Revisiting Plundered My Soul in 2015
My love for this song grows each time I hear it. I feel it would have been one of the best songs on the original Exile on Main St. release had they finished it. So here I revisit the final chapter of my 2013 book, Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones.
As of this posting, I have just a few remaining hardcovers to sign and send for $10.
Plundered My Soul
July and October-November 1971 Villa Nellcôte, Villefranche-sur-mer, France (Keith Richard’s rented house)
Autumn 2009, Henson Recording Studios; The Village; Mix This! (All in Los Angeles); One East Studio, New York City; Unidentified studio in London.
LP Exile on Main Street Deluxe Reissue May 2010
Single, April 2010, charting at 200 in UK.
I’m lucky to have been with (Mick and Keith). There’s a magic about them that people like. They always argue, but they always love each other…. I’m fortunate to be in there as part of that…
– Charlie Watts
People distill their stories over time and they polish them up. And after a while you don’t know whether they’re true or not.
– Mick Jagger
Watch my taillights fading/There ain’t a dry eye in the house.
– Keith Richards
Talk about pleasing the ears of an old Stones fan; I literally pulled over in my car when I heard this for the first time on the radio. It sounded so much like vintage Stones, with an unmistakably current-sounding sheen of production, that I assumed it had to be some other, contemporary band adroitly mimicking prime-era Stones. What does it say that my first impression was that it would be another band doing the Stones as opposed to the Stones themselves reclaiming their Holy Grail sound, their secret formula, thought to be lost forever, buried under the cellar floors in Nellcôte?
But in just a few bars, it became clear that it was Mick singing. It sounded like current Mick singing over vintage Stones. They had not achieved that groovy laconic shuffle since Some Girls, if not Exile on Main Street. I thought that the band must have a new song, and that they had again struck, finally and truly, on the elusive mojo of their peak years. Unlike the “boy who cried wolf” pronouncements of graying rock critics declaring that the “Stones are back, with their best since Exile on Main Street,” this really sounded like they were back indeed. It’s a truly stunning recording.
Well, of course I soon learned that the record was a Tattoo You-like resuscitation of an outtake from those vintage years, specifically the Exile on Main Street sessions, and it was released to promote the remastered and repackaged 2010 release of Exile. But to this day, I count it as one of my favorite songs from the band. As soon as those guitars bend up and down, and Charlie comes in that typically off-kilter way, only to all click in and have the band fall in behind him, those old emotions well up and my heart swells. With Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys on a baritone sax, Bill Wyman, and Jimmy Miller coming through the speakers like old friends, all that glue is back, that singular early-‘70s hash. It contains that same crispy-fried-sunsetting-summer-hangover melancholy as “Tumbling Dice.” It has that same heartbreaking tempo, and is one more of those “sad poems” that Kerouac wrote about. While it lacks the same sort of addendum outro, it does have a similar stand-alone intro lick as the familiar “Tumbling Dice.”
Where did it come from? Didn’t all you Stones completists think you had heard pretty much all worthwhile outtakes? How did they not even find this when they were looking for old material for Tattoo You? Well, the Stones have a warehouse that Don Was compares to the one seen in at the end of Raiders of the Lost Arc, “a mini-Smithsonian,” that “goes on for blocks,” of all the tape they rolled over the decades. And they were notorious for rolling tape continuously during their marathon sessions. Was got the job of not only remastering and repackaging the official release of Exile, but also the pillaging and plundering of those vaults, and shining up recordings that had only been around as bootlegs.
When they dusted off the old tapes and found ”Plundered My Soul,” the whole basic track of the song was there — bass, drums, piano, and rhythm guitars, all arranged and ready for vocals. But Mick reckons that he and Mick Taylor had been absent from, or arrived late to the session that day in France. Mick overdubbed the lead vocal against a backdrop of new back-up parts from Lisa Fischer and Cindy Mizelle, as well as an acoustic guitar and Taylor’s leads in 2010. Everyone else is there on the backing track, playing in the same impossibly relaxed cadence. Charlie comes back in from those chorus breaks so unbelievably slow that you think there is no way he is going to get back to the beat in time.
Taylor’s 2010-overdubbed lead lines sound very much of the time and place as the original backing tracks. They could come pretty close to matching the sounds if they followed the old crinkled sepia map: used the same guitar, amp, microphone, and player and possibly even print it onto analog tape before mastering it digitally. However, it would be impossible for Was to somehow match Mick’s 28-year-old voice with 62-year-old Mick. As with all of us, the tonality of his voice had changed over the years. And though Mick brought a dynamic and assured performance, singing a compelling lyric with steadfast conviction, the lead vocal is the one element that takes you out of the song a bit. But you can get by it. And repeated plays bring the reward.
