Nick Coleman on Exile on Main St.

Why is the Rolling Stones’ 1972 double-album Exile On Main St so close to Nick Coleman’s heart? What is the nature of this fierce attachment? Or is it actually not natural at all...?


The cat's on fire. Don't know why – it just is, and it's heading for the curtains which are famously flammable.

Thankfully I manage to put the cat out, but the curtains have had it; and so has the rest of the house by the look of things. The scene is incendiary. I get the family, plus iguana, out into the night air and then face the gravest decision of my life: it is clear, given the rabid acceleration of the fire, that there is time left to save only one of the objects in the house. So which of the many precious things is it to be? My posh new Scandinavian swivel chair? My wife's jewels? The Kev Hopper painting? My dad's unfinished novel? The file in which we keep insurance documents?

None of these things. I am decisive.

As timbers split and buckle, spitting out plumes of sparks to engender new infernos, I plunge into the living room and head straight for the record shelves which, by some miracle, are not as yet engulfed. My cheeks are seared but the floor is holding. I have just enough time to yank out Exile On Main St. (both copies – my original 1970s one, now worn down to a muffled ghost of itself, and the brand-new hard-edged "Half-speed master") then to flee the building, my face blackened, my hands sore, but my heart full. The children greet me with what appears to be relief.


This was a scenario mooted by Danny Baker to readers of the New Musical Express (or equivalent – I can't now remember) towards the end of the 1970s, as the ultimate test of self-knowledge: what, in the event of your abode catching fire, would be the one thing you'd save? As I recall, he havered over his Earth Wind & Fire records before settling with a flourish on John Martyn's Solid Air.

I remember the piece partly because Baker is a writer of terrific energy but also because it engendered in me an inferno of self-questioning. I knew the answer to the primary question straight off – there was no easier question to answer back then, as now: what's your favourite thing in the world? Exile, of course! No need to dwell. My late father's unfinished novel is a thing of unquestionable merit and sentimental value but, really, there is no contest here. Exile is the thing of things.

But Baker's piece stirred in me a much trickier secondary question: why? Why is the Rolling Stones' 1972 album Exile On Main St. so close to my heart as to be almost indistinguishable from it? What makes this scruffy, belligerent, sprawling exhibition of rock 'n' roll plenitude such an essential experience to one of my temperament? What is the nature of this attachment?

We all have favourite things, don't we? It's natural to do so. We have favourite things in order that we might recognise ourselves, define ourselves and differentiate ourselves from others, as well as so that we might build bridges to our inner world, where the best secrets of our nature are stored in unventilated, windowless lock-ups. Favourite things are as incontestable as food tastes we detest – and we hang on to them not as we do our fiercest convictions, with jealousy and fight, but with easy confidence. It's as comfortable to engage with a favourite thing as it is to sit down to a meal we know we're going to enjoy, because we sense that our appetites will be met without effort. And, yes, I really do think favourite things are as much about simple appetite as they are an expression of the more elevated aspects of our aesthetic and critical sensibilities. Favourite things don't only make us feel special, they fill us up. They quell hunger.

So why Exile On Main St.? Come on, why? After all, I'm always ready to listen to the representations of any qualified authority prepared to argue that Exile isn't the greatest popular-music thing ever created. I am prepared to countenance the possibility that it isn't even the Stones' best record. But it's my favourite. It fills me up. It quells my hunger. It excites me like no other thing that exists.


For some, Exile is chiefly a musical document of its own notorious context: world-bestriding Sixties rock band debouching from its familiar environments (the fleshpots and country retreats of the UK/US) into an altogether unfamiliar one (the South of France, where you can't get PG Tips), to live, work and get massively wasted in defiance of the impossible demands of the UK tax authorities (92 per cent of income). As a document, the album also stands for those listeners as a token, a voucher, a day-pass; a day-pass into the mythological realm of Villa Nellcote in the summer of 1971 and its lively way of life. Get a shot of Exile On Main St. into your cannula, the old wisdom goes, and you're mainlining rock-starhood itself.

But that isn't why I like it. Intimations of the rock-star lifestyle were not what seized me in 1973, when I first heard the record aged thirteen, and aren't what hold me now, sedate in my sixty-first year, having spent the intervening decades being not terribly interested in the lives of rock stars either. While I too am moderately enchanted by the vision of Mick, Keith, Anita and company caning it (or sulking) by the sparkling Med, that enchantment does not impinge on my connection with the music. Not even slightly. It's wallpaper, that shit.

