Stones in Exile

Stones in Exile, the long awaited documentary film directed by Stephen Kijak about the making of the Rolling Stones’ tenth studio album, 1972’s Exile On Main St., will be released on June 22, 2010.

The DVD is from Eagle Vision, a subsidiary of Eagle Rock Entertainment.  The film is produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker John Battsek, Victoria Pearman and executive produced by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.

For those already familiar with the Rolling Stones’ music and their fabled history, fans that purchased the double-disc album Exile years ago, who still hold onto their postcards that came inside their vinyl purchase, and that have reveled in ecstasy while hearing songs from its tracks played live at Stones shows, the fans that have long admired Dominique Tarle’s stunning photography and explanations capturing the essence of the band’s life at Nellcote, Jim Marshall’s photos, and those who have long owned Cocksucker Blues bootlegs of varying quality, this film may not offer an overwhelming amount of new disclosures.  That withstanding, the DVD will still be an engaging companion for such fans all the same, the result of the ample amount of interviews from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, Anita Pallenberg and others in the film, complemented by the seductive photography and video filmed at Nellcote, which overlaid with music from Exile on Main St. The film’s editing by Ben Stark is noteworthy, as is work on the film by cinematographer Grant Gee. The visual quality of the film is strikingly compelling.

Given the band’s long career and musicianship, perhaps some Stones fans will likely initially feel squeamish as they watch segments of the film that bring in Will i Am from the Black Peas, Benecio Del Toro and Caleb Followill to validate Exile On Main St.’s musical worth. Having this assembly of younger artists brought in to bless the album, who when first discussing it, sound unfamiliar with its tracks, may seem a bit ridiculous, somewhat patronizing, or at the very least, a revelation of a sad state of the cultural climate that their endorsements of Exile are even considered necessary.

In the bonus section, these artists and others add more comments from their own frame of reference, clarifying their initial comments made, which will likely make their fans interested in listening to Exile if they have never done so.

While the film will be engaging to those fans that are already familiar with the album, the documentary, when viewed as a primer for those who never experienced Exile On Main St., the film will be a revelation. If this DVD does nothing but bring an appreciation to new fans, tipping them off to this classic album, or turn a new generation onto the depth of the band’s music, the film will have served a certainly righteous purpose.

Strangely, Exile is an album that has often not been allowed to speak for itself. Rather than through its grooves, its significance has often been defined through the eyes of early ‘70’s music critics.

Four decades later, the album is addressed by the band in Stones In Exile.

Don Was, who produced the album’s recent reissue, gives commentary about the era in which the album was initially released, setting the stage for the explanation of how Exile affected him personally.

Comments are given from Jack White, who performed “Loving Cup” in a duet with Jagger in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones 2008 concert documentary Shine A Light. That dual performance also appears on its soundtrack album. Scorsese, who has used music from Exile in other work as a film director, offers his points of view on the album.

Unlike Don Was, Will i Am was not born until three years after the release of Exile. In the DVD, Will states that the album was “From the artwork to the music, it was a Rolling Stones record that wasn’t a big popular album.” Given that two of its tracks, “Tumbling Dice” and Richards’ signature song “Happy” were top ten Billboard charting hits at the time of its release, and for several decades, they have received constant radio airplay, and have remained a core part of the band’s live set lists throughout all their subsequent tours, and noting the fact that a third of the set list from the band’s venerated 1972 STP tour would be comprised of works from Exile, that commentary may be debated.

The film mixes vintage film and photos with more recently filmed shots. The same stands true with its interviews that include commentary from the late Jimmy Miller, who produced Exile On Main St., as well as other timeless treasures, including Sticky Fingers, Goats Head Soup, Let It Bleed, and Beggars Banquet.

In the film, Jagger and Watts revisit one of the locations where they recorded material for Exile, as they stand in the now empty room at the historic Olympic Studios that EMI closed down in 2009. There is no longer equipment there, and there is no hint as to its being the famed site where albums from bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who and other artists would record. The two Stones stand on the wooden floor at 117 Church Road in Barnes, London, trying to stake out the exact spots in the room where they each recorded. “Boring,” says Jagger, indicating he felt no one would have interest in such conversation that would ultimately be trivial. There would be far more discuss in terms of Exile.

