Lately I find myself reading a lot in the papers about Exile on Main Street. A reissue has appeared, Mick and Keith have made themselves available to the press and the record companies are exercising their waning ability to determine what music will be getting our attention.
As tedious as it is (for me at least) to read about yet another celebration of the Stones, this does seem to be coming about for some of the right reasons as well as some of the wrong ones. Exile has the standard Stones virtues – Mick’s snarl, Charlie’s shuffle, Keith’s inevitable riffs – but also reaches unusual depths: the genuine anger of “Ventilator Blues,” the murk of “I Just Wanna See His Face,” the redemption of “Shine A Light” followed by the dark conclusion of “Soul Survivor.” And in the annals of industry-generated “news,” the revival of this record is a more genuine story than the most recent similar one, Jimi Hendrix’s Valleys of Neptune, in which PR folks tried to convince us that he might have released a new album in 1969 with another version of “Fire” or a “Sunshine of Your Love” cover.
However, there are other, more offbeat ways of influencing my musical choices. The blogs, a source I’ve mentioned a few times, prompted me first to try a download, and then to fork over one dollar at one of the local record shops. As a result, I acquired a record that is as close to the anti Exile as one would likely find.
I never thought much about the Association before a few weeks ago. I knew they were big once. Their hits were catchy, although, for someone who started listening to music in the 80’s, they also tended to sound rather nerdy. The album I bought, though, came after the hits started drying up. It is their self-titled album from 1969, emblazoned with dark, spacy cover art to signify that something equally dark and spacy might await inside.
One track that reeled me in was titled “The Nest.” It listed the concerns of a mother, father and sister, all apparently awaiting word from a prodigal son, and concluded by repeating “the nest is calling” while voices chorused in almost Casio-like precision. If the Stones were redefining rock rebellion, the Association were lamenting those left behind. Even the band name, which must have made sense once, now seemed so bland and unrock as to be defiant. If their earlier hits were the Beach Boys without the beach, this album is like the post Pet Sounds Beach Boys without LSD.
Like the Beach Boys, the Association can get quite bizarre when it tries to sound hip. In the middle of side two, there is a sort-of rocker “I Am Up For Europe” (sung with a snarl, although closer to Steven Stills than Jagger, by Brian Cole, who sadly became a rock casualty in the year of Exile ) and the sort-of acid-damaged “Broccoli,” a song about…broccoli. However, that side also starts with the album’s best track, “Dubuque Blues,” which tells us about Dubuque, mentions that “the west side of the city serves no liquor,” and brings up nickel cokes, penny loafer shoes and travels through a few other non-coastal cities. Not that it makes any big point about those cities, but it reminds us that they exist, and it ends with another pretty major seven chord to hammer home the point.
Although most of the band smiles in the inside photo, this album represents a battle. It wasn’t one they would win, but it’s poignant now for that reason. These days, the Association still exists on the oldies circuit, while Mick and Keith stare at us in grim photos from rock magazines available at the drug store. We can debate which is the lesser fate.