No, what seized me then and holds me now is the animus of the music itself. The thing in it that drives it, that engenders that sound – the particularity of it, the dynamism of it, the contingent feel that permeates so much of it, the dense, articulate, brimful waywardness of it; its relentlessly hard and really quite unusual beauty. Whoah yeah, as Jagger might say. And Jagger did not enjoy doing Exile.

But that's just adjectives. "Dense, articulate, brimful waywardness" doesn't actually express much of the music, nor, as language, give any real insight as to what alchemy takes place inside people like me when we listen to it. Indeed, nothing could be duller for you, I'd have thought, than reading about how the music makes us think and feel – and I am quite certain that you do not wish to read either about what is stored in the basement lock-ups of our inner worlds. Or our appetites. After all, you can just play Exile On Main St. yourself any time you like and know, for yourself, what the music does. It may do nothing.

Nevertheless, please take that as a challenge. If you have never listened to Exile before, then now is as good a time as any to give it a go. Go on. I'd love to hear it for the first time again too, if only to experience once more the weird excitement that arises on first contact with something that is opaque, elusive, challenging and as hard to read as hieroglyphs, yet by-passes all rational thought to light up your tiny, inconsequential nervous system like a city so that it can be seen from space.

I do not propose to analyse Exile critically, therefore, either to discover its "value" or its "importance"; and I will not loosen the stays on my appetites, unless it happens by accident. And I apologise in advance for that if it does. My intention is only to describe this great thing, as it seems to me, and leave it in your lap for you to dispense with as seems fit.

Side one

Exile On Main St. is what we used to call, in the age of the long-playing vinyl record, a double album. As that term suggests, it is a package consisting of two LPs, elaborately sleeved in cover art that expresses something of the devilment that boils at the core of the music within. Much of the photography tessellated so casually but artfully on that cover design is taken from the artist-photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank's The Americans monograph and, as such, alludes to a vision of 1950s America that is every bit as real as it is unreal – even surreal – and is evidently a product of the, for then, relatively recent past: the 1950s of the Glimmer Twins' twin adolescences. The cover of Exile has much to say on its own about what it is to be alien yet excited by alienation. Furthermore, its ad hoc, scribbled-on, gummed-together surface hints at the torrid, transient reality in which time, for some, is always "flashing by".

But I am less concerned here with what Exile has to say via its iconography than with the implications of its structure as a musical work. This is what the album properly consists in: sound. Eighteen songs marking (though not mapping) the hinterland of America's musical history from an early-Seventies English hipster perspective over four sides of long-playing vinyl – an "epic sprawl" if ever there was one and a "pile of impenetrable crap" if the Stones' in-house historian, Bill Wyman, is to be trusted in his recollections of initial reviews, many of which were questioning to say the least.

Four sides. Four chapters. Four acts. The four panels of a quadriptych... I always think of Exile as a single irreducible piece of work that comes in four parts, like something from the world of high art, as if what it has to say can only be properly got at that way, in programmed chunks. Four of them. And I must confess that, always happy as I am to hear Exile songs in isolation from each other, I do much prefer the experience of listening to them in their proper location on one of the four sides; and I like nothing better than hearing those sides played all the way through in the right order, as if the observance of order were a particularly Rolling Stones-y quality and this scruffy brigade of post-war skinnies lounging around in the South of France were actually a team of masons building a cathedral.

Yet, for all my desire to perceive it as art and to sense structure in its sprawl, Exile is nowhere near a "concept album" and, for all its superficial hardness, the music is not impermeable. It's far too dynamic for impermeability. Too perforated. Too layered. In fact, the songs were recorded piecemeal and in disorderly fashion in two or three different locations over many months but mostly in the basement at Nellcote using the equipment in the band's own mobile studio parked in a truck outside the villa – then mixed in LA, then sequenced by Messrs Jagger and Richards, no doubt with the help of producer Jimmy Miller and other technical facilitators, the whole procedure driven according to some abstruse strategy that fell short of "concept" but certainly amounted to "making sense of what we've got". Brains are clearly at work as "Ventilator Blues" cross-fades into "I Just Wanna See His Face", are they not?

