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The Rolling Stones In Exile

The two pre-eminent British bands of the gaudy 1960s marked the grey dawn of the 1970s in very different ways.

The Beatles marked it by making solo albums and sniping at each other among the plundered ruins of their Apple organisation; The Rolling Stones marked it by becoming tax-exiles in France. So which band looked the more likely to roll on for another 30 years?

Actually, back then, the Stones’ future seemed hardly less rocky than that of their Liverpudlian arch-rivals and friends.

In July 1969, their founder and original driving force, Brian Jones, had mysteriously drowned in his own swimming pool. Five months later, at the grisly Altamont free festival in California, a black spectator had been knifed to death by Hells Angels only yards from the stage where the Stones were striking up Sympathy for the Devil.

The crowded history of drug-busts involving Mick Jagger, Keith Richards (then known as Richard) and Jones made the whole band a soft sitting target for drug squads across two continents. Even to the unrepenting outlaws and vagabonds of rock, all these ‘bad vibes’ were starting to feel terminal.

Financially, they were in even worse shape than The Beatles. The legacy of two successive managers, Britisher Andrew Loog Oldham and New Yorker Allen Klein, had been to leave all of them – even unflamboyant Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts – owing fortunes in back income tax. With top-rate UK tax then running at around 97 percent, their only chance of solvency was to live abroad for a year, thus making their whole previous year’s income tax-exempt. And, in April 1971, lucky France drew the short straw.

The choice – like most choices in the Stones then as now – was mainly down to Mick Jagger. Already a consummate social climber, Jagger fancied himself hugely as an émigré artist seeking shelter in the same land as Oscar Wilde, W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene had before him. It weighed heavily, too, that he had recently traded in his 60s partner, Marianne Faithfull, for a Nicaraguan-born beauty named Bianca Perez Mora Macias who currently lived in Paris.

But for the other four, less flighty Stones, packing up and schlepping off to France was a huge imposition. Most bitterly was it resented by Keith Richards who sat obstinately in his Chelsea home, tinkering with his guitar, as the days to the 5 April departure deadline ran out. “We had to dismantle the whole place around Keith,” a Stones aide remembers. “Even then, we almost had to carry him to the plane.”

Richards today is one of the rock world’s most cherished old monsters. Thirty years ago, without an ‘s’ to his name, he was just the Stones’ enigmatic and rather scary-looking rhythm guitarist who let Mick do the talking while he himself crafted killer riffs to three-minute classics like Satisfaction and Brown Sugar.

Corpse-pale and thin, already well-embarked on his long love affair with heroin, he seemed the least likely of all the band to thrive in the bougainvillaea-scented sunshine of the French Cote d’Azur.

Yet, rather like those unprepared British Tommies in the Libyan desert in 1942, Richards mysteriously did thrive. Indeed, his 18-month Gallic exile was to see him briefly take control of the demoralised band from Jagger and coerce them into producing perhaps their greatest 70s album, Exile on Main Street.

The story might never have been fully chronicled but for Dominique Tarle, a young French photographer who had attached himself to the Stones before their emigration and was accepted as one of their inner circle. Between 1971 and 72, Tarle spent several months living with Richards, snapping him and the other Stones and their women and followers with a self-effacement worthy of the great Henri Cartier-Bresson.

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Penniless and obscure, Tarle did not even try to sell any of his exclusive shots at the time. Only now are they first seeing the light in a book, Exile: The Making of Exile On Main Street (Genesis Publications). They give a fascinating insight into how healthy and almost wholesome the Dracula of rock learned to be.

Richards’s companion-in-exile was Anita Pallenberg, the stunningly beautiful German-Swiss model whom he had wooed away from the paranoid and violent Brian Jones four years earlier.

Intellectual, sharp-witted, mischievous and a reputed white witch, Anita was also into heroin, or ‘Henry’, as she called it, and, like her partner, had undergone a hasty but ineffectual cure just before leaving Britain. The family unit was completed by their two-year-old son, Marlon, a prototype rock-star sprog whose first words were said to have been “Room service.”

Their £1,000-per-week new home was Villa Nellcôte, a rambling rococo mansion, just along the coast from Villefranche, that had once belonged to the shipping magnate Alexandre Bordes. Shuttered and balconied in classic French style, it stood among acres of garden as wild as a Rolling Stone’s coiffure; it enjoyed spectacular views of Villefranche harbour and had its own private beach and landing-stage.

Former Stones aide Georgia Bergman recalls how quickly its new tenants reduced the elegant old place to the claustrophobic squalor of a tour-hotel bedroom. “Keith and Anita could manage to create total disintegration in 72 hours. It’s a phenomenal ability. It goes from being cosy to being lived-in to certain stages of rot.”

The hangers-on who naturally congeal around every rock star swarmed over the Channel and the Atlantic and into Villa Nellcôte. As Anita would later recall, seldom a day passed when fewer than 30 sat down to cordon bleu lunches and dinners amid the debris of guitars, amps, half-empty Southern Comfort bottles, overflowing ashtrays and children’s toys.

As a sign of what different times those were, the villa’s front gates were left open around the clock. Intruders from far and near were always turning up inside the house. Rather than having his minders eject them, soft-hearted Richards usually ended up employing them as domestic staff.

Visitors ranged from John Lennon, who threw up on the front hall carpet, to Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola, a Swiss princeling and son of the painter Balthus, to ‘Spanish Tony’ Sanchez, Richards’s favourite drug-pusher, to a young falconer who turned up with a baby eagle in his pocket.

