Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

Turn the Page – "Exile On Main St.: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones"

May 7th, 2007

exile book Turn the Page   "Exile On Main St.: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones"


Very late in his book, author Robert Greenfield admonishes readers that he is going to refrain from a detailed look at The Rolling Stones album which gives his tome its name. This, he contends, is the realm of the “rock critic” and not the “rock writer” which he almost arrogantly labels himself. Indeed, Greenfield seems intent on avoiding music as much as possible in this book, which is more voyeurism than writing on rock. In addition to turning his nose up at the thoughtful consideration of some of the best music ever recorded by The Rolling Stones (and perhaps in rock history), he also eschews a broad history of the band and instead focuses on the period of June-July 1971. During this time, the members of the group took up residency in the south of France to avoid paying exorbitant income taxes in the UK. The Stones convened at guitarist Keith Richards’ new home, Villa NellcĂ´te, a mansion built in the 19th century, to record their next album after the immensely successful Sticky Fingers.

What the reader gets here is a series of half-remembered anecdotes from 30+ years on in Greenfield’s indelible style that is part braggadocio and part hyperbolic grandiosity. Richards is cast as both hero and anti-hero as he lords over recording sessions where nothing ever seems to get recorded, as well as a revolving court of hangers-on seeking to bask in his heroin-fueled glow. The story details the steady flow of drugs that poured into the mansion as well as Richards’ brushes with the French authorities. Reading this book, one might well wonder how any music was recorded at all. Greenfield isn’t particularly interested in this. After telling us a never-ending stream of tales of hedonism and demonstrating how they impeded the recording process, Greenfield suddenly informs the reader that the band has a clutch of songs that need to be mixed.

The Stones’ lead guitarist at this time was Mick Taylor and he described the events thusly: “I think it was a bunch of stoned musicians cooped up in a basement, trying to make a record.” This sober assessment is countered early in the book with Greenfield’s analogies to bedrock stories of Western culture. First he tells us that a passion play is to unfold; then Richards and company are the equivalent of Dante descending from one Circle of Hell to the next. This annoyance is exacerbated by Greenfield’s habit of invoking lyrics from Rolling Stones songs. While I don’t mean for this review to merely be a list of criticisms piled Pelion upon Ossa, I have to mention his puerile digs at other authors. For instance, Stephen Davis wrote Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones and Greenfield chides him for mistaking Stephen Stills for Gram Parsons in one incident and then brags, “Next time you want to check a fact about the Stones, please feel free to call me in the office.”

This bit of Rolling Stones history became rock mythology long ago and Greenfield seeks to write the most comprehensive version of the tale. He certainly takes to his task with aplomb by reading every book on the topic and conducting interviews with participants involved in the milieu of drugs, sex, and rock’n'roll. Unfortunately he mostly displaces his story from any larger context. Thusly almost nothing is devoted to connect the events of that summer to the songs which appeared on Exile on Main Street. And, except for a few cursory paragraphs at the beginning, he also avoids commenting on how the story he tells relates to the state of rock music in 1971 or of the larger contexts of American or English culture at the time. What’s left is just debauchery.

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