That's side three though and we mustn't get ahead of ourselves. Side one is where we begin. It's where we should always begin. Indeed, from the wear and tear visible on the surface of my original copy of the album, side one is the side most begun with since I bought the thing in either 1974 or '75, two or three years after its release – and there's a reason for that primacy. Side one is the side that makes the blood race. It's the side that thrills even as it changes down a gear or two following the adrenal blast of "Rocks Off" and "Rip This Joint", then snicks its way sequentially back up through the gearbox to arrive at the glorious releasing overdrive that is the coda to "Tumbling Dice". (Motoring metaphor not doing it for you? No, me neither. Let's talk straight...)

"Rocks Off", which opens the show, comes at you like a flaming cat. Or does it? I have never found an entirely satisfactory way of describing the thrust of "Rocks Off", which, let us not forget, is a high-energy song all about the experience of exhaustion. So... post-Sixties spiritual exhaustion or weariness of the physical kind? Or a bit of both? For here is an enervation so profound that Mick can only get his rocks off when he's sleeping – balletic and even onanistic sex may only be dreamed in this used-up state. Furthermore, "the sunshine bores the daylights out of me". Sleep is the only viable refuge. Yet "Rocks Off" is a cold-eyed burst of pacey locomotion, ruffed into excitability by drummer Charlie Watts at his most bouncingly brilliant and by Richards arpeggiating and spanking block chords with thrilling exactitude (just listen to the precision of the two or three rhythm guitar parts chopping and whirring behind the voice in the first verse: the very definition of "precision"). It is a great, great performance of an interesting song, sensationally arranged for any number of guitars, two late-arriving horns, Nicky Hopkins' rampaging piano and a cranky Jagger-chorus of half-buried overlapping voices. Plus psychedelic middle-eight breakdown. You feel the melancholy in it, you don't hear it.

There is no melancholy to be heard or felt in "Rip This Joint", which follows "Rocks Off" probably on the grounds that it was the only song in the can with sufficient energy, and difference, in it to do that job – certainly the fastest piece the band had recorded since their first album was blatted out seven years previously in a different kind of world. "Rip This Joint" is a punk-ass Bobby Troup/Chuck Berry knock-off and it works, its point being brutally rammed home by the gutbucket tenor saxophone of the Texan good ol' boy, Bobby Keys. It is slight, it's bright and it's fast, its very slightness and brightness a recognition that what should always come next after a magnum opus is a demonstration of maximum effort. Don't try to be clever in the vicinity of genius.

And don't try to be artful or artfully sloppy around displays of great effort. So the Stones get it right again with, next, an ultra-tight and utterly relentless cover of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips", a monochordal blues so one-dimensional in structure you can, if you're a player, only play your tits off on it and not try anything fancy. Richards' chopped-out guitar figure is rock-hard in its discipline and gradual intensification, and Jagger holds forth like a Thames delta bluesman with a peg on his nose, eventually taking the peg off to achieve something like full preach before following himself up with wheezy toots of harmonica. Charlie paradiddles on a radiator or some such. Magic. You can even dance to it.

You can't dance to "Casino Boogie" though, despite its promising title – unless you are good at the Pendulous Chug. Well, I can't and I'm not. The song is a sort of halt country-blues shuffle which accretes guitar parts as it goes along and shifts its metrical posture as it does so like a sunbaked Riviera youth lounging on a wall. Jagger and Richards harmonise randomly throughout, the latter in a high insurgent whinny. The lyrics are cut-ups and follow the frazzled governance of the opening line – "No good, can't speak, wound up, no sleep" – with a tart, faintly surreal wonkiness. Wonkiness is everywhere in fact. The song is keeled with perhaps the most absurd bassline in the entire Stones canon, courtesy of Keith Richards – Bill Wyman presumably sulking like Achilles on his yacht. I considered "Casino Boogie" to be a real blot on the landscape when I was fifteen, but I adore it now and regard it as a throwaway masterpiece fit to share side-one space with fully evolved masterpieces. Prominent line: "Judge and jury walk out hand in hand."

