Album: Exile on Main St.
. . .
I still remember listening to Exile on Main St. the first few times I bought it back in 1981 and being puzzled by side two, which didn’t feature any out-and-out rock and roll songs. It was one of those tracklisting decisions that seemed risky but, of course, turned out to be an absolute stroke, as its now impossible to imagine it sequenced any other way.
Yet another drugs song, this time masquerading as a campfire singalong, “Sweet Virgina” actually predated the basement sessions, originally worked on in London, and eventually finished in Los Angeles. Which is amazing, as it’s one of those songs that well and truly sounded like it just kind of happened, as once again the Rolling Stones worked incredibly hard to sound completely spontaneous.
“Sweet Virgina” starts out with with both Keith playing his acoustic guitar, over which Mick blows a high lonesome harmonica and Mick Taylor first turns his acoustic into a mandolin and then plays some juicy leads. And as Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman settle into a country lope, and Ian Stewart sets down by a piano, Mick starts singing.
Wading through the waste, stormy winter
And there’s not a friend to help you through
Trying to stop the waves behind your eyeballs
Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues
At this point, Bobby Keys wanders by the campfire, and starts noodling around with his sax while Mick continues with the second verse.
Thank you for your wine, California
Thank you for your sweet and bitter fruits
Yes I got the desert in my toenail
And I hid the speed inside my shoe
And then even more people wander by, and join in on the chorus, as fun and infectious as anything the Stones have ever recorded.
But come on, come on down, Sweet Virginia
Come on, honey child, I beg of you
Come on, come on down, you’ve got it in ya
You’ve got to scrape that shit right off you shoes
Unlike the preciseness of the harmonies of “Tumbling Dice” or the gospel songs on the second disc, the vocals on the chorus of “Sweet Virginia” are loose and spontaneous, very much like they’re happening in the moment. One of the stories about “Sweet Virginia” is that Gram Parsons — who clearly influenced it, and who hung around the Exile sessions until he got Bob Stinsoned — is part of people singing the chorus. Nobody knows for sure — though Mick Taylor denied it — because the only people credited with vocals are Mick and Keith, which seems weird on a record where the performances were so meticulously documented.
In any event, Bobby Keys takes a sax solo as some of the other folks do handclaps(!), and then it’s back to the raggedy chorus, yet again, this time with a bit of call-and-response, and then after Mick calls “one more time” they do it one last time, with Keys continuing to blow on the sax, the vocals getting even more ragged until they conclude with triumphant “got to scrape the shit right off your shooooooooooes!”, applauding themselves at the end, and perfectly setting up the next song, the exquisite “Torn and Frayed,” about which, more tomorrow.
“Sweet Virginia” live in Texas, 1972
“Sweet Virginia” live 1995
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