Rolling Stones Week – a pilgrimage to the home of ‘Exile on Main Street’ – Nellcote in France

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Apparently some seventy something geezers are playing the O2 this week. Their first show on Sunday was according to our spies, really rather good. So to celebrate the Stones we have already brought you Mick Jagger’s top ten crimes against fashion and the top five under rated Stones albums. Here Stones uber fan Victoria Shortt (who even named her company after a Stones track) goes on a pilgrimage to Nellcote – the legendary villa in the south of France where the band recorded their seismic double album Exile On Main Street

My obsession with Nellcote began after reading Robert Greenfields, “Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones”. This book tells the story of the shocking, decadent, madness behind the making of the seminal double album.

The recording took place during the blazing-hot summer of 1971 in the basement of the Keith Richards’ owned palatial mansion, Nellcote.  The book freezes forever in time a moment when the Stones and their counterculture audience found themselves at a crossroads. The author was at the time a groundbreaking music journalist and he was there to witness the debauchery night after night for weeks on end of wives, girlfriends and a crew of assorted hangers-on smoking marijuana and hashish, snorting cocaine and injecting themselves with heroin, whilst the Stones descended like coal miners to the infamous dank, humid basement to lay down tracks.

As the Stones were writing the songs that eventually made up “Exile”, a variety of celebrities, among them John and Yoko Ono and Gram Parsons, descended on the villa, and so did a sinister band of local drug dealers known to one and all as “les cowboys”. While the work of recording any album is rarely joyful and the Stones themselves were already known to be perfectionists in the studio, the process that brought “Exile on Main Street” into the world became a display of extreme group dynamics unparalleled even in their own tortured history. Literally and figuratively, this was a record made in hell.

Now when you put it like that how could you not become obsessed?! As a lifelong fan of the intense relationship between Keith and his common-law wife Miss Anita Pallenberg the book is a treat as it documents their crazed reign as the King and Queen of Nellcote.

A couple of years back my enthusiasm was ignited once again when Dominique Tarle’s beautiful photos of Nelocote and its inhabitants were exhibited in London. His photos were hypnotising. There was Anita in all her lithe, European glory holding court with a young Marlon on her hip – the coolest Mother I’ve ever seen (excusing all her very naughty habits), Jagger sweating and pouting in the sweltering heat, Richards stretched out playing guitar in front of a huge fireplace, dwarfing Anita who sits at his feet. The photos are a visual feast for any Stones fan.

When planning our wedding I knew first off I wanted to hire a Villa for the wedding and invite all our friends. Which, is exactly what we did (see here) and also to convince my bloke we should visit Nellcote on our honeymoon. Well one of the skills imparted to me from God is persuasion and so my campaign began until he conceded.

Once we decided to do it we decided to do it in style so we hired an Alfa Romeo Spider Duetto from Rent a Car Classic.

So with a car promising to be an “Italian answer to the swinging London madness, it is the “Dolce Vita”! Even if the Spider Duetto is not in Fellini’s movie and will stay forever Dustin Hoffman’s car in “The Graduate”, the Spider Duetto incarnates wonderfully this “sweet life”, mixing classical style and unbridled creativity.” Oh you may laugh at the pigeon English but doesn’t it sound like fun?

On arrival on Nellcote (it’s now owned by a Russian businessman) – it is hidden down a road close to the sea but so easy to miss (and we did, several times), we saw a van just starting up to come out. I ran up to the man and begged him to let me in to take closer pictures. I explained I was a major Stones fan and he laughed and waved me through but indicated I should go no further than the lawn. I did as I was told. I then came back through the gates, he left and then like a sign from God the gates opened again!I lit up like a lightbulb but my bloke said no and now being a wifey I had to obey. He explained the consequences for trespass in France were grave and I had to settle for a few cheeky behind the gates shots.

However, to see Nellcote in all its glory you really need to see from the sea so the next day we headed down to the beach at Villefrance and worked out that we could swim around the headland to view it properly. I have never moved so fast. Clothes off, into the sea and bombed around the headland. I could see my bloke laughing on the beach. I didn’t care because as soon as I got around the headland and saw the balcony that Keith Richards had sat on and strummed his guitar while looking out to see it was all so worth it. Sad as it sounds it was the closest thing to a spiritual experience without actually being one that I’ve ever had. A moment in time suspended just for me to look at and gaze in awe.

By Ashley | November 27th, 2012