EXILE ON MAIN STREET
Label: Rolling Stones Records
Released: May 1972
Cover art: John Van Hamersveld
Told by Stewart Schley, Denver, Colo.
My father once professed a fondness for Petula Clark’s kicky little single “Downtown,” but in hindsight I figure the appeal was more about Petula Clark than the song. Other than that, the guy expressed zero interest in popular music.
So it’s a surprise when he offers to buy me an album of my choice on a weekday evening at the Kmart, where I’m sifting through shrink-wrapped squares sorted alphabetically by artist, admiring cover art, happy to realize I actually recognize a decent share of bands. It’s 1972 and I’m 13 and have just made the transition from AM to FM, where a Denver station, KBPI, broadcasts an eclectic mashup that will influence my tastes from here on out.
Sideswiping from James Gang into Emmylou Harris, wedging in an obscure Pink Floyd and then careening back to Humble Pie in a four-song set is a typical progression on KBPI. FM was like that in 1972.
A song in frequent rotation this summer is “Tumblin’ Dice,” with its irresistible keyboard-boogie groove and maw-maw-maw-maw guitar lick intro and soaring backup vocals and determined drumming and a general sense of madness barely contained.
If a song can smell like whiskey, this one does.
“Tumblin’ Dice” is the one track I know from the new album by the Rolling Stones I’m examining in the music section. That, and the fact that it’s a double-album and my dad’s buying, leads me to the decision. “This one,” I tell him. He slips it under a carton of Pall Malls and pays cash and we head back into the parking lot and into his big blue Pontiac Catalina.
An hour later in my bedroom, headphones are affixed, and from that moment you can basically cleave my youth into halves. There was everything before “Exile on Main Street” and then everything after.
“Exile” as a manufactured musical object consisted of etched black vinyl circles just like the other two dozen or so records in my budding collection. But as instructional life material, it stood alone. “Exile” was a peep show displaying a forbidden world. Sex, girls, attitude, soul, booze and drugs, told through anguished moans and joyous choruses and bawdy three-chord blues arrangements.
Musically, everything sounded raw and unadorned and urgent. “Rip This Joint,” is a startling jolt: three seconds of amped up guitar frenzy and then bam, you’re off and running, straining to keep up. Eighteen memorable songs are scattered like spent cigarettes across four sides of vinyl.
Jagger sang beautifully at times, drunkenly at others. “Sweet Virginia” brazenly featured the word “shit” in the chorus, shocking and delighting adolescents like me everywhere (hey, it was 1972, and I was 13). “Happy,” with Keith singing and playing, is an infectious romp. The fourth or fifth time you heard “Lovin’ Cup” you understood: This was what great a band sounds like if captured in a rarified moment when it approached perfection.
But parsing “Exile on Main Street” into individual components, this song and that, wasn’t really the point. It was less a collection of songs and more a thing unto itself, almost a physical reality. You dropped the needle and you were in.
Inseparable from the music, and part of the “Exile” magnetism, was the packaging. The iconic cover photo, a checkerboard of 1930s sideshow freaks and circus acts, was suggestive of something no 13-year-old could rightly articulate, only sense: the odd, the outlandish, the seamy. Seared instantly into my brain was the image in the upper left of a Nebraska stuntman known as “Three Ball Charlie,” who entertained crowds by stuffing his mouth with objects nearly to the point of bursting.
You couldn’t look at it, and you couldn’t look away from it. From inside the album tumbled, unexpectedly, an accordion of postcards held together at perforated folds. On them, photographs of the band members decked out in period costumes, cavorting, partying, carrying on.
Printed on the album’s interior surface were hand-scrawled liner notes and photos of the Rolling Stones making music. In the image I remember best, Mick and Keith are singing into the same microphone, Jagger hoisting a half-drunk bottle of Jack Daniels. The image looks exactly like the album sounds: ragged, momentous, celebratory, in the moment, and possibly just a shade blurry.
The music and the imagery together made for something powerful and provocative, nearly to the point of bewilderment. Uriah Heep I could get my head around: all power chords and phantasmagorical lyrics. The Eagles were safe, accessible and sanitary: nice boys who lit up the occasional joint. Here in the dark, stained basement of “Exile,” though, was something different — a world that looked slightly askew, definitely alluring, and a little dirty.
There was more out there, “Exile” suggested, than the orderly world suburban America presented. Every kid figures this out, of course. But it’s the instrument of instruction that varies. Mine was a shrink-wrapped compendium of funk house fever, planted in the “R” rack of the music section at the Kmart on 58th St. in Arvada, Colorado, sometime in the summer of 1972.
Stewart Schley is the album-obsessed originator and editor of 33HiFi.com. This recollection appeared originally on the online publication Midcentury Modern.