There at the Birth — of ‘Exile on Main Street’

And doing something nasty in the punch bowl behind Bianca Jagger’s back

My friend, writer/producer George Francisco, says that reading Hollyblogs reminds him of long nights in too many bars telling stories. And he’s right — that’s exactly what I assume a Hollyblog (or, for that matter, any good story) to be. For example, how could anyone chronicle the history of the postwar world without reading Dean Acheson’s “Present at the Creation,” in which the former Secretary of State laid out the plan that, eventually, brought the Soviet Union to its knees.

Let’s call this “Present at the Creation” … of modern rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s the story of almost the exact moment in the early ‘70s that, following the breakup of the Beatles the year before, the Rolling Stones, lead by lead singer Mick Jagger and his guitarist/cowriter Keith Richards, went from being the #2 English group to “the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band” (as they’re now normally called).

And fortunately or unfortunately, I was there. 
The ascent was symbolized by the recording that winter of “Exile on Main Street” the Stone’s first American album — signaled by their use of the famous Robert Frank photos of Southern blacks and other outcasts on the cover.
More importantly, they recorded it largely in L.A. with an American backing band — the same TexArkana/ Oklahoma crew that Leon Russell had put together the year before for Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishman” tour, including the famous horn duo of trumpeter Jim Price and sax player Bobby Keys (who plays with the Stones till this day).
Who can’t remember those songs, from “Happy”” to “Tumbling Dice”?” They still form the bedrock of the Stones’ songbook (available for $.99 each from Amazon).
Now understand, in the ‘70s we were all younger and stupider than today (we hope!) Case in point: Me. On the first Friday of the high school Christmas break that year, I was, typically, mouthing off about something I didn’t know — having just read Jack Kerouc’s “On the Road,” I told everyone at the Friday night party that you could hitchhike cross country in three days (which the famed Dean Moriarty did in the book).
Everyone, of course, told me I was crazy — so like any testosterone-fueled youth, I had to prove them wrong.
With just a down jacket on my back, by midnight I had stuck my thumb out (you could do that in those days) on Route 17 in upstate New York headed for California. I won’t bore you with the details (hitching isn’t nearly as romantic at it sounds) … but suffice to say I made it.
Now, here’s where I admit I had more motivation than most — an old girlfriend of mine named Betsy had recently moved to Beverly Hills and been regaling me with stories of the Tinsel Town highlife. Turns out her long-lost cousin Judy Deben-Keys, a stunningly beautiful ex-model, was now married to saxophonist Bobby Keys. (You first heard his classic sax solo on “Honky Tank Woman.”)
Turns out, he was not just a great sax player, but a legend in the Stones’ eyes — having grown up in Lubbock, Texas, he had played with Buddy Holly (the Stones covered Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”). More, once the Stones hired him for “Honky Tonk,” Richards discovered they’d been born the same day, Dec. 18, and became fast friends (which they remain.)
So, though I didn’t tell any of my friends in New York, I had an ulterior motive for heading to California: Betsy had told me that Bobby and Keith — in L.A. for the recording sessions that would become their classic, world-changing double album “Exile” — would be celebrating their birthdays at a party thrown at Paul McCartney’s rented mansion on top of that tacky development off Laurel Canyon called Mt. Olympus.
Now, don’t ask me why a multimillionaire like McCartney would lease such a tacky house — all I know is that he’d sublet it to Keys while he was in town recording “Exile” … and the party that began Dec. 18 and didn’t end till the last naked starlet was kicked out of the pool at dawn the next day was going to be the rockingest party Hollywood had seen in years. And I was on the guest list!
Now, there’s a plus/minus to a young kid being on the guest list of such an extravaganza — in my case, it turned out to be a broken leg…but I’ll get to that in a moment. All I knew was that, after having endured a seemingly unendurable last hitch in the back of a pickup from Vegas to L.A., I was freezing and looking for a good meal. By the time I got to Betsy’s house in BH, there was barely time to shower for the party.
Now, aside from naked starlets, which I’d never seen except in “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (and was shocked to discover that “innocent” young starlets in Hollywood did, in fact, doff their dresses, jump into pools naked and then disappear to bedrooms far down the hall with rock stars) and Little Richard playing the piano in the living room, I don’t remember much, except that I was in way over my head. (Remember, Betsy was, in a sense, married into the Stones; me, I was a complete outsider … and hadn’t slept in days!)
Things I do remember? One, the Stones’ played an “acetate” copy of the latest version of “Exile.” (In those days before digital, “acetates” — quickie plastic LPs ripped from the tape machines — were how you took your music home.) What I remember at the time was “Exile” was still just a single album — inspired by America and the band behind them, Jagger and Richards just kept writing until it became the double album we know today.
Two, sitting at the hallway bar near the front door and ordering who-knows-how-many Scotches (yes, it may shock you that in those days they did serve under-age drinkers at Hollywood parties … along with drugs, sex and, well, you can see where this is heading.)
In any event, there was a punch bowl in the middle of the bar and sitting next to me was the Madonna-of-the-moment, Jagger’s new wife, Bianca (pictured above with Mick at their 1971 St. Tropez wedding).  They counted as the pop royalty that, say, Brad and Angelina do today — only bigger.) It was at that point that it hit me — I mean, three days before I’d been in the snow in upstate New York with high-school girls; now I was sitting next to Bianca Jagger.
It’s also when the Scotch hit me, I looked up and Bianca’s back was turned to me, the bartender was off tending to someone else, so I just blew lunch — “booted,” as the kids say today — into the punchbowl.
As I was wiping my mouth, I watched in awe — or, well, something — as the then “most beautiful woman in the world” and wife of the biggest rock star in the world turned …and poured a glass of punch!
To say the rest of the trip was anticlimactic — well, sometime later that evening, no doubt starring at naked starlets while listening to Little Richard, I tripped and broke my leg. The next day Judy Keys drove me to UCLA to have a cast put on it ($40 then), and a week later I was back home in New York, ready to go back to school.
Of course, I needed some talisman of my trip, so hitchhiking home in a walking cast, I kept my belongings in a pillowcase I’d purloined from McCartney’s house — as well as a copy of one of those acetates. Of course, no one in upstate New York ever believed it was Paul McCartney’s pillowcase.. But two decades later, writing for the L.A. Times, I did a profile of Bobby Keys, and we laughed remembering that silly party.
We were both much older, of course — but I’m not sure any wiser. If you don’t believe me, as they say, you can look it up.
And if I could only find that acetate, I’d be a rich man!