Youth in Exile

(Note: I wrote this in May 2010, when the Rolling Stones re-released Exile on Main Street)

When I picked up Exile on Main Street in 1992, during the summer after seventh grade, the album was something of a hidden classic. It was not much anthologized on the numerous hits discs and live albums the Stones pumped out in the 70’s and 80’s. You never heard tracks on the radio, unless it was ‘Tumbling Dice.’ The high regard of some magazine author or other had persuaded me to buy it, but as a new Stones fan I found it almost impenetrable at first. Over time, however–and not much time, now that I think about it–Exile displaced all the anthologies and even the other monuments of their high period as my go-to disc for any occasion or mood. Not least because it had a little of everything–straight up rock n’ roll of the British variety; some folky-country songs; steely, slithery blues; a few ballads; a roadhouse/rockabilly sounding blast in ‘Rip This Joint;’ and even a classic fake gospel song.

A few years later, my younger brother bought a new edition, and I remember listening to ‘Rocks Off’ again for the first time, as Charlie Watts’ cymbal crashes just hung in the air in a way they didn’t on mine. Out at Deep Springs, I dug up a vinyl copy that blew my mind. The mid range was gloriously rich and detailed. A dot of white paint had fallen on side 3, making ‘Happy’ skip once per revolution. I found trying to learn the songs on guitar to be very difficult, largely because there was so little guitar heroism in them. What has seemed at first blush to some listeners as sloppiness or under-engineered musical grime–however “authentic” the result–is often something subtler and more complicated. Apart from the trademark riffs that open ‘Rocks Off,’ ‘Tumbling Dice,’ ‘Happy,’ and ‘Ventilator Blues,’ the emphasis is rarely on a single guitar part. The point throughout was to weave together two, three, or more guitar tracks, by up to three different guitar players, into something coherent. This is not easy. I don’t know of another band that had similar success, and even the Stones rarely recaptured the perfection of their collaborations on Exile.

Over the years I’ve waxed and waned in my Stones obsession, but I’ve listened to Exile all the way through at least once a month. In high school and the first two years of college, it was a whole lot more than that. When I picked it up, I was a dozen years younger than Mick Taylor was when they recorded it. I knew about as much about sex and drugs as I did about the weather patterns on Saturn. But somehow this work from the hands of oversexed drug abusers spoke precisely to my shy, awkward suburban boyhood. If the man exhausted and drowning in vice and the boy who has yet to dip his toe in it can sing a classic rock lyric in tolerable unison, it has to be “I only get my rocks off while I’m dreeeaaaming.”

With Tuesday’s release of a newly-remastered edition of the original eighteen tracks, I can finally retire my eighteen-year-old CD. Over those years, Exile‘s status has steadily climbed, as more and more listeners and critics have recognized its depth, breadth, and remarkably world-weary tone. And the Stones themselves have gradually shifted from nominally extending their career with pro-forma studio albums and global tours as big and expensive as NATO missions to curating their own legend. The stadium-rock standbys, great as they are, don’t serve this purpose nearly as well as a whole album of moments, large and small, that heave towards a howl of timely despair and a panoramic portrait of American music.

Moreover, the re-issue comes with ten new tracks from the Exile archives. Some of them, such as the ballad ‘Following the River,’ were not complete and needed some lyrics and vocals to plug the gaps. This gave Mick Jagger a chance to collaborate with his 28-year-old self–an unusual and perhaps not entirely welcome opportunity. The songs are not bad, some are very strong, but the overall effect is wistful. Those young men in Nellecote thought they knew something about world-weariness, but maybe they had no idea:

“If age, which is certainly
Just as wicked as youth, look any wiser,
It is only that youth is still able to believe
It will get away with anything, while age
Knows only too well that it has got away with nothing.”

That’s W.H. Auden, speaking through the character of Prospero. With a catchy riff and a kick-ass drum part, it would make a pretty good song.

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