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Book Review: Exile on Main St. – A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones by Robert Greenfield

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It really is amazing how age and the passing of time will change your perceptions about certain things. When I was growing up as a teenager who was basically obsessed with rock and roll, I figured that the Rolling Stones had to be just about the five coolest guys on earth (okay six, if you count Mick Taylor and seven with Ron Wood).

I mean these guys were the very definition of bad-ass.

They got all the best looking girls, and they had more money than God. They also always looked cooler than just about anybody else – even (and sometimes especially) when they were wasted out of their skulls (which, by most accounts was a great deal of the time back then). You had Mick in his scarves and sequins, prancing around like some kind of ambi-sexual peacock up on that stage.

And Keith? Well, Keith was just Keith. Back before the wrinkles and the deep lines carved into that face had set in, Keith Richards was the very definition of what a rock star was supposed to look and act like. Keith had the attitude down to a science, thumbing his nose at the authorities on more occasions than you could count, and wearing that well earned outlaw image like a badge of honor.

Yeah, as cool went in the sixties and the seventies, it just didn't get more bad-ass than the Stones. But as I said, time and sometimes experience as well, has a way of changing your perceptions about certain things. Take the whole wasted sort of glamour of the sixties rock and roll drug scene for example. When you are able to watch it from a distance, reading about it in a magazine or watching it on TV, it does indeed look somewhat glamorous.

Having been fortunate enough to land a job in that same music business once I grew up however, I can tell you firsthand that when you see the reality of drug abuse up close and personal, there is nothing "cool" about it. The media doesn't even bother to glamorize it anymore as they did in the sixties and seventies. Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan's recent public excesses — just to cite two modern day examples — are rather, reported as the trainwrecks in motion that they actually are.

Yet, as reading through the pages of Robert Greenfield's Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones reveals, it is clear that Britney, Lindsay and company have nothing on the Stones in their heyday.

What this book describes is a non-stop journey into all manner of decadence imaginable, one that went on for an entire summer in 1971 under the guise of attempting to make the classic Exile On Main Street album at Keith Richards' Villa Nellcote mansion in France (which is also rumored to have housed Nazi stormtroopers at one point in time).

In the midst of this unprecedented summer long orgy of sex and drugs and — sometimes, anyway — rock and roll, the album itself soon becomes more of an afterthought. Reading Season in Hell the Stones themselves also don't come off looking nearly as cool anymore. At times, they are not even all that likable here.

The narcissism of the principal players involved — Jagger and Richards primarily, but no one here is really able to plead innocence — is simply mind-boggling. Band members like Bill Wyman and to a lesser degree Charlie Watts are at times treated as little more than sidemen, and guitarist and Brian Jones replacement Mick Taylor is treated so badly it drives him to depression and thoughts of suicide.

Meanwhile, girlfriends and wives are sexually traded off in much the same way regular folks like you and me would swap an MP3 file today. Some of the women closest to the Stones — Anita Pallenberg in particular — seem to be motivated at times by nothing more than a desire to inflict cruelty. Others like Marianne Faithfull are less fortunate and are eventually forgotten or just discarded altogether.

As the summer-long party escalates, and brings fellow rock stars like Gram Parsons and John Lennon to Villa Nellcote, the descent into drugs also brings a seedier element. Soon enough, various drug dealers with names like the Corsican Brothers and Les Cowboys become a regular part of the mix. At one point, when Richards can't pay a drug bill, the drug dealers simply rip the house off – stealing an invaluable collection of guitars and records. Keith and Anita are meanwhile in and out of rehab with frightening regularity, but always seem to end up back on the junk – sometimes within hours of completing the cure.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • jumpinjacflash

    As you said in the end: All of us Stones fans alreay knew that.

    good write up on the boo.
    “Up and Down with the Rolling Stones” put out years ago is a pretty good accounting.

    its only rocroll but I like it
    shaaaaddddoooooooooooooooooobbbbbbbbeeeeeee

  • http://donaldgibson.blogspot.com/ Donald Gibson

    Here’s the difference between the Stones partaking in substances and today’s “stars” doing their own version of it:

    Jagger and Richards get wasted and come up with “Tumbling Dice” and “Rocks Off.” Spears and Lohan get wasted and come up traffic infractions and adolescent gossip that doesn’t mean anything to anyone but them.

    The Stones are talented with or without the drugs.

    - Donald

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Appreciate the comment Donald, and of course I agree.

    I guess what I was getting at here, is how as a kid who idolized the Stones…how I actually wanted to BE them. Now as an older, hopefully wiser adult though I am happy just to listen to them. I’m not sure I’d survive a day or a week, to say nothing of a lifetime trying to live through half the shit they did though.

    -Glen