Prominent lines are everywhere on Exile, lines that stick up out of the murky water like the topmasts of scuttled ships. This is because voices are by and large mixed low in the overall sound picture, as if deliberately lowered into the silted instrumentation on a cable, perhaps for integrity's sake, perhaps to soak mystery into each song by obscuring the language it's sung in, to make it like an old blues record overheard playing on a Victrola in another room with the door shut. This has been advanced as a possible reason for Jagger's abiding sniffiness about the album, but I doubt it somehow, given his involvement in the final mixdown. Moreover, given that singing always precedes mixing in the production cycle, it is not possible to make a creative connection between that low mix and the fact that Jagger's singing is effortful, powerful, psychologically authentic and theatrically impressive at virtually every turn. In fact it might be argued that Exile contains the best singing of Jagger's career. No, it seems to me that even if he did grump his way through the sessions, then his professionalist attitude to the work in hand saw him dig something special out of himself, lending his overheated ram's bleat an irritable new passion that suited the musical toughness everywhere to be found. It's because his singing is so cogent that we get to snag on those prominent lines.

Whatever the case, it's a fact that the second-most recognisable voice in British rock 'n' roll is very nearly subsumed in the murky water of the song that closes side one, "Tumbling Dice". It's really hard to hear what he's going on about here and the sense of the song only emerges in single lines and phrases and fragments every now and then. What's it about? Well, it has something to do with the turn of a card and the roll of dice standing for the existential reality of the gambler-rambler character giving voice to the song; an extended metaphor-fantasy, in other words, which will permit the song's writer to get to the end of his lyric flight with his charisma intact. "I'm all sixes and sevens and nines" is the fragment I really like.

Sonically, musically, texturally, "Tumbling Dice" has no real model in nature, not that you might name, though if you sped it up considerably and tightened its screws a full turn you might have something that resembled a mid-paced James Brown groove of the period – albeit one with proper (if irregular) verses and choruses and much, much thicker guitars surging mobhanded out of the birthing thrust of The One – the holy first full beat in the bar, fractionally delayed, on which Brown built his empire of funk. "Dice" is a mid-paced R&B push-and-pull like no other, evolved from a basic 4/4 chug over countless iterations in countless jams over the preceding year or so, to that inflection point of development at which "it all came together" for Richards and producer Miller at a tempo too slow for Jagger's taste but just right for the creamy surges of Keith's Telecaster. The transition into the earlier-mentioned antiphonal coda – "Got to roll me! Keep on rolling!" – is one of the Great Passages in all rock history, to my ear, and the unceasing sway and swing of the thing, from the very first plunge of its remarkable introduction, is how life feels to me when life is better than good.

Side two

The Acoustic Side. The Folk and Country Side. The Roots Side. The Down-home Side.

The what?

I've heard it called all of these things – and I have forgiven the namers, one by one. To me it has always been just "side two of Exile", the side on which some of the Stones' electric instruments are dispensed with for a while and the all-out propulsiveness of side one gives way to a more sedate, less thrusting, semi-acoustic atmosphere. "Ballads" and choogles. But there is no diminution of contained energy or intensity here. Indeed you might argue that side two is partly defined by the overdue arrival in the parlour of (a hint of) emotional intimacy and a thickening of referential texture. For side two is where you hear the Rolling Stones playing genre hopscotch with total disregard for the conventional procedures of influence; it's where you first come to face the indomitable truth that Exile, for all its undoubted stylistic continuities with all manner of American music, is never an act of simple imitative homage, nor is it, quite clearly, pastiche. It certainly isn't a riposte, or a response, nor a parody, nor does it contain faithful, doglike copies of the blues/gospel/soul/country musics that they, the Stones, had themselves enjoyed so much as they acted decisively to throw new shapes into the British cultural landscape of the 1960s. It is something else altogether, this music. A new kind of assimilation, perhaps, one that presumes with exquisite arrogance to subsume all styles of music seamlessly and without fuss (but with lots of jamming) into a special new category limned by the adjective "Stonesy".

In 1974 it just sounded to me like the best American music ever played by white men, English or not. But then what did I know? I was fourteen.

"Faraway Eyes" on Some Girls is parody. "Dead Flowers" on Sticky Fingers is pastiche. So what is "Sweet Virginia" on side two of Exile? It's some kind of weird "Stonesy" hybrid of country & western stomp, Appalachian gospel, hot-rockin' southern raunch and cockney pub singalong. And it is completely and seamlessly convincing as an integration, so much so that you waste no time at all wondering about its provenance, as you would if the song were mere parody or pastiche; you just listen to it for what it has to say in the moment, in all its knockabout lazy-ass glory, as it goes about achieving the transcendence of all its influences. "You got to scrape the shit right off your shoes" indeed.

