StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Three)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on November 2, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013


Third chapter from the novel I’ve been working on

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)



In his second (and final) semester at Reginald Hill Bible College, Simon had met a girl named Belinda. Or, rather, Belinda was a woman, a woman of the world, up to ten years older than all the other co-eds. In San Francisco, she had worked days as a barista at the Daily Grind on Castro Street and nights as a sales associate at the Manly Pointer sex shop in the Tenderloin. She had been a bartender in New Orleans’s French Quarter, a Mumblecore actress in three indies in Austin and a lounge singer/cocktail waitress at Search & Distill, a speakeasy-themed tavern in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta. She had dropped out of school after school after school, from one coast to the other, until she had decided on her own that she needed to settle down and finish up a degree anywhere that would accept her surfeit of transcripts. So, being out of funds, Belinda had moved back in with her mother in Whimbrel Creek, the next town over from Wizard’s Stone, and matriculated into Reginald Hill.

Founded in 1979 by its region-famous Southern Baptist namesake, Reginald Hill Bible College prides itself on being one building, three floors and no frills. Austerity is the name of the game at this Christian commuter college. The outside is beige bricks; the hallway and classrooms are all white walls, no pictures, and black metal chair desks; the chapel is all cedar walls with knotty-pine pews, a three-step pine altar and a mahogany Communion table; the ladies rooms don’t contain a single tampon dispenser. A cross stands above a steeple merely to announce the building, which in its simplicity stands as a living testament to how the only grandeur is that of God and, by extension, he who once bore the name on the sign out front, the late Reginald Hill. The sign faces the aptly named Hill Street, formerly Piedmont Street, renamed by the town of Whimbrel Creek in 1990, upon Hill’s passing. The student body numbers at a maximum of 400 students annually, with a current graduation rate of 82 percent, and Reginald Hill ranks 131 among Bible colleges nationwide, according to Christian Nation Magazine’s Top 150.

The contrast between Belinda and the sweet-cheeked, wide-eyed underclassmen in this institution couldn’t have been starker: Belinda strutting into lectures with black nail polish, black sleeveless t-shirts, septum and lips rings, Himalayan demon tattoos, fishnet stockings and rows of sterling silver hoops, running from the topmost cartilage to the lobes of her ears. Her hair was down to her mid-back, dyed jet black, at times with streaks of fuchsia, and shaved to the scalp on the sides and back. She chomped gum during mandatory Bible study groups and smoked on campus, racking up violations and remonstrations that she’d just go right on smacking gum and blowing smoke at.

The common areas hissed with whispers about how, being one of those kooky-spooky girls, Belinda must go home after class and practice witchcraft, all the while flouting the school’s injunctions against dancing or listening to bands that didn’t make the college board’s List of Approved Music. And they were right, though the hardest she ever went with witchcraft was to work with an Aleister Crowley tarot deck and a Wiccan protection circle, which seemed to do the trick since nobody, not even the wickedest trash in the trailers at the end of her street, dared mess with her. Her immunity within the trailer-park community, however, might have had more to do with how she always paid cash on the barrelhead, nothing on account, whenever she bought weed from its main dealer.

Why Belinda had been admitted to Reginald Hill was no mystery: they needed all the warm bodies they could get and offered financial aid to good essayists, without even so much as an in-person screening, a policy they revised in an emergency meeting the day after Belinda first set foot on campus. For the essay portion of her application, Belinda had dashed off ten pages about the profanation of the sacred in Anne Rice (shrewdly omitting sex scenes), which she’d meant as praise for the author, but which the board took as excellent writing and a lurid exposé of Catholic hoodoo. They had welcomed her sight unseen, saying she would set a fine example and, with the right training, make a fine envoy of Christ. She didn’t even have to list her church-service experience to pass muster, unlike every other applicant—and, if it had been the kind of hard-and-fast requirement for admission they’d tried to make it out to be, she never would have gotten in, what with Anne Rice being the closest thing to religion Belinda had ever had in her life. Once in the door, of course, no one could figure out why anyone had let Belinda within 100 miles of the building, much less allowed her to sit in class. And with each second that ticked by at Reginald Hill, no one thought Belinda crazier for coming back to Whimbrel Creek than Belinda herself—except maybe her mother Hilda.

When any other parent in and around Whimbrel Creek said to their offspring, “Get out and stay out!,” it was by way of eviction, but when Belinda’s mother Hilda said it, she meant it in the hopes that her daughter would go out and do what Hilda herself had never gotten her own act together to do, namely to leave their part of Georgia behind as one would a bad dream on a sunny day. It’s not that the option of leaving had never been open to Hilda. She was a dental hygienist, a profession in demand in every town on earth. All five of her children, whom she’d had by three different men, were grown up and gone (at least they all had been until Belinda dropped back in to finish up school), so there was nothing tying Hilda down. But relocating to another small town would be nothing more than a lateral move and a big city is too big a leap, however tempting, so Hilda bided her time waiting for a sign. A sign, like every bozo she’d ever brought home wasn’t sign enough to get the hell out of Whimbrel Creek; like Belinda’s own father, who’d run off to Florida with the Diddy Donuts counter girl, hadn’t been sign enough to sell their ticky-tacky house and start a new life. Thing was, Hilda had had the same group of girlfriends since high school who’d stayed native and whom she never could stand up to, and they would take her out to bars not even a full day after yet another one of Hilda’s romances had gone south (or west to Texas or east to Florida) and fix her up with any takers in sight, and it seemed like, every time, there was another loser lined up to sweep Hilda away and then move into her house six months later, only to be out on his ear within a year, either on account of another woman or the need to jump bail or an immutable lack of ambition to get a job.

It had gotten to the point where Belinda had stopped bothering to ask the newest guy’s name whenever she’d call home from whatever city she’d found herself living in. But Hilda never stopped asking her daughter what she’d been up to, who she’s seeing, where she’s thinking of maybe moving next (just don’t let it be here, don’t be dumb like mama, stay out before you’re too old to go anywhere’s else anymore). Not once did she mind Belinda’s vampire getups, though she always did say she’d take her own Ann Murray and Elvis any day over her daughter’s scary-dairy music, which she always had to special-buy online or all the way out at some wacky record store in Atlanta. The clothes might be a little slutty, but long as she turned down lowlifes-with-no-lives and used protection and quit having those abortions she’d always been so down on herself for having, Hilda considered Belinda welcome to all the fun and frolics she wanted. Hilda only wished she herself were brave enough to appear so outré, maybe then she’d meet someone truly different—maybe even someone, ha!, as different as her daughter, if that were possible—to pull her out of her Whimbrel Creek wallow. But she acknowledged she was an old cougar now and she liked Ann Murray and Elvis, so she knew she couldn’t pull off Belinda’s look, though she admired the guts it took in a town like this.

