Blogs > Cliopatria > Kirk Bane: Review of Robert Greenfield's Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones (Da Capo Press, 2006)

Nov 8, 2007 10:14 pm

Kirk Bane: Review of Robert Greenfield's Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones (Da Capo Press, 2006)

In the summer of 1971, the Rolling Stones recorded their double-disc masterpiece, Exile on Main St. For the band, settled in the south of France to escape British tax laws, it was a time of chaos and creativity. In his fast-paced, gossipy, lurid, and unsparing account, Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones (Da Capo Press, 2006), veteran rock writer Robert Greenfield maintains that the album was “recorded under the influence of heroin... [and] mixed by people snorting high-grade cocaine” (p. 170). It’s all here, folks: drug abuse, detox, sexual intrigue, car crashes, confrontations with the law, tension and rivalry within the band, wholesale debauchery at Villa Nellcote, and, of course, the making of a matchless album. And what an intriguing cast: Keith Richards (Greenfield’s main character), Mick Jagger, Charlie, Bill, and Mick T., the specter of Brian Jones, Anita Pallenberg, Bianca Rose Perez Moreno de Macias, Rose Taylor, little Marlon Richards, Andy Johns, Jimmy Miller, Marshall Chess, Ian Stewart, Gram and Gretchen Parsons, Jim Price and Bobby Keys, Spanish Tony Sanchez, John and Yoko, and assorted drug dealers, Corsican thugs, friends, lovers, and sycophants.

Greenfield excels at character description. Consider, for instance, his depictions of Keith, Mick (whom Greenfield snidely, and frequently, refers to as Michael Philip Jagger), and Gram Parsons. Of the Glimmer Twins, Greenfield patently prefers Richards, the “hero...[and]antihero,” of the book(p. 13). A superb musician with a severe drug problem, he possesses a mighty soul. Keith, Greenfield writes, is “our Jesus of Cool,” a rock star rebel who has “long since left behind all bourgeois values...Keith is an outlaw but he has a code of his own. He is fiercely loyal to his friends. He loves his son. He loves getting high. More than anything, he loves his guitar. At Nellcote, it is a physical extension of his body. The man literally never goes anywhere without it” (pp. 13, 15). A libertine, “Keith has seen and done it all--acid, Mandrax, cocaine, and heroin, not to mention also sex, offered up freely and willingly by women of all ages and classes as a reward for his undeniable talent and overwhelming success” (p. 14).

Greenfield, really, has few kind words for Jagger, whom he sees as calculating, artificial, and mercenary. “When it comes to survival,” he writes, Mick “was a genius. It was this primitive instinct that formed the core of his personality” (p. 25). Additionally, Jagger “was a born showman who was always on. There was never a room too small for Mick to work. No audience was too tiny for him to entertain. In truth, his primary interest was always to amuse himself. Everything he did seemed carefully planned to elicit a specific response. Because Mick had an agenda, he was always prepared to play a dazzling variety of games to achieve his aim” (p. 25). A master at manipulation, Jagger “liked to move human pieces around the chessboard. While it was usually sex that was his short-term goal, in the end it always came down to power” (p. 121). And finances. “Always, his primary goal seems to have been to make money” (p. 27).

Greenfield views Parsons, late of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, as a gifted but tragic figure. Unlike Jagger and Richards, he was not a survivor. Gram, a “brilliant singer-songwriter,” eagerly joined Keith at Nellcote (p. 116). Their camaraderie worried Mick, who quickly grew jealous. Parsons, debilitated by his heavy intake of cocaine and heroin, began to suffer blackout spells. Eventually, probably at the behest of Anita Pallenberg, he was banished. What, precisely, were Gram’s crimes which led to this forced departure? The wild child from Waycross, Georgia, Greenfield explains, “is using too much of their stuff [drugs],he is falling out all over the place, and, as much as Keith may love playing and singing with the man, their time together is doing nothing to help the new album get made”(p. 122). Crestfallen, Gram left Nellcote; he’d never see Keith again. But his influence remained. “Torn and Frayed” and “Sweet Virginia,” two standout tracks on Exile, obviously carry the “unmistakable stamp” of Gram Parsons (p. 120).

Certainly, Greenfield’s study is not without flaws. To begin with, it lacks an index, something every book should possess. Greenfield lauds Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography as “the best book ever about the Stones” (p. 2), but disparages authors Stephen Davis (Old Gods Almost Dead) and A. E. Hotchner (Blown Away). Chastising Davis, for example, Greenfield cattily remarks, “Next time you want to check a fact about the Stones, please feel free to call me in the office” (p. 59). But incredibly, on the very next page, Greenfield asserts that “Jumping Jack Flash” appeared on Sticky Fingers. “Jumping Jack Flash” on Sticky Fingers? Downright careless. Finally, Greenfield seems to lose focus in the last thirty-odd pages of his book. In a volume called Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones, are such topics as the Bigger Bang tour, the Stones Super Bowl appearance, and Keith’s recent head surgery in New Zealand really relevant?

Despite these criticisms, Greenfield’s volume stands as an impressive achievement. When it comes to books about the Stones (and scores have been written), many fail to deliver; you can’t always get what you want. Satisfaction, however, is guaranteed for those who read Greenfield. Perhaps music journalist Barney Hoskyns, quoted by Greenfield, sums it up best: “All rock records should be made in dank basements of old Nazi strongholds on the Cote d’Azur, with reliable heroin connections in Marseille and Gram Parsons hovering in the paneled hallways. That way they might sound half as good as Exile” (p. 207). Amen, baby. Amen.

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