Although the Rolling Stones have been hailed as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world,” part of this has to be marketing hype. At the very least. Clearly, one wouldn’t claim a band to be “the best rock and roll band in the world.” Or “the top rock and roll band in the world.” Or, unless the person in question is a character in a Keanu Reeves film, “the most excellent rock and roll band in the world.” Or course, without continuing with adjectival quibbling, we all know what that means. We recognize that the Stones’ long, long, long career (they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, 17 years ago, and by that time they’d been performing for 27 years) and relative popularity, as well as some esential music, makes them something special, something extraordinary, perhaps even “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” The longevity alone gives them a purchase of sorts on the title. The band may be eclipsed only by U2, which has been performing since 1976, assuming that Bono doesn’t decide to leave the band for his unquestionably noble work in helping the world’s profoundly underprivileged. Still, if U2 manages to endure longer than the Stones, the Stones’ place in “the greatest” pantheon will be no more forgotten than Babe Ruth is to baseball fans.
There is one title that can be applied to the Stones that they’ll never lose: “the most legendary rock and roll band in the world.” Who could dispute the fact that this band of bad boys—now, of course, bad old guys, but that doesn’t work as well alliteratively—has had more public notoriety than any other band? Sure, there are some groups that seemingly focused on cultivating unsavory reputations, but none has had the on-going capability that has been exhibited by the members—current and former, dead and alive—of the Stones. Think only of Keith Richards’ recent tumble from the tree and the consequent raised eyebrows around the world. No, when it comes to legend, the Stones have it locked, especially as regards the Glimmer Twins, who seem to have a relationship that sometimes borders on the Cain and Abel, but without both, there is no Rolling Stones.
As is widely maintained, when it comes to this realm, the subject is always “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” And Robert Greenfield concentrates on the first two with a tangential encounter with the last in Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones (Da Capo Press; 258 pp.; $24). The Rimbaud reference is not accidental, and underlines the setting of the book, which is the Villa Nellcote, in the south of France, during the summer of 1971, where and when the Stones recorded Exile on Main Street. Greenfield writes, “Keith Richards: He is our hero. He is also our antihero,” then goes on to explain, “Why is Keith so cool? To put it plainly, the man simply does not give a shit. All things that matter most to all the faceless, colorless individuals who control the world outside of rock ‘n’ roll are of no concern to him.” One might argue that the distinction between outside the world of rock and roll and inside the world have blurred. Keith is a pirate, yet that persona is co-opted by Depp working for Disney. Figure that one.
The other in the pairing, Mick, whom Greenfield archly refers to as “Michael Philip Jagger” a bit too often for good effect, is described as being unlike Keith, “not a natural man. Rather, he was a born showman who was always on. There was never a room too small for Mick to work. No audience was too tiny for him to entertain. In truth, his primary interest was always to amuse himself.” Although one might think that this showman wouldn’t be too inclined to do performances that wouldn’t in some way advance his interests, interests which include the financial ones. In the middle of the two in Greenfield’s telling of that steamy summer is Anita Pallenberg. Greenfield: “In the immortal words of Michael Philip Jagger, Anita could make a dead man come.” In this period, she was primarily with Keith, although there are intimations of Mick (who, by the way, wedded Bianca during this summer).
For anyone interested in the music of the double album that many people maintain is one of the quintessential recordings of the genre, the book is not particularly germane. Greenfield calls it “An album recorded under the influence of heroin, with songs that end in extended fades that seem to go on and on and on as though no one could bear the thought of cutting one track short so other could begin. . .mixed by people snorting high-grade cocaine, a drug that tends to make all decisions just that more difficult.” And heroin and Keith and Anita drive much of the narrative. It is sort of like one of those “exposes” that rip away a veneer of respectability, yet so far as the Stones go, respectability isn’t something that is part of their personas. This isn’t a cautionary tale, because although the scenes of Richards and Pallenberg under treatment for addiction might give momentary pause, and the various secondary characters who end up destroyed or deceased, Greenfield ultimately ends the book by regaling with tales of how financially successful the band continues to be. The wages of sex, drugs and rock and roll seem to be, well, more wages. And in Greenfield’s telling, it is the stuff of legend.