But the Bible college? Oh, Belinda! What the hell were you thinking? Why not cosmetology school? Belinda never could stomach the thought of doing Georgia up-dos for the rest of her life, so she said no, and you meet too many gross guys doing tattoos and piercings, so she nixed that career option too. She said she needed a degree, any degree, and she could take it from there. Hilda said, well, just don’t let them Holy Guacamole types hypnotize you into giving up on who you are so you can start preaching door to door for them, or go screaming scripture verses on street corners, and I hope you can come out of there as something more than a Holy Guacamole yourself and keep an eye on those loans too so they don’t drive you so far in debt you’ll never afford anything worth wearing again.

Yet, recalcitrant though she seemed, Belinda was at least kind of committed to making the best of what she could tell from the gate would be a bad situation. She felt sure there’d be freaks at Reginald Hill to hang with, the good kind, the kind who end up in Bible colleges when there’s nowhere else that will take them because they fucked up by partying too hard or slacking off too much in high school and have to get their grades up so they can transfer to someplace semi-decent, where they can party harder and slack off some more. She’d come to know the kind well in all the time she’d spent kicking around the country.

Her first exposure to them was at University of Georgia, where she’d gone on a full scholarship to the Grady College of Journalism and Communications, and these were hardcore freaks, the kind who blasted Dead Kennedys from ghetto blasters and free-styled on skateboards after taking fistfuls of acid and who dyed their hair green and even leopard-spotted the bleached-out parts. A few were radical queers too—one was an estranged Mohican son of a preacher man, who was paying a lot of his way through law school by moonlighting as a rent boy for a prominent member of the Athens-Clarke County Chamber of Commerce, a Republican with a rubber fetish; another two were the brassiest spike dykes Belinda would ever come to love and fear. They out-freaked all the art-school goons who swanned around campus with their clove cigarettes, Goodwill rags and European airs. The best day of Belinda’s life was when she and the transfer freaks from the Bible colleges went up to the lab on the third floor of the Natural Sciences Building and made water balloons out of condoms and dropped them on the art students as they smoked and talked on the quad, all sophisticated and philosophical-looking. They bombed a whole circle of them! And those artistes looked around, agog and bedraggled, and went screaming to the R.A.’s in their dorms, putting the blame on the frat boys, who got some kind of warning from up top. Man oh man, those were good times! She’d even dropped out that year to go to San Francisco with the spike dykes and a few other stragglers, which led to the vagabond lifestyle Hilda so envied in her daughter. And Belinda didn’t think she’d have to look too hard to find a new pack of freaks at Reginald Hill, ones who’d help make Christian hell just a little more like heathen purgatory.

Turned out, though, Reginald Hill wasn’t what she was looking for when she went looking for freaks. There were none like the ones who’d transferred to U of G-Athens, not even a pretty obvious softball dyke, which at least would have been something. Everyone looked and acted squeaky clean and was bent on being a preacher or a missionary.

That’s what Simon had thought he’d be, a missionary. That way he could see the world. He even said as much on the first day of his New Testament survey class, which Belinda also happened to be in. Reverend Holmes went around the room asking why the students wanted to pursue the ministry. Most people said the right things, even if they didn’t mean them: they wanted to spread the Word of God, they wanted be a handmaiden of Christ’s love, there was a lot of my daddy is a minister and I want to follow in his footsteps even though I fear my feet aren’t big enough to fill his shoes. They hadn’t gotten to Belinda, but by the time the question had come round to Simon, he said, “I want to be a missionary.”

Reverend Holmes said, “Why?”

Simon looked to the ceiling and thought it over, “So I can see the world.”

Everyone looked askance at him, and so did Belinda, albeit for different reasons. When the rest looked at Simon screwy, it was because he hadn’t even tried to sound like he had a calling, which it’s an unspoken rule you’re supposed to do with every teacher at Reginald Hill, not just with Reverend Holmes. To them, it sounded akin to a heart surgeon saying he’s only in it for the hot cars and big houses the profession buys him, and, if he is, well, more power to him, but he should know better than to say it aloud. What surprised Belinda, though, was that someone from the area actually wanted to see the world. She continued sizing up Simon as he sat in the hot seat.

Reverend Holmes took off his glasses, “Your name?”

“Simon Minshew.”

“That’s right,” Reverend Holmes addressed the class, “We have here Simon Minshew. And, unless you’re not from around here, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Reverend Menard Jake Minshew.” Most of the class nodded their admiration. Reverend Holmes went on, “Reverend Minshew has been a beacon of the Lord’s faith, hope and charity throughout the community for more than 40 years. I know he has been no less than a mentor and an inspiration to me. And yet here sits his own flesh and blood (if Reverend Holmes had known the whole story, he’d have thought twice about that flesh-and-blood crack), and do you hear him talking about his daddy’s big shoes? No, no. He’s saying he’d rather traaaa-vel. Now, Simon, you want to try that again? Maybe step it up? Say something more high-minded?”

Simon looked quizzical, “You mean, you’d like me to start talking about my daddy’s shoes?”

Even the holiest members of the class cracked up, as did Belinda who thought maybe there’s hope of finding someone she could work with here. Reverend Holmes whipped around, “God does not abide hecklers, Simon Minshew, and neither do I. Out of respect for your father, I’ll let it slide this once. But don’t any of you all think you can get so much as one strike with me. Simon over here has used up the only free pass I ever have or ever will give any student. Oh, and Simon, some advice: you might want to look into getting a haircut for next time. It’s past your ears and you’re not a woman.” Simon pulled his lips between his teeth and nodded. (Menard had been too busy with the Christmas season at Calvary to monitor this infraction, but on New Year’s Day, he threatened to take a scissors to Simon if he didn’t get to the barber, so Simon was now doubly aware he was overdue for a trim.) Reverend Holmes quit asking for the rest of the students’ vocational objectives and turned to go back to his podium to start his first lecture of the term.

That’s when Belinda piped up, “I think he should grow it out.”

The class gasped and Reverend Holmes bared his eye-teeth, little knowing where to start with the one-woman freak show in row two, “Little lady, when I saw you at the start of class, I’d made up my mind to have a word with you later, in private. But since you’re being so bold, so will I be. Let’s, let’s just say on the matter of Mr. Minshew’s hair, I think I’m a better source of counsel than you. And you might want to do something about that doomsday garb you got on. Oh, and that head that looks like it was marauded by a tar bucket and a lawnmower.” Hardly a soul in class hadn’t been hungering for a chance to ridicule Belinda’s appearance, and they laughed in gratitude to Reverend Holmes for slinging the first barb.

