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Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones - EXCERPT

by Robert Greenfield


Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones - EXCERPT
Late one night down in the basement as Keith is putting an overdub on "Rocks Off," the track that will eventually become the first cut on the album, he falls asleep. In itself, this is nothing new. As Andy Johns would later recall, "Keith used to nod out. He would play the intro and he'd be tacit for the first verse because he'd nod out and never come back in again. And I wasn't going to stop the tape and go, 'Wake up!' Because the talkback had busted, if I wanted to get their attention, I would run down the stairs and wave my arms and go, 'Oy!' So we would just sit there and let the tape roll. You would know you were getting close if Keith came out of the basement to listen to a playback. That meant we were getting somewhere. He knew what he wanted, oh yeah."

Regaining consciousness at three in the morning, Keith asks to listen to what he has just done only to fall asleep once more. Deciding the night is now conclusively over, Johns leaves the mobile, gets into his car, and returns to the villa where he lives with trumpet player Jim Price, easily a half hour to a forty-minute drive from Nellcote. When Johns gets there, the phone rings. "Oy!" Keith says, none too pleased at having woken up only to find everyone gone. "Where the fuck are you? I've got this idea for another guitar part." Johns promptly drives all the way back to Nellcote where at five in the morning Keith begins doing this rhythm track that, as Johns would later say, "was spectacular. Made the song work. It was excellent. Like a counter-rhythm part. Two Telecasters, one on each side of the stereo, and it's absolutely brilliant. So I'm glad he got me back there."

Still, with so little real progress being made down in the basement, time begins to weigh heavily on everyone. In rock 'n' roll as everywhere else, the devil soon finds work for idle hands. For want of anything better to do, Andy Johns and Jim Price, a veteran American-born session man who has been on the road with Delaney and Bonnie and Joe Cocker and recorded with George Harrison, decide to set up a casino at the villa where they live. "We bought a full-sized roulette wheel," Johns recalls, "and people would come by and we would play roulette until one or two in the morning and then it would change into poker. Sometimes craps. And we were making quite a bit of money on the craps and the roulette. We were the house. Keith came once. And he didn't want to join in. I think that was because he might lose. Or we might win. Which of course would have been an act of lese majeste. It was the time that he shot me up."

Johns, then twenty-one years old, has snorted heroin a few times but never injected the drug. "During the course of that project," he says, "I started using. Because it was easy to get. Marseilles was just down the road and you could get this China White that was very powerful for not a lot of money. So I started taking this stuff. I mean, it was so fucking boring most of the time. So much waiting around."

On the night that Keith comes to visit Johns and Price at their makeshift casino, Johns goes into his bedroom "to change my shirt or for some fucking reason and Keith had a needle and a spoon and I'd been brought up to think that was very inappropriate behavior. But I was along the path a little bit by now and I said, 'What are you doing?' And he said, 'Oh, do you want to

do this too?' And I went, 'Yes. Okay.' And he went, 'Oh, this needle's fucked. It won't work. We'll go back to my place.' So we jump in his car and drive all the way back to Nellcote and he takes me downstairs and cooks something up and he didn't inject it in the vein. He just skin popped me. And went, 'Now, you're a man.' Which I thought, looking back on it now, 'How adolescent of him.' And how adolescent of me. 'Oh, I'll do this too.'"

Johns then goes back upstairs and is sitting in the mobile when Ian Stewart walks in, takes one look at him, and says "Andy, what's the time? Andy, what's the time?" "And of course," Johns would later recall, "I couldn't see. So I was looking at my watch and going, 'It's uh, I think it might be . . . well. . . .' And Stu said, 'You've been hangin' out with Keith, haven't you? Ohhhh dear, he's in trouble. I'm gonna tell your brother.'" One of Stu's oldest and closest friends, Andy Johns' older brother Glyn not only engineered the Stones' first demo but is also well known for his distinctly dim view of all forms of drug use, most especially the hard stuff. "And I said, 'Please don't.' So Stu picked up on it within ten fucking minutes. I said, 'Stu, no, I haven't done anything.' I just lied. He knew. I didn't become a junkie per se until a little later on. By the time we went to Jamaica to do Goat's Head Soup, I was deep into it."

Johns also recalls that Stones' producer Jimmy Miller started doing heroin at about the same time. "With heroin," Johns says, "you do a little bit your first time and it makes you nauseous. 'But hey, let's try that again!' It's so insane. And after a while, you start really liking it. And then you have to have it. And then it's too late. Once you get past the initial thing, once you're in and you're a proper junkie, it actually wakes you up and gives you energy and you get quite enthusiastic about doing things. Because you feel so fucking great. I mean, I've made some wonderful albums on smack. Because you become slightly obsessive. You're feeling very good about everything and so work becomes extremely attractive."

Reprinted with permission, Da Capo Press © 2006

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