The Rolling Stones: The Main Attraction
Richards also speaks fondly of his former Stones co-guitarist Mick Taylor, who joined in 1969 as a replacement for founding member Brian Jones. But Richards denies murmurings that Taylor, who left the band in late 1974, contributed overdubs to the reissue package. “That’s a rumor, babe,” he says. “If he was on there, I would know. We’ve had no contact with Mick for a long time.”
Hearsay seems to be dogging Richards’ footsteps these days. There’s another story going around that he has completely forsworn alcohol and all other intoxicants. “That’ll be the day, honey,” he says. The remark is punctuated by one of those long, slow Keef laughs, a groundswell that starts as a faint rumble in the nicotine-coated larynx and terminates in a rheumy expulsion of breath. “Let me put it this way: the rumors of my sobriety are greatly exaggerated. Hey, I cut down a little.”
Perhaps these suspicions of temperance are fueled by the disciplined rigor of the guitarist’s schedule these days. Along with preparations for the Exile reissue and DVD, Richards has been the subject of a new film biography directed by his longtime friend—and most dead-on impersonator—Johnny Depp. Keef is also completing a book-length autobiography, due out in October, with co-writer James Fox. “It’s the story so far, so to speak,” he says. “James has really put me down memory lane. It’s weird, man, trying to remember everything, and then reliving it as the memory comes back. Like, ‘Oh God, I gotta go through this thing twice!’ ”
But one life experience that Richards doesn’t seem to mind reliving is the making of Exile on Main St. It would be difficult to overstate the album’s importance in the great scheme of rock music. It is the climax of the Stones’ four-album winning streak that began with 1968’s Beggars Banquet and continued to gain momentum through the superb Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies. On Exile, the Stones attained a perfect balance between the American roots genres that had inspired them all along: blues, country, R&B, early rock and roll, and gospel. In this regard, Exile is almost like an Olympian athletic feat, one of those rare moments when nature, human effort and sheer random happenstance all come into graceful cosmic alignment.
“All those musical styles were part of what we’d been picking up while touring America,” Richards explains. “To us English boys, hanging out watching guys in America play music was like a dream come true, man. We were soaking stuff up like sponges wherever we could find it—south side of Chicago, those downtown juke joints…anywhere. New Orleans… Shit, man.”
Exile on Main St. is also one of rock and roll’s archetypal double albums. Although it was released a few years after the Beatles’ White Album, the Who’s Tommy and Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Exile nonetheless had an immense role in establishing the double-vinyl album as a distinctive and unique art form. It’s an eloquent lesson in how open-ended jams like “I Just Wanna See His Face,” can slot in amid well-wrought rockers like “Rocks Off” and calypso-tinged acoustic ballads like “Black Angel.” Like all of rock’s great double albums, Exile takes the listener on an epic journey, one that commences with a sheer blast of energy on side one, moves into acoustic mode on side two and glides languidly to a stirring gospel conclusion over the course of sides three and four. In this regard, Exile represents the apotheosis of album rock—the move away from hit singles and into longer formats that had begun circa 1966.
“I think this is the first album where we didn’t have a 45 [rpm single] hit on it,” says Richards. “We picked some singles off it, but it was made for what it was. It was an album album. Of course, when it first came out, sales were not up to par to start with. But after six or nine months, they started to pick up as people got into it.”
Created with sublime indifference to the pop market, Exile on Main St. is one of the first DIY rock albums, recorded at the guitar player’s house at a time when that sort of thing simply wasn’t done. While Exile is not exactly lo-fi, there’s a delicious murkiness to the sound, a sense of mystery shrouded in messiness. It’s a sure bet that the New York Dolls were listening to Exile when they were getting started in the early Seventies. The roots of punk are right there in the snarling, brittle mesh of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor’s guitars. You can’t quite tell who’s doing what. It’s not too far a leap from that to the intertwined double-guitar approach of Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, which in turn gave rise to thousands of latter-day punk bands. And, of course, Exile also set the pattern for the dual-guitar dynamic that Richards and Ronnie Wood have pursued ever since Mick Taylor’s departure, a guitar style that Richards often describes as “an ancient form of weaving.”
So, many roads lead back to Exile on Main St. “The thing about recording Exile was it was the first time we weren’t in a studio to make a record,” Richards says. “It all sort of happened by circumstance, really. We all decided we were going to move out of England, due to great pressure from H.M. Government. So we said, ‘Let’s keep going. We’ll do it somewhere else.’ And we figured, Oh, the south of France sounds good. I mean what’s wrong with that?”