The Harvard-educated country-rock influencer (and privileged tragic orphan) Gram Parsons was in Nellcote for some of that summer, just hangin' with Keith and spreading amiable vibes, as was his wont. And if the confidence to pull off "Sweet Virginia" was in all likelihood confirmed by Parsons' presence at Richards' lunch table, then the second song on side two, "Torn and Frayed", was probably a done deal by teatime. It clatters, sighs and moans like a choice item from the canon of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons' most recent band.

"Torn and Frayed" is distinguished for me as one of only two cuts on Exile that doesn't quite work. It's soulful, right enough; it wears its influences agreeably brashly, like a Nudie suit; and its thematic material coheres perfectly well with its surroundings ("This world is torn and frayed / It's seen much better days"). But even the presence of the Burritos' Al Perkins on pedal-steel cannot rescue the song from a certain repetitious clunkiness and its over-busy "arrangement", set at fractionally too high a tempo for comfort. Theirs as well as ours. It feels to me as if they just kept chucking instrumentation at the song in the hope that one more would make it work better – and it never did, not to my ear. It's a clattery tangle. And it's not Stonesy enough. Other, more distinguished, judges regard "Torn and Frayed" as one of the minor masterpieces on the album. Well, there it is.

Give me any day the fascinating "Sweet Black Angel" which follows, a short, slight tribute to the charismatic academic and Black Power activist Angela Davis, then awaiting trial in New York for all kinds of frightful alleged crimes against state and person (she was acquitted in 1972). As is always the case when getting political, the Stones adopt an observational position that locates them outside the conflict in question, exterior to the torrid events taking place (think also "Street Fighting Man" and "Gimme Shelter") but somehow tied in emotionally. Well, here we go again. Except this time there is no memorable guitar riff on which to convey the sentiment over rough terrain like a military vehicle, just a taut blur of acoustic guitars and percussion swaying in a mento breeze. Yes, the Stones go Caribbean – not for the last time; and, not for the last time, modern sensibilities will be made to feel uncomfortable by some of the language as well as the accent employed to utter that language.

Jagger would not unreasonably claim here – and in other cases too – that his periodic adoption of an ethnic accent is in no way intended as mockery, and is not disrespectful in intent, but is in fact a way of getting into the grain of the music he's singing; that he is being merely idiomatic, much as a guitarist is acting idiomatically when he modulates his phrasing to play, say, reggae licks. And it's an argument with merit, particularly in the case of this song (Davis is American not Caribbean after all). But we can also be certain that he would not sing the song this way in the second decade of the 21st century, and rightly so. Or sing it at all. All of which would make "Sweet Black Angel" a difficult proposition for the 21st-century ear to encompass, you'd think – and it is one, in some respects. But the performance of the song is carried off with such robust grace, exuberance and musical lilt that all that reaches the receiving (white) brain at the sensorial level is a gentle, respectful, slightly cheeky admiration for both the song's subject and its generic roots. The censorial level is a different level altogether of course.

"Loving Cup", the last song on side two, is where emotional intimacy makes its blushing first appearance on Exile. Kind of. It certainly feels at first like a nervous, hesitant, slightly bashful entry into the court of Rolling Stones worldliness and entitlement (Mountains? Valleys? Flowers?) and it requires the pulsating talent of pianist Nicky Hopkins to get the song over the threshold from its earlier iterations as a not-quite-getting-there twangly country-soul ballad of sexual supplication. It's an alpha display on a record full of them and Hopkins takes it home with a performance that not only brings shape and drive to the song but transforms it into an edifice with sufficient structural integrity to support a crashing horn play-out coda. (What do they signify, those crashing horns? Orgasm after orgasm as dawn breaks, or what?) Before we leave, though, we do get to enjoy the touching intimacy of Jagger-Richards' romantic small talk: "Well, I can run and jump and fish, but I won't fight / You if you want to push and pull with me all night". It is indeed "a beautiful buzz".

