Exile On Main St.: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones

Book Reviews | Mar 2nd, 2008

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Author: Robert Greenfield
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Genre: Music/Biography
Pages: 260
Retail Price: 9.99
Buy on Amazon.com link

Recorded in 1971 in the sweltering basement of a French villa, “Exile On Main St.” is one of those landmark rock albums whose creation became the stuff of legend. Author Robert Greenfield acknowledges early on that legend and fact have become intertwined due to the interviewees’ degradation of memory over time (and drug-addled memory at that), and the fact that people naturally begin believing their own legend. Like a lot of rock biographers, Greenfield gives a half-hearted stab at sorting out fact from fiction before gleefully embracing the lurid and flashy.

That’s fine with me – I’m not a historian on the Rolling Stones and I read this for two reasons: sex and drugs. The book is rarely about anything else, although Greenfield sets up his story as a play about the power and clash of two heroic, larger-than-life personalities, the old archetype of separate yet complementary mythological counterparts. In other words, Richards/Jagger, set in a swirling chaos of a purgatory-like time and place. (Interestingly, the book is rarely about the music on the album itself!)

Greenfield writes fluidly and with personality (if with a penchant for hyperbole), and the book is an enjoyable read. However, he often dips into flights of fancy as a result of his own enthusiasm and need to strengthen the mythos. It’s often times needlessly verbose in a hippie-dippie, wavy-gravy, far-out-man kind of way, as well as peppered by 60s pop cultural references (song lyrics are sometimes woven – or shoehorned – into the narrative). The book’s got flourish, but can be eye-rollingly lame, like being embarrassed by your dad in front of your friends.

That’s just a generational complaint, as children of the 60s generally annoy me. My true complaints about the book is that there is little new information – Greenfield only interviewed a handful of people. Most of the stories come from other sources, but Greenfield does take ownership of the narrative through his engaging writing style and great organization. My other complaint is that there’s practically nothing about the writing or execution of the songs or any analysis of the songs themselves. That seems a bit odd for a book about an album.

Joining the long list of recent rock bios that focus on specific classic rock albums (Dark Side of the Moon, Blood on the Tracks, etc.), “Exile” is highly readable and paints a lively picture of life at the villa. However, while it doesn’t read like a chop-shop rock bio for a quick buck, from a rock journalism perspective, I wouldn’t call it authoritative.

Bottom Line: Sometimes more about the author than the subject, but a largely fun read.
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