I was seven years old when Exile on Main St. was released in 1972. It wasn't until later in the decade that I first heard the album, though I was already a Rolling Stones fan by then. My earliest rock and roll mentors – friends and family, and musicians and writers that I admired – told me Exile was the Stones record to have, so I picked up a used, well-worn copy on vinyl. The dog-eared double LP jacket was ragged and looked like hell; long gone were the dozen postcards that came with the original packaging. However, the scratched wax delivered an electric sound.
Those sounds – like my battered copy's packaging – were gritty, rough, perfectly unpolished. The album was filled with bravado, the songs seemingly shambolic, unrehearsed and the playlist was sprawling, with more than a dozen tracks. The Stones tapped into America's eclectic songbook, borrowing lines from country, blues, soul, swamp and the heyday of the rock and roll era – and it all sounded genuine. The recording of Exile was shrouded in mystique, a model of rebellion amid tales of wild decadence and hedonism at Nellcôte, the French mansion-cum-studio rented by Keith Richards. Even the cover art was shocking and mysterious: Despite being bona fide rock stars, the group were nowhere to be found on it. Instead, a collage of sideshow freaks graced the cover. I was all in.
The album followed me in later years, proving the engaging soundtrack to road adventures. Perhaps it's the association with the youthful freedom a driver's license provided, but hearing Exile tracks such as the Eddie Cochran-esque "Rip This Joint" or the Stones' take on Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips" blaring from a single, center dashboard speaker really resonated with me. And it seemed that wherever life's journeys would take me, "Tumbling Dice" provided a familiar note in each new location, its inclusion on a jukebox the measure of an establishment's cool. As a musician, the slow country churn of "Sweet Virginia" inspired many acoustic jams. As a budding guitarist and Richards' fan, I gravitated toward "Happy," for its ringing guitar and shuffling gait. (pictured, l-r: Keith Richards playing guitar, from the Rolling Stones’ 1966 greatest hits collection Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass); Richards' black leather bomber jacket, part of the Rock Hall's forthcoming exhibit, Rolling Stones: 50 Years of Satisfaction)
Decades later, Exile on Main St. is still on steady rotation. We've been together a long time, and the shine is still there. It remains among my favorite albums of all time. In fact, I etched it in stone. Next time you're standing in front of the Rock Hall, look for the Legacy Brick that reads "Rip This Joint." It quite literally has my name on it.