But Belinda smiled and intoned, “Sir, there’s a whole field of mullet haircuts right before your eyes. But you’re saying Simon and I are the ones who should go do something about our looks? With all due respect, Reverend Holmes, I wouldn’t trust your counsel. Nor should Simon. At least he keeps his hair all one length. Just like Jesus. If you’re too blind to see how many hairstyles in this room are worse than ours, then how can any of us trust you to so much as find the right scripture passage?” Simon turned his head, ostrich-like, toward his desk, lest he be associated with the goon speaking in his defense.

Reverend Holmes grasped for the first cudgel that came to mind, “Well, vanitas vanitatum, little lady!”

“I take that as a compliment,” replied Belinda. Reverend Holmes was never in any mood for a sparring partner, much less one who actually caught his rarefied references, which Belinda had learned from reading Goethe, Thackeray, Anne Bronte and Anne Rice—not Ecclesiastes.

“Well, it’s not a compliment!” Holmes railed, “And you and I will be talking this over with the dean.” Everyone in class was too stunned to pull a smirk—it was well known that being called on the carpet in the dean’s office (well, there was no carpet, just a few sticks of furniture and a gray tile floor) was only a step down from Judgment Day. Belinda conceded to holding her tongue for the rest of the period but also played the classic head game of staring down Reverend Holmes the whole time, never for a second letting her eyes leave his, except for once when she couldn’t help but roll hers (and he saw it) as Holmes droned on about how Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?,” when Mary tells him there is no wine (a beverage forbidden to Reginald Hill students anyway) at the Wedding of Cana. However, by the end of the hour, Reverend Holmes had decided Belinda would be too much of a handful to wrangle into the dean’s office without the aid of some other faculty and maybe a couple men in white coats, so he let Belinda off with a warning, a favor that earlier he’d professed he’d never do for anyone but, on that first day alone, had done for both Simon and Belinda.

And so, after receiving Holmes’s warning without even the yes-sir that Reverend Holmes had demanded, Belinda glided down the halls, past the stares and whispers of her younger classmates huddled outside the classroom. Belinda walked out of the building to the parking lot where she spotted Simon, who was parked one spot over from her black Mustang. “Hey!” she greeted him. He fidgeted and gave a lickety-split smile before taking out his keys. “Sorry if I made you look bad,” she told him. Simon raised his shoulders, “Naw, you didn’t. If anything, I made myself look bad. And maybe my dad, but…”

She looked him up and down. Did she have a shot at getting laid? She’d been back in town a whole two weeks and nada, unless you count the spindly Thorgasm from Manly Pointer she’d stashed away in her nightstand drawer and also suspected her mother of taking out and using. But as she honed in on the little curlicue that had touched up at the side of Simon’s quivering lips, it struck her that she was looking at a dead end as far as all that goes. He seemed too much like the newbies she used to know back in the Castro, a certain dourness that couldn’t but explode into a thousand flames when exposed to the right catalysts. At this moment, all those boys came into full relief in her mind and she knew to the steel toes of her boots that even those ingénues were two steps ahead of where Simon was now. Her eyes beamed for the first time in a fortnight. Even better than the Thorgasm or getting her itch scratched old-school, she had found her freak.

Belinda asked Simon back to her mom’s place. Simon blanched, “I have to go to work,” and got in the 1988 Nissan Sentra that his Aunt Gloria had offloaded on to him six months earlier. Without even saying goodbye or nice to meet you, he backed out and tore out as quickly as he could, without violating the 10-mile-an-hour school zone sign that the township of Whimbrel Creek had posted on Hill Street, at the behest of the school, which otherwise preferred to keep municipal, state, and federal governments at rifle-barrel’s length. Belinda hopped into her seen-better-days Mustang and tailgated Simon all the way up to his job at Desiree’s Diner, off I-85.

That’s where it all got started—at Desiree’s. Nondescript as a highway-side diner, festooned with strips of hot pink and neon blue lights racing each other, might seem, it was the closest thing to Times Square going in these parts. People from more colors and cultures than normally would be seen in the region dropped in on account of the $9.99 Blue Plate Special advertised daily on the marquee and the Chevron station across the parking lot. Simon considered himself lucky to bus tables and wash dishes at Desiree’s, especially due to the contrast it made to home and school. He’d even broken the ninth commandment (thou shalt not lie) and the fifth (honor thy parents) when he told his mom that Desiree’s is so wholesome, they play Appalachian gospel tunes in the kitchen where he did all his soapy scutwork, and she passed this news on with an effulgent smile to Menard, who’d shared concerns over the kinds of walks of life he’d seen coming in and out of the diner on his drives up I-85. “Hope he doesn’t come back home one day with a trucker mouth,” Menard once admonished on his way to write a sermon in his study, “But no worries about him ending up with any of them loose ladies at the counter.” And, as he walked away, Simon’s mother scowled at the affront and (what she viewed as) imputation. Simon knew it wouldn’t have gone over well if he’d given her the real skinny about how even black people come into Desiree’s or that the other kitchen staff is either ex-cons or undocumented Mexicans or that the scullery soundtrack is mostly Mariachi, gangsta rap, and good ole shit-kick country.

And Menard was right about the truckers. They talked Jesus and pussy in the same breath, and with unequal fervor. The Talk Radio listeners among them often took to prating back what they’d heard from headline carny-barkers about threats to the second amendment, the imminence of Sharia Law, the necessity of preemptive strikes on Iran and Iraq and bills on the senate floor favoring freeloaders and illegals. More often than not, Simon rushed like the wind when picking up dirty dishes from Desiree’s tables and counters, lest he learn to take on the truckers’ tongues and notions. For him, four-letter words were the least offensive aspect of their discourse. In fact, he’d taken to using some curses himself, but on the sly, jawing with the illegals and formerly convicted in the kitchen: “Clean them forks and knives up goddamn good.”

Ever since she’d first tailed Simon, Desiree’s truckers were forced to welcome a new unwelcome element in the form of Belinda. They called her Resident Evil. For two months, she would camp out in the back booth with a bottomless cup of coffee, reading everything from Clive Barker to Nietzche to Rimbaud and Baudelaire—everything, that is, but the Bible, which didn’t stand her well at her new Bible college, but she didn’t care. The only reason she was even going to class anymore was to see Simon. It turned out Hilda was right. It was a bad move going to Reginald Hill and what she needed was yet another move, preferably cross-country, and already she was online every day putting out feelers to the hosts of friends she’d made along the way. In her first month in school, she’d already had three disciplinary hearings about her clothes and hair and backtalk and smoking, the last of which the student life administrator, Mrs. Hubble, called “the devil’s gateway practice” until Belinda reminded her that Senator Jesse Helms used to grandstand for Big Tobacco in North Carolina and all Mrs. Hubble could do was repudiate the hellion’s invocation of an all but sacred name.

