Tag Archive: Exile On Main St.


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.

I can’t imagine what the racial environment in America was like in the early 70s. By that I don’t mean the disingenuous cliché that really means, “I actually can imagine, and I imagine it to be pretty bad.” No, by that I mean the literal truth of it: I can’t imagine. I’m not qualified. I’m a 31 year-old white guy living in rural Massachusetts, and not in anywhere near a position to be judging how it was for a black person in California in 1970. It would be arrogant, disrespectful and presumptuous to even try.

That eliminated, all I can do is read about it. Being the scholar of music history that I am, my investigation of the Rolling Stones and Exile On Main St. lead me to the Soledad Brothers, the San Quentin Six, and Angela Davis.

Angela Davis

In 1969, Angela Davis was an assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA, a radical feminist, a member of the Communist Party USA, and a known associate of the Black Panther Party. Also in that year, Ronald Reagan tried to get her fired from UCLA because she’s a communist, and maybe because she’s black. By August of 1970, she was a fugitive and only the third woman on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.

That’s quite a change of circumstances, to go from in the classroom to on the lam. The trouble started when Jonathan Jackson brought three guns into the Marin County Courthouse where James McClain was on trial for a stabbing and robbery incident. He took several hostages, and recruited McClain and two others as accomplices in the kidnapping. His terms: the immediate release of his brother George and the other Soledad Brothers, so named for their conviction of the brutal murder of a Soledad prison guard.

The guns Jonathan brought to the courtroom were registered to Angela Davis two days beforehand, including one carbine sawed-off shotgun. When the investigation went in her direction, she took off. Why did she run if not because of guilt? Maybe because she thought if she was arrested, she wouldn’t get a fair trial being a black woman, two strikes against her. Maybe she feared the police; she called them “pigs” in public on numerous occasions before, and that kind of thing has a tendency to make one a bit ornery, which is especially bad if you have a gun. Maybe she had lost faith in the colorblindness of the judicial system… Scratch that – maybe she thought that system was rife with racism and needed to be destroyed.

Whatever. She was eventually captured in New York City, spent 18 months in prison, stood trial in California for conspiracy and murder, and was acquitted by an all white jury in 1972. But it wasn’t purely because the system worked, or even that murder weapons being registered to you isn’t nearly enough to pin the murder on you. It was thanks to the overwhelming support Angela got from many, many, many famous people committed to her self-proclaimed innocence. Celebrity after celebrity showed their support, so much that it became “cool” to do so, and those who didn’t jump right on the bandwagon were criticized or had their morals called into question. It reminds me of the Mumia thing, or the Kony thing, or the Susan G. Komen thing, or the Chick-fil-A thing. The moral outrage was barreling out of control.

The Rolling Stones lent a hand as well by releasing “Sweet Black Angel,” one of their only overtly (or even semi-overtly) political songs. But even as such, it’s couched in a musical motif and a dialect that are difficult to penetrate. It’s a down-home, born-on-the-bayou country-blues song, complete with harmonica and washboard, as well as muddy and minimal production courtesy of Jimmy Miller. Mick uses not only a particular accent in this song, as he’s wont to do, but he also employs a voice and lyrical style used by poor, southern blacks.

There are many remarkable things about “Sweet Black Angel,” but the biggest is the grand naivety on display. In its discourse about Angela Davis and her plight, it ends with these lyrics:

She’s a sweet black angel / Not a gun-toting teacher / Not a Red-loving schoolmarm

I hear the reference to communism, and I’m going, “But… she IS a Red-loving schoolmarm! She SAYS she is! It’s not even a secret! She’s a member of the Communist Party USA. So that’s not even spin, or your perspective; that’s just… incorrect!”

What’s the interest for the Rolling Stones pairing Angela Davis’ innocence with her not being “Red?” Are the two logically connected? If you’re a communist, are you also a murderer? It seems ridiculous and reprehensible to think so to us in our modernity, but back then it might still have made sense to some people. I’m sure a few of them would have liked to of seen Angela locked up just for being a communist, regardless of this whole Soledad Brothers thing.  “Is she guilty? Who cares!?! She’s a communist!”