Side three

I hope I have demonstrated convincingly that the light does get in sometimes; that the shaded, weary world of Exile isn't in reality a dank adolescent basement hovel of the soul with sweating walls and a blanket nailed over the window. "Loving Cup" may be oafish in parts and "Tumbling Dice" might not withstand much scrutiny as a model of the lyricist's art but both songs are not only about the activation of joy but they deliver it too, in the way that they come on to you as music – and that's another aspect of Stonesiness during this period: the drive to make music that is both lively and enlivening, no matter what the sentiment of the song, through the exercise of touch and feel and fierceness and, in a funny kind of way, the exercise of taste (compare and contrast with the stubbornly diffident, uninflected playing that characterised so much of the "indie-rock" that dominated one sector of the music market in the following decade).

Keith Richards' so-called signature tune "Happy" – the blunt introductory riff of which appears abruptly like a cheerful friend among the crackles of the run-in groove at the start of side three – is another such. Hello, mate! "Never kept a dollar past sunset / Always burned a hole in my pants..." Yes, it's Richards self-mythologising for all that he's worth, as per, but the way he self-mythologises is as infectious as a child's giggle.

There were just three of them in the studio at the time of "Happy"'s creation, and only one a Stone, the maestro himself, pulling an all-nighter after waking up from a stupor/nap on the studio floor after everyone else had fucked off home in a huff. Or something like that. It's a raw, open, unfinished-sounding song, and that is of course what lends it a sizeable part of its charm. It is saturated with the levity of its moment: the need to get the work done now. This was no laboured-over mission-statement à la "Rocks Off", great as "Rocks Off" is; it was an inspiration reified quickly and efficiently with whatever tools lay close to hand, and bejewelled with the dew of that spontaneity. Richards sings and plays two guitar parts and bass. Bobby Keyes does something good-ol'-boyish with percussion. And the very accomplished Jimmy Miller sits up as straight as he can on Charlie's drum-stool. Boom. There you have it. A burst of light. Meanwhile the rest of the party get their rocks off in their beds to a chorus of zeds. "Happy" is close to weightless and somewhat glib – it feels sometimes like mere propaganda. But it always shines and often that's all that's required.

Yet light can die in an instant.

It turns out that "Happy" is not a redeeming sunbeam for all time but a guttering illumination at the edge of darkness: the last best hope for a laugh. For side three is actually the dark ambiguous heart of Exile On Main St. and the gloom sets in almost as soon as the radiance of "Happy" has faded.

There's a toad in the pathway.

"Turd on the Run" quivers unpleasantly and spits a spume of bitter complaints at the listening ear in a punkabilly-garage-blues idiom no one of status had bothered to explore with any great conviction before now (apart perhaps from the Velvet Underground), its scratchy, low-gain guitar sound only intensifying the sense of irritability the song conveys in its ugly lyric ("You gave me disease", etc.) and its flapping, skiffle-ish pulse. If "Turd" is filler material then it is strangely impactful filler, as highly effective in lowering the tone as it is in initiating a sense of impending threat.

A threat which materialises in the form of the pointed solo guitar figure which opens "Ventilator Blues", stabbing into the brief silence that follows "Turd" before settling to a purposeful, malignant stride over a lurching funk rhythm (a metre that initially defeated Watts during the session and required input again from Miller). Mick Taylor, who executes that spiky guitar figure with a bottleneck on his third finger, is fiercely disciplined and the click of his lick snicks throughout the song as if gouged into the surface of the record. It earned him a rare and deserved songwriting credit.

"When your spine is cracking and your hands, they shake..."

"Ventilator Blues" is about what happens when the pressure gets too much. It is the sound of pressure. The crush of horns and churning keyboards is oppression itself and does not meet with relief at any stage. You can hear in this airless sub-world populated with tired, grouchy musicians the collective desire for "some kind of ventilator" – not the least of it Jagger's desire. He is seething with it. These are conditions he neither enjoys nor is accustomed to; his worldliness has reached the limits of its endurance; his metaphors have all but run out, leaving only reportage and lamentation, like something on the news from a war zone. "Ventilator Blues" is ostensibly a lament about the universal press of anxiety, the hell of other people, the crush of competition, the churn of rivalry – “feels like murder in the first degree.” But it is also an expression of the horror of being stuck for hours in an airless basement with a bunch of people you don't always like.

...And so to the not-so-subtle cross-fade into "Just Wanna See His Face" and the moment when gospel music makes its first overt appearance on the album – although it is a funny kind of gospel. It is the gospel of the uncertain and the remaining-to-be-convinced, the marginal, the resistant and the possibly lost. The ragtags of religion. And this is not a church building we're in, the sort that comes with transepts and apses; it is an outbuilding on the edge of someplace in which anything might go and the demand is clear: "Don't wanna walk and talk about Jesus, just wanna see his face!" It's come to this. An outbuilding which, just for the occasion, has acquired some churchy dignity, to go with the voodoo and the physical decay which are observable everywhere. This is surely the kind of place Jesus will show up, if he's going to. Better than any architectural marvel.