Simon usually had downtime between five and six at night at Desiree’s and, two nights a week, he would work the late shift and Belinda would come and hang out at her usual table until all hours. As fate would have it, Desiree the owner was also Hilda’s best friend, so she didn’t mind Belinda staying forever and a day, just as long as it wasn’t too busy. And Desiree would tell off any trucker who made a remark about the wraith in the back booth—not that Belinda gave a rip what those knuckle-draggers thought of her and not that she could even hear them most of the time since she always had her headphones on with something like Einstürzende Neubauten blasting from them.

Yet Belinda was no all-day loiterer. She had work and school, at least for a while. Her first week back in the area, she had landed a part-time job stacking books at the Trueville Public Library. The head librarian was the kind of small-town anomaly who insisted on a culturally diverse collection and stuck up for banned books like The Anarchist’s Cookbook, but also asked Belinda if she wouldn’t mind staying in the stacks, out of plain view, if she insisted on dressing the way she does. And Belinda was happy to oblige since she stacked books faster than a possum plays dead, leaving her ample time at work to engage in a pleasure that was better than Acapulco Gold, better than the Thorgasm and almost as good as a prophylactic water-balloon raid—the pleasure of reading. She had always been one of those rare people who never even found hard books hard and who read so much that, for a time, she even had visions of being a comparative literature professor, that is, until she stopped joshing herself about having that kind of discipline. Plus, these days, she had to rely on books to take her away until she could take herself away, now that she was back.

Belinda always came to Desiree’s with the best books from the Trueville Library. In fact, she was the one who’d passed on to Simon one of her all-time favorites, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Simon knew something about existentialism. He knew who Sartre was. His parents might not have had Internet access and they did not allow non-Christian books or TV programs in the house, but he still managed to discover who the preeminent atheist philosopher of Twentieth Century France was. Once, while he and Belinda sat drinking coffee at Desiree’s, looking out the window over to the mountains on the other side of I-85, Simon had told Belinda that Sartre was one of those thinkers who just kind of snuck up on him in high school after he had caught a glimpse of a PBS special at a classmate’s house. He noted the name and, without his parent’s knowledge, did web research. The town library’s Internet system had a porn firewall but no philosophy firewall, so Simon was able to look into who Sartre and his influences were and how one could even get through life in a foxhole without recourse to religion. Now, given Simon’s fundamentalist indoctrination and unwillingness to insurrect, he never dreamed he would find as much freedom as Sartre had found, but any approximation of freedom is better than none at all, so he kept reading him. He even read some of his dry-as-dust epistemological essays. So, when Belinda put The Second Sex into Simon’s hands and said, “Beauvoir was Sartre’s lover, I like her even better than Sartre,” Simon brushed aside his Bible studies and went at The Second Sex like gangbusters.

Unlike Belinda, Simon was someone who found reading difficult. He couldn’t count the number of novels he had picked up, put down after a couple chapters and never picked up again, even while hoping to be a writer himself some day since enough teachers had told him his papers were well-written. And Sartre’s epistemological essays had been murder for Simon to read; he needed a dictionary for half the words, and Wizard Stone K-12 had done nothing to prepare him for that or any other book, even an easy one. Yet something kept telling him to keep reading, keep reading. And as he applied himself more, he found he could at least understand some of Sartre’s fiction and even a couple of his plays, which he had asked the local librarian to order from some obscure drama publisher in New York, and which she did with gratitude for the fact that at least someone around town was reading.

But as he lay in bed with his nightlight on or sat on an upside-down plastic crate behind Desiree’s kitchen, delving into Beauvoir’s hefty tome, Simon could see why Belinda liked Beauvoir so much better than Sartre. The more he read, the more he liked Beauvoir better too. The writing was like whitewater blasting through every bulwark of his mind. In discussing how women have been viewed and treated from the dawn of civilization, Beauvoir had marshaled a stunning amount scholarship in philosophy, world literature, psychology, religion, anthropology, biology, coming at her subject from every conceivable intellectual angle. The writing was brisk, the words accessible, the arguments so massive and complex, with semicolons outnumbering periods at least ten-to-one per page. True, a lot of Beauvoir’s assertions went over Simon’s head but they never ceased to awe, and he wanted to study all that Beauvoir had studied and break out of Wizard’s Stone and make the level of impression that Beauvoir had made, though he doubted he had the brains and knew that Reginald Hill wasn’t known for churning out great minds. But Beauvoir had a big case to make and as Simon kept reading, he saw his own mother, at the one end of the female spectrum, all balled up with Stockholm syndrome, and Belinda, at the other, defying all social doctrines.

Simon became convinced that, when he sat with Belinda at Desiree’s, he was sitting with Georgia’s own Simone de Beauvoir. She sounded so smart whenever she talked philosophy. He thought she would make a great teacher—shame that, as a student, she couldn’t stick with a school. True, in most of their tête-à-têtes, Belinda would do her best to turn Simon red with stories about fisting incidents in San Francisco sex clubs or about how the streets of New Orleans smell like semen for weeks after Mardi Gras, but then she would go and say something like, “Do you notice how Beauvoir doesn’t come at Freud with any sort of knee-jerk feminist rant against penis envy? No, she performs a thorough analysis of his treatises and contends that, if Freud is going to posit a philosophy, then he’d better be ready to defend it on philosophic grounds, rather than simply decree his own irrefutable authority.” Simon had no idea what she had just said, but he wished he knew how to say stuff like that.

Then there was the night Belinda saw that Simon was halfway through the book. And that’s when she said: “It’s not just about women, Simon. It’s about all modalities of subjugation, subjugation of the ‘other.’ Let me ask you, as you read this, do you see the subtle ways in which people like you are subjugated?” He didn’t ask what subjugation is. He could tell by the tone of her voice that it means something like oppression. But he did ask, “What do you mean people like me?” But Belinda didn’t need to spell it out. She only had to hone in with one of her stares. Unlike others rounded up in the witch-hunts at Wizard’s Stone K-12, Simon had been able to duck the searchlight all these years, but Belinda had found him naked, even as he sat in the booth in his white work uniform. Simon said, “Well, I…was…reading in, in…in the intro, how, how she got the, you know, the…the title for the book. A friend of hers, another philosopher, in, in, in Paris, he, he came over and he, he said that…” Simon looked down and breathed. He could hear his own breath. And over own his breath, he could hear the ticking of the neon diner clock, six feet above his head. And over the neon diner clock, he could hear something by Garth Brooks, sounding from the speakers. And for a while, he just sat there listening to his breath until it was all he could hear. Belinda’s stare came in again and Simon continued, “Her friend said that people like, like me…are…the third sex. So, that’s how she came to call it The Second Sex.” Belinda let the air settle and then came around to Simon’s side of the booth. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his neck. She said, “Not to worry, Simon. I know people who are already on their fifth sex.” Simon smiled and thanked the Lord, the same Lord that Sartre and Beauvoir and Belinda didn’t believe in, that another customer up front had paid and left and it was time for him to get up and go bus another table.