But the bottom line is this: there’s a world of difference between being something and doing something. Being a communist doesn’t make you a murderer; murdering someone does. Being Irish doesn’t mean you drink a lot; drinking a lot does. Being black doesn’t mean you like rap; liking rap does. Being a Christian doesn’t make you a Republican; voting Republican does. Saying you love someone doesn’t mean you love them… you need to do a thing to be a thing.

I’ve already established that Mick Jagger is one cheeky bastard. Here’s a case in point. The Rolling Stones’ relationship with Decca Records had become downright toxic. It was mostly Decca’s fault, though Mick and Keith’s youthful screw-authority attitude didn’t help. In 1970 they were nearing the end of their contract, but they needed to submit one more single. The Stones dutifully recorded it, but as a final act of passive aggressive defiance, they titled the song “Cocksucker Blues,” knowing with certainty that it would be rejected by the label. Reject it they did, though they did finally release it in 1983 as “Schoolboy Blues.”

I’m just gonna roll right past the equating of “schoolboy” with “cocksucker.” Life’s too short.

The tendency to give a middle finger to anybody who tries to tell you what to do has never made complete sense to me. Some sense, mind you, but the logic breaks down. Determining whether my middle finger is an appropriate gesture involves analyzing what they’re telling me to do. Let’s say they’re commanding me to eat chocolate. “You’re gonna eat these Lindt truffles, young man, and you’re gonna LIKE it!” No argument here. But say that to someone like Mick Jagger, or Johnny Rotten, or Abbie Hoffman, and they might respond with a “fight the power!” or a “no forcible truffles!” or a “hell no, we won’t go!” Meanwhile, I’m going, “It’s chocolate; I was gonna eat it anyway.”

mmmmmm…..

Granted, I don’t like someone taking a rude or dismissive tone with me, regardless of what their requesting. Courtesy and politeness never hurt, ever. It’s at least metaphorically true that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. While I’m always found that phrase to be pretty stupid – what fly likes vinegar? I mean, come on! – it’s generally true.

Mick knows all about honey. He has a gift for sweetening his words and charming people into illogical acts. He’s probably had enough sex to tide over 10 men for their whole lives, despite the fact that he’s monstrously ugly. Keith, on the other hand, never quite got the concept of charming the masses. He always had more mystique that Mick; he was the enigma behind Mick’s obviousness. When Keith took the lead, it was normally to put forth some truth that had evaded Mick, and it was always interesting, if not always good.

“Happy” is a Keith song, mostly recorded without Mick even in the room. Mick intrudes on the proceedings for a few lines in the chorus, but this is really Keith’s song, and probably his best. While the music is rockabilly style, excited and intense, Keith’s words are laced with melancholy and longing. He wails “I need a love to keep me happy,” suggesting his happiness is a fleeting thing at best. One thing Keith has always been is self-aware and wise. It’s wisdom born out of a long and uninterrupted string of colossal mistakes, but wisdom nonetheless.

“Turd On the Run,” icky title notwithstanding, is another excited blues rock song. It’s seething with nervous energy, like it really is on the run. In the tradition of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” it’s about a man who punishes his woman for her wayward ways. “Ventilator Blues” follows, slowing things down considerably. Like the transition earlier in the album from “Rip This Joint” to “Shake Your Hips,” this one has the exact same change from arms-in-the-air wildness to stalking-jungle-cat menace.

The double album caps off with one last rock tune, the stomping “Soul Survivor.” This song spells out that even though they’re clearly self-destructive and rushing headlong into danger, the Stones are going to live on. They’re like cockroaches, stubbornly surviving the rise and fall of the ages. Near their 70s now, they’ve toured mercilessly and remained one of the most popular concert acts for the last 10 years, despite only releasing one new album with 2005’s A Bigger Bang. That’s both a testament to the state of modern music and the incredible staying power that the Stones have.

It’s kinda not fair, really. They’ve exhibited such bad behavior basically ever since they first became famous. Why has karma not caught up to them yet? Will it ever? My one consolation is that their faces all look like old leather shoes on the verge of being chucked in the garbage.

Next: Angela Davis and the political bandwagon.

