Listening all the way through to the end of Exile on Main St. leaves me with that ‘making it home at 5 a.m.’ feeling of exhaustion. As if I, like the Rolling Stones, have just run a gauntlet of joyless debauchery, and I congratulate myself, cheerlessly, on surviving it. The Rolling Stones, between the lot of them, have hit so many levels of rock bottom throughout their ongoing adventures: jail, death, carnage, you name it, but every time it looked like they were down and out they somehow got back up. Yet somehow, none of their low points ever seemed to provoke a crisis of soul searching. No one found Jesus or came back from rehab talking New Age psychobabble or cried on TV while blaming their shitty behavior on childhood hardship. Which is both surprising and weirdly admirable, this ability to shrug off the hard times and soldier on. Exile on Main St. is the closest they’ve ever come to a “rock bottom” record. It’s hardly self-searching or even self-aware, but it reveals the torn and frayed sinews of a group suffering from too many miles on the road, too many artificially long nights, too many deaths, too much sex with strangers, too much paranoia, too much time trapped together like a chain gang, too much exile. It sounds like the final hours of a very long party.
Sometimes, I get tires of thinking about the changing pace of music and culture, the confusing prism of what things mean, to whom and it what context. Fandom seem to require so much hard work and reckoning these days. Sometimes I just want to throw in the towel and stop trying to be a conscientious consumer. Fuck it, sign me up for Nihilism 101. I just want to listen to the Rolling Stones in all their unrepentant glory. I want to hear Mick Jagger be a little bitch. I want music that means sex, drugs and death. Sorry, but that’s my comfort zone.
Maybe ‘uplifting’ isn’t the first idea you’d associate with The Rolling Stones. Their credo of hedonism may aspirational to some but it sure ain’t inspirational in the “Hang in there, Buddy” sense of the word. I can’t tell if it’s inwardness that they lack or outwardness, but what they’re kind of notorious for their selfishness. But yet, they’re not entirely without sensitivity, and that’s often overlooked. Mick Jagger may not be prone to openness in his writing, but he often writes with empathy and he definitely has a writer’s talent for observation. So many Rolling Stones songs are filled with details about the kind of people who float around in the rock world and the oft-not-very-happy lives they live. A few of them may flourish, but many end up being casualties, and it’s not that living the rock star life is dangerous and deadly; it’s that people are attracted to that kind of living because they’ve already blown it in the normal world. This applies to one of the Stones’ most unfortunate casualties, their former leader Brian Jones, who was formidably gifted but absolutely unsuited to any kind of life at all. Jagger may have made a calculated decision to save the band by kicking out its sickest member, but clearly he wasn’t unaffected watching his formerly close companion turn into a wreck of a man. This song dates back to 1968, when those wounds were still fresh, and it feels like an attempt to find some sliver of absolution in a sad and ugly story. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but some people just want to destroy themselves, and all you can do is watch them and pray.
See, what’d I tell you? Blues isn’t blues unless it sounds like garbage. The Rolling Stones knew this, better than most any other English blues band. Resources are no substitute for soul, and if you don’t have a colorful life to draw on, you’d better create one. Maybe that’s why they were so hellbent on turning themselves into human wreckage. They may not have come from very bluesy backgrounds, but they could reinvent themselves as people with something to sing the blues about. Drugs, debauchery and existential dread, as it turned out, make for great blues.
“The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”
The Rolling Stones are strung out in the south of France, and the strain is starting to show. Leave it to those degenerates to turn a glamorous and idyllic life into a crawl through the gutter. Legend has it that Villa Nellcote had been requisitioned by Nazis during the occupation, and the outlines of old swastikas could still be seen on the basement walls. (It’s now owned by a Russian oligarch.) That lends Exile on Main St. an appropriate touch of evil. 1972 may have been the last time that The Rolling Stones still seemed haunted by devils, before they turned ‘dancing with Mr. D’ into high camp and appeared dangerous to nobody but themselves and their familiars. Of course, The Stones’ orbit continues to be marked by tragic death and inexplicable acts of survival, but nobody worries anymore that the corruption will somehow rub off on their children.
Since it’s been my long-held, unpopular opinion that Exile on Main St. is wildly overrated you wouldn’t expect me to be especially excited about a deluxe special extended edition. It reiterate, I don’t hate the record, but I do think it’s overlong and bloated, as double LPs are wont to be, and doesn’t quite rank as the masterpiece it’s generally accepted to be. It would have been, as double LPs are wont to, better off as two separate entities. I would be inclined to think it absolutely doesn’t need a bonus third disc. But the bonus third disc that the Stones released in 2010 is actually pretty exciting stuff. I suggest thinking of it as its own entity, not as a bunch of outtakes rejected from an already jam-packed album. It bears me out, though; Exile could have been great as two albums, and it would have been even greater as three.