Tumbling Dice

“Good Time Woman,” one of the outtakes included in the expanded Exile On Main St. box set, just came up today on shuffle in my car. It is the most complete of a number of iterations, a handful of recorded versions familiar to Stones fans from bootlegs that led to “Tumbling Dice,.

Chris Kimsey explained to me that generally as soon as the Stones got through a whole arrangement of a song they were jamming on, it would be the actual master that they would use for the final version on a record. Sometimes a song was just a skeletal riff and a chord change or two. Depending on what era they were in, songs would be presented to the band in varying degrees of completeness or direction for the arrangement. But in the golden period of ’68-’72, it seems that the example of “Sympathy For the Devil” — captured in the Godard film One Plus One (later retitled after the song)  as it grows out of an ambling uncertain folk-like song with heavy strumming on acoustic guitar into the raging percussion- and piano-driven samba we know and love — was more common. They were open to jamming on and feeling around for just the right approach.

Kimsey had theorized that quite often Charlie would play unexpected fills, accents, or reentries in recordings because he was unsure of where they were in an arrangement. “Start Me Up” is a glaring example of this that jumps immediately to mind. They had been slogging it out with a reggae approach and Keith, apparently out of frustration or just to change things up, launched into it as a straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll song  for only one take — the one take  we know as the single — before launching back into reggae for a few more hours, and abandoning the song until that one take was dug out by Kimsey years later and resurrected by Mick and him in a freezing warehouse in the suburbs of Paris about four years later.

Excerpted from my book, Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones:

“You see, if they all played the right chords in the right time, went to the chorus at the right time and got to the middle eight together, that was a master,” Kimsey explained. “It was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ Don’t forget, they would never sit down and work out a song. They would jam it and the song would evolve out of that. That’s their magic.” This is consistent with how Jim Dickinson explained explained “Brown Sugar” going down in 1969. Once they had the song arrangement from top-to-bottom with no major mistakes, that would be the take they went with. Kimsey explains that this method kept everyone on their toes, particularly Charlie, who could never be certain if Mick would change where a bridge or chorus came in the song from take to take. Mick would simply try to influence the direction and arrangement over the guide vocal, either with actual snippets of lyrics, or actual spoken or shouted directions, like, “Okay, here we go! Don’t make a grown man cry….”

“Good Time Woman” is an interesting exception to the rule of thumb that Chris offered. Though the other iterations heard on those bootlegs peter out, get cut off, or otherwise just fall apart, the version of the song presented on the box set is a complete arrangement, with confident performances that shine in the balanced mix and remastered box. It seems like a master take and almost a completed song, except Jagger is just stringing along nonsense blues and rock tropes as a placeholder for lyrics he would eventually write and overdub as lead vocals. The song chugs along like some like some combination of Stones songs like “Jiving Sister Fanny,” “Silver Train,” and “Honky Tonk Women,” which it sort of quotes musically.

But that’s kind of the point and the reason that it exists only as a curiosity piece, a pretty good recording without any heft or heart. Even “Silver Train,” a fairly lightweight deep cut, has a unified feeling to it. Even if Mick had finished the lyrics to “Good Time Woman” the song would not likely be regarded as a standout. It sounds like a complete arrangement, but it doesn’t feel ready, which is probably why Mick never bothered to finish a lyric for it. It’s a medium-fine example of the sort of song that would not rank compared to those other better examples. Instead, Keith kept that riff marinating for hours, days, and years, until they hit just the right groove in the basement of Nellcôte. Here is here the entry from the Rocks Off book. Drummers, don’t take me to task for my use of the term “shuffle.” I didn’t mean it in the drummer lingo; it is there to convey the mood of the song.

Tumbling Dice

July and October-November 1971 Villa Nellcôte, Villefranche-sur-mer, France (Keith Richard’s rented house)
December 1971 Sunset Sound Studio, LA
LP Exile on Main Street May 1972
Single April 1972, charting at number seven in the US and at number five in the UK.