By the time Simon finished reading the book, two weeks later, Reginald Hill had finally expelled Belinda. By now, her infractions were so numerous, there was no explanation necessary on the part of the faculty and administration. Nevertheless, the dean had her sit in the middle of his office while he circumambulated her chair. He had rehearsed a twenty-minute lecture about the Expulsion from the Garden, expulsion from Reginald Hill, and the never-ending descent into hell that results from both, but he did not even get past the point of blaming the fall of man on Eve before Belinda rose up, spit in his face and left him in as bad a shock as Adam under the Cherub’s sword. The dean wiped the slimy loog away like it was boiling semen straight out of the Whore of Babylon’s maw.

The next night, Belinda dropped by Desiree’s to gloat, “You should’ve seen that holy-rolling fuckface! If only I went for the nuts, man. Yeah, maybe I’ll go back and go for his scrotes.” Simon thought maybe he’d hitched his wagon to a devil star if Belinda was so bent on going back for the nuts. Still, he chuckled, albeit with a tinge of sadness that Belinda would not be in school with him anymore.

Simon had never known what it was to have a close friend. He’d had almost all the same classmates most years at Wizard’s Stone K-12 but no real friends. Menard Minshew was too imposing a patriarch and his mother too warped a minion for him to want to bring anyone home, and both of them always wanted to know what he was doing and who he was doing it with, lest he be doing even the tiniest thing to stray from the ways of righteousness, so he rarely did anything with anyone and just stayed in his room and wandered around in his own head. Joining a sports team would have been one way out of this stalemate, if Simon had had any inclination for sports and if his high school had offered anything more than football or baseball. Menard Minshew would have stood the tallest under the klieg lights of every Friday night game, provided Simon had made first string, but Simon did not make any string of either team and Menard took every potshot at him he could for it, especially when bringing up how front-linesmen Tommy Sandage and Bob Jenkins were not only MVPs but model boys. He constantly goaded Simon’s three younger brothers into laughing at him for being a weakling, which being young, they did with glee, and Menard also said Simon would catch hell if he hit them or told them to shut up for it, so instead Simon learned to look down and raise neither hand nor voice to them, which turned out to be a good policy since his brother Ezekiel (Key, for short), two years Simon’s junior, did grow up to be a first-string front-linesman, twice Simon’s size.

Further isolating Simon was the reality that Menard had damned too many people, both from the pulpit and on the main drag, for anyone to believe that the apple could have fallen far enough from the tree. And Simon walked around so hunched and mopey under the scourge of all this that even those who held no brief with Menard weren’t lining up to be Simon’s friend. Daddy’s reputation might have preceded Simon in a good way at Reginald Hill—the one school his parents let him apply to, though they made him pay for what scholarships and grants did not cover, which was why he had to work so many hours at Desiree’s—but Simon had made such a practice of sticking to himself that he did not know how to approach even people who smiled at him at his new school.

And yet now here he’d found Belinda. In fact, she had sought him out. A bad seed, for sure, but he took what he could get and for the first time ever, felt his brain kicking into high gear, as well as someone literally putting their arms around him whenever she saw him, someone who was fine, ecstatic even, with knowing that hugs were about as far as he ever could go with her.

Simon did not know how he would endure the coming loneliness of Belinda being gone, but as it turned out, she would not let him endure it. Belinda became more a fixture than ever at Desiree’s, sitting in the back, crafting some kind of new plan for her future. Simon could tell Belinda had a lot more time on her hands now that she didn’t have school and was only working part-time. He thought she’d fill her spare time with reading, smoking, listening to patricide-matricide bands or maybe even venturing into writing disaffected essays that might later end up in some brainy anthology that would be such a call to arms, he could look back one day and say he knew her when. But her attention was too scattered for her to undertake much of any of those activities. Instead, she spent her idle time either ruminating at Desiree’s or, when she was at home, reconnecting with out-of-town friends online.

One night during this low point in her life, Simon sat down with Belinda on his dinner break when she whipped out a magazine, Euro Boy, right at the restaurant table. The cover showed a tan, frosty blond, callipygian ephebe—seventeen if he was a day—standing in the raw with his back to the camera, looking over his left shoulder with pouty lips, as the rest of his body faces an open window in a spare room that looks out over Prague Castle. Simon dropped his fork and pulled the magazine under the table. He looked around to see if any customer or coworker had seen it and, seeing none had, stared at Belinda, who fell back with laughter.

For some time now, she’d determined that she’d have to take drastic measures. On numberless occasions since his great confession, the grand inquisitor had asked Simon what boys he found cute. He couldn’t name one, which she could understand since she hadn’t seen anyone cute around either, so she went middlebrow and asked if any movie stars did it for him. She even would have taken George Clooney, mainstream though he might be, for an answer, but Simon didn’t go to movies, much like he didn’t know any music, not even what was on the Top 40, much less the underground stuff people like Belinda staked their identities on. So, she had to come up with something crafty and Euro Boy was it.

“So, what do you think?”

“Belinda,” he said blinking, “I’m at work.”

“Fine. Look at it later. But how ’bout that guy on the cover? You said you wanted to see the world, didn’t you?”

Simon slid Euro Boy inside the front of his pants and covered it with his work shirt. He did not take another sip of his milk or bite of his mashed potatoes and meatloaf and he did not speak to Belinda for the rest of the night either, though she stayed put for hours and he did not ask her to leave since that of course would have required speaking to her. Instead, he walked to the staff closet, slipped the porno into his backpack, and got back to work. Fortunately for him, a new rush of customers left Simon with enough table-clearing and dishwashing to do for him to work off a lot of his chagrin and aggression. When his shift was over, Belinda was still sitting where he left her, but he stormed out to his car and drove out to I-85 without so much as throwing a look Resident Evil’s way.

Simon thumbed through the magazine when he got back to his bedroom, though. He even laid back, put a towel that he kept under his mattress over his bare stomach and let Euro Boy’s various offerings from Czechoslovakia, Lichtenstein, Romania—and don’t forget that grape pickers’ orgy from Provence—help relieve him of what had for too long been backed up inside of him. It became an unholy rite night after night and he began to have a sense of what people were talking about when they said a trip around the world could help a man grow. Still, he didn’t speak to Belinda the next time she came looking for him at Desiree’s, and she didn’t make a scene, nor did she apologize. Instead, she had one cup of coffee, no refill, paid Desiree at the register, and never returned. Simon could feel the onslaught of regrets over the loss of his only friendship rising up, but he steeled himself with the rationalization that he had not lost a friend so much as gained a magazine, one which he kept secreted away in his backpack.