Viewers are heaped with visuals and sound throughout the DVD that make it a film to be viewed more than once. Archival recordings include segments from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show. The clip from the January 29, 1969 press conference, wherein Jagger describes himself as “financially dissatisfied, sexually satisfied, and philosophically still trying,” seen in the Maysles Brothers 1970 Gimme Shelter, is also included.

The DVD has extensive live footage, overlaid with studio recordings.

Jagger explains of Exile, “There wasn’t a master plan. We just accumulated a lot of material, knowing we would use it one day.”

He briefly discusses the band’s unhappy financial situation with the late Allen Klein without referring to him by name.

The band’s financial situation, coupled with the high tax rate in England would leave the band no choice but to leave their homeland.

Richards comments, “There was a feeling you were being edged out of your own country, and the British government was scared by the number of fans we had, I suppose. They couldn’t ignore that we were a force to be reckoned with.” The decision to leave the country was the only choice, given the band’s situation.

The band had to leave England, in order to pay the tax incurred. Hence, the band’s tax exile. Main St. in Los Angeles would be a part of the scenario later on, when final preparations were being made for the album’s release.

Jagger recalled, “We do this farewell tour of England, you know, which is quite short. It was rather sort of sad. I remember it so vividly.” Sounding emotional, Jagger says, “Everyone thought were never going to come back.”

The band had concerns about the fans’ reactions, and that they would feel the band had deserted their country.

Tarle explains that he had starting shooting photos of the band in 1964, and would end up staying at Keith’s house in Nellcote, in the South of France. Tarle’s photographs in the film document a close-knit family with Richards, Pallenberg and their infant son Marlon.

Richards remarked about the mansion he was renting, which was located along the water. This location, in addition to considering “the possibility of being sent to jail,” gave him motivation to buy a speedboat. Richards quipped, “Let’s have some fun while I’m free.”

Pallenberg describes Nellcote, calling it “a wonderful place, very romantic. It was like a dream.”

Tarle emphasizes Richards involvement with the kids that stayed at Nellcote, which included an eight year-old Jake Weber. At one point, Tarle’s photo is shown of Richards holding a rabbit, and showing it to young Jake.

Archived reels show a frenzied media in France pursuing Jagger, who denies that he is getting married. Stones bassist Bill Wyman recalls Jagger’s ill-fated wedding to Bianca Perez Morena de Macias. “Mick calls up the day before the wedding and said, ‘Hi, Bill. I’d like to invite you to our wedding reception.’ ‘Okay.’ So it was a bit strange.”

Tarle states, “People came from all over the world for the wedding.” Photos of the nuptial celebration seen in the film include images of Ringo Starr and Paul and Linda McCartney.

“I had a nonverbal agreement with Keith,” Tarle comments. “It was very simple.” Tarle would focus on his photography and the music. “Stick to it. I take care of the rest,” he says Keith had told him.

Tarle’s striking photos embellish the film. One of them is a photo of Jagger with his Gibson Hummingbird guitar. Jagger notes of the scenario of staying at Nellcote, “The beginning was interesting and fun, but it was disruptive of the band, of our lives, and our social life, everything.”

Wyman says, “I hated leaving England. I hated it because when you got down there, you had to replace everything you loved, because it wasn’t there.”

The cultural amenities the band was used to would now have to be imported from England, including favorite teas.

Watts was pragmatic about the whole thing. “I’m not a good mover. I was English. I couldn’t see living in France.” He added, “You were in exile, particularly me. I couldn’t speak French or anything.”

Mick Taylor had joined The Stones in May or June of 1969, and therefore, the guitarist explained that he had not yet made “enough money to have any tax problems.” For Taylor, leaving England was not all bad. “One of my most vivid memories is being flown there in our own private jet. I thought, my God, this is the high life. This is wonderful.”

The film includes views of the private jet bearing the Rolling Stones tongue logo, a symbol that by then was already as recognizable as any country’s flag.

Richards talks about looking for recording studio in which to work while the band is in France. However, says Richards, “There were no good rooms to work in,” or which to record. He suggested using the mobile recording truck and working in the basement. “We said, ‘Well, we have this truck, our own mobile studio. Why don’t we just forget about them? Why don’t we just bring this truck and work around the problems?”

Richards jokes about having their own set-up, remarking, “At least we don’t have to ask an interpreter every time we want to turn it off or on.”

“Basically, I think that The Stones really felt like exiles,” contends Richards. “It’s us against the world now. Fuck you. That was the attitude, you know.”

Richards comments, “We said we were all going to do this, boys. We’re all just going to move out and here’s the place, and in a way, it was energizing.”

Surprisingly, little reference is made to the late keyboardist Nicky Hopkins,

Bobby Keyes is among those offering commentary in the film.

Noting the set-up for recording, along with Bianca’s pregnancy and her stay in Paris, which resulted in Jagger’s unavailability at various times, the circumstances resulted in a situation that “wasn’t the best conditions at all,” according to Miller.

Richards is often clearly at the helm in the outtake material heard. “Andy, could you turn the piano up just a bit?” is among the direction he gives in the basement, where the band did most of their recording at Nellcote.

Watts says he decided to move into Nellcote with Keith, because he couldn’t take the “six and a half or seven hour drive” before and after hours of work in the studio. “It was pretty together really, in a mad sort of way. We would work any time in 24 hours. So if it was 11 o’clock at night, it would go on for another twelve hours.” The same would hold true if it was noon.

Andy Johns was working as an engineer at the time. He relates, “I’m 21 years old, and there I am in the South of France, working with the best band on the planet, getting paid good cash money. Come on, it was pretty cool.”

It would become a turning point in his storied life. Johns would realize, “It was my initiation into how you can really live rock and roll.”

To Johns, this was punctuated by the fact, “At that point in time, The Rolling Stones were the center of the world.”

He points out, “It was the heyday of music’s going to change the world, all that rubbish, you know, and they were changing the world. And what a lot of people forget, they were doing it, they really were.”

Tarle refers to what is now essentially an eight-piece band, with the addition of Keyes, Jim Price and Nicky Hopkins, noting, “and all those people have kids.” Tarle observes, “It’s like a tribe.” He refers to the technicians, the friends and hangers on in The Stones’ orbit, observing, “It’s impossible to separate the family life from the professional activity downstairs,” adding, “The tribe keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

Miller gives an account of the inadequate conditions of the basement for recording, which ultimately required that the piano be in one room, and Richards’ acoustic guitar be recorded in the kitchen, “because it had tile, so it had a nice ring.” There was another room for the horns, and what is best described as probably the main room, where the drums were. “Keith’s amp and Bill would stand in there, but his amp would be out in the hall.”

Johns agrees, “The place was absolutely atrocious, and was very, very difficult to deal with.” Due to the extreme heat and humidity in the house, the guitars would go out of tune all the time. Johns remembers, “The gear wasn’t working properly, and the lights would go on and off.”

Miller acknowledges, “So it was difficult for all of us.” The sound would go out to the truck, the mobile studio. He, himself, would have to go from room to room any time he wanted to give a message.

The reels are seen, as is footage of the board.

The songwriting process is discussed, which is a loose and rule-free method. Watts says that Richards would play a riff twenty times, let it marinate with someone joining in, and see what would develop. “Keith’s very much like a jazz player in many ways,” notes Watts, who refers to Richards’ songwriting methodology as “loose.” “Keith’s a very bohemian and eccentric, in the best sense, person.”

Richards confirms Watt’s statement. “I never plan anything, which is probably the difference between Mick and myself. Mick needs to know what he’s going to do tomorrow, and me, I’m just happy to wake up, and see who’s hanging around.”

Richards sums up the Glimmer Twins by saying, “Mick’s rock, I’m roll.”

Enter Marshall Chess, a son of Leonard Chess of Chess. “I wanted to be a hot shot executive,” admits Chess. “And they (The Stones) had their own record label,” distributed by Atlantic Records, founded and headed by the late Ahmet Ertegun.

Chess is among those who marvel over Richards. “I was amazed Keith could fall asleep while doing a vocal, Mick wouldn’t show up.” What the band was doing opposed the strict protocol to which Chess had been accustomed. “I was from, you had to make three sides in three hours. These guys were taking two weeks to get one track down.”

Back to Richards. “Sometimes I’d have an idea I’d just throw out, and just see what happens. And this is when you get the best out of this band, when they think that they’re not working. This is as long as the tape is rolling where you get it.”

Wyman shares the same sentiment as to how the songs were created. “The band always started out jamming, and it always ended out great.”

Richards shares, “I don’t think we’ve ever said, ‘Let’s make this kind of album or that kind of album.’ They take their own character once you start to get into it.”

In an interview taken from an archival media reel, Richards addresses his interest in black musicians. “I guess Little Richard is the first I ever heard that knocked me out. And after that, Chuck Berry, and later Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, and this gets endless, but I guess the more you go into black music, the more you followed it back to where it comes from, so eventually, you’re listening to Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, etcetera, etcetera, everybody who’s there.”

Charlie shares Richards feeling. “I’m a black American freak, because that’s what I like,” says Watts. “Because that’s the music I like. That’s really the music I love.”

In the film, a campy Jagger tries on big, floppy hats. Discussing his own roots, he says, “Growing up in the ‘50’s, I liked pop music.” He refers to Elvis and country, saying he was influenced by “everything.”

Calling the band “eclectic,” Jagger describes the bands music as a result of “throwing this whole mishmash in.”

Richards talks about being exposed to country music while being on tour in The States. “It’s the other side of rock and roll,” opines Richards. “Hillbillies’ ideas of subject matter are really interesting to me.” He says, “In all that music, there’s a lot of things that just cling into your heart.” Richards offers, “Probably some of the things I write or play are things that I listened to in 1947.” He contends, “Rock and roll in its basic sense is a mixture. It’s a beautiful synthesis of black and white music.”

A shot of a marquis in Nashville advertising an upcoming Stones gig, next to an announcement regarding a gospel concert, punctuate Richards’ point.

Jake Weber, who was eight years old, stayed at Nellcote for three months. He remembers “a lot of down time.” Weber, who says his late father brought drugs to Nellcote, remembers, “The basement at night was the epicenter.” He remembers that the kids were allowed to stay down there and listen to the band play, as long as they could stay awake. Tarle’s photos in the DVD lay testimony to this claim. Weber calls it, “Kind of the adult area, because there was a lot of drinking and smoking, and there were bottles of Jack  being passed around.” He adds, “You’d be surprised what an eight and a half year-old kid can see. They’re like little owls.” He relates, “Obviously there was cocaine, because Dad brought it. I remember a lot of joints.” He surmises, ” I think that was pretty much my function in life at that point, was to be a joint roller. If you’re living a decadent life, there’s darkness there. And this was decadent; nothing was hidden. Everything was out in the open. But at this point, this was the moment of grace. This was before the darkness. This was, if anything, the sunrise before the sunset.”

Gram Parsons is seen through Tarle’s photography.

Pallenberg recalls being a long distance away from the house, and still hearing the music emanating from its basement. “I’m amazed the people were so patient, because it was going on all night,” she says. Noting the conditions in the basement, she notes, “It was like a sauna.” She affirms of Exile, “It was really an extreme labor of love, I think.”

Richards remembers coming upstairs after a night of recording in the basement, seeing that people had flocked into the house.

“Apart from a couple of mad cooks that blew up the kitchen, there was no mayhem,” he says with a laugh, remembering Fat Jack, the cook, who he described as “a junkie.” Richards relates, “He used to go to Marseille. Where’s Jack? It’s Thursday. Oh, yeah, he’s going to score.”

Watts makes reference to Richards “being supplied at his mansion with the band working downstairs. It must have been heaven for him in a way.”

Richards is interested in discussing music, saying he wanted to play with whoever was around at the time. “I cut “Happy” with Jimmy Miller on drums, and Bobby Keyes on baritone sax, and me on guitar. And that was basically the take.”

The film then interjects footage from Cocksucker Blues of Richards and Keyes dropping a large TV set from a hotel room window, laughing as they watch it crash on the ground below.

Pallenberg relates another story. “It was unbelievable,” she says. “I walked into the living room, and there’s this guy, sitting on the sofa. He pulled out a bag full of smack. The whole thing kind of disintegrated, and we got heavily into drugs, like breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the end especially, I thought I was cursed.”

Watts comments, “I wasn’t that aware of it at the time, because I was so used to it being around me at the time.” He says, “It was how we worked.” Nobody “cared about what you thought or what I thought.”

Richards addresses his using. “I did it basically to hide, hide from fame, and being this other person because all I wanted to do was play music, and bring my family up there, and with a hit of smack, I could walk through anything and not give a damn.”

Wyman remembers another anecdote. While people were watching television upstairs, someone stole eight guitars, one bass and one of Bobby Keyes’ saxophones. Wyman says, “Just walks in the house, and no one even knows. That shows loose it stupid it was out there.”

Richards uses the terminology “drained,” referring to the time period of when the band was ready to leave Nellcote. Pallenberg explains that everyone had left the house with the exception of herself and Richards. “Eventually we had to leave, because we got the word we were going to be arrested.”

Jagger says, “We never got busted, and we never got thrown out. Now, did it become somewhere we shouldn’t say? Yeah. But we never got thrown out.”

Pallenberg relates, “I felt like an outlaw, kind of, quite like that the feeling of we can’t go anywhere. I mean, we didn’t have a choice. We can’t get high any more. So get a different buzz.”

The band would go to Los Angeles to finish the album. Richards remembers, “It was kind of fun playing it to lots of friends and musicians in L.A.,” saying it was “interesting to get their input, you know.”

Jagger talks about the song “Tumblin’ Dice” being inspired by his conversations with a housekeeper that liked to play dice and gamble. “I got of her and I managed to make a song about that.”

“Casino Boogie” would come from small random pieces of paper that each had a small phrase printed on it. Like a game, assembling the pieces of paper would result in the lyrics for the song. It explains the lyrical non-sequiturs that include “sky driver, inside her, slip rope, stunt flyer, wounded lover, got no time on hand.”

He says of the overdubbed vocals heard in “I Just Want To See His Face,” “The L.A. experience is a lot about that.” Once in California, the band would bring in a few more musicians.

Wyman states, “They’d mix forever. Mick would do mixes. Keith would do mixes, and they’d argue which was the best one, and it used to go on for hours.”

Watts talks about working with Jagger to come up with an idea for the album cover. They would eventually look through bookstores in L.A. for photography books.

Jagger credits Watts with the idea of using acclaimed Robert Frank as the photographer. “Frank was very perfect for that period,” said Jagger of his Americana style, which Jagger described as “very iconic.”

Instead of using a camera, he would shoot the band with a Super 8, while the band walked around downtown Los Angeles on Main St.

Richards looks back and says, “I always thought in the back of my mind, what we were doing wasn’t just for now.”

Jagger addresses the music critics that panned the album at the time of its release, noting, “The criticism of Exile was that it didn’t have a direction. But then that’s something very laudable about it, that it exhibits all these styles, and even multiple styles in one song. Does it have like tons of hit singles in it? No, it isn’t that kind of record.”

Taylor contends that over the years, the album developed “a magical kind of glow,” and points to the “edginess and rawness of it.”

“I loved the tracks obviously,” offers Wyman, “But I don’t think we got any good reviews on the album from anybody.” He adds, “They were all saying it was a load of crap.” He then points out, “They all did U-turns over the years, saying it was one of the greatest albums we’ve ever done.”

The DVD features additionally extended bonus interviews with Richards, Pallenberg, Wyman, Taylor, Watts and Ronnie Wood, who would replace Taylor.

There is also a bonus return to Stargroves, featuring Jagger and Watts.

Exile On Main St.’s musical integrity has long been evident. Stones In Exile shines a light as it underscores this.

Richards explains, “I just want to make music, and see how sounds are made. How do you transmit that feeling, and it actually comes back out and touches people. It’s the mystery of my life, and I’m still following it.”

PHYLLIS POLLACK lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She currently writes two columns, one of which can be found here. She can be reached through her profile page.