Shuffling Into the Sunset of the Sixties and Finding the Holy Grail of Grooves in the Seventies.

They would play very poorly for two or three days on whatever song and then if Keith got up and looked at Charlie, then you knew something was about to go down. And then Bill would get up and put his bass at about that 84 degree angle, and you went ‘ah, here it comes. They’re gonna go for it now.’ Then it would turn into this wonderful God-given music.

— Andy Johns in Stones in Exile.

That shuffle, the perfect tempo, that slight drag — “Tumbling Dice” is the Holy Grail of grooves and was so coveted that Rod Stewart later took a tape of “Tumbling Dice” into his Footloose and Fancy Free sessions to play to the band he had assembled to record “Hot Legs.” On the other side of the aisle, Joe Strummer said of it: “It surges forward, but it’s not a straightforward tempo. It’s halfway between a slow and a straight-forward rocker. It has a mystical beat.”

But it took years of finessing to get it there, beginning in 1970 as a generic upbeat blues called, “Good Time Women.” It was “like pulling teeth,” said Johns. By the time it got to Nellcôte, it still took hours and dozens of reels of tape (Johns has claimed anywhere from 30 to 100 reels) before it clicked in finally hit that pleasantly buzzed and relaxed feel. “They would play for days without coming in and listen to anything…” Johns told me. “When they would go and do a record, the first few days were just horrible, because they hadn’t played with each other for a while and they would sound just dreadful.”

“I remember writing the riff upstairs in the very elegant front room,” said Keith, “and we took it downstairs the same evening and we cut it.” Still, Keith played that riff on the reprise for six hours one afternoon. As Charlie has said, Keith like to “marinate” something and come back to it later. When you think about it that way, “Tumbling Dice” does have that well-marinated sound, like it had been pounded out, then soaked in aged marsala for days, before taken out and grilled crispy and served on this platter. Johns told me that he had assumed that it was a new song that Keith had been playing in France and it wasn’t until years later, when someone played him a bunch of bootlegs dating back into the ‘60s, that he realized it had been an idea kicking around for years prior.

But even the final take required took some studio magic. Speaking of the ending piece, Johns explained, “There was a big gap to punch in there [on the tape]. And for some reason Charlie was having a mental block. Every now and then, Charlie would get a mental block, especially if Mick or Keith were giving him a really hard time about something that could be quite simple,” Johns recalled. “And Jimmy said, ‘Well, I can fucking do this.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you’ve done it before, why don’t you go and do it now?’ I’d already persuaded Charlie to double-track the drums on that part.’ Johns thought it could really fatten up the beat. So he punched in Miller playing the two parts and he reckons it couldn’t have taken more than a half hour, if that. “You can hear the difference in styles.”

By the autumn of 1972, when summer was over and everyone had packed up the moveable feast, like the end of The Great Gatsby, the strung-out Keith and Anita were left alone in that grand waterfront house with their budding family. It was clear that the sessions at Nellcôte had run their course. Miller and Johns gathered up all the tapes and brought them to LA to sort through and mix. It is when they started unreeling the recordings at Sunset Sound, playing the music for friends of the band, adding background singers and guest players, that the Stones realized what they had in “Tumbling Dice.” The song, and the rest of the album, started to come to life.

But Mick did not have most of the lyrics written yet. It is tempting to believe the inspiration of the lyrics of “Tumbling Dice” had been influenced by the gambling in Monte Carlo, a stones throw from Nellcôte, where some of the musicians were making occasional excursions. And this might be true in an indirect way. But despite his outlaw image, Keith is not a gambler. Often, Johns, Jim Price, and Bobby Keys would spend some nights gambling at the tables in Monte Carlo. “Sometimes Keith came with us,” said Johns, “but he refused to gamble. I guess it would look bad if he lost. Keith wasn’t into being a loser.”