That is, until one night, when Simon came home to find Reverend Holmes sitting with Menard in the living room. Reverend Holmes had come by to deliver Simon’s Progress Report, a form that Reginald Hill only metes out to students failing a class and which requires a parent’s signature, a practice reviled in colleges that make a pretence of treating people in their late teens like adults in charge of their own lives. Normally, Reginald Hill teachers send these reports home with students or, in rare cases, directly to the parents by mail. However, Holmes had decided to go a step further and bring the report to Menard in person out of respect for how the venerable churchman would be bound to anguish over the news that his own son (stepson), once a student of promise, whom Holmes conceded “knows his Bible better than kids today know their video games,” had stopped turning in homework and even term papers, which Simon used to write with a spirited proficiency, as his teachers from the prior semester had confirmed for Holmes. He still got A’s on the multiple-choice sections of his New Testament exams, but in the essay sections, he’d begun loading his answers with subtle refutations of scripture (“The Four Evangelists present conflicting accounts of the Crucifixion”) and references to any number of atheistic philosophers (“Beware the man of a single book.” – Bertrand Russell).

During this sit-down talk, Holmes also had informed Menard, “Sir, Simon has not joined any extracurricular activities and he has fallen in with some strange company, specifically a dastardly little number named Belinda Quell, whom we recently expelled.” Holmes sighed and ran down Belinda’s entire profile and rap sheet. He added, “Some have reported seeing this Belinda pal around with your Simon at that diner he works at.” So, it seemed there was danger of Simon ending up with one of the loose women at Desiree’s after all.

The thing that sealed Simon’s fate, though, before he even put his key in the front door that night, was Holmes imparting to Menard: “Pastor, three times in a row now, Simon did not even bring his Bible to class.” This confounded Menard as much as it had confounded Reverend Holmes. Simon was always carrying a bagful of books and, at a Bible college, it only made sense that one of those books would be the Book of books. So, after Simon walked in, Menard ordered him to sit down and, without missing a beat, said to him in front of Reverend Holmes: “Bring out your Bible, Sorcerer. Open to Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Let’s talk about what it says to do with shirker sons.”

Simon said, “I’ll have to go get it from my room.”

Reverend Holmes said, “You had school today. Why isn’t it in your bag?”

“I forgot it.”

“Then what’s in your bag?” asked Menard.

“Other books,” Simon answered, drawing his bag between his legs.

Menard got up, grabbed the backpack and dumped its contents on the mousy-brown Stainmaster carpet. Over a heap of notebooks, pens, and religious textbooks that Simon might as well have left in his room with his Bible for how much he’d been cracking them open lately, The Second Sex and Euro Boy came spilling out in flagrante delicto. The pause that ensued over the frozen faces in the room was not unlike the one that arises between moments of laceration and hemorrhaging. Menard no sooner picked up the magazine than he let it drop like a handful of scalding water. As Menard seethed, Reverend Holmes collected the slick from right back off the ground and flipped to a centerfold of the Czech boy from the cover getting topped, dog-style, by a muscular, gay-for-pay brunette as night falls over the same daytime view of Prague castle that had appeared outside the window in the prequel photo. No sooner did Holmes cast Euro Boy down to the Stainmaster carpet, as though its acrylic threads were tongues of hellfire, than he kicked The Second Sex clear across the room, which led Simon to wonder if Holmes had heard of Beauvoir or if he just found the word sex unseemly, especially when emblazoned above the photo of a woman author on a Women’s-Lib book. He surmised that the answer was the latter but he did not have time to hash it out with himself as he looked up to find Menard storming at him from three paces away.

Not by a long shot was it the first time Menard had knocked Simon off a chair or punched him in the face. Not by a long shot was it the first time Menard had literally kicked Simon while he was down. It was the first time, however, that Simon fully understood the expression “seeing stars,” something he thought only happens to cartoon birdbrains when they get knocked out, yet here he was, witnessing a galaxy of stars exploding on to some invisible screen before his eyes, stars which began rotating in crazy patterns, so unlike the neat, orderly carousels of twinklers and tweeting birds that go around Loony Tunes characters’ heads after pianos or anvils fall on them. Menard wailed on Simon with pile-driver force, pounding on and kicking at him, as Simon either bruised or bled from his eye, nose, mouth, back, chest and stomach. It was as though, for this one moment alone, Menard had saved up all his contempt for all the things in life he had ever pronounced hateful. All the while, Reverend Holmes played backup at this bashing with an impromtu exorcism, where he read aloud from the Bible he always carried with him, flipping from Romans 1:18 to Leviticus 20:13 and all the way back up to 2 Timothy 3:1-5 as the mayhem crescendoed. Simon’s mother knew to stay in her room when these things transpired, so that’s where she stayed, crouched in a corner behind the door.

At one point, though, Menard had stumbled between stomach-kicks and Simon was able to grab his leg and throw him back so he hit the ground. This gave Simon’s bag of bones just time enough to grab the magazine, grab his keys and run like the hunted while Menard bolted to the back room to get his deer-hunting rifle, all to the shock and awe of Reverend Holmes, who now was making his first effort of the night to hold Menard back. Simon’s Nissan Sentra tore off to I-85 as Menard stood and cocked his rifle in the middle of the street. As Reverend Holmes pleaded with him to stop, to let God be the judge now that Menard had gotten some good licks in, Menard took Simon’s car’s rear window fully into his crosshairs, but, just as he was set to shoot, Simon had barreled down another street and was turning on to the highway ramp. Menard had to shoot something, though, so he turned the barrel up to the sky and pulled the trigger on the moon before turning back to the house, breathing in shallow gulps as though he were the one who had gotten the wind knocked out of him that night.

Simon had heard Menard’s shot from far away. He knew it had been Menard’s gun as surely as he felt every millimeter of his body howling and smarting with pain from Menard’s beatings. The shot resounded in his ears as he sped up I-85. It reminded him of a hodgepodge of stories he had heard as a child, ones meant to underscore the divide between man and beast, about families who raise a wild cub—a bear or a lion or a wolf—but eventually have to chase it back into the wild with a shotgun, no matter how much they love it. Not that Simon had any illusions about Menard loving him in the least, but maybe fate did, so it had sent Menard after him with firearms so Simon would be forced to move on to some new uncharted territory. But when he considered what Sartre might have to say about all this, all he could come up with was the aphorism: “Man is condemned to be free.” So, which was it now? Was he liberated when forced to run for his life from Menard’s house or was he confined to a wretched freedom, which might as well be hell, for the rest of his born days? Whatever the case may be, roaring up an interstate highway proved even less conducive to philosophical musings than being trapped in a room with two sanguinary preachers staring at a triple-X photo gallery. The only smart thing to do was run wild, run free, but where to?

