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High on the Stones

The double-sized album Exile on Main Street, which was remastered (to my mind, unsuccessfully) and reissued last year, to accompany a puff-piece documentary called Stones in Exile, is fame in photonegative: a sprawling collection with no real single (“Tumbling Dice,” nobody’s favorite Stones song, is its one radio hit), a number of forgettable songs, and the ambience of a humid basement. The band had fled English taxes for France; Richards had rented his villa, where the Gestapo had its French headquarters and, rumor has it, had left behind boxes of narcotics used in interrogations that had to be removed lest he start ingesting Nazi junk. Power for the instruments and equipment was hijacked from the nearby railway. Children rolled joints for their parents, and tucked them in snug in their beds after their epic nights awake.

Exile is traditionally understood to be “Keith’s record,” the album that depends the least on Jagger’s charisma, and that depends most upon—some would say suffers the most from—Keith’s sleepwalking brilliance as a musician. Remastered, it sounds too cleaned up. As everyone points out, only the rudiments of the record were completed in France; the tapes were brought to L.A. after that lost summer, and the band put the record together in the conventional way, sometimes loaning a song-in-progress to Wolfman Jack to play on his radio show, then taking a drive to hear how it sounded, before immediately confiscating the contraband song and smuggling it back into the studio.

But the record retains the Keith Richards virtues in their pure form, which makes it the musical twin of this splendid autobiography: sharpness, snarl, antisocial affability, immersion in music first, myth-making second, and above all (in prose, as on the guitar) a kind of virtuosity—a talent for life—that makes style beside the point.

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