Album: Exile on Main St.
. . .
If side two of Exile on Main St. is the key to understanding the full album, then “Torn and Frayed” is the key to understanding side two of Exile on Main St.
Or so it seems to me. Because that’s basically what happened with me: at some point after listening to Exile on Main St. a few times, I fell deeply in love with “Torn and Frayed,” and suddenly the rest of the side, and subsequently the rest of the album, fell right into place. And now, I consider it the best of all of their country songs, including “Sweet Virginia” and even “Dead Flowers.”
That’s at least partially because there’s a tad bit of gospel in there, as well, with Nicky Hopkins on the piano and Jim Price on the organ adding to Keith’s electric and acoustic guitars and Mick Taylor’s bass, all which — plus Charlie Watts, naturally — pile in after a secretly grand Keith guitar intro. Over all of that, Mick and Keith sing about the kind of working musicians that the Stones — or Keith at least — would be had they not become international superstars.
Hey, let him follow you down
Way underground wind and he’s bound
Bound to follow you down
Just a dead beat right off the street
Bound to follow you down
Well the ballrooms and smelly bordellos
And dressing rooms filled with parasites
On stage the band has got problems
A bag of nerves on first nights
There’s a really nice bit at the end of this verse (or verses, as the case may be) where Charlie stops so it’s just Mick and Keith singing “a bag of nerves on first nights” over a quick breakdown, which helps mitigate the fact that it’s taking longer than you might expect to get to the chorus. And in fact, as the continues, you begin to suspect that maybe there isn’t a chorus.
He is not tied down to no home town
Yeah, and he thought he was reckless
You think he’s bad, he thinks you’re mad
Yeah, and the guitar player gets restless
And without any kind of warning, you find out that not only is there a chorus it’s an absolute tear-jerking stunner, especially if you even remotely mythologize music and musicians. Which, of course, I don’t. But if you do.
And his coat is torn and frayed
It’s seen much better days
Just as long as the guitar plays
It’ll steal your heart away
Steal your heart away
Hoo boy! I mean, who hasn’t had their heart unexpectedly stolen away by a guitar? Nobody reading this, I’m guessing. And Mick and Keith’s harmonies are exquisite throughout, especially on “seeeeeeeen much beeeeetter days”, and the way Charlie drops out on “steal your heart away” helps to emphasize just how much stealage is happening.
This is followed by a long pedal steel solo by Al Perkins of the Flying Burrito Brothers, a connection to Gram Parsons, who — despite the fact he was tossed from both the Burrito Brothers and the Exile sessions — looms large over “Torn and Frayed.” And in fact, it could be Gram that Mick is singing about in the second verse.
Joe’s got a cough, sounds kind a rough
Yeah, and the codeine to fix it
Doctor prescribes, drug store supplies
Who’s gonna help him to kick it
After that, its chorus after chorus after chorus, as the pedal steel wends its way around the rest of the song, stealing your goddamned heart away every single time, especially at the end when it’s accompanied by a even sadder, fluttering solo by (I think) Mick Taylor. Perkins, of course, wasn’t in France, but rather overdubbed his pedal steel afterwards, in Los Angeles. But of course, that’s the beauty of Exile, the way that they were able to mix up the live basement recordings with the later overdubs.
“Torn and Frayed”
“Torn and Frayed” live in 2002
Did you miss a Certain Song? Follow me on Twitter: @barefootjim
The Certain Songs Database
A filterable, searchable & sortable somewhat up to date database with links to every “Certain Song” post I’ve ever written.
Certain Songs Spotify playlist
(It’s recommended that you listen to this on Spotify as their embed only has 200 songs.)
Support “Certain Songs” with a donation on Patreon
Go to my Patreon page