The answer was easy: the only place left to run was to Belinda’s house. Although he had never been inside, he had picked her up and dropped her off a couple times when her Mustang had been in the shop with a broken taillight that the cops had kept pulling her over and ticketing her for, so he knew where she lived and how to get there. And if there were any such thing as fate, it knew how to drive its point right home: Simon’s old beater broke down for the tenth and final time, right at the Heavenly Grass trailer community, two streets down from where Belinda lived, and Simon was even able to pull it on to a patch of gravel and leave it for dead. He gave the 1988 Nissan a final bow and limped along to Belinda’s door, past a cacophony of ’70s southern rock, Harley engines and hillbilly carousing.

Simon expected that Belinda had found new friends since him and wasn’t home, but he would wait at her door for days if he had to, with his face and body throbbing and bloody. Now that it was past midnight, he didn’t want to ring the doorbell, but he didn’t own a cell phone yet and he didn’t know which bedroom window was hers to knock on, so he went ahead and rang the bell. A light went on in the hall and he was relieved to see Belinda’s figure coming his way through the square window. When she answered the door, she was wearing no makeup and a pink kimono that she had bought ages ago at a Burbon Street resale shop. She looked so pretty with high cheekbones, sky-blue eyes and soft skin, so why was she always walking around the outside world so grotesque-looking? But when she opened the door, she shrieked at the state of Simon’s face, making it clear that if anyone was looking grotesque, it was Simon.

She pulled Simon into the house and put his face in her hands as she assessed every bit of damage on it, every scar, cut and emerging bruise. Simon looked a few feet ahead to see Hilda standing in the hallway with the same expression as her daughter, albeit while wearing soup-can curlers and a red gingham housecoat. Belinda gave a quick introduction, “Mom, this is Simon, I’ve told you about him,” before she shot straight to the heart of the matter, “What happened?” Simon had heard enough about Hilda to know he could speak the truth in front of her. He reached into his back pocket and brandished Euro Boy. “He found it,” Simon said.

Belinda took Simon’s arm and brushed past her mother and the grandfather clock on the way to the kitchen, where she sat him down at the table, which Desiree had actually gifted her mother with when she had found she had ordered one too many tables for her grand opening, eighteen years prior. Hilda followed her daughter and Simon and stood in the doorway with her hand over her heart. Belinda began scooping coffee grinds into a filter, readying all assembled for the long night ahead, but Hilda could see Belinda was shaking so she took over the coffee-making while Belinda turned to Simon, breathing deeply with her eyes closed as she got her bearings.

Belinda walked over and manipulated Simon’s arms, legs, torso and hands to see if anything was broken. The only thing “off” was the look he gave her while she pulled on him, so she figured he was fine beyond the obvious contusions and gashes. After Simon gave a blow-by-blow account of what had gone down in his family’s living room, Hilda said her newest boyfriend would be home from a night out with the boys soon and she’d sic him on Menard but Belinda said, “Shut the fuck up, Mom,” and that put an end to Hilda’s silliness. The cops were even more of a no-go given the sway Menard held over Wizard’s Stone. Hell, they might even lock Simon up for hitting Menard’s fist with his face.

As Belinda and Hilda dabbed Simon’s face and upper body with rubbing alcohol, soap and water, and Neosporin, Simon asked, “Where’d you get the magazine?,” the same magazine that was splayed out on the kitchen table now, not even eliciting so much as an arched eyebrow from either of the mistresses of the house.

“From Robert O. I told him about you and he put it in the mail.”

“Who’s Roberto?”

“Robert O. Remember that for when you meet him. Call him Roberto, he’ll scratch your eyes out.”

Belinda had known Robert O from way back when she was slinging coffee on Castro Street. Born Roberto Gutierrez in a tin shack outside Laredo, Texas, Robert O had made a beeline for San Francisco almost as soon as he’d heard such a place existed. One or two times, he’d heard his papa’s day-laborer vatos make mention of it while they were all hanging around their work truck, saying they wouldn’t be caught muerto going up to that maricón town for a job, but as soon as Robert O saw some of them mincing around with limp wrists, throwing invisible feather boas, to denote the kind that swooshes around the City of Freedom, Robert O knew it was where he had to be. Flamboyant as a cancan dancer’s flashing petticoats, even as a niño pequeño on his dirt-road habitat, Robert O took his lumps at home, school, church and everywhere in between until he could get his high-school diploma and say adios forever. By the time Belinda met him, Robert O had been in the Bay Area for 13 years. He used to stop by the Daily Grand to see her, at least once a shift, for his usual triple skim latte. “Hey, Mortitia, honey!” he would say, leaning across the counter to kiss the cheek she always had offered up to him. Belinda’s style had not changed much since those days, but Robert O’s seemed to change with each new edition of GQ or Details that dropped on his doorstep. It was a good thing he had been such a sought-after stylist or he never would have been able to afford his mercurial wardrobe. In fact, even working more than sixty hours a week as head stylist and co-owner of his Affito Alto salon, with high-end clients who had to schedule three months in advance for him to sneak them in, he was still always living in the red. Normally, Belinda would have abhorred such a trend-sucker, but they shared the same yen for ecstasy, clubs and cock and recognized each other on sight as equally over-the-top. In fact, Robert O was the one who had hooked her up with her night job at the Manly Pointer when she was having trouble scraping by in the Mission District.

“What do you mean ‘when I meet him’?” asked Simon, “Is he coming over?”

Belinda turned to Hilda, “Mom, keep Simon company, k?” She unclipped her cell phone from her bra strap and left the room. It was a good fifteen minutes before Belinda came back and answered Simon’s question, “No, I just talked to him. You’re going with me to his place.”

“Now?” Simon asked.

“No,” Belinda said, “In a couple days. It’s cool, you can stay here till then.”

“Does he live around here?”

Belinda burst with laughter, “Reverend Holmes picked up Simon’s twink rag!” Hilda tried to ignore her daughter as she looked at Simon’s cuts and bruises with misericordia eyes, but soon her face also split with laughter at this non sequitur. The laughter grew and grew, now that they could take in with a fresher perspective the living-room scene that Simon had sketched out for them at the kitchen table.

A lone voice of gravity in the hubbub, Simon asked, “Well?”

Belinda caught her breath, “He lives in New York.” She and Hilda were doubled over now, in a giggling fit that hurt their guts.

Simon screamed, “New York!”

Both women were howling like witches now. Belinda fell to her knees, crying tears of laughter at her mother’s tears of laughter and at the thought of Reverend Holmes looking at those naked boys. Belinda looked up at Simon, eyes awash with hilarity, “He broke up with his b-b-b, bahahaha, he broke up with his boyfriend and moved there a few years ago.”

