If you’re famous, your life will be dissected vein by vein. So it happens that Robert Greenfield, who says Da Capo gave him “the gift of this book,” serves as coroner on some long-dead happenings among the Rolling Stones in 1971 France in the basement of a rented house called Villa Nellcote.
The doings around Nellcote were so wild that even Mick Jagger kept his distance, which didn’t prevent him from sharing Keith Richardson’s mistress, Anita Pallenburg, and from getting famously busted (and fabulously married to his girlfriend, Bianca, around the same time). Heroin was the villain at the villa, and everyone who hung out there had some dealings with the drug that Richardson later called “a real leveler. I’m a fucking superstar but I want the stuff, baby, I’m down on the ground with the rest of them.”
Down on the ground they were, those glittering stars in the rock heaven of yesteryear. Letting young children serve as their mules to carry heroin from England to France. Having babies whose paternity was uncertain and whose chances of arriving in the world un-addicted were slim. Going for a cure and getting drugs smuggled in with the daily floral bouquets. Warning: if you’re straight, if you’ve always been straight, you won’t enjoy Greenfield’s paean to the way it was at Nellcote. Perhaps it will give you some small satisfaction to read through the list, interjected by Greenfield to affect balance, of the many dead musicians, druggies who didn’t survive their riff with pills and needles.
Somehow amid the snowstorm of smack, the fog of promiscuous sex, and the blazing heat of southern France pre-AC, the guys brought in the sidemen and everybody made music. The Stones were in France because they owed beaucoups pounds, shilling and pence to the British Inland Revenue, and without a new album that could be released in the U.S. they were sunk. There was no doubt they could make an album, but there was often doubt as to whether they could make it at Nellcote.
Yet from those few months “in hell” came one of their most memorable works, the eponymous Exile on Main St., called by one reviewer “quite simply the best” of the Rolling Stones.
Greenfield was a Rolling Stone (the magazine) roving reporter at the time these events played out and so comes by his fascination and his insider gossip honestly. If he wasn’t exactly in love with the Stones, he certainly had a serious flirtation there. He sandwiched this book in between an exuberant bio of Jerry Garcia (Dark Star) and his exhaustive and the recently published, far more academic and far more censorious biography Timothy Leary. One wonders why Greenfield rhapsodizes romantically over the lowlife antics of the Stones yet prissily pulls up his skirts in disdain at the less harmful mental gymnastics of the relatively benign Leary. But that’s another story…