However, as with many, if not most, of the songs on Exile, “Tumbling Dice” was taken to LA for mixing without having lyrics beyond a few phrases. Keith and Mick even employed William Burroughs’ famous “cut-up” technique on some songs (“Casino Boogie,” e.g.), snipping words and phrases from newspapers and other sources and randomly reassembling them. The lyrics for “Tumbling Dice,” which grew out of the “Good Time Women” song sketch the band had been working since 1969, came from a housekeeper in LA. “I sat down with the housekeeper and talked to her about gambling,” said Mick. “She liked to play dice and I really didn’t know much about it. But I got it off of her and managed to make the song out of that.”

The Stones were students of Americana, the traditions of the blues, and folklore. They knew where to cast their nets. The fact that Mick had cast his in the direction of the housekeeper was not pure kismet. He was consciously turning over rocks, looking for something specific. He might have already had the idea to use the well-worn lover/gambler/rambler trope, but he needed the particulars to come up with something like, “I’m all sixes and sevens and nines.”

His bruised voice sounds like he had just rolled out of bed after trying to sleep off a hangover. He sounds vulnerable and soulful, full of regret, at odds with the unconvincing braggadocio of the lyrics. It sounds like he is shaking off his Jack Flash persona. He may be “playing the field every night,” but he is losing. Even if this is just another persona, it sounds like there’s a whole lot of Mick himself invested in this performance.

His vocal is so exceptionally low in the mix as to almost be overwhelmed by the arrangement. He is just part of the ensemble. “I really like that thick mix where Mick is working hard to impose himself on the track,” explained Keith. It adds an edge of urgency, like a live soul singer. He is selling the song, but he is not much louder than a horn in the horn section. When the single was released, there was a contest in one music newspaper that had listeners offering their best guesses at the indecipherable lyrics.

Mick has complained bitterly about the mix of the record. “I started mixing that in like October or November and it was going very slowly, reeeeeallly slowly,” said Johns. “And I got four or five mixes and then there was a Christmas break and Mick was getting really impatient. So they decided to get someone else in to mix the record and the guy [Joe Zagario] couldn’t do it. So Mick called me up and told me to come back … I got it all done in a marathon three-day session. And it was pretty much on my own. Mick said, ‘Here are the tapes, go and do it.’ … Joey Zagarino worked on the overdubs [at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles] and then tried to do the mixing. But it was a difficult record to mix ‘cause we had been working under adverse circumstances, shall we say? … it was just tough to get a good sound in that basement. It really was. If they had been playing spectacularly, it would all come together and the sound would be good too. Otherwise it would take a long time to get anywhere.”

Mick later claimed that he was certain that the version on the record was the wrong mix of ”Tumbling Dice.” Robert Greenfield, who was present for the mixing session, recalls Mick telling Miller that he was okay with either of two mixes. Rather than taking a hands-on role in the mixing, “Jimmy was a set of ears,” Johns said.

The sound of “Tumbling Dice” is that particular Exile gumbo: open-tuned and slide guitars churning away, some baritone sax and/or trombone, Charlie and Jimmy pummeling out some tribal beats, and Nicky’s piano somehow finding a home in it all. Mick Taylor played the bass, while Mick Jagger played second guitar with Keith. [Footnote:  On live versions, Taylor didn’t seem to know quite what to do and added a repetitive riff that plays off Keith’s main. But it undercuts Keith’s part and is distracting. When he breaks out into solo lines, it restores equilibrium.]

While Mick had this vision of the finished vocal arrangement in his head, most of what he was doing in France was steering the tracks along. When they got to LA for vocals and overdubs, they added the backing ensemble of Vanetta Fields, Clydie King, and (possibly) Merry Clayton, all of whom had sung on “Gimme Shelter.” “A little bit of those girls goes a tremendously long way,” Mick said. The women singers add a gospel soulfulness. There is a palpable ache to this song — not just the particular Exile recording, but something that also comes through in subsequent live versions. By the time that Miller sets down into the crestfallen old coda, we are left with a acute yearning, waxing nostalgic — for what? For lost summers? Lost romances? The 1960s? “[I] Don’t see the time flashing by,” denies Mick as he sings. The Beatles had officially broken up when McCartney sued the others in January 1971. More significantly, Brian was dead. It appeared that perhaps Keith, too, was slipping away.

