Rolling Stones’ Exile: Torn, Frayed & Tarted Up
Imagine if the Rolling Stones decided it was high time to finally, formally release Robert Frank’s notorious, oft-bootlegged 1972 tour documentary C—sucker Blues, in all its groupie-shagging, smack-shooting, Keith nodding-out-backstage glory. Now imagine if Mick Jagger felt the cinema verite grittiness of Frank’s original was unsatisfactory, and had opted to digitally place new images of himself in 2010 into the director’s 40-year-old frames. Contemporary Mick dancing, singing and playing amid a 1970s backdrop.
Excerpt from Robert Frank’s C—sucker Blues
Ridiculous, right? Inappropriate, illogical, vain, deceptive. It would never happen. So why have the Stones slipped in songs completed just last year into their much ballyhooed reissue of the album they recorded around the same time C—sucker Blues was filmed – Exile On Main Street?
Let’s be clear, I think Exile On Main Street is one of the Stones’ great achievements. Bootleg collectors know outtakes, rehearsals and alternate versions from those sessions have been trading for many years. The prospect of a comprehensive reassessment of the album – undervalued in its day and frequently disparaged by Jagger, it should be added – was tantalizing. And so we have the beautifully remastered and repackaged original album newly released, with this second disc of … what? Alternate takes of “Soul Survivor” and “Loving Cup,” which are great.
But also, apparently, some unfinished basic tracks which feature new overdubs, including newly composed lyrics and newly recorded vocals by Jagger. Long-departed guitarist Mick Taylor was reportedly also brought back to lay down new parts. Recently-recorded vocals on the bonus track “Plundered My Soul” have been acknowledged, but the presence of current Stones touring backup singer Lisa Fischer, on a couple of songs and an overall co-production credit for Don Was on the bonus material, suggest there was more than a little latter nipping and tucking on the original tapes debuting here.
I’m not suggesting Jagger and company aren’t entitled to take old, incomplete tracks and lay down new parts. In fact, there is a history across the Stones’ catalog of reviving songs from earlier sessions and sprucing them up on later releases. And if Jagger had taken “Plundered My Soul” or “Pass The Wine (Sophia Loren)” (the latter has a groove similar to Eric Burdon & War’s similarly-named hit “Spill The Wine”) and used those as the basis for a brand new Stones album, I would declare it the group’s strongest work in 20 years. But there’s a game of musical three-card monte being played here.
When asked by Britain’s Uncut magazine directly about the degree of latter-day track tinkering, Jagger declined to give specifics and that lack of transparency is disappointing. The Beatles, rather famously, reunited to overlay new music onto some unfinished John Lennon demos, but that effort was heavily publicized and the music was presented as a new recording. Sliding newly completed material into the midst of Exile is particularly objectionable and portrays a real lack of understanding about what made the record great – maybe not a surprise given Jagger’s stated distaste for the original collection.
The qualities of the original record – the murky mix, the offhanded lyrical turns, the elliptical just-press-play-keep-rolling-tape vibe of some of the music – are indelibly wound up in the manner in which it was recorded. As tax exiles emerging from personal and financial chaos, the Stones decamped to Richards’ rented pile Nellcote, in the south of France, to live, party and record. As Jagger seemed to ease in to a greater celebrity profile (his tabloid-ready marriage to Bianca Jagger was coincidental), Richards reportedly plunged deeper into the throes of heroin addiction, and it’s reasonable to hypothesize that the atmosphere infected the music. All of that mess is audible in the resulting recordings. Although the sound could not be much more different than, say, The Band’s eponymous second album, the idea that the music was largely generated in a specific location in specific circumstances – basement of a rundown French mansion for the Stones, the pool house of Sammy Davis Jr.’s Los Angeles home for The Band – is the frame that hangs around both records. To airbrush something new and contemporary into that setting is to disrespect, or to completely misunderstand, the essence of your own work.
When asked by Uncut if he intended to give deluxe reissue treatment to other Stones’ classics, Jagger said: “Let’s see how well this one does, shall we? If it does shit, I’m not going through all this again.” I don’t wish commercial misfortune upon the reissue of Exile On Main Street, and I’d love to see someone do a bang-up job of tricking out Sticky Fingers, Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed. But if Jagger intends to continue to play fast-and-loose with the integrity of his own history, maybe he should just let it be.
PS: I mentioned C—sucker Blues off the top. Swiss-born Frank, who in recent years has lived a somewhat reclusive life in the tiny community of Mabou, Nova Scotia, in Canada, was also responsible for the indelible Exile album cover, surely one of the greatest examples of a single photographic image capturing the essence of a record’s sound. It’s probably worth noting that elements of C—sucker Blues, plus the ’72 concert film Ladies & Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, are combined with new footage in the documentary Stones In Exile, which is being released on DVD in June.