The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street turns 40

Categories: Music History

The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, released on May 12, 1972, turned forty this past weekend.
By the spring of 1971, the heroes of the '60s were dropping like flies. The Beatles had broken up, Angela Davis and Timothy Leary were on the run, and everyone in California was becoming a born-again Christian. The previous autumn, Jimi Hendrix asphyxiated on half-digested sleeping pills and red wine, followed by Janis Joplin's lonely heroin overdose two weeks later. It was a time for hiding, not necessarily for self-reflection, but hiding from the truth that the lifestyle of the '60s either killed you or turned you into a sober religious nut making forgettable music -- and which was worse?

Despite his own attempts at hiding, death would find Jim Morrison later that summer in a Parisian bathtub. A few miles to the south, the Rolling Stones were doing some hiding of their own, recording an album in the basement of Keith Richards's rented villa in the south of France. By that time, the band had already experienced its own casualty of indulgence -- the first of the era -- in the form of their booted blond guitar player, Brian Jones, found facedown in his own swimming pool.

"Brian's death acted like a slow-motion bomb," Marianne Faithfull wrote in her memoir, Faithfull. "It had a devastating effect on all of us. The dead go away, but the survivors are damned. ...Keith's way of reacting to Brian's death was to become Brian. He became the very image of the falling down, stoned junkie hovering perpetually on the edge of death. But Keith, being Keith, was made of different stuff. However he mimicked Brian's self-destruction, he never actually disintegrated."

Shacking and smacking up with Jones's former girlfriend, actress Anita Pallenberg (a woman Mick Jagger once said "could make a dead man come"), Richards had become a mess by 1971. One night before leaving for France, he crashed his Bentley in a coke-and-margarita-fueled haze; with radiator hissing and the latest Stones release, Sticky Fingers, still blasting from the car stereo, Richards reportedly buried his stash in the dirt and took a limo to Bowden House, a sobriety clinic where Pallenberg was trying (unsuccessfully) to kick heroin. "Just get me some H!" she screamed at Richards when he called to explain.

As gonzo as this all may seem, the reason behind the Stones' retreat to France had nothing to do with sex, drugs or reinventing themselves as a band (although plenty of all three would occur as a result). Nope, the Stones' "exile" of 1971 was nothing more than an attempt to dodge the tax man. "In those days, if a band was big in England, and then left England, you didn't like them anymore. It's fucking curtains," said Mick Jagger in the documentary Stones In Exile. "And if you leave for tax reasons, that's not very cool."

Due to poor management and general obliviousness, it seemed that the Stones hadn't paid their taxes in some time and now owed the United Kingdom a considerable chunk of cash, enough for their property and assets to be seized should they remain in the country. "Tax, under the Labour government [of 1971], was 93%," said Bill Wyman. "If you earned a million quid -- which we didn't -- you'd end up with seventy grand. So it was impossible to pay back what we owed."

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