The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street turns 40

Categories: Music History

Despite making two attempts to clean up before heading to France, Keith Richards's dependence on heroin set its hooks in deeper than ever before while living and working in Villa Nellcote. While the basement had been transformed into a (semi-) functioning recording studio, the main floor of the house had become a Bacchanalian circus of drugs and sex.

John Lennon -- enduring a methadone treatment of his own -- reportedly passed out in his own vomit at the foot of the grand staircase while visiting that summer. Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Ringo Star, along with many others, visited for Jagger's wedding to Bianca in Saint-Tropez -- the celebrations of which raged on for days afterward.

"I didn't mind it one bit," said Stones saxophone player Bobby Keyes, speaking in a thick Texan drawl. "Didn't mind all the pretty girls out there in the countryside. Yes, sir. South of France, a young man in his twenties, a rock-and-roller, that's a mighty good combination. I tell ya, that's when yer shittin' in tall cotton."

With Marseille's connections on the right, and Italy's Mafia on the left, getting drugs in the South of France was not difficult: Thousands of dollars in heroin flowed out of Nellcote. While social with his booze and pot, Richards was quiet about his heroin use, often telling his bandmates he had to go upstairs to put his son Marlon to bed, then would take hours to return, shooting smack and playing his guitar in the second floor bathroom. All while the crew waited patiently for him to return, all of them too intimidated to go upstairs and check on him.

But Richards's narcotic-zen schedule -- producing only out of inspiration; no use for a clock -- was seemingly necessary for him to get into a space of transcendent creativity. "I never plan anything," Richards says in Stones in Exile. "Which is probably the difference between Mick and myself: Mick needs to know what he's going to do tomorrow. Whereas I'm just happy to wake up and see who's hanging around. Mick's rock; I'm roll."

Constantly bickering -- especially when sleeping with one another's girlfriend -- Jagger and Richards were in a state of awkward tension throughout the recording of Exile. "What happens when Michael Philip Jagger, the unquestioned lord of the manor whose droit de seigneur has never before been challenged by anyone, suddenly finds himself a perpetual guest in Keith Richards's palatial mansion by the sea in the south of France?" asks biographer Robert Greenfield in Exile on Main Street: A Season In Hell With the Rolling Stones. "Mick cannot leave. At least not for very long. Whenever he does, work on the new album grinds to a complete halt. But even when Mick is there, there is nothing he can do to make Keith come up with new music to which he can write lyrics."

Though music would be made and lyrics would be written.

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