for people to share and commiserate with – and sometimes enjoy – their problems. It points out what’s wrong and says, “let’s fix this,” and also what’s right and says, “isn’t this great?”
Christianity has produced some great music over time. Indeed, it was some Catholic monks who first thought up the idea of writing music down and came up with a language to do so. In more modern times, black churches used their culture, heritage and personality to develop a form of worshiping God in song, and it was called gospel music. The most prominent feature of gospel is the sense of laying it all down and being completely sold out for God. It’s been regurgitated by thousands of white musicians, including the Rolling Stones on Exile. They too use their personality to present it in a true Stones fashion in a completely authentic way.
“Tumbling Dice” is a prototypical slice of gospel-tinged blues-rock, and using gambling and dice games to illustrate the desire for freedom from commitments, particularly troubles concerning women. It features a background chorus of female singers who inject the song with heart and soul, and a lilting guitar part that sways smoothly with incredible flow. It doesn’t rock as hard as some other songs on Exile, but it stands up better for that sense of head-nodding, foot-tapping joy that gospel owns for all its own.
“Loving Cup” is another gospel-tinged song, this time utilizing the spirituality and inherent holiness of the piano. Long-time Stones session pianist Nicky Hopkins shows brilliance here, giving the Stones that extra push they needed to rocket off into musical ecstasy. “Loving Cup” is a desperate love song, beautiful and extremely poetic in its discourse about how much the narrator loves and depends on his subject. It reminds me of “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin in its honesty and grace, but has the added element of the music supporting the lyrical theme in a greater way. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Stones love song without a sexual reference or two. “I’d love to spill the beans with you ‘til dawn.” I see what ya did there…
On the second side, things slow down a bit after the frenetic pace of “Happy” and “Turd On the Run” and the danger of “Ventilator Blues.” That lowering pace comes first in the form of “I Just Want to See His Face.” The feel of this song is completely one of a gospel jam, people sitting around with instruments and not knowing where this will go or when it will end. Sometimes that produces the most soulful and spiritual music. “Face,” though, sounds sloppy and directionless, like the spirit is simply not with them. It could be due to the production, which makes you think you’re hearing what’s going on one floor above you. You’re not part of it, not down in the musicians pit with everyone else. As a result, you don’t feel the same “holy ghost power” that the musicians probably do.
Things get even slower with “Let It Loose,” which ends the third side of the record on a very soulful note, if very long in the tooth. The song is over 5 minutes long, the longest on the entire record. It also takes quite some time to really get going, and the good parts don’t last long enough. It makes the experience pretty boring; soulful, but boring.
Near the end of the record, however, is the penultimate statement of spiritual good will, “Shine a Light.” This song is a show-stopper, fantastically epic and emotional. That same chorus of female singers does wonders, as they inject attitude and authenticity to what’s really a white English boy trying to be a Macon, GA gospel preacher. Mick Jagger, for his part, acquits himself with remarkable aplomb, selling completely out to his role as the rock and roll saver of souls. He hoots and hollers like a Pentecostal church member , punctuating his singing style with impassioned cries of joy.
I can visually imagine “Shine a Light” in no other way than a southern Baptist church with a big stained glass window, a choir in robes of white, maroon and gold, the congregation on their feet and dancing despite the 100 degree heat, and Mick in a black pastoral robe losing control of his voice and his limbs.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that Exile On Main St. is the last great album the Rolling Stones ever made. After that came Goats Head Soup, and that began a downward slope that took almost 20 years to break out of, punctuated by a bright spot or two (Some Girls wasn’t that bad). But suffice to say, after Exile, they started being a parody of rock and roll and eventually were a parody of themselves. They exist now as a reminder of a past age, inspiration for all the aged rockers to pick up their guitars again, and the most arthritic band still making music. I guess that’s pretty good.