Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Exile on Main Street

I’ve been down in the dumps of late; the suicide of a friend, the death of another friend I dearly loved, and a bad case of the blues have all pretty much brought me to my knees. I feel beat down, fagged out, fucked over, and broken up, and life sure does have a way of tarnishing your eyelids, doesn’t it?

Where to turn in times like these? When you’ve got a foot in the grave and your head in the oven?

Exile on Main Street, naturally. It’s as beat down an LP as ever you’ll hear; Mick, Keith and Company are torn and frayed and have shit on their shoes and the whole album sounds like it was recorded in a sub-basement of Hell.

And yet. The Rolling Stones’ 1972 bruised and battered masterpiece (and high-water mark) somehow manages to rise above the bad vibes and general miasma of death and dissolution that surrounded the band at the time. Nothing–not drug busts, the death of Brian Jones, Altamont, tax exile, or Keith Richards’ slide toward junkiedom–could stop the Stones from turning Exile on Main Street into a celebration of hope and soul survival.

And this despite the fact that the album is the aural equivalent of the La Brea tar pits. Mick Jagger has never stopped carping about Exile’s notoriously sludgy mix, but the murk doesn’t just work–it’s part and parcel of the double album’s greatness. You have to trudge through shit to get to the Promised Land, and if you scrape the shit off these songs, well, you find diamonds. “Turd on the Run” anyone?

Exile on Main Street may incorporate many styles of music–blues, country, swing, and even gospel–but it’s a rock’n’roll album for sure, and one of the greatest (I put it at No. 3 myself) rock’n’roll albums ever made. From opener “Rocks Off”–a world-weary declaration of sexual frustration set to some great honky-tonk piano (thank you, Nicky Hopkins) and one helluva horn section–to closer “Soul Survivor,” the band raunches it up, with “Rip This Joint” being a frenetic standout. Not since the early days of rock’n’roll (think Little Richard and Jerry Lee) had anyone gone this full-tilt boogie.

“Happy” boasts the junkie thin vocals of Keith and a hook any pirate would be glad to wear for a hand; “Tumbling Dice” is all fever in the funk house sung by a rank outsider looking for a partner in crime. “Torn and Frayed” is the plaint of a soul weary rock star sick of “the ballrooms and smelly bordellos/And dressing rooms filled with parasites.” But the show must go on, and the guitar, well, it will steal your heart away.

“Ventilator Blues” is a down and dirty cry from some dark place in the human heart where the air isn’t worth breathing, and the best Mick can come up with in the hope department is “don’t fight it.” And Jagger is even less charitable on “Stop Breaking Down,” with its dirty guitars, ungodly harmonica, and poor ignored Ian Stewart’s incredible piano playing. And talk about unventilated; the impossibly muffled “I Just Want to See His Face” is pure spiritual yearning and sounds like it was recorded in the catacombs beneath Paris. Just how did they get that drum sound? Enquiring minds want to know.

“Sweet Virginia” is a drugged out, ramshackle slice of happy-making country rock that pledges it allegiance to cosmic cowboy Gram Parsons; “Shake Your Hips” is the exotic and frenzied lovechild of Slim Harpo and some very cool syncopated percussion. And while we’re on the subject of exotica, “Sweet Black Angel” (a lovely paean to black revolutionary Angela Davis) has far too much calypso (right down to Mick’s “free de sweet black slave”) in its DNA to be categorized under the heading “Country Blues.”

“Casino Boogie” is all shake, rattle and roll and the last will and testament of both Charlie Watts and saxophone genius Bobby Keys, who get a bravado assist from Mick Taylor on axe. As for “All Down the Line,” it’s all rip’n’roar thanks to some fevered harmonica and lots of very mean guitar playing by the lesser Mick. As for the run amok “Turd on the Run,” it sounds like some aberrant single recorded in a shotgun shack by a renegade bunch of Sterno freaks in 1952.

But what makes Exile on Main Street such a celebration are its songs of redemption, hope, and yes, joy. Nobody ever said life was going to be endurable, and we all need something to help see us through, and when I find myself at the bottom looking up I need songs like the ecstatic “Shine a Light” to hang onto. May the good Lord shine a light on me, and on you, and on all of us, because the going can get grim, and when the shit really hits the fan I always turn this one on. And the same goes for “Loving Cup,” which offers hope from its lovely piano to the way Mick falls back on the simple verities: “I feel so humble with you tonight/Just sitting in front of the fire/See your face dancing in the flame/Feel your mouth kissing me again/What a beautiful buzz, what a beautiful buzz.”

And the same goes for “Let It Loose,” with its bewitching piano and yearning horns. Jagger most certainly isn’t satisfied, but he sounds like he’s desperately trying to break through to some spiritual verity when he repeats the lines, “Let it loose, let it all come down” to infinity. On “Let It Loose” he turns defeat (“I ain’t in love, I ain’t in luck”) into victory, and the same goes for “Soul Survivor,” on which he sounds both battered and bloodied and maybe even down for the count (“It’s gonna be the death of me”) but puts everything he has and more into the two words that make up the title. And if that piano towards the end isn’t the sound of transcendence in the face of everything the world can throw at ya, what is?

Exile on Main Street is a ragged, jagged, down and dirty triumph of an album, and it could have been an endless bummer but for one thing–the Rolling Stones’ grim determination to rise above all of the dark stuff that was conspiring to bring them down. Hope may well be the lubricant that keeps the meat grinder running, but it’s all we have. And I can’t help but hope when I hear such songs as “Shine a Light” and “Loving Cup,” both of which never fail to cast some much needed light in the dungeon of my blackest times.

I love every song on this vital and timeless LP. I love its bringdowns, dirty rock’n’rollers, and slices of exoticism. But it’s Exile’s moments of transcendence–the grace notes as it were–that bring me back to it when I’m in the mood to paint the whole world black. The Stones would never sink so low, or rise so high, again. They harrowed Hell on this one and emerged victorious, angels with broken wings. What a beautiful buzz indeed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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  • Roger Westcombe

    I love this website – easily the best music writing around today, anywhere. Keep it up, please!

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