This superficially irreverent, contrived revisiting of fact and rumor surrounding the making of Exile on Main Street, the murky, great double album the Rolling Stones released in 1972, proves that access doesn't equal insight. Presented theatrically, with "acts" substituting for chapters, Robert Greenfield's stylishly written, but sloppy, book would like to be an insider's account of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that permeated stop-and-start recording sessions at Nellcote, the mansion in the south of France that key Stone Keith Richards rented in the summer of 1971.
Stones fans already know about Richards' drug use, Mick Jagger's chilly business sense and organizational talent, and the subordination of other Stones to those Glimmer Twins. In addition, it's hard to figure out how Greenfield could have made mistakes such as listing "Dandelion" as a track on Their Satanic Majesties Request and asserting that "Jumpin' Jack Flash" surfaced on Sticky Fingers (its first album appearance was on the Through the Past, Darkly anthology.)
Did Greenfield think that today, when the Internet bares all and war brings death close to home every hour, transgressions emblematic of a souring culture of 35 years ago could still provoke a frisson? Did he think that pointing out the Stones' dualities — bad boys grown old, bluesmen gone brand-crazy, former sex idols gone long in the tooth — was illuminating?
There are decent descriptions, and Greenfield's access to minor characters in that summer's narcotic soap opera is impressive in a Fashion Pages sense. An account of the recording — virtually session by session — becomes boring, however, like a Warhol movie starring heavy-lidded Joey Dalessandro. Seems Keith did some inspired noodling, but the inspiration was hard to capture for engineer Andy Johns. Here's a paragraph that's revealing and "inside" - but to what purpose?
- 'Just a riff going round and round and round,' Johns recalls. 'Then he'd disappear. He loved to play but not when I had the tape rolling. So he would disappear and if you did manage to get them all hooked up and trying to do something, it would go for maybe an hour and a half, two hours, then Keith would go, and this was the euphemism, "I have to put Marlon [his son by Anita Pallenberg] to bed." Which meant he was going to go upstairs and have a fix. And of course he would nod off in bed. And we'd all be sitting there. Two, three in the morning. And everyone was too scared to go up there.'
Greenfield doesn't get to the actual making of the album until page 94, and even then, doesn't focus on it. Instead, he spends most of his time recreating the atmosphere of the period. At times, he's effective — his discussion of Mick Taylor, a major guitar talent unsuitable for the Stones in either a psychological or musical sense, carries some weight, and his insinuations about the ease with which the Stones unburdened themselves of a drug bust to tour the U.S. behind Exile is provocative - but you have to wade through a gang of atmosphere to reach the meat.