Album: Exile on Main St.
. . .
Unlike the final songs on Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers — “Salt of The Earth,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Moonlight Mile,” for those of you keeping score at home — the final song on Exile on Main St. wasn’t a huge production. That might be because Exile on Main St. was in itself a huge production, and they didn’t need to put a huge capper on it.
And so, like “Rocks Off,” which is the least-known of the opening tracks, “Soul Survior” is a great Rolling Stones song that operates a bit under the radar, even more so because it’s the last song on a double album.
“Soul Survivor” opens with just the basics: Keith just playing a slow, yawning riff, Mick Taylor adding subtle flourishes, and Charlie Watts almost immediately finding a sinuous groove on just the fast side of medium, over which Mick sings the opening lyrics:
When the waters is rough
The sailing is tough
I’ll get drowned in your love
Actually, though, “Soul Survivor” is one of those songs where I’ve paid so little attention to the words that I’ve always heard the opening line as “when your walrus has run,” even though I know that’s in no way a lyric that Mick would sing. Shit I didn’t even know this was the song in which he made reference to “the bell-bottom blues” until relatively recently.
The only lyrics I really know are the title phrase and of course, “gonna be the death of me,” which are a nice contrast, as is the “sole/soul” pun, which makes sense on a record where the Stones utilized soul instrumentation as well as they did. Though, ironically, the horn section is really nowhere to be found on “Soul Survivor.”
In any event, “Soul Survivor” is one of those songs that lives and dies with its chorus. The first time it comes around, it’s announced by blocky chunky Keith guitar riff that doubles and triples back upon itself, over which Mick and Keith chant “soul survivor” over and over and over, with Keith (I think) adding a pretty cool falsetto to boot, though there might be uncredited vocals and/or overdubs. The first time around goes on way way longer than you’d expect, and gives you time to notice the slidey guitar bends Mick Taylor is sneaking in around the rest of the song.
The second time, it’s announced by one last Nicky Hopkins fanfare — nearly but not quite as grand as his opening salvo for “Loving Cup” — which is fitting, considering how much Hopkins contributed to the sheer scope and power of Exile, leading into a full minute of everybody yelling “soul survivor” — with Mick reminding us that “it’s gonna be the death of me” — right through the fade.
For me, Exile on Main St. marked the end of the Rolling Stones’ classic period: an absolutely unprecedented run of records that coincided with a huge period of change for the band, as well as personal events that easily could have shut them down forever. That they instead responded with such great, enduring music is — in retrospect — a bit surprising. That they never reached these peaks again, isn’t.
I’m not even remotely done with the Stones, of course, but with a single exception, I’m not going this deep on any of the records that they’ve made in the subsequent — checks notes — half-century, either.
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