Released in mid-May 1972, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street was one of those works of art that, in its time, was seen as heralding a demise. The Stones had come to their end as a creative force of nature, or, put another way, What the hell is this mess?
One might have supposed that 1971’s Sticky Fingers provided a clue as to a dearth of focus and material, having been extemporized—or stuck together—from various sessions over multiple years. Exile, meanwhile, was a clearing of the chest—and the decks—worthy of Milton’s Satan preparing to launch into filibuster. Double albums still had a novelty component, which Exile would help them to shed, but this was a lot of heavy material to get through. Further, it was coated in muck and murk, and didn’t sound particularly joyous, raucous, or sinister, as the Stones were alternatively—or simultaneously—known for. But it did sound inevitable, like something that happens to you. Spend enough time with it, and one might might say that it sounds like life—or having a life experience.
But it was one of those albums that took a bit of time for people to fall in love with, which we can say about other works of art, like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, or Miles Davis’s On the Corner, so what does that really mean? Maybe even it’s a pretty cool badge to have pinned to the old record jacket.
There is a lot tucked away on Exile. And while it doesn’t have the tour-de-force stylistic range of the Beatles’ White Album, that wasn’t its intention. Even with 1968’s Beggars Banquet in their discography—a rock and roll repurposing of Mississippi delta blues—Exile feels like the Stones’ most American album. It has that quality of Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, which could only be an American undertaking. It’s a record of carnival barking, sideshows, tall tales, long rides on lonely buses, juke joints, lemonade stands on the sides of country roads that are as forlorn as they are lined with the menace of advancing creepers.
What is also tucked away on Exile is the best song the Stones ever recorded, which never gets the recognition as such. That title is usually left for the likes of “Satisfaction,” or if one is feeling impish, “Sympathy for the Devil” makes for a compelling, if tendentious, choice. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” may be the purest example of what is meant by rock and roll, if we’re limited to a single song. The best Stones songs are driven by the riff, and it was said that Keith Richards—author of most of them—was himself a human riff. The one for “Satisfaction” was written as a lark, which no one was supposed to take seriously, as was also the case for Guns N’ Roses’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Apparently there is something worthwhile in larking about with a guitar, and the right person can fall into the right sounds.
The finest riffs, though, have this magical, paradoxical quality to them: we don’t take much notice of the repeating musical pattern at play. The reason why no one discusses “Day Tripper” as one of the Beatles’ top works is because it’s all riff. I love it, but a riff needs a little more tact, some room to breath, germinate. Think of a riff like a life lesson; you want them to come to you, but not pound you upside the head. I think that’s why no one has ever turned to AC/DC for counsel, but Bob Dylan can offer you wisdom with Blood on the Tracks, which I’m not sure is actually any smarter than AC/DC was at times.
Think of the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” or the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action”—riff mastery, because the riff is there, but it’s not the point. Those songs have more to say to us than what they offer via ostinato, like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” I think we can state that Chuck Berry meant more to the Rolling Stones than he meant to anyone. “Memphis” was a short story—a heartbreaking one—that also happened to be a rock and roll song, with a riff, if not to die for, that you’d want to someday match, allowing that you possessed sufficient talent.