And the sound of it... Tom-toms heave and thunder; a foggy electric piano suggests a tonal centre, but then shifts it around furtively as if not quite sure what to do with it; voices come and go in the reverberating concrete room while the preacher quacks his vague presentiments, the voices including (for the second time on Exile) the magnificent gospel lungs of Clydie King, Vanetta Fields and Jesse Kirkland, recorded later in the US but fully present in the outbuilding-church through the intuitive brilliance of their musicianship. Something is sacred in the room, but no one is quite certain where it is hidden among the corner drifts of human spillage.

Tom Waits has intimated that "Just Wanna See His Face" is his favourite Stones track, and it's easy to see why.

And this is how we hit bottom on side three and reach the darkest, most numinous chamber of Exile On Main St. – in a bunker church filled with the mingling voices of the devout, the faithless, the hopeful and the resigned, the knackered and the indignant – everyone too hot and there's not enough air. But everyone's in there. Everyone and their monkey.

At which juncture Keith Richards interjects a slow rondo of arpeggios carefully picked out on treated wibbly-wobbly guitar – and the scene is transformed, now a little less foggy, a little more in focus. Perhaps there is salvation afoot after all: superheated white-boy gospel-soul at a tortuously slow tempo, all about "the bedroom blues"...

"Who's that woman on your arm / All dressed up to do you harm...?"

Who's this saying that then, and to whom? Mick to Keith? Keith to Mick? Why so sadly bitter? And who's that talking back? What's going on here, chaps? There appear to be two perspectives working hard in the same song, both agonised out of all proportion, both voiced by Jagger, all of it borne up on a thermal of circulating chords swirled baroquely by Nicky Hopkins and Richards – Watts and horns joining in – a loud, tightening gyre of thick music that is both harsh and uplifting even as it struggles for height because of the weight of its own bitterness and the drag of its tempo.

"Let It Loose" is a different kind of sacrament: perhaps the jealous kind, perhaps the lonely kind, perhaps the kind that is not fully understood by its celebrants but enacted anyway for, if nothing else, self-pity's sake. For sure it is worldly.

Which rather begs the question: why a sacrament at all? What does British suburban post-war worldliness need from the deep traditions of American spiritual music? Why are there gospel singers standing up the refrain in "Tumbling Dice", a song about gambling as a way of life? What are the golden threads of sacred music doing among the coarse staves of "Sweet Virginia"? How come a morose lament like "Let It Loose" is almost entirely constructed out of the musical tropes of American religious uplift? Come on. Why do gospel singers bring Exile home?

Perhaps side four will supply the answer.

Side four

No. No, it won't.

Although it does have its own gospel high to impart – another melancholy one. "Shine A Light" was not a product of the Nellcote sessions but of a subsequent date at Olympic studios the following winter in London, at which Jagger brought some shape and heft to a song initially forged jointly a few years earlier with the American singer-pianist Leon Russell. In London, it's just Jagger, Taylor and Miller on drums in the room with Billy Preston's organ/piano, plus the three gospel back-ups from "Just Wanna See His Face" with the addition of Joe Greene. Keith Richards is no more present than he was on "Moonlight Mile", Jagger's ballad triumph of the previous year.

The song is said to have originated in an attempt to address the increasing inaccessibility of Brian Jones in 1968/9 while he still lived, even as the failing Stone became less Stonesy and more irretrievably stoned. There are thought to be at least two other recorded versions of the song, both committed to tape after Jones's death, neither of which I care to hear particularly. But the persistence displayed by Jagger in finally making this version happen successfully after repeated failures suggests several things, including the possibility that the song meant a lot to him. He sounds drunk when he sings it, but that doesn't mean it is not beautiful (and it doesn't mean he really was drunk either) and it does not mean that "Shine A Light" was performed as a grand gesture of spiritual expiation for the band's supposed neglect of their poor, lost founding spirit. Nevertheless, the feeling is unavoidable when you listen to it that Jagger carried something away with him from Jones's death, something that troubled him, even as he pretended to himself that it did not. Grief perhaps.