As a college kid, Was had bought Exile upon the first week of it’s release, just he had with all records up to Voodoo Lounge (when he got a “free copy” as the producer), he told NPR. But he initially found Exile “alarming … there was a sense that the revolution had been lost [laughs].” He notes, “Something like ‘I Just Wanna See His Face,’ [sic] it’s funky, but it’s a weird thing for anyone to be making in 1972.” It’s interesting that he brought up that song as an example. I would have suggested that Mick’s vocal on “Plundered My Soul” be given the same sort of off-mike, low-fi, semi-distorted sound to mask Mick’s contemporary voice. But, not surprisingly, I did not get the call to be producer.
Was did get the call and the charge of making the tracks ready to be heard. In many cases, especially those tracks from Olympic in 1969, were on eight tracks, which meant that EQ, compression, and mixing decisions had to be committed to and printed to the master tapes, as opposed to recording just the flat, unprocessed signal and fooling with it later. So in the case of the jaw-dropping, super-sloppy-but-funky “Loving Cup” outtake from the Let it Bleed sessions (or as Was says, “it’s not sloppy; it has width and depth”), Mick and Keith’s vocals were recorded, compressed, and EQ’d, with added echo, and mixed to one track of the eight available. So if you were to listen back to the master tape (not the two-track stereo mixes), most of the finished sound is already there. Though they had more tracks with which to work on the multitrack machines in France for Exile, Andy Johns and Jimmy Miller would have recorded many of the actual treated sounds and sub-mixes to the master tapes, resulting in the magical sound of Exile heard here on “Plundered My Soul.”
Mick has talked about having to get into character, into the frame of mind he was in 1971, and he does capture much of the spirit on “Plundered My Soul.” “He did not try to write as if he were still 28 years old,” said Was. “To his credit, I must say that he wrote from the perspective of who he is today. In fact, it was a very emotional session for me. Because just hearing him, just watching him do it, the visual that came, I saw the video [laughs] in my head, and it was him walking through that house in Nellcôte, but today, and there were likes sheets over the furniture…. As Keith told the Chicago Tribune in 2010, “I enjoyed gong back through [Exile]. Going back through the tracks, I could smell that basement and all the dust. It was very evocative.”
Keith, never one for the phone or email, but a great lover of the fax, faxed a handwritten note to Was before the 2010 sessions that read, “You don’t have to make it sound like Exile. It IS Exile.” At another point, Keith had also said that messing around with the album could be “like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.” It’s a thankless task stepping into the job of producing the Stones in general, but certainly repackaging something as sacred as Exile. Any producer is going to get a backlash from old curmudgeonly Stones fans. But at the very least, Was’ work with the band — old and new stuff alike — adhered to the old adage, first, do no harm. He was conscious of overstepping, but wanted to make sure the finished overdubs were things that people wanted to listen to repeatedly, not just once out of curiosity. His charge, as he saw it, was to make Jimmy Miller proud. “I thought of myself as his designated driver,” he said.
This plundering of the archives continues through 2012 with Some Girls, the Brussels Affair, packages of old live concerts and films, live DVDs, and all the inevitable and welcome hoopla for their 50th anniversary. Old suckers like me shell out money for stuff like a Scorcese Imax concert movie and official releases of music we have had on various bootleg copies since we were kids. Even after all of the favorite new artists we’ve discovered over the ensuing decades, the Stones are our guys. We make pilgrimages and pay homage via the heart-stopping face value of tickets that would have shamed even the most unrepentant scalpers in the old days.
“Plundered My Soul” went a long way to scratch that itch of nostalgia. As much as Mick is loathe to admit it, nostalgia itself, just like “Tumbling Dice” and all of Exile on Main Street, is somehow engrained within the very marrow of the Stones bones. That same yearning can still be heard in Mick’s sixty-something voice as he ad libs out of “Plundered My Soul,” as if that old music did indeed bring him walking back through the ghostly dreamscape of Nellcôte that Don Was had envisioned.
They are mythological heroes who still — miraculously, in Keith’s case — walk amongst us. The image that we carry with us — of their lives as demigods who have discovered the Holy Grail and the “Secret Sign/That’s known to all the artists who have known true gods of sound and time” — fuels this legend, the lies and the half truths, the glamorous sheen the glosses over the often ugly reality.
Sure, many want to slurp up the slimy gossip rags’ latest litany of Ronnie’s rehab stints or tawdry altercations with some juvenile Soho cocktail waitress, or Mick’s latest May-December conquest. And who among us didn’t laugh when we heard about Keith falling out of a Fiji coconut tree as the reason for the suspension of the Bigger Bang tour –but only after we found out he was all right. (Could you imagine the irony if he died that way?) We marvel at the Rolling Stones as truly great artists who have collaborated for 50 years on a phenomenon so much bigger than any of them individually. The body of work is monumental, without parallel, and it seems certain that no one will ever come close to an approximation.
As the Stones hit their 50th, we “Raise a glass for the hard-working people.” As long as they keep going, partying in the face of it, they shine a light in the darkness and give funky form to life’s splendor.