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Things We Like: Exile On Main Street

The Rolling Stones’ 1972 recording, Exile On Main Street, is to many of us the finest rock and roll record ever. Period. It’s vaulted back into public consciousness recently due to a re-release, remaster, re-reach into our collective wallets and purses. There’s the wildly elaborate “super deluxe edition” which includes vinyl, a 30-minute documentary DVD with footage from Cocksucker Blues, Ladies and Gentlemen… the Rolling Stones and Stones in Exile, and a 50-page collector’s book with photos from the Exile era. HEFTY price tag. There’s a remastered version of the original record, and the one most of us can afford, and probably won’t pass up, a deluxe CD edition with the 10 special bonus tracks. I’ll focus on this version.

The brilliant writer and New York Times music writer, Ben Ratliff, offered a provocative look at Exile in the 23 May 2010 edition of The Times, in a piece entitled “Revisiting ‘Main St.,’ Rethinking The Myth.” In a nutshell, he isn’t as enamored of the record upon second look, stating “I can’t see it as a masterpiece, not only because I distrust the idea of masterpieces, but because I especially don’t want one from the Stones, who make songs and albums like birds’ nests — collaborative tangles with delicate internal balances — and have a history of great triage work, assembling bits and pieces recorded over a long period.” In some ways, Mr. Ratliff sides with Mick Jagger, who has never been especially fond of the recording, based on my interpretations of his statements about Exile.  I, on the other hand, agree with Keith Richard, who eloquently calls it “The Bible.” Sums it up for me. Dark, dense, elaborate and multi-faceted, and soaked in excess, it is one of the very few recordings I can turn to again and again.

The bonus disc on the deluxe edition is the meat. (More on the original 18 track 1972 recording in a moment). It grabs any Stones fan at first. (Even if you have the wonderful bootlegs “The Trident Sessions” or “The Black Box.”) It’s fantastic to hear these jewels the band never saw fit to release, or the inner workings of how the songs came to be. The bonus disc put new vocals by Mr. Jagger on “Plundered My Soul,” “Following the River,” “Dancing in the Light” and “Pass the Wine.” In “Plundered,”contains new guitar work from Mick Taylor (?!?!) and the vocals present the 66-year-old Mr. Jagger singing recent lyrics. I love Mr. Ratliff’s statement “[it’s] an aging aristocrat describing a younger man’s appetites, over what appears to be the Stones sounding worn and wracked in their 20s.” Bingo. I began to distrust that voice. I want the young voice and perspective. A cat who at that point did NOT only stay in the finest hotels, eat the finest food, etc. etc. If you’re a real fan, it’s not going to keep you away from repeated listens, but you may smirk an awful lot. Still, I dig the bonus disc a lot.

It’s the remastered original disc that draws more scrutiny from me after repeated listens. And I have to give credit to my old friend Whit. “What do you notice?,” he asked me after I had played the hell out of the release in the first 48 hours I owned it? The guitars and bass are pushed to the fore, and I like it. “But what’s missing?,” he continued. Stumped. I admit it. Whit hit the obvious suddenly. It was as if he pulled back the curtains and let the sun shine in, in it’s raging glory.

Charlie. The fabulous Charlie Watts. The one component of that band they could not do without. (I am assuming Mr. Richard will outlive us all. He’s part roach.) Mr. Watts is the engine room. His drum patterns are always unpredictable, but spot on. He’s a jazz drummer and it shows. Continuing with Whit’s dissection, he proceeds to scat “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint,” the opening two tracks of the masterpiece, and the true ‘yo, this train’s leaving the station, and get on or get run down’ feeling it offers. What’s missing?

The clear crash cymbal sounds. Ba da da ba dum da CRASH!!! “Tumbling’ Dice,” too, a song I have myself never been completely enamored of, but will not deny that Mr. Richard’s guitar work is near perfect. But I miss the crash cymbals, too. A lot. I think the 1994 remaster was better. Exile is an analog masterpiece. Digital screws with it. It’s still great, but, want something better? Want to hear it as God (OK, well, Jimmy Miller and Keith Richard) intended?

Get the original vinyl, if you can. And dig Charlie Watt’s crash cymbals. Thundering, crashing bliss.