The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’-A Lucky Seven Roll of the Dice

Exile On Main Street has been reissued, with the sound fully restored, and it’s better than ever! It already held the position of being one of the most important records ever made in the entire History of Rock ‘N’ Roll. This remastered version is even yet all the more pungent of a product. Exploration of these forms of Rock contained in this double album reveal just what revelatory contributions The Stones made to this unique idiom we know as R & R. Some forms are pure expressions on Exile, while others are natural hybrids of Soul, R & B, Gospel, Spirituals, twangin’ Country, and even New Orleans ‘Swamp Funk.’

Exile on Main Street
Here’s my brand spanking new vinyl copy of the double LP masterpiece, Exile On Main Street. Exile is a consummate expression, a ripening of the form we know as Rock ‘N’ Roll! Hands off, compadre! Photo by John Kays

Now all is revealed, we know absolutely for sure that Nicky Hopkins wears the royal crown as the greatest Rock-Boogie-Woogie piano player that ever graced the face of our earth. In that dingy makeshift studio of Keith’s villa in the South of France, The Stones discovered sacred secrets in these ancient forms of music, that they only dreamed about in their youth, when sailors would bring over American blues records to England, by way of Liverpool.

Just a few fragments of soothsayer wisdom follow for you on this occasion, but perhaps you will stay around a trifle longer and mine a motherload of gold with me in the form of keyboards, saxophone, electric bass and throbbing drums. Black gold, swimmin’ pools, movie stars, y’all come back now…

Rocks Off introduces the street-life chitter-chatter of Exile in puritanical strains of spontaneous, filtered rock, dusted with a wailin’ horn section that gives it a Motown flair. Richards starts it off with a recurring riff that glues the pieces together. The lyrics are a Beat pastiche of free-flowing existential poetry, ala Jack Kerouac, regarding the dysfunctional ambience or malaise of an urban street rumble. Rocks Off and Rip This Joint are the purest expressions of R & R on this landmark of a double album.

Sexual gratification is achieved only when dreaming. “I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping.” I always thought Mick was saying: “I only get my rocks off Pavlov’s Dogs?” Funny how muffled rock lyrics can alter the meaning by the time they hit your ears. This preferred wording would suggest that sex is a learned ritual, a robotic rote response to street noises, sights and carnie angst. I may be off the beaten path, but leave me be, don’t burst my bubble of memorabilia! Let me get my rocks off as I can.

I will be so bold as to suggest that Tumbling Dice is the greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll song ever recorded. This whiff of brazen braggadocio may simply be due to the fact of the intrinsic virtues of the newly remastered vinyl record; it’s imbued with a crispness and stereo separation of sound that sweeps me off the ground and tosses me in an empty Kansas cornfield. The bass and drums peel off the vinyl as if Bill and Charlie had set up their amps and drum kits right on top of my cranky old record player!

There are many layers of meaning here, both with the music and with the lyrics; a new form is defined that takes us in the direction of the New Orleans tradition, say Professor Long Hair, or in the territory of the soul sounds of Sam and Dave, or throws us into the pot with some black gospel of rural Dixieland. However, its uniqueness is because of its casting in a R & R mold, ala Chuck Berry, and born again in The Stones’ ‘Dark Arts’ dungeon. Rubberneck this line: “Say now baby, I’m the rank outsider, you can be my partner in crime.” Hints of Altamont perchance? Best cover version ever is Linda Ronstadt doin’ it at the Armadillo barefooted.

I see Sweet Virginia as fundamentally an American song, done as a rural black blues number with acoustic guitars and down and out harp. A soulful gospel singing choir gives it the spiritual ambience of say, Stephen Foster’s Old Kentucky Home. In actuality it’s a drug dirge, but the balladeer (Mick Jagger) calls on the rallying spirit of a lady, Sweet Virginia, to pull out the straying lads whose noses are bumping merrily through the filthy grime. Put crudely by our narrator, “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes.”

Another interpretation that has always been clear to me, is that Virginia could be a lady that succinctly symbolizes the ‘Old South’ right out of the American Civil War period. Here we have a raunchy spiritual rallying song for tattered confederate soldiers (The Stones), as they walk the bloody roads leading away from Gettysburg. It’s a sing-a-long with a peppy beat in 4 /4; listen for Charlie Watts drum stick accent on the 2nd beat. The middle section morphs to a rockin’ rhythm with Bobby Keyes blowing cobwebs right off The Stones’ tennis shoes!

All Down the Line is an extension or elaboration of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Form, that shows his face where the horns intersect with clankin’ guitars, right at the denouement of the chorus. This is utterly new for Rock. The metaphor of the train cleverly matches the grinding pump of Charlie Watts’ drums. And lend a sensitive ear for the jolting double-handed barrel house boogie woogie piano of Nicky Hopkins.

Another train song, yea, but a sexually charged opening up of the throttle and the street violence of shattering whiskey bottles on the train tracks. Background singers give it a slight gospel snap, but this is a pure dose of Stones R & R all the way, yet the form is more mature, fully ripe on the vine, slow soaked (or bar-b-qued) in whiskey with blues harp and a killer Richards hook anchoring the freely flying treble clef riffs on staff paper.

The cover art was done by the great ‘Beat Photographer,Robert Franks, best known for his seminal book, The Americans. Franks likes to capture with his camera a natural pose of people on the street or in their indigenous environment. The front of Exile is a collage of circus freaks, and comically, the back cover is snapshots of the Stones clowning around in LA and NYC, sometime in 1971. The middle has a Joan Crawford marquee photos in a collage format from some cheesy film noir thing of Joan’s; indeed, very kinky.

Pass The Wine (Sophia Loren) is a snappy, funky little rock/shuffle that could just as easily have been included on the original 18 song Exile release. Or better yet, this whiskey-soaked shuffle deserves a groove spot on Sticky Fingers, with harp/guitar counter-play and gutsy lines like: “I’m glad to be alive and kicking, I’m glad to hear my heart’s still ticking.” Sounds to me like survival from a barrage of destructive behavior: “Who said life was warm and peachy?” Not Richards or Jagger.

Pass The Wine is my favorite of the new 10 Exile tracks. All instruments are part of the rhythm section-keys, sax, bass and multiple percussion. Harp and guitar licks in the middle are very classic Stones funk & noise. Amazing ramble of jam and thick texture of electric and acoustic instruments. A new form of rock emerges here? Forged right out of an austere Cŏte d’Azur basement. Stones were mining traditions of Rock here, such as Bo Diddley, and giving it a new face. Such is the genius of Exile.

I’m Not Signifying is solid barrel house piano blues with a rippin’ guitar rhythm an’ blues laced throughout. For me, Nicky Hopkins is what makes this one so memorable. Jagger uses a nasal intonation, and sounds like a veteran Chicago bluesman on the Chitlin’ circuit from the 1950s. Mick Taylor plays some mean slide guitar and light horns sprinkle the tune with just the right texture. Jagger himself blows some scorchin’ harp here, that can be traced back to Little Walter Horton, the greatest blues harpist that ever lived! After Pass The Wine, this one is the best of the 10 new tracks.

Following The River is a slower, more sensitive number in the tradition of Angie. Mick just added vocals with new lyrics last year, on older backing tracks lost to the vaults from 1971. The best presence here is my favorite piano player for the Rock genre, the underappreciated Nicky Hopkins. Hopkins died in 1994, but his distinctive sound is omnipresent in oh so many Stones’ classics. I think of him as a member of The Rolling Stones really.

Mick’s new lyrics are a nice touch here, as it seems as if he recreates his role from the shambles an’ blues of an earlier era, circa 1971. The line: “I don’t think there’s much future left, for me and you, me and you,” is a coded way of saying that The Stones’ glory days are well behind them. There’s grit and hurt in Jagger’s voice as he breaks up with his fictitious girlfriend (in the ditty). Then he fades off in the sunset on a steed, or, excuse me, rather ‘river running in the sea,’ like a lonesome cowboy, Hop-A-Long Cassidy, in a black and white serial film. (The cowboy connection is not there, but looks good on paper.)

author in Exile Era
This is the author in 1972, the Exile On Main Street Era. Don’t you see, I could well be an honorary member of The Rolling Stones. Maybe not, stop your snickering, please! Photo by my dearest Mom, Shirley A. Kays.


The richest expression of R & R ever recorded is contained in these Exile tracks. I have $50 bucks invested in it already, so please don’t say anything to change my mind. But seriously folks, no one went further in exploring this genre we know as R & R, than The Stones. A historical pronouncement would be in order: it all comes together at this point in history, late 1971, early 1972. After this harmonic convergence it was Hell in a Handbasket for Rock. Yes, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Genesis completely ruined Rock. It became something entirely different, electronic noise, that is all.

The Stones themselves experienced deterioration and decline also after that time; it was not until Punk Rock put a bolt of lightning back into the formula of what we commonly consider as the form of Rock; yea, things got brighter after that. The Stones picked up on these necessary changes and released a much more spirited record, with Some Girls.

But Exile gives us a sampling of everything we could ever hope for with R & R. Rock Historians (if any exist?) will want to study these tracks most meticulously in order to isolate what pure strains are thrown into this vast gumbo. But I have a feeling that the secrets of Jagger/Richards will vanish with their departure from the mortal coil; they are the earthly embodiment (and hold the true secrets) of R & R.

Robert Franks Bewildering Super 8 millimeter film of The Rolling Stones in LA and NY, back in 1971. The Exile cover art was largely culled from this film.