“But it’s alright,” the Stones were saying: the Nixon years, the war, the shootings at Kent State in 1970, the busts, the fallout — whatever “it” is. “Baby, I can’t stay/You got to roll me/Keep on rolling.” You can see the attraction that Keith had to play that reprise riff repeatedly; like the last sunset on a summer holiday, all slightly burned out from the sun and indulging too much, we don’t want that melancholy part to end either. We know we have to go home, but we are not quite ready to leave. We linger and savor this moment. The assured swagger of the song’s lyric is subverted by the song’s ultimately bittersweet coda.

The theme of survival is sustained across the lyrics of Exile. With the Beatles gone, it was up to the Stones to carry the torch. Dylan was transmogrifying into a far less relevant version of what he had been a decade before. Of the big three, the Stones had somehow survived — improved, even — singing, “keep on rolling.” By 1971-’72, the Stones had been around long enough that, for some people, attending their shows might have started to attain a feeling of a high school reunion, checking in with some old friends who had to “keep on rolling.” Reviewing the “Tumbling Dice” single, Melody Maker proclaimed, “it’s impossible to see their names on the label and not undergo inner convulsions in which joy, mirth, tears, nostalgia, and deep emotion are inevitably interwoven.”

Johns counted himself as one of those fans. “The Rolling Stones were the center of the bloody universe for rock and roll,” he recalled for Goldmine magazine. “And rock and roll back then meant a little bit more than it does now. It had social significance, breaking down the establishment and all that. It represented the way a generation felt about things.”

They were still the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe, to be certain. But there were exciting new acts like Bowie and T. Rex. vying for the attention of the younger siblings of Stones fans. As Bowie wrote in the 1972 Mott the Hoople hit, “All the Young Dudes”, “My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on that revolution stuff.” Though the so-called glam acts were ostensibly futuristic, the rock ‘n’ roll they sang was self-referential and, in their own way, they were as self-conscious as retro acts like Sha Na Na. Both strains were about escaping the present and giving up on the power of rock ‘n’ roll to change anything significant, fiddling while Rome burned.

The Stones managed to combine both the earthy and old with the forward-leaning and theatrical. Unpretentious Exile is more about celebrating the heritage of American music and betrays an early concern for maintaining rock ‘n’ roll’s relevance in the face of rapid change. Real escapism came in the mid-1970s with disco, and to some extent, punk rock, at a time when radio formatting also became more fragmented. Until that point, you would still hear “Tumbling Dice” on contemporary top 40 radio next to, say, “The Candy Man,” from Sammy Davis, Jr., “Let’s Stay Together,” from Al Green, or “Burnin’ Love,” from Elvis.

A big hit while the Stones were recording in 1971 was “American Pie,” in which Don McClean sings melodramatically about the death of rock ‘n’ roll, taking with it all his guileless youthful dreams. McClean comes across as one of those obsessive fans who turns on their idols, seemingly embittered by what rock music turned into and, interestingly, taking the Stones to task with his lines, “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick,” before moving into weak allusions to Altamont:

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died

From Don McClean’s web site:

“American Pie,” in the opinion of the song’s producer, Ed Freeman, was the funeral oration for an era: “Without it, many of us would have been unable to grieve, achieve closure, and move on. Don saw that, and wrote the song that set us free. We should all be eternally grateful to him for that.”

I reckon for most others — at least the rank outsiders that were hipper than those driving their “Chevy to the levee” and drumming the steering wheel on the one and three beats as they sang, “Bye bye, Miss American Pie…” — “Tumbling Dice,” and Exile provided a real New Orleans-style funeral, instead of McClean’s uptight “oration” for the death of an era.

Lester Bangs summarized the contemporary reaction to Exile for those who appreciated the record upon release: “The party is obvious. The casualties are inevitable. It is the search for alternatives, something to do (something worthwhile even) that unites us with the Stones continuously.”

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