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Incoming house guests – even Richards’s interviewer from Rolling Stone magazine – were expected to bring some narcotic rather than the customary flowers or chocolates. One of them arrived with a wad of cocaine hidden inside a toy train for little Marlon. A surprise extra offering came from the villa itself, which turned out to have housed a Gestapo unit during the Nazi occupation of France. Its cellar yielded up a swastika-decorated box containing ampoules of liquid morphine.

Among the local French populace, wild rumours began to circulate about the drug-and-sex orgies going on behind Villa Nellcôte’s ever-open gates. “Zey even do it wiz chickens,” an awestruck bar-owner confided to an English customer, making it clear this was not a reference to the villa’s cuisine.

Every red-blooded Frenchman cast jealous eyes on Richards whenever he emerged with his straw-haired, micro-skirted goddess beside him. The irony was that the couple’s unremitting use of ‘Henry’ had catastrophic effects on their sex-life.

A Riviera holiday with Richards certainly was never dull. One of the villa’s many itinerant chefs, a character known only as ‘Fat Jack’, started a fire in the kitchen that was found not to be an accident. Simultaneously taking drugs and chain-smoking one night, Richards and Anita managed to set their whole bed ablaze. The risible lack of security cost Richards his whole collection of 11 prized guitars to a broad-daylight sneak thief.

But alongside the rock ‘n’ roll madness, family life of a sort – some would say, a very good sort – also carried on. Up to then, in the whirl of recording and touring, Richards had had little time to get to know his son, Marlon. Now he embraced the role of father with enthusiasm, and inborn skill, setting aside the whole of each morning to be with Marlon rather than sleeping off the previous night’s drugs and booze.

Dominique Tarle photographed him striding around Villefranche harbour in his sail-wide white flares with Marlon clamped to one skinny hip, or taking the little boy on car rides into the mountains or cuddling him to sleep in the stern of his speedboat, Mandrax. One unintentionally surreal picture shows a litter of guitar equipment with Marlon’s pet rabbit peeping from it.

None of the other Stones, not even the supposedly francophile Jagger, adapted nearly so well to their new lives. Jagger lived in Biot first, then St Tropez, in habitations as neat and empty as Richards’s was chaotic and crowded. Much of his time, however, was spent in Paris with Bianca, whom he would marry, amid a legendary media circus, on May 13, 1971.

Bill Wyman and his Swedish girlfriend, Astrid Lundstrom, settled near Vence, where the stone-faced bass-player would eventually build his own house. Charlie Watts and his unshakably normal wife, Shirley, chose a secluded farm in Provence.

Most dislocated of them all was Mick Taylor, the boyish lead guitarist who had been recruited as Brian Jones’s replacement in 1969. Taylor and his wife Rose, a pair of hippy innocents, found themselves plonked down near Grasse, in a rambling pile that had once belonged to Count Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace.

As a result, Richards’s fellow Stones all tended to cluster around him at Villa Nellcôte. Another Dominique Tarle photograph shows Charlie Watts forlornly seated by himself at a dinner table laid for about 20 where, it is obvious, no one else is going to arrive for hours. Less prudent souls than Watts fell into the – sometimes fatal – error of trying to keep up with Richards in drinking and drugging without possessing his cast-iron constitution. Gram Parsons, the brilliant country-rock musician who spent weeks hanging out with him, would die a year later of drug and alcohol abuse.

When former vegetarian and non-smoker Mick Taylor quit the Stones in 1974, a confirmed heroin user, he described himself as “the only lead guitarist ever to have left them and lived.”

stonesnellcote05To launch their 1972 US tour, the Stones were due to deliver a second album to their new record company, Atlantic, on their own Andy Warhol-designed Rolling Stones label.

When no decent recording studio could be found in southern France, Richards talked the others into making the new album at Villa Nellcôte.

Their producer Jimmy Miller and engineer Glyn Johns were summoned to join them, along with favoured backup musicians like saxophonist Bobby Keys and pianist Nicky Hopkins.

The villa’s three levels of cellars were turned into recording-booths by carpeting them from floor to ceiling. The engineering was done from the band’s own mobile studio truck, parked out in the drive. To save on power costs, electricity was illicitly tapped from the main that fed the local street lamps.

In their unventilated ex-Gestapo cellar, in temperatures often reaching 110F, the Stones laid down tracks like Rocks Off, All Down The Line, Casino Boogie and their future hit single, Tumblin’ Dice. So weird and complex were the acoustical arrangements that Bill Wyman found himself playing bass on one floor with his amplifier on the floor above.

The fastidious Jagger later described the sessions as ‘hellish’ but – such was Richards’s directorial passion and drive – even he hung in there uncomplainingly. Hellish conditions, in fact, were just what the Stones needed after years of featherbedded torpor. They were back to their roots, playing down and dirty: an all too palpably sweating garage band.

The idyll was not to last. For a year and a half, the French police had turned a mysterious blind eye to the goings-on at Villa Nellcôte. But in December 1972 – acting on a tip-off from one of the villa’s disaffected former chefs – they pounced.

A warrant was issued for Richards’s and Anita’s arrest, which they escaped by decamping to the West Indies, never to return. Villefranche resumed its bougainvillaea-scented slumbers. Freaks in bangles and flares no longer prowled the harbour-side with small children clamped to their hips. And the local chickens breathed a little easier.

Philip NormanSunday Times, 2001

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