Sunday 8 December 2019

The Stones unearth tracks of past excess

Barry Egan sets the scene for the re-issue of a 1972 classic Rolling Stones double album

Somerset Maugham once described the French Riviera as "a sunny place for shady people". It wasn't necessarily hyperbole where the Rolling Stones were concerned.

In the summer 1971, they recorded their Exile On Main Street album at the Villa Nellcote, a creepy 16-room waterfront mansion with a grim past, on the Cote d'Azur.

According to Keith Richards (who rented the house with his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg and their 18-month-old son Marlon) the house had served as "the Gestapo headquarters during the war". He added that that was why the floor vents in the basement were decorated with swastikas.

Villa Nellcote doubled as a very grand flophouse for deviants, debauchees and rock stars: among them Gram Parsons and John Lennon. This house of the rising sun in the French Riviera welcomed all. As French photographer Dominique Tarle noted while he chronicled the never-ending party for a book: "It was a carnival of characters parading through. A tribal band from Bengal; dope dealers from Marseille; petty thieves, who stole most of the drugs and half the furniture; and hangers-on, were all there to witness what was happening."

Richards referred to the local drug dealers as "les cowboys". There was a recording studio set up in the basement for the Stones to record Exile. "Within the tightly cloistered world of the Rolling Stones, which Mick Jagger rules with complete dominion, there is one person he cannot control: Keith Richards. Day after day, as Keith gets high and dawdles in the loo upstairs, Mick and the rest of the Rolling Stones sit down in the basement waiting," writes Robert Greenfield in his book Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones.

The excess was evident in the music: Tumblin' Dice was believed to have taken almost 120 takes to get right. When they weren't smoking, snorting and taking whatever they could get their hands on, the Rolling Stones recorded some of the best rock music ever produced: Torn And Frayed, All Down The Line, Sweet Virginia and Sweet Black Angel are all timeless moments of tortured genius.

Even though it is hard sometimes to hear his voice, Mick Jagger's voice has never sounded better, or more Southern (Is that why Jerry Hall fancied him initially?) I hold a candle for Keith Richards' gnarled vocals on Happy. He was certainly stoned-happy anyway in his seafront mansion.

Some people called the album that came out of this squalid luxury rock's greatest album -- others call it a sprawling, junkie mess. Whatever your perspective, the Rolling Stones are re-releasing a special edition of Exile On Main Streets with 10 newly unearthed songs on May 17. Given that it already has 18 songs, you can see why it has been called sprawling. To me, it is Keith Richards' album because of the bewitching sonic mark he put on it.

"Personally," he once said, "I don't think [my heroin use] affected my productivity at all. I was taking smack and getting into it during Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers. Productivity? I did Exile On Main Street when I was heaviest into smack and that was a f***in' double album.

"You really can't say smack contributed to me not being able to function anywhere. I even got skiing together when I was a junkie. I wonder how many people have done that?" How many indeed?

The previously unreleased tracks on the new Exile will include Plundered My Soul, Dancing In The Light, Following The River and Pass The Wine. There are also alternate versions of Soul Survivor and Loving Cup.

The original album could have been called Tax Exile On Main Street, not least because in the spring of 1971 the Rolling Stones left England for France to avoid paying British income tax. Mick Jagger was also claiming that the band, despite being the biggest band in the world, were effectively broke because of Britain's tax system. I can't get no fiscal satisfaction indeed. "So after working for eight years I discovered at the end that nobody had ever paid my taxes and I owed a fortune," Jagger whined in late 1971, "So then you have to leave the country. So I said f*** it, and left the country."

At that time, the French tax regime allowed Mick and the band to pay no French taxes on what they earned as long as they resided in France for at least a year and spent at least $500,000 a year. Keith Richards' drug bill, as it transpired, would cover that alone.

It was said that Bill Wyman so disliked the drug goings-on at Keith's shadowy Xanadu that he was only on eight out of a possible 18 backing tracks of the album. There was a lot not to get involved in Nellcote as it turned out. Tarle remembered one day he found a box down in the basement with a big swastika on it, full of injection phials.

"They all contained morphine. It was very old, of course, and our first reaction was, 'If Keith had found this box.' So one night we carried it to the end of the garden, and threw it into the sea."

Intriguingly, Richards was driving somewhere late at night to bury his Tuinals in order to hide them from the French police who were about to bust him when the Stones guitarist crashed his car. "I spun a yarn about this mysterious Ferrari with Yugoslavian plates," Richards recalled some years later.

The big tax move to France did not begin smoothly. June 2, 1971: on Charlie Watts's 30th birthday, wife Shirley was arrested at Nice Airport for assaulting an airport official. The same week, a drug-addled Keith Richards was involved in a car collision and fight near his new home in France, which saw him in court in Nice on assault charges. Charlie and Shirley stayed in a hotel in Cannes before finding a rented house in La Borie in Thorais. Bill Wyman and partner Astrid Lundstrom stayed in Nice.

Mick Jagger found a mansion in St Tropez with Bianca Perez-Mora Macias -- who was pregnant with Jade Jagger -- in St Tropez. On May 12, 1971, Jagger married Bianca at the Chapel of St Anne in Saint-Tropez. Paul and Linda McCartney, Ringo and Maureen Starr, Roger Vadim, Eric Clapton, Ron Wood and Stephen Stills among many others were present. Keith Richards was best man. Jagger clearly wasn't.

In 1978, Bianca filed for divorce on the grounds that Jagger committed adultery. "My marriage ended," she later said, "on my wedding day". Well, Jagger was a man who explained to the Observer in 2006 with a historical perspective why marriage and monogamy were difficult for him: "At certain points in our recent history we've been forced to accept certain rules and regulations in our social behaviour. Which even some of us on the fringes of bohemia have been forced to come to terms with, i.e., monogamy, marriage, children, all those things, right?"

"Nowadays," he continued, like Byron just warming up, "it's acceptable that you get married and divorced every couple of years. As long as you're faithful within those couple of years that you're married.

"I mean, I don't think that is particularly acceptable as a form of social behaviour. I'm not saying going around f***ing everyone you like is acceptable, either. But there are many different forms of social arrangement."

Sunday Independent

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