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.
With all of the mayhem that went on at Villa Nellcote that particular summer, it is in fact a miracle that Exile On Main Street got made at all.
There have of course been plenty of so-called "tell-all" books written about the Stones during this turbulent period which also happens to coincide with what most agree was the band's creative peak. Unlike some of the other accounts out there, Greenfield for his part seems to have no particular axe to grind. He basically goes at his chosen subject as a journalist, interviewing many of the players who were there, such as Marshall Chess, Tommy Weber, and Rose Taylor (guitarist Mick's wife at the time).
Yet, Greenfield does eventually end up taking sides – identifying with Keith as the Season in Hell's hero as early on as page 13. While he pulls no punches when detailing Keith's excesses, he also paints a picture of Keith as a "lad's lad" who never really abandoned his working class, rock and roll sort of grit. To Greenfield, Richards is a guy who loves rock and roll and loves to get high – but who also places a high premium on family and friendship. Mick Jagger on the other hand is painted as an opportunist with aristocratic pretensions, whose sexual conquests are often predicated as much on ego and cruelty as they are on pleasure.
But then most of us Stones fans already knew that, right?
Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones is at times a dark and disturbing read, but it is also nearly impossible to put down once you take the plunge. Greenfield recalls the events in a style that puts the reader right there, and even reveals some interesting new details that I won't spoil here. It is a book which effectively peels back the glamour in a way that reveals a darker, uglier side to the Rolling Stones that some fans may have some trouble digesting.
It is also the true story of how one of rock and roll's greatest records got made.