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<strong>Exile on Main Street: a Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones</strong>

Robert Greenfield

So there they all are, at a huge villa in the south of France. Another night of sessions awaits in a hot, dank basement room, but hours are going by and absolutely nothing is happening. Keith's gone missing. He went upstairs to put his son Marlon to bed and he hasn't come back down. No one - not even Mick - dares venture into Keith's lair to see what has happened. Eventually, however, the record producer Jimmy Miller creeps up and finds Keith fast asleep . . . with a needle still stuck in his arm.

Welcome to the Villa Nellcôte, a magnificent residence, all marble, mirrors and chandeliers, in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d'Azur. It is the summer of 1971 and to evade an enormous tax bill, the Rolling Stones have left Britain and gone into exile in France. With their bank balances overdrawn and (they believe) $17m of their cash withheld by their former manager Allen Klein, they desperately need to make money.

So the Stones - at the very peak of their fabulousness, when their self-proclaimed title as Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band in the World is a simple statement of truth - gather in the basement of Keith Richards's rented villa, park their mobile recording truck outside and get down to making some music. Or not, as the case may be.

For two crucial turning points in the Stones's endless saga occur in the summer of 1971. The first concerns Mick Jagger. On 12 May, he marries "Bianca" Rose Pérez Moreno de Macías in a civil ceremony, followed by a church service, in St Tropez. The previous month has brought the release of the Stones album Sticky Fingers, the first on the group's own label, which Jagger has been instrumental in creating. Though still in full pomp on stage and in bed, Jagger has now abandoned even the pretence of rebellion in favour of high society and high finance. This explains why the Stones will become steadily richer as the next four decades unroll.

Then, in early June, Keith Richards abandons an attempt to kick his heroin habit. For the next six years, he will be a full-on, strung-out junkie. Though still unmatched as a rhythm guitarist, not to mention an icon of narcotic cool, he will be far less productive as a creative musician. Which is why the records will become steadily worse.

Robert Greenfield's Exile on Main Street: a Seas on in Hell With the Rolling Stones captures one of the most heady, decadent, but also destructive moments in pop culture. Like characters from a novel by F Scott Fitzgerald, a tribe of beautiful, privileged, self-indulgent young people - the band are surrounded by technicians, flunkies, groupies and hangers-on - gathers for a long, hot summer. Out of it comes the classic double-album from which the book takes its title, but there are casualties, too.

Greenfield should be the perfect narrator for this tale. His account of the Stones's 1972 US tour, STP: a Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones, is one of the greatest ever books about rock music and its culture. Evocative, informative and seductive, it puts you onstage with the band at Madison Square Garden; snuggled next to the Bunnies at the Playboy mansion in Chicago; and fleeing the batons of riot police everywhere.

That fantastic, eyewitness immediacy is precisely what is lacking from Exile on Main Street. Greenfield wasn't at Nellcôte in '71. He's compiling the information from interviews, cuts, books and even websites. Of course, he knows his stuff. Greenfield is excellent on the constant power-plays between Jagger and Richards; the madness surrounding Mick's doomed marriage to Bianca; the humiliations and cruelties heaped on vulnerable souls who fell within the band's orbit; and the insecurities of women who were never their men's greatest loves.

He certainly does not glamourise the rampant addiction. Heroin is smuggled to the villa in money-belts strapped to guests' children. Dealers and criminals surround the Nellcôte like vultures around a carcass. By the end, Richards isn't remotely cool. He's a wreck. Other drug victims are dead. But it's all told at one remove, in a confusing jumble of accounts, half-remembered by people who were off their heads at the time. Sometimes an anecdote is told two or even three times in the hope of getting close to the truth.

For want of solid material, Greenfield tacks on a lengthy prologue and a pointless "Aftermath". Yet he spends far too little time on the one thing that remotely justified the madness at the Nellcôte: Exile on Main Street itself. We're left with scant idea of how, amid the madness, the Stones somehow managed to record most of a great double-album. We hardly even know what it sounded like. Perhaps you just had to be there.

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet