Last week, I took the redeye back from Vegas while still slightly hung over from a blowout the night before. I hadn’t fully recovered a few days later, but that didn’t prevent me from stopping by my regular hangout. I decided to join Giles and Asregadoo on Bourbon Street, and was two sips into my first Knob Creek when I realized I was in the mood for Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones. I guess recapping the events of a weekend in Sin City for the staff was the closest I get to that album’s stoned-out decadence.
Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent jukebox lacks this particular masterpiece, and had to wait until I was done for the night when I could crank it up on the journey home. But I didn’t realize that my iPod was set on Shuffle, so after “Rocks Off,” I didn’t get the breathless rush of “Rip This Joint,” but rather “Let It Loose.”
Some albums hit you on first listen. Others remain outside your grasp for years no matter how many times you keep coming back to them. Then, one day, it all starts to make sense, opening up worlds you never thought existed. Exile is one of those albums. I knew “Tumblin’ Dice” and “Happy” from classic rock radio, but, like most double albums, it was too sprawling. The other albums the Stones put out in that period, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers, were more accessible, more compact. Even worse was a muddy mix that made most of Mick Jagger’s vocals unintelligible. I could only pay it lip service, repeating what others had said about it, for fear of losing my credibility.
But every once in a while, usually when the Stones would release yet another newly remastered version, I’d give it another shot. At some point, maybe 12 years after a friend first dubbed a cassette copy for me, I finally began to hear what the critics always were raving about. And yet, there are still layers I haven’t been able to peel back, and that just drives me deeper into it to find out its mysterious secrets, another one of those things the critics love about it.
The key to unlocking “Let It Loose” is in Keith’s guitar playing, which is heavily influenced by Pops Staples in its tone and use of hammer-ons. The song starts with a familiar arpeggiated descending run based on a D chord (with a capo on 3) that takes a detour through an A major before getting back to the D. It repeats itself, then the detour is through an E minor, which is also played twice.
As a result, “Let It Loose” simultaneously exists in two keys (D and G). Given their blues roots and that the song only has five chords, I don’t think they intended that when they wrote it. Most likely Keith just came up with a riff he liked. But its bitonality, as well as the progression’s refusal to stay on any full chord longer than one bar, gives the song its restless, late-night vibe. As the song builds, Keith stays with the arpeggios rather than switch to strumming, which grounds the song in, paradoxically, that sense of restlessness.
But the real star of “Let It Loose” is Jagger. Throughout his career, his vocals have so frequently become the subject of clichÃ© and parody (both by comics and himself) that it’s easy to forget how incredible he could be sometimes. He finally learned the lessons from the soul and gospel records that infuse Exile – that it’s about holding back until you no longer can, and his pain is palpable. Â Maybe his vocals are low in the mix because he saw too much of his vulnerabilities on lyrics like “Bit off more than I can chew/And I knew what it was leading to,” “I can’t resist a corny line,” and “I ain’t in love/I ain’t in luck,” and the famously guarded Jagger wanted to bury them.
Even better is when he comes out of the bridge, changing the point of attack by beginning the vocal on the A rather the D. It’s such a subtle move that I never realized it until I played along with it the other day in preparation for this column, and one I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. It’s not so much a key change as it is taking advantage of the song’s bitonality.
Maybe because it’s buried deep in the album (the last song on Side Three on the original double LP), but it wasn’t until its use in The Departed that “Let It Loose” revealed itself to me. By the way, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Martin Scorcese movies, it’s that if you’re in a bar and an obscure Stones song starts playing, settle and get out quickly and quietly. Someone’s gonna get hurt, and it could be you. Maybe it’s a good thing my bar’s jukebox doesn’t have Exile.