Saturday, May 26, 2007
THROUGH THE YEARS, 14
35 years ago: May 26, 1972
This is The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, one of the greatest rock'n'roll albums of all time, for all time. How to express my love for this record? How do I love thee, let me count the ways.
First let's do the historical: The Stones with Mick Taylor started great (Ya Ya's, Let It Bleed), hit their stride with the first new Rolling Stones release I ever bought, back in 1971: Sticky Fingers (I was 12 and didn't really understand why it was a guy's zipper -- what's with that Andy Warhol, anyway?), and then peaked with this double album. The next two albums with Taylor were drop offs but certainly respectable, it's just that in '73 and '74 prog-rock was in its heyday, and of course rampant Ziggyness (à la that zipper). Bowie wore a dress on an album cover in 1970; The Stones kinda went 'drag' on Goat's Head Soup in 1973. Anyway, those were the days.
But what were the days for Exile? The familiar story: The Stones living in the South of France to escape onerous Brit taxation, recording in the basement of Keith Richard's château (O saisons, O châteux!). Letting it all hang out. The album as The Stones' answer to Dylan and The Band's "basement tapes" (not even officially released yet). I like that explanation, actually. If you don't find Dylan and The Band's recordings from 1967 a defining moment in rock, then you might be untouched by Exile too. It's the looseness of it, the drunken camaraderie, but more than anything it's Mick Jagger's vocals. Who sings like that? Nobody that white would dare to sound that black. It's like Mick finally managed to get it on record, that overwhelming desire to be Little Richard or Chuck Berry or even Muddy Waters.
In these days of countless internet lyric sheets, it's hard to believe that once upon a time there was no recourse to the words, unless you frequented sheet music shops. The lyrics on this album have long eluded me. Not surprisingly, some of the words are really good. Even less surprisingly, many of the words aren't what I thought I heard. But the point is that, more maybe than on any rock album I can think of, the words don't matter! And it's not because, as is the case on many albums, and many later albums by The Stones, the words aren't interesting. The words here are involving, if you catch them. But it's the way they're sung that counts. Everything is in how Jagger uses his voice. It dominates every track as the lead instrument and it never flags, it never stops testifying, it never stops embodying rock'n'roll funk. And the backups -- whether reedy Keith (who sings lead on one track -- almost wish he'd done more, he complements Mick so well) or those kicking "colored girls," Clydie King and Vanetta -- seem to push Mick past his own powers.
Then there's the horns . . . and Charlie Watts, my favorite rock drummer of all time, at his relaxed best . . . and Taylor and Richard, the best guitar duo The Stones ever had, and piano handled by Nicky Hopkins, or Ian Stewart, or Billy Preston, all Stones regulars at the time. In the early days, I viewed some of the tracks as "less essential." I guess I could still prune it if I had to, but in thirty-five years the LP has become fixed. I wouldn't change a hair of its head. And I don't care about alternate takes and demos and all that nonsense. Sure, if there are more finished tracks that didn't make the cut, I'd love to have them. Albums this good don't come around very often.
I had a copy of this album in the summer of '72, but on the record player I had at the time it sounded like a muddy mess. Which is what some of its critics claimed it was (I wonder what they listened to it on). My definitive listening was in the summer of '78, by way of comparing it to the current Stones album (by then Exile commanded respect; Some Girls was touted as "the best Stones album since Exile" -- which in fact it was). But Exile... A friend and I listened to it at concert-level volume one afternoon on Belle Klipsch speakers drinking cold Chablis and imbibing other things. Wasn't there a time when hedonism was a political gesture? Let's go back . . . this album takes you there. That summer was the first time I fully appreciated the funkiness of the album, which frankly used to embarrass me in my uptight early teen years. You know how it is. Anyway, this album's in my blood, all the way, and it holds up for me in a vital way whereas some great stuff from the '60s and '70s strike me as artifacts. Whatever historians say the '70s were, to convince me they got it right, they have to include Exile on Main Street.
May the Good Lord
Shine a light on you
Make every song you sing
Your favorite tune
--Jagger/Richard, "Shine a Light" (1972)