"Berber jewellery jangling down the street / Making bloodshot eyes at every woman that you meet..."

Grief is a funny old thing. It is the most perniciously unpredictable of all emotional states and is not reserved only for the loss of people we love: we also grieve when we lose people who are of importance to us even without love. We experience a version of grief when we lose important people whom we have grown not to like, especially where there is vulnerability present in the relationship; and that is a very tricky form of grief indeed, shot through as it is with feelings of guilt and unmet responsibility. Jones died in his pool at Pooh Corner only two years prior to the sessions for Exile On Main St. and I find it very hard indeed to imagine that he was not present at the feast at Nellcote in some form, even if not quite as starkly as Banquo's ghost, unmentioned, unmentionable but there, a jangle of Berber jewellery in the minds of everyone present who knew him.

And there is melancholy all over the record, melancholy, harshness, evasive wit, ribaldry, a sort of grimly strained-for tenderness and, throughout, the determination to, as the gospel community like to put it, get over. "Shine A Light" is both fiercely passionate and, unlike a lot of Rolling Stones material, compassionate – and, like any good gospel song, it helps both listener and performer to get over. The song is a major property of Exile and it is odd that it is stashed away at the end of the album in the box room at the back of the house among the empty cartons that comprise side four.

Actually, to be fair, side four is not entirely filled with empty boxes. "Shine A Light" is preceded by, first, "All Down the Line", a blast of energy and commitment to the moment that surely rocks hard enough to have gained it admittance to side one on another sequencing day. But one suspects the song and its trademark suspended-fourths were just a little too boilerplate – too standard-issue Stonesy – for such a rarefied position in the running order.

Then there's the splendid chug of "Stop Breaking Down", another Richardsless cut – this time a slugging treatment of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down Blues" – in which Jagger shoulders the burden of principal rhythm engine and mixes his guitar belligerently high, right alongside Taylor's bottleneck lead, perhaps in retaliation for his less than prominent vocal presence elsewhere on the record. Whatever the truth of it, it's a good racket and it fills its space handsomely and with no little charisma.

But the strangest feature of Exile On Main St. is the way it ends, in stark bathos following the stirring late peak of "Shine A Light". Now this, I think, is plain weird. I have thought since I was a priggish schoolboy that side four of Exile should be taught in schools as a vivid, easily grasped example of bathos – of a closing anti-climax of such plunging disappointment that its continued maintenance as a final cadence threatens to alter your perception of what has gone before. Perhaps Jagger, Richards and co. felt that the thematic material contained in "Soul Survivor" warranted its location at the end of the running order, as a kind of uptick on all the harshness and lamentation that had gone before, a moral reward, a knuckle-bump, a boiled humbug from the bowl on the desk as you leave the dentist's clinic... but they can't have been listening to what they'd actually made in the song.

One dictionary definition of bathos is "A ludicrous descent from the exalted or lofty to the commonplace", which in the context of Exile On Main St. means a ludicrous descent from greatness to thinness, cliché and banality. For "Soul Survivor" is the kind of boilerplate that gets affixed to boilerplates to instruct the reader in easily understood official language that there are boilerplates in the vicinity. It is standard-issue Stonesiness stretched to the absolute limit, and that is a thing of which we would come to be just a little wary in the years to come.


I love Exile On Main St. I can't help it, I just do. And while it isn't actually the single precious thing I'd save from the pyre of my material hopes (why not? Because Exile is a commodity as well as an artwork and I can always buy another one), it genuinely is the thing I'd miss most were I to lose the remainder of my somewhat damaged hearing. God, yes.

But have I answered the second question, posed right at the beginning: why? Why is it my favourite thing? Why does it have this hold over me? What am I getting from this contumacious, soulful, uneasy outpouring that I can't get from anywhere else? What is its special quality?

And the answer is…

Well, you've just read the preceding seven thousand words, haven't you. It's in there. Plain as day. I don't think I could make it any clearer were I to write another seven thousand. Or seventy thousand. Although I could add one final thought to all those thoughts piled up above, which might seal the deal for you and crystallise the thing in your mind, as it is crystallised in mine. It's this: to me, Exile On Main St. is the opposite of death.

There, I've said it.

Nick Coleman is the author of three books: The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize; the novel Pillow Man; and Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life. All are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage.