On The Road To Exile With The Rolling Stones

by Carl Wiser

Faced with a tax obligation upwards of 80%, The Rolling Stones left England in 1971 and began recording their seminal album Exile on Main St. (named for their "tax exile" status) in the south of France. Before leaving, they embarked on a 10-day UK tour as a farewell to their homeland, traveling by train to small venues where they would perform two shows nightly. In this crucible, the band's decadence, addictions and ego boiled over, forever changing the group dynamic even as they continued their journey to becoming the biggest band in the world.

Only one reporter was invited to document the tour: the 25-year-old American writer Robert Greenfield, who covered it for Rolling Stone. With 43 years of hindsight, Greenfield has chronicled this pivotal time in the book Ain't It Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile, where he updates his original reporting with insights gleaned over a lifetime covering the band. Here, Robert answers our questions about writing the book and his time with the Stones.
Some of the quotes from the book are striking in their candor, including one where Mick Jagger tells you that no one listens to Chuck Berry anymore. Was anything off the record on this trip?
As strange as this may now seem in the media-driven age in which we all live, nothing was off the record back then. As I point out in the book, most of the people on the tour including the Rolling Stones did not even know what I was doing on the road with them. Mick definitely knew and when he sat down next to me to grant me an audience, he was definitely speaking for publication. But at no time during the tour did he or anyone else ever tell me that I could not write about what I saw going on around me.

As a journalist, you are documenting events, but rock stars have been known to remember them differently. Has this ever posed a problem for you?
Not really but I might just be fortunate in that regard since most of what I have written about rock stars concerns the Rolling Stones. As we all know, Keith has never really cared what people think about him. While Mick feels exactly the opposite about such matters, the only confrontation I ever had with him is detailed in the book when he went to the trouble of telling me that I probably had no idea what had happened during the entire tour because I had just been having too much fun.

What are your thoughts on befriending band members you cover? You gradually gained the trust of The Rolling Stones, but remained objective.
Again, we are discussing what went on a long time ago. Even then I never fooled myself into thinking that I could be friends with the Stones. I admired them as musicians and loved being around them but I was always conscious that I was there to do a job. Which was why I had such a hard time waiting for Keith to finally get around to finishing my Rolling Stone interview with him at Villa Nellcôte.

Robert followed the Stones to the south of France, where he (with considerable difficulty) interviewed Keith Richards. He was embedded with the band on their 1972 American tour, but was pulled midway through when Rolling Stone decided to let Truman Capote cover it instead. When his article was edited to shreds, Robert quit the magazine, but wasn't off duty for long - he rejoined the tour when he was commissioned to write a book about it that became S.T.P. - A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones.

Did spending so much time with the band affect your personality? When you wrote about quitting Rolling Stone in a huff over creative differences, certain rock star behavior came to mind.
My leaving Rolling Stone magazine in a huff had to do with what I felt to be personal betrayal rather than rock star behavior. Despite how much time I spent with the Stones during this period of my life, what I cared most about was my writing and whenever a tour was over or I finally got to leave the south of France to go back to London, I resumed what passed for a fairly normal life back then.

What is the biggest misperception about Mick Jagger?
There are so many that it would probably be hard to list them all. I think what Mick does not get enough credit for is his songwriting. Everyone focuses on his stage persona and the physical level of his performance but the man did write "Sympathy For The Devil" all on his own, words and music both. No one should ever underestimate his intelligence as he is one of the few major figures in rock who can function as both an artist and a businessman. Without that particular ability, I somehow doubt the Stones would still be around.
What is the biggest misperception about Keith Richards?
As I point out in the book, the thing about Keith is that he has become very comfortable with his own legend, and rightfully so. What I found out about him while living in Villa Nellcôte for two weeks was how much of an artist he truly was. Aside from the over-the-top lifestyle, his commitment to and love for music was so overwhelming that it was always a gas (a term you don't hear used that much anymore) to talk to him. As Dylan said, to live outside the law, you must be honest. Back then, Keith had a kind of purity about him that was undeniable. Which I don't think is something people who were not there at the time can now truly understand.

Some songwriters write in fits of quick inspiration, while others will agonize over their songs. How do you work when you write, and have you noticed any parallels to songwriting?
Well, there are occasional fits of inspiration which are usually followed by fits of desperation. What I do is write something and then turn the sentence around again and again until it seems right to me on the page. I think the only real parallel to songwriting is that I always try to get a certain flow and rhythm going in whatever voice I happen to be writing in at the time. Hopefully, each of my books is different from the one before. Or, as Donald Fagen once sang, "I cried when I wrote this song/Sue me if I played it wrong."

You write that getting close to The Rolling Stones requires passing through Mick Jagger's "burning ring of fire." Why do you think he let you through?
I think I made it through because I was not about to argue with his contention that I had not taken a single note throughout the entire tour but then came up with an account of what had happened during the past ten days that even he realized was pretty accurate. What I have always cared most about in my work is getting things right. If I can do that, people may not agree with my conclusions but they do seem to respect the fact I try to never interject my own personality into the mix.

Other than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who is most responsible for the Stones' success and longevity?
Well, as I point out in the book, it would have to be Charlie Watts. Usually, drummers are the wild men in the band (i.e. Keith Moon and Jon Bonham). Much like the late Ian Stewart, to whom I dedicated the book, Charlie was always the rock-steady human being everyone could talk to because he had never let the madness of being a Rolling Stone affect his basic personality.

When you wrote about Mick Jagger being so charismatic that those around him will do anything for his attention, I thought about "Sympathy For The Devil." In what songs do you hear Jagger's personality come through most vividly?
Certainly "Sympathy For The Devil," although that is Mick adopting a persona as he does in so many of his songs. If you listen to him on "Dear Doctor," "Stray Cat Blues," and "Factory Girl" on Beggars Banquet, he is writing lyrics from three completely different viewpoints. He is, as Keith once said of him, a nice bunch of guys and so there is never any knowing when he is actually singing about himself.

When you went to France to interview Keith Richards, you were greeted with a request for drugs (which you conveniently had). Have you ever had similar requests?
In terms of my current standing as a well respected (hah!) senior citizen, I should like to point out that "the drugs" I had with me when I arrived at Villa Nellcôte were several temple balls of hashish someone had handed me at the Cannes Film Festival. For the record, I should also like to state that I have never trafficked in such substances and was so moderate in my own use of them that I am still able to communicate with you today.

What Rolling Stones song do you feel best represents the band, and why?
At last, you have asked me a question I cannot answer. There are so many great songs in all of the band's different incarnations that I would be hard pressed to name the ones that best represent the Stones. Everyone has their favorites and while "Satisfaction" may be the one most people would single out, I am also drawn to ones like "Sitting On A Fence."

What are your thoughts on British music journalism vs American?
It was fairly incredible for me to arrive in London in the spring of 1970 and discover a full-blown music press consisting of weekly magazines like Melody Maker, Sounds, Disc, and NME. No one can deny that there are many things the English do far better than us. While the level of coverage of the music scene in London was sometimes so microscopic as to make me wonder how anyone could stand to churn out this kind of stuff on a weekly basis, the way in which the scene was covered was a revelation. At the time, I was too entranced by the "New Journalism" to be influenced by much of it but I still read all of those publications religiously, as did everyone else who was then in the business in London.
One of the many innovations on the Stones UK tour was a custom lighting rig, which is shown here. This was the brainchild of the band's lighting director Chip Monck, one of many colorful characters detailed in the book.
You describe a number of people around the Exile sessions whose lives turned to ruin soon after. How did you make it through intact?
I made it through intact because I was there to do a job and not hang out with the Stones. I never fooled myself into thinking I was one of them and even on the 1972 American tour, when the decadence reached unheard-of levels (i.e. the Playboy mansion in Chicago), I was still scribbling away busily in my notebook whenever no one could see me do so because I knew I had a story to file.

How has music journalism changed since you started?
It has changed in the sense that no one will ever again have the kind of access to bands and music business heavies that people like myself and Cameron Crowe were fortunate enough to enjoy. As we were all "on the same side" back then, none of the Stones nor anyone else I ever interviewed tried to filter what they were saying through press representatives. In many ways, it was a far more innocent time which we now all know will never come again. Which I guess is one of the reasons I felt compelled to write this book.

The internet has enabled fact-checking, which has disproved some of the great apocryphal stories in rock (including most of what Stones sax player Bobby Keys told you). How do you handle modern music writing without the benefit of confabulation?
On some level, confabulation is a benefit and it's a shame no one can get away with it for very long anymore. The way I have always worked is to interview every single person who is willing to talk to me about a certain subject and then let what they have said give what I hope is a fully nuanced picture of whatever happens to be under discussion at the moment.

You think "Angie" is "pretty soppy and far too sweet," but what is your favorite Stones song?
My opinion of "Angie" notwithstanding, I cannot say that I have a favorite Stones' song. What does constantly blow me away is just how much great music they have produced over the past half century. Virtually every album has something worth listening to and I'm not really certain this is something that can be said about a lot of other bands.

May 15, 2014
Ain't It Time We Said Goodbye on Amazon

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Comments: 1

  • Joe Livoti from CaliforniaInteresting that he brought up Jagger's songwriting. VERY underrated as a writer. Richards points out in his book that Mick wrote Brown Sugar with no help, as well as a few others that surprised me. Also, he is one of the great rock lyricists. Jagger is rarely mentioned as anything other than a shrewd businessman, and a great frontman. But, without the tunes, they'd be in the "what ever happened to" category.
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