Get Your Rocks Off
Album Review: The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (1972)
My job is to bring forth outstanding albums from the classic past. Albums that the likes of our generation have unintentionally glazed over, because there is just too much going on today to pay attention to an album that came out 40 years ago.
Something that has always set The Rolling Stones aside from the transcendent likes of The Beatles, Hendrix and Zeppelin is that they always had the strength to make you feel that both we, and they are hemmed and torn by similar walls, frustrations and tragedies. They are tied to earthly corporeal issues while others dance wildly in other dimensions and heights that feel unattainable to mere mortals. That was truly the breakthrough of Exile on Main Street. Despite an absence of the band’s best-known songs, the sweaty, grimy Exile on Main St. has grown into the Rolling Stones’ most universally acclaimed record. Despite dozens of hits, putting together a cohesive album often seemed to be beyond the Stones. Exile is built not on hits but on vibrations, space and the united act of beautifully sleazy, gritty, basement noise. Exile is dense enough to be compulsive: hard to hear, at first, the precision and fury behind the murk and depth ensures that you’ll come back. Hearing more with each playing. What you hear sooner or later is two things: an intuition for nonstop get down bang-outs, perhaps unmatched by anything in their catalog to date besides The Rolling Stones self-titled freshman release; and a strange kind of humility, love and pain emerging from a dazed and confused indulgence fiasco. Exile is about physical and spiritual casualties, and partying in the face of them. The party is obvious. The casualties are inevitable.
Sticky Fingers was the flashy, dishonest picture of a multitude of slow deaths. A beautiful album, but an ugly, dishonest space in the lives of the band members. But it’s the search for alternatives, something to do, something worthwhile even, that unite us with the Stones continuously. They are masters without competition at rendering the boredom and desperation of living comfortably in this society. On tracks like “Sway” most of us don’t get the real words, because at their most vulnerably crucial moments they were slurred and buried in the panache of sexuality. Jagger had to sign it that way, in “Sway” and again in much of Exile,because thats the way his pride and works. Besides, anything else would make it all too concise and clear, like putting the lyrics on an album cover, which is the most impersonal thing any rock’n’roller can possibly do.
Exile on Main Street was the great step forward, an amplification of the tough insights of “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” A brilliant projection of nerve-torn nights that follow all the arrogant celebrations of self-destruction, a work of love and fear and humanity. The plot charts a rough path from drunken late-night revelry to next-day regret, and there’s a profound need for redemption here unique to the Stones, an odd moment of guilt for a band known for consequence-free sexual/drug debauchery. The last complete sentence of the album screams this very angst, “You’re gonna be the death of me.” Even such a piece of seeming filler as “Casino Boogie” reveals itself, once the words come through, to be a picture of the chaotic, draining, scramble of life on the road. “Rocks Off” and “Shine a Light” present the essential picture. The latter addressing the half-phased-out but still desperately alive person who speaks in the first. This music has a capacity to chill where “Dead Flowers” and “Sway” tended to come off as a shallow attempt at nihilism.
I always hear those voices
on the street
I want to shout
but I can hardly speak
I was makin’ love this time
To a dancer friend of mine.
I can’t seem to stay in step…
And I only get my rocks off
when I’m dremin’
Headin’ for the overload
Stranded on a dirty road
Kick me like you kicked before
I can’t even feel the pain no more.
The sense of helplessness and impotence is not particularly pleasant, but that’s the way it was and still is for too many. Such withering personal honesty was certainly a departure and evolution for the Stones. “Kick me like you kicked before…” the Stones talking to their audience, the audience talking back. They certainly don’t yearn like Nancy’s to get back to where they “once belonged” but they do recognize the loss of all sense of wonder, the absence of love, the staleness and sometimes frightening inhumanity of this “new” culture. It is the drive for new priorities.
When too many people are working so hard at believing that nothing exists besides their own worlds and perspectives, the Stones define the unhealthy state, attest to how far they are submerged in it, and wail at the breakdown with the weapons they have: noise, anger and utter frankness. It’s what we’ve always loved them for. And it took a lot more guts to cut this than “Street Fighting Man,” even though the impulse is similiar: an intense yearning to merge coupled with the realization that to truly merge may be only to submerge once more. The end of the line and depths of the despair are reached in “Shine a Light,” a visit to one or every one of the friends you finally know is not gonna pull through. A love song of a far different kind:
When you’re drunk in the alley baby
With your clothes all torn
And when your late night friends
all leave you
In the cold gray dawn
Oh, the Scene threw
so many flies on you
I just can’t brush ‘em off…
When Mick says he can’t brush off the flies, it’s not some bit of macho misogyny, but a simple admission that applies to himself as well. “Soul Survivor” follows immediately with necessity, carrying the album out strong and fierce because the Rolling Stones are about nothing if not struggle. They finally met the 70’s in its totality. What Exile is about, past the party roar, is absorption. Inclusion. Or the recognition of exclusion coupled with the yearning for inclusion: “Let me in! I wanna drink/ from your loving cup!”
KSMC General Manager