I’ve never been a huge fan of the Rolling Stones. Aside from their big hits, some of which I like very much, I really don’t know their music that well. I’ve never bought a Stones album, and I think the only single (that’s vinyl, for those of you who are younger) of theirs I ever owned was “Angie”. I’ve seen the documentary Gimme Shelter, about the Stones’ disastrous free concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969, but I’ve watched it more out of historical curiosity than anything else. When the Stones played a show at a venue a couple of blocks from where I was living at the time, I said that I wished I could have afforded a ticket, but only so that I could say that I had seen them live and not out of fannish devotion.
So, I’m not quite sure why I picked Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones (Da Capo Press, 2006; 258 pages), by Robert Greenfield, off the shelf at the library, much less why I checked it out and brought it home to read. No clue whatsoever.
No matter why I did it, however, I’m glad I did. It is an absorbing book, which I finished off in two evenings’ reading. It ostensibly tells the story of the Stones’ period of tax exile in France, where they were to record the album that became “Exile on Main St.”, in the basement of the villa Keith Richards was renting in the south of the country. But not much recording went on, for various reasons, and the book becomes the story of Richards and his then-girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, of the rocky start to Mick Jagger’s marriage to Bianca rose Perez-Mora (her name is apparently longer than that, but that is how Greenfield reports that she signed the register at their civil ceremony), and of all the various hangers-on who spent most of several months there, mostly doing drugs, and each other, and trying, not especially successfully, to stay out of trouble.
It isn’t a pretty story. There are drugs, debauchery, and bad behavior of many different kinds. It’s a wonder, I thought more than once while I was reading, that any of them survived the adventure. It also occurred to me as I read that the book could be used as part of a Just Say No to drugs campaign. There is no glamorization of drug use here. Greenfield makes it very clear that drugs make people sick. It makes them do stupid things. Sometimes it makes them die. Clearly, Keith Richards is a sort of counterexample, but the one that proves the case.
But, while not pretty, it is a fascinating story, told in a unique way, by a man who was there for at least part of the events, as Greenfield went to the villa during that time to interview Richards for a story in Rolling Stone magazine. Throughout the first three sections, the bulk of the book, Greenfield drifts freely between the present tense and past tense. This should have annoyed me, but it didn’t. That manner of telling the story seemed natural in a way that it probably shouldn’t have. It was clearly a calculated strategy, since the final section of the book, an extended “where are they now” narrative, is written completely in the past tense. The effect of this gives that final bit an air of “it’s all over now”, in contrast to the first sections, which manage to give the impression that the action is somehow still going on in some time-look that has detached itself from the normal flow of time.
I saw an interesting point in the next-to-last section of the book, when Keith Richards is very ill and goes into an exclusive private rehabilitation clinic in Switzerland. Although he is eventually recognized by a young fan, great pains are taken to keep his hospitalization, and the reason for it, quiet. What a contrast this is to today’s celebrities, many of whom go in and out of rehab at the slightest pretext and often to repair their reputations more than to actually treat any substance abuse or other problems. This may not be a point that Greenfield was trying to make when he wrote, but it nevertheless provides a vivid contrast between the early 1970s, when the events in Exile on Main St. take place, and the very different celebrity culture that exists today.
My experience with this book also illustrates a point that I try to make as often as I can. Sometimes, my best reading experiences come from just browsing the shelves and the library and picking up a book I otherwise wouldn’t have and giving it a try.