No matter the different areas they wander into, the Rolling Stones will always be a rock and roll band. As the decades march on, the Stones have become even more of a bastion of rock. Their records get progressively more rock and blues oriented, and have a simpler structure with each one. Their live show is centered on the resurrection of rock and roll. Their like Christian fundamentalists in that regard; while the rest of the world is evolving, they’re holding on to the past with an iron grip.

The past can be a glorious thing. There’s so much rich history from which the Rolling Stones can draw, and there has been for a long time. That’s one of the central ideas Brian Jones had when he formed the group: covering old blues tunes. As far as Jones was concerned, the Rolling Stones were supposed to be a cover band. I wonder what he would think of the band nowadays if he weren’t pushing up daisies.

Just like they never lost that rock and roll centering, they also have never stopped looking to the past for inspiration. That’s all over Exile On Main St. They don’t just look to the blues masters like Robert Johnson and Slim Harpo, but they’re also drawing in soul, funk, R&B, and a healthy dose of gospel music.

Some Girls

Using forms of music other than blues and rock is nothing new to the Stones (“Dead Flowers,” “Factory Girl”), but Exile is set apart from other Stones records is that it never sounds as authentic or heartfelt; not even close. For you Stones aficionados, take a second and compare “Torn and Frayed” to “Far Away Eyes” from Some Girls. One uses country music to create a sense of empathy, emotionalism at its best, and the other is a parody of country music, pointing out its most ridiculous aspects. You might not even notice “Torn and Frayed” is in the country vein because of its exposed-nerve rawness; “Far Away Eyes” is just silly.

But rock and roll is their forte, and they prove it on Exile. The albums starts of with a dirty “oh yeah!” that is only an indication of the entire album. “Rocks Off,” for all its fun and abandon, has harrowing lyrics. The Stones were very aware that they were doing a lot of drugs. In “Rocks Off,” lyricist Keith is talking in very candid terms about the exact cost of the drugs he’s taking. By his own admission, they leave him “splattered on a dirty road.”

“Rocks Off” also features a brass section. This is something that is all over Exile. Sticky Fingers started the trend, “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” both having saxophone solos and “Bitch” using brass right up front to play the main riff. But on Exile, over half of the songs feature some brass instrument. It worked beautifully for them on Sticky Fingers so there’s no reason to think it won’t have excellent results on their next album. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Speaking of sax solos, “Rip This Joint” has a blazing one. Everything else about this song is blazing, as well. It wins the award for Fastest Tempo of any Stones song, before or after. It’s like a Route 66 trip through America, but that of an illegal immigrant being hunted down by customs.

Slim Harpo

The most recent Stones albums have shifted down to slower gears by the 2nd or 3rd track (“Love In Vain,” “Wild Horses,” “No Expectations”), but Exile just barrels on. The 3rd track here is “Shake Your Hips,” originally done by Slim Harpo. The Slim version drips with sexuality, hinting at naughtiness but still with a sense of fun. When put in the hands of Mick Jagger, though, it’s all naughtiness. I imagine Mick’s serpentine movements and effortless groove, and I almost think he’s singing this song to himself. “Shake Your Hips” has gobs of danger and sin to it, something I think Mr. Harpo would have approved of.

Things finally take a downturn tempo-wise, but “Casino Boogie” is no lilting, sentimental ballad. It has a certain singability, encouraged by the drunken sway of the music, even though I still don’t know what the words are; Mick and Keith, as they sometimes do, seem more interested in the way words sound than the actual words. And it is actually a boogie, in the classical, music theory definition of the word. I always thought “boogie” just meant a general style of blues-type music, but there’s actually a technical, objective definition. My 3 semesters of Music Theory in college didn’t teach me that, either; I learned it from Wikipedia.

Exile is a double album, despite that it fits on one CD and is sold as such. If you first experienced it on CD, as I did, it seemed weird that it had 18 songs when every other Stones album has at most 13; most merely 9 or 10. The fact that it’s really 9 and 9, rather than 18, was a well-kept secret from the younger generation – or at least from me, anyway.

Next: Person Who Applies Suction Over the Male Appendage… Blues

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).

A rather unfortunate truth: the descent into drugs by the Stones is equaled by the greatness of their music. This rendition of “Loving Cup” is proof that the Stones were at their best AND worst in 1972.