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Don Was Helped Bring The Rolling Stones Back Into "Exile"
Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger called Don Was in the spring of 2009 for what he portrayed as “this unsavory, terrible task — and would I do him a favor.”
The favor turned out to be the Detroit-born, Grammy Award-winning producer’s pleasure — helming a reissue of the Stones’ landmark 1972 album “Exile on Main Street,” almost universally considered to be one of the most important rock albums of all time.
“I just don’t think Mick and Keith (Richards) were looking forward to going back into the past and trying to dredge up stuff,” Was (nee Fagenson) says now, as the new version of “Exile” is due in stores Tuesday with a wealth of previously unreleased and unheard material. “It was kind of a drag the record company had requested this.
“As it turned out, they had an amazing experience with it. I think they really enjoyed it.”
There’s no question that Stones fans have been salivating over the project since word of it began leaking last summer. Was says that once the “Exile” reissue got going, the Stones’ enthusiasm grew into a clear mission to dazzle even the most stalwart fans and bootleg collectors with unearthed gems. “I think Mick and Keith thought it was very important to have stuff that even the aficionados hadn’t heard,” he says.
The new “Exile” certainly gives them that. While the basic package is simply the existing 18-track album, originally released as a two-LP set, in a pristine new sound mix, a Deluxe edition includes 10 bonus tracks culled from the sessions — including “Plundered My Soul,” “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren),” “Dancing in the Light” and alternate takes of “Loving Cup” and “Soul Survivor” and prepared for release by Was, Jagger and Richards. There’s also a Super Deluxe package that includes the two CDs plus a 30-minute documentary DVD and a 50-page booklet.
A feature film documentary about the album, “Stones in Exile,” premieres at the Cannes Film Festival this month and will be released on DVD on June 22. And last, “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” celebrated “Exile” with other artists covering the album’s songs each night and Jagger and Richards appearing in pre-taped segments.
The reissue project has generated fresh interest in one of rock’s most celebrated albums, which was ranked No. 7 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and No. 6 on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Definitive 200 survey of albums “every music lover should own.” The Village Voice declared it “incontrovertibly the year’s best” album, and it contained Stones staples such as “Tumbling Dice,” “All Down the Line” and the Richards-sung “Happy.”
“Exile” also spawned a generous amount of Stones mythology — much of it chronicled in Robert Greenfield’s 2006 book “Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones” — particularly during sessions from June-November 1971 at Nellcote, a former Nazi post in the south of France that Richards rented while the Stones were in tax exile from their native Britain. Amidst a haze of acknowledged decadence and drug use, the Stones crafted “Exile’s” murky mix of rock, blues, country and gospel in the basement while a guest list that included William S. Burroughs, Gram Parsons and Marshall Chess partied upstairs. Nine of Richards’ guitars were stolen by burglars, presumed to be unpaid drug dealers, while he and girlfriend Anita Pallenberg were arrested and charged with possessing and trafficking heroin, for which they were convicted in 1973.
But it was only the music that counted when Was received “four CDs packed with stuff,” not only from “Exile” but also other Stones sessions — including an evolutionary sequence of 1969’s “Honky Tonk Women” that Was hopes will also be released one day. “It’s very hard for me not to project my own sense or awareness of that mythology over the tapes,” Was says. “You can feel the humidity, temperature in the (Nellcote) basement by listening to them. I don’t know how it’s possible to approach anything having to do with ‘Exile’ from an emotionally detached frame of mind.”
Was’ marching orders from the Stones gave him a substantial amount of leeway, however. “I got a fax from Keith early on that said, ‘Don’t try to make it sound like ‘Exile.’ It is ‘Exile.’ And he was right.” Was recalls. “We don’t have to do retro things to make it sound authentic; just keep it the way it is, and it will be ‘Exile.’ ”
But Was and the Stones did take the opportunity to do some new recording for the reissue, especially on some of the unreleased tracks that had not been finished. Jagger created a lyric and vocals for “Following the River,” which existed only in instrumental form, and also sang some new parts for “Plundered My Soul” and “patched in” other parts on a few of the songs. Richards added a lead guitar line to “So Divine (Aladdin Story),” and Mick Taylor, the Stones’ other guitarist at the time, played some lead parts for “Plundered My Soul.”
“There’s a sense that people are paying money for the record,” Was notes, “so rather than just do something for musicologists to play once and file away, why not give people some music they’d want to play over and over again and enjoy.
“We tried very hard to resist the temptation to fix and modernize, but at the same time if (Jagger) had left a verse open back (in ’72), it was better to fill it in, or if he had stumbled over a line originally, why not go back and make it good?”
The hope, of course, is that Was and company made a good (great, even) thing better — or at the very least embellished one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great stories with illuminating new details. And it’s surely a project Was counts as one of the most exciting in his storied career.
“It was mind-blowing, man. It was the greatest gig,” says Was, who brings his third annual Detroit Super Session to this year’s Concert of Colors on July 17 at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. “It’s a dream thing. If you’re into that music, it was an eye-opener. If they didn’t call me, I’d have been so (angry) and jealous of the producer who did get the gig ...”
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