Imagine finding a manuscript of unpublished poems by Dylan Thomas 40 years after he composed them, yet written when he was at the height of his powers. In this hypothetical scenario, Thomas for some reason abandoned these poems out of a boozy sense of insecurity, and instead pursued the course that had won him critical and popular acclaim. And imagine that the newly discovered poems surpass the quality of those in Thomas’ published oeuvre. It would be cause for a career reassessment, a red letter day for 20th century letters.
That’s my fantasy, which will more than likely go unrealized. But for fans of the Rolling Stones, something equal to the uncovering of the lost volume of poems by Dylan Thomas has come to light.
The Stones’s 1972 double-album Exile on Main Street, reissued this week with an additional CD of previously unreleased bonus tracks, was the capper to a brilliant run of albums by the band – and remains arguably their final and finest moment as a band that actually mattered. Their subsequent output was spotty at best, seldom capturing the danger, menace, wit, depth and intelligence that marked the Mick Taylor and producer Jimmy Miller years.
I have never worshiped at the altar of the Stones, but I realized long ago that no collection of rock music is complete without a collection of the band’s seminal singles and a copy of Exile. For the uninitiated, Exile captures perfectly the band’s booze, Percocet and cocaine fueled blues decadence, which quickly devolved afterward into minstrel show self-parody punctuated by brief returns to earlier genius. But simmering beneath the debauchery was the heartbeat of high-caliber musicians at their creative peak made even more noteworthy by the fact that the band was living as tax exiles in France while recording the album.
Prior to Exile was Sticky Fingers, a sublimely missed opportunity to create a masterpiece out of Jagger’s bored and world-weary super stud persona and crackling instrumentalists. Even though all the parts were there, the potential wasn’t realized until Exile. By Sticky Fingers, it was evident that the Stones could write hit songs in their sleep. Exile threw away the formula and marked a fresh start.
The weird saxophone and out-of-place jazzy guitar solos that stood out like sore thumbs on Sticky Fingers were more fully integrated into actual songs on Exile–songs that have the weight of an ocean liner buoyed by Bill Wyman’s bass and Charlie Watts’ swing-time drumming.
The rock-steady rhythm section, however, performs on the deck of a ship hurtling toward whirlpools and waterfalls as Taylor, Richards, Jagger and guest musicians Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys, Jim Price and Ian Stewart steam ahead at cross purposes that navigate simultaneously in and through the maelstrom. Vocalists Clydie King, Joe Green, Jerry Kirkland, Venetta Fields, Kathy McDonald, Shirley Goodman, Tammi Lynn and Dr. John also deserve mention on the original album’s songs.
I won’t waste readers’ time with a blow-by-blow track listing–if you’re not familiar with the album by now, you’re either not a fan of rock and roll or still too young to have unearthed Exile’s treasures.
Nor will I waste readers’ time with an audiophile’s rendering of the remastering of the album. I haven’t met a Rolling Stones’ fan who marveled at the sound quality of any of the band’s albums, nor have I met an audiophile who won’t purchase a new set of speakers until he hears how “Turd on the Run” sounds played through them. Suffice it to say that the album’s songs are uniformly good and the remastering warrants the purchase even if readers own the previous release.
The bigger news with the reissue of Exile is the bonus CD, containing songs unbelievably left in the can since 1972. Not one of the songs would’ve been out-of-place on the original release, which–believe it or not–might’ve been enhanced by their inclusion. The 10 bonus tracks sound fresh and bold, very much a part of their time and possessing the quality to lift them into contemporary relevance. This isn’t an artifact for Stones’ complete-ists only, but a cohesive album that marries the best of what was happening in one of the most exciting periods of rock’n’roll history.
The early 1970s were a watershed for rock music. During the waning years of the Beatles, the music world opened up to embrace all aspects of American music. Such artists as Leon Russell, Delaney and Bonnie, Dr. John, the Allman Brothers, the Byrds, and the Band cross-pollinated with British musicians to create a psychedelic secular gospel of good loving gone bad (“Layla,” “Whipping Post”), American mythology (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Chestnut Mare”), and oddness (“I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” “Stranger in a Strange Land”).
The results of this new British/American musical hybrid often evidenced itself in what seemed at first blush ramshackle studio jams, but were in reality well-orchestrated hootenannies featuring deep textures of studio technique and instrumental virtuosity. Quick examples include the Joe Cocker and Leon Russell collaboration on Mad Dogs and Englishmen; the Apple Jams on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; the orchestral blues blast of Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla; and the Delaney and Bonnie releases featuring guitarists Jesse Ed Davis, Eric Clapton, and Dave Mason.
Add to this distinguished list the Stones’ bonus Exile on Main Street CD.
The Stones’ always held back on their secret weapon, which wasn’t Richards’ odd guitar tunings or Jagger’s head-scratching propensity for nasal shouting. When the Stones really wanted to kick it into high gear, they brought out Jagger’s harmonica playing—some of the best offered in the blues-rock pantheon. This features prominently on three of the 10 bonus tracks: “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren),” “I’m Not Signifying” and “Good Time Women” (a prototype of what became “Tumbling Dice”).
Although the harmonica stands out, it certainly doesn’t crowd out the sinuous guitar lines of Taylor and the tasty licks provided by Richards. Add to the mix frenetic gospel-tinged backup vocals by Lisa Fischer and Cindy Mizelle and the result is a pure early 1970s confection that, like the best music of the time, still sounds amazing. In fact, the whole band and guests seem invigorated far past the energy on display on many of the songs released on the original album.
I could elaborate on the high quality of such songs as “Plundered My Soul” and “Following the River” or praise the outstanding alternate take of “Soul Survivor” with Keef on vocals, but I believe readers already get the picture. The reissue of Exile on Main Street renders an indispensible album even more so.
Dare we imagine the Stones have more treasures of this magnitude stored in their vaults?