The fabled and fascinating creation of the Rolling Stones? greatest album

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated June 17, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

My last night in Cannes, I went to a screening of Stones in Exile, a documentary about the making of Exile on Main Street. By the time I got there, the line for it was around the block, but I managed to squeeze inside at the last moment and grab a seat. To the delight of the crowd, Mick Jagger came bounding up on stage, looking fit as a fiddle at 66, still scrawny as a scarecrow and time-on-his-side robust as he shouted out a hello in impeccably accented French (?Bonsoir! Bonsoir, tout le monde!?). He then introduced the movie, saying that it came from a period when the Rolling Stones were ?jeune, beaux, et stupide.? And, of course, at the tip-top of their game.

If you?re part of the cult of Exile on Main Street (and I?ve been a part of it ever since I first heard the album more than 35 years ago), then you believe, more or less, the following things: that it?s the Rolling Stones? single most extraordinary achievement in the recording studio; that it?s the quintessential rock & roll record of the 1970s; and that it may just be the greatest rock & roll album ever made. (Not the greatest album, but the greatest pure rock & roll album; there?s a difference.) Those of us who are Exile believers have a way of twisting ourselves into happy knots trying to define what makes the record so singular—its gorgeous density and murk, the sprawling eclectic freedom of its songs, its blusey-rootsy-Southern-fried-American-yet-still- raunchy-and-druggie-Mick-and-Keith-slovenly stew of influences, the way that tracks like ?Loving Cup? and ?Torn and Frayed? and ?Ventilator Blues? sound as dark as midnight and as ecstatic as heaven at the same time. I know plenty of people who think that Sticky Fingers or Let It Bleed are superior, but Exile on Main Street isn?t just a great record—it?s a cave you crawl into and live inside.

Over the years, so much has been written and jabbered about Exile—like everything I just jabbered above—that it?s been turned into almost too much of a monument. Its true beauty is that it remains, in every cut, a messy, flowing, impossible to pin down thing. When I think about the album, I think about a mood and a crashed-out exhilarated sensation, a whole weather system of pleasure and decadence it creates, and also about moments of pure uncanny sound—like the drumming on ?Rocks Off? (so hard it?s not just drumming but clobbering, yet so loose it ricochets in a dozen different directions), or the way that ?Tumbling Dice? has the feeling of one long, orgasmic up-from-the-muck testament of faith.

Stones in Exile, a fascinating hour-long film that will soon be available on DVD (though not, except for a few snippets, on the droolingly awaited bonus-tracks reissue of Exile), was directed by Stephen Kijak, with a lot of shepharding by Jagger, and though it doesn?t defuse the dark mystery of Exile, it does shine a light on it. It lets you crack open the basement door and look a little closer inside.

The key word in that sentence is basement. The heart of the album, famously, was recorded at Nellcote, Keith Richards? villa in the Cote d?Azur region of the south of France, the country to which the Stones had repaired, early in 1971, to avoid a British tax system that sucked up 93 percent of the income in their bracket; it was letting them bleed dry. They moved their families, or their budding families (Mick?s new love, Bianca, was pregnant), to different towns in the region, and would visit Nellcote for several days at a time to record the album. The classic-rock era is, of course, rife with stories of landmark albums recorded in chateaus by British musicians who liked to play at being country squires. The album commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV (1971) was recorded at Headley Grange, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) was the third album in a row that Elton John made at Chateau d?Herouville. But those villas were set up with big, stately, open recording areas. Richards had no studio at all, so they simply lifted the equipment out of the Stones? portable recording truck and put it in the Nellcote basement, a hot sweaty bunker subdivided by walls, so that Bobby Keys would be playing his sax in one room, Charlie Watts beating the drums in another, and so on.

This place has often been described, but when you see it in Stones in Exile, you understand a lot about the album—about why it sounds, literally and spiritually, underground, its energy smashing out sideways, as if the Stones and their backup musicians had been forced to play blind and were trying to reconnect to each other. The other fabled thing about the Stones? gatherings at Nellcote, of course, was the life they were leading—not just the substances snorted, injected, and imbibed, but the whole ?70s tribal ritual of hedonism on the run. Stones in Exile has enough home movies of the period, as well as present-day testimonials by all of the Stones, to give you the flavor of how these men, approaching 30, knew that they were entering a liberated yet directionless new age, cut loose from the mission of the ?60s. The Stones were now exiled not just from England but from the fading counterculture. What came next? No one knew, and that flying-blind feeling is reflected in the sloppy grand drunken majesty of Exile on Main Street.

After the basic tracks were recorded at Nellcote, the Stones finished the album in several other places, mostly Los Angeles, re-mixing the murk and layering on backup vocals and other touches. In fact, a counter-myth has now emerged: that the mystique of the circumstances under which Exile was recorded is just that, a mystique, and that the album could have been—and, to an extent, was—recorded anywhere. You see this attitude reflected in Ben Ratliff’s making-of-a-legendary-album feature in today’s New York Times, a valuable and exploratory piece that, nevertheless, has a slightly cranky streak of debunkery running through it. To me, the ultimate statement on the genesis of the album comes from Keith Richards, who Ratliff quotes as saying, “All of the bone and the muscle of the record was done down in that basement.” Stones in Exile isn’t a major or definitive documentary (I wish it had been longer), but it lets you live down there with the Stones as they boogied and burned and thrashed their way out of exile.