NOTE: The piece below was originally published just after the remastered album’s release in 2010—when I was still writing an online music column for B-Metro Magazine. Hope you enjoy it.
I vividly remember where I was, the first time I heard two albums as a child.
In fourth grade, maybe fifth, I was in Hal Smyer’s basement playroom with John Williams and Bruce Becker, when Hal put The White Album on his father’s stereo. The very molecules in the room changed.
Two or three years later, I was spending the night with Walter Scott. We were in his room, and he slid Exile On Main Street into his 8-Track player. That experience wasn’t nearly as life-changing, but I distinctly remember how much I liked the way the record sounded.
Not surprisingly, The White Album took initial honors as my All Time Desert Island Selection when I started keeping those hypothetical lists, in my early 20’s (I’m 50 now, in case you’re wondering). But sometime around the mid-80’s, Exile On Main Street moved into the top spot—which is where it remains, without rival, today.
I say all that as prelude to a longtime pet peeve: I absolutely loathe it when people and/or publications presume to rank any album as The Greatest Of All Time—as if their saying it somehow makes it so. Yes, Exile On Main Street is my favorite record, but it nearly irritates even me when I read someone else claiming it to be the greatest album ever.
At the same time, while I understand how someone like my friend Bart Crawford (a blues and roots music fan to the core) could not like the Beatles, I have to admit that I consider dislike of Exile On Main Street to be just shy of a moral shortcoming. For me, no album has ever distilled virtually everything great about 20th century American roots music (particularly country, gospel, blues and rock ‘n’ roll) into one gloriously sloppy mess. And no album continues to reward repeated listens as richly.
There’s nothing I don’t love about this record. Especially its warm, thick, murky sound. Which leads to the key concern I had with a remastered Exile: Namely, is it possible to clean-up the sound of an album whose greatness is so indelibly tied to its sonic squalor, without compromising that greatness? I am greatly relieved to report that the answer is yes.
Which then leads to the Important Question you might be asking yourself: Should I buy the remastered Exile? If you don’t already own the album, of course you should. Don’t even bother arguing with me on that point.
FINALLY (AND A WARNING): One of the most perfect descriptions I ever heard of Exile On Main Street was offered, ostensibly, as an insult. An insult to which I could not have offered a better response if I spent the rest of my life trying. However, it is highly Politically Incorrect—so if you are easily offended, do not read the story below.
Sometime in the late 70’s, my high school buddy Greg Alldredge was throwing the Frisbee with his brother Kevin in the front yard of their house in Roebuck, with Exile On Main Street blasting from the car stereo. An old man walked past the boys during “Rip This Joint.” He stopped, fixed young Kevin (about 13 at the time) in the eye, and said, “Dammit, son. That sounds like a nigger whore house in there.” Without missing a beat, Kevin responded, “And just how many nigger whore houses have you been in, sir?”
Imagine how utterly thrilled the Stones would be to hear their masterpiece described thusly.