Exile on Main St.: the story and the meanings of The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece

The birth of Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones’ tenth album, has a weird, unexpected story. That album came out was the musical product of five fugitives escaping from UK as fast as possible (British tax office has never been too nice with rockstars – as George Harrison about what happened just a few years earlier). The place where The Rolling Stones found their quiet nest was Nellcôte Mansion, in France.

The cellar of that mansion was where everything began. Keith Richards rented it for the recording of the new album, but in fact it rapidly became a private community constantly visited by friends, relatives and pushers coming from Marseille. Everything was oriented to satisfy the appetites of Richards, who was anyway in a dazzling artistic form and behaved all the time as a true professional. What will come out is a set of eighteen rock & blues-flavored tracks, with some country shade (Sweet Virginia), some sould and gospel(I Just Want to See His Face, Loving Cup). It will be released in UK on May 12th, 1972.

Ironically, that was the same day when one of the greatest music critics of the history of rock, Lester Bangs, will say that rock is dead and buried, going on only as the marketing industry of the collest appearance. He immediately trashed Exile on Main St.. Three months later, he came back to that record saying that it was probably the finest rock album ever made.

For an album with such a story, also the cover needed a special work behind. The guy appointed for it was one of the most talented photographers of the twentieth century: Robert Frank. Frank met Mick Jagger in Los Angeles, while they were finalizing the album, and proposed him to represent The Rolling Stones as outlaw on the run: the cover in his opinion should have reflected the isolation but also the enthusiasm for the new French life. Including a small mockery against the adverse present.

Then a collaborator of the Stones, John Van Hamersveld, noticed some shots that Frank had done, portraying beatnicks, outcasts and freaks of American streets. That would have been the best way to represent a rock band finding a new dimension in a different environment.

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The cover

Today we cannot describe this record as a canonic Rock album. It’s almost a pagan rite, able to create a rough and dreamlike atmosphere. Maybe it’s that weird escape, or the experiences of last years, but in fact, with that album The Rolling Stones delivered to eternity one of the most beautiful albums of the Seventies.

Like all rock masterpieces, the record has had many admirers. One example above all comes from Martin Scorsese, always a big fan of the Stones: in The Departed he inserted a scene where Bill Costigan sends to Madelyn Madden a compromising e-mail with the recording of Colin Sullivan talking to the boss Frank Costello, and the subject was “Exile on Main St.”

At the venerable age of over 45 years, Exile on Main St. has still an evergreen, enviable energy.

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