“From where? What? Who is—?”

Belinda got off the ground, “Never mind. Just find a time when no one’s home and grab whatever shit of yours you can.”

After a couple nights on Hilda’s red velveteen couch, Belinda drove Simon, still icing the bruises on his face, to his house so he could collect his personal effects, but they were already out on the front lawn in four Hefty bags that his mother had packed up herself. Simon ran up, grabbed two at random and bolted back to the car. He told Belinda to gun it, lest the next thing they’d hear would be another round from Menard’s rifle. Simon hoped one of those bags contained some changes of underwear. He and Belinda had five-thousand dollars of get-out-and-stay-out money, which Hilda had given them out of her life’s savings, but still Simon and Hilda would have to make it last all the way to New York and after they’d get there. Simon did not know whether to wave goodbye to Georgia on his way out, to its gargantuan mountains, forever fields and tumbling green hills. He did not know whether he would miss them or even what it meant to miss a place since he had never been anywhere but home. And even for all her time out in San Francisco, Belinda had no idea how quickly New York could go through whatever money you bring to it. Yet she had committed to staying in her next stamping ground this time, almost as much as Simon had to staying out of shooting distance of Wizard’s Stone.

To this day, Simon has the same issue of Euro Boy. Over eight years later, it would be one of the things he decided to pack in the one suitcase he took with him to France.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.


Finding Exile on Main Street: A Patchwork Confessional

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 8, 2010

Mike Levine sent me word that he read a New York Times article on how they’ve rediscovered many lost tracks from Exile on Main Street (1972).

In honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to reprise a memoir piece that I published three years ago in the now-defunct magazine Sentient City. Here it is:

Finding Exile on Main Street: A Patchwork Confessional
By Kyle Thomas Smith

“The shadow becomes a force in our psyche as we regularly exile the emotions that could elicit rejection from others.”

– Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

This is going to be tough. How do you write about true love? It’s ineffable. Some of the greatest poets have died trying. For me, hearing The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street for the first time at 16 was an epiphany worthy of Blake and Joyce. Yet, for the past 16 years, whenever I’ve tried putting the experience into words, I’ve only ended up swooning. That’s fine for nonverbal communication, but what about for writing? So, now, I’m just going balls-out and, if I end up swooning like I usually do when I broach the subject of the greatest album ever made, I’ll just pick myself up off the floor and keep typing until I’m down to my last swoon. Warning: I foresee many detours on my way to Main Street. After all, the heart has many landscapes and it’d be a shame to leave them bloodless and lifeless when they can lend so much color.

Let me start with a story I heard about Picasso. When he was 78, a rich American noticed him sketching in a café on a plaza in Barcelona. She scrounged up the nerve to approach him: “I know who you are. Draw me. I’ll pay you.” Picasso appraised her. She steeled herself. He nodded. She let out a shriek that would have made her a pariah of the literati and jet-set at the neighboring tables if the master hadn’t offered her a place at his. Picasso ordered the American woman a highball and waited for her to swill it down so that he could catch her in repose. Then he flipped to a blank page in his sketchbook, made a few lines, drew in some waves of her hair and her arms. Then he signed it, ripped it out, and handed it to her. Before she even had a chance to look at it, Picasso said, “That’ll be a million dollars.” The American woman bolted up and fell back down into her chair: “A million dollars! That took you fifteen minutes.” Picasso wagged his finger, “No, Madame. It took me 78 years and fifteen minutes.” The woman stood up and turned on her heel, leaving the sketch facedown on the table.

Sometimes I wonder what she would have seen if she had given it a good look. Picasso may have overcharged her, but he might have also imbued that sketch with every success in art and failure in love he’d ever had. In a lucky strike, he might have conveyed the whole of his childhood and his humble beginnings as a painter and the misery of his mistresses and maybe he had even intuited the American woman’s life story and transmitted that to the sketch too. It’s been known to happen. Sometimes all creativity collides in a thunderclap and the product can be a brave new universe of expression. If that had happened for Picasso that afternoon in Barcelona, a million dollars would have been a pittance for the woman to pay. Just think what collateral she could have had in her estate!

Should I be calling Pablo Picasso an asshole? Is it naïve of me to think he could have made a million-dollar masterpiece in one flush? I don’t think so. That’s practically how it happened for the Stones in the south of France when they recorded Exile on Main Street, the album I credit for redeeming my youth. And I bought it used, on vinyl, for just $4.99.

“I gave you the diamonds. You give me disease.”
The Rolling Stones

Not that everything went off without a hitch before the album’s studio production. In his new book, Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with The Rolling Stones, Robert Greenfield writes, “To say that the human toll exacted during the making of Exile on Main Street was extreme is an understatement of major proportions.” True enough. In the summer of 1971, The Stones and their entourage managed to consume more drugs and parade more decadence through Keith Richards’ Nellcote chateau than Caligula and his consorts had throughout his reign in Rome. If they hadn’t been so stoned, they probably would have also cut off more heads per capita than the Julio-Claudian court too, what with all the catting around they were doing with each others’ girlfriends and wives. The Stones perfected the Ten Non-Virtues to the point that, if the Buddha would have incarnated about 2,600 years later, he wouldn’t have even had to deliver the Dul Lung sutra. He could just whip out Warhol’s Lips-and-Tongue Logo like he did the flower on Vulture Peak and we’d all get the point.

After retreating to France as tax exiles, unable to pay the levies against them in England, the Stones had shipped in the highest-end recording equipment with the last of their pocket lint, only to find that the equipment didn’t cut it, so they weren’t going to use it. Later, they realized they didn’t have enough electricity for their set, so they hijacked it from the local railroad system, hoping to wrap up the final cut before the French authorities could beat down the door. What a stroke of genius for Greenfield to subtitle his book, A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones! That summer, the Stones made Rimbaud’s absinthe-spiked odyssey look like minutes from a Temperance Society meeting.

When I was 18 and newly legal, I somehow got my hands on a copy of a banned, black-and-white documentary film (later legalized in 1998) called Cocksucker Blues, which follows the Stones’ ’72 tour for Exile. It was cinéma vérité at its pornographic nadir. Mick would stumble drunk on to stage. Keith would shoot up and nod out in full view. They had on-camera orgies with jailbait every other scene. I know it sounds entertaining, but there was nothing so base to my eyes. They were all literally sick – vomiting, crying, blacking out, going cold turkey.

Just before that, I’d also read Many Lives, Many Masters and, in doing its past-life regression exercises, became convinced that I had been the Stones’ founding member Brian Jones before reincarnating about five years after his death as Kyle Thomas Smith. Three years before Exile, the Stones had kicked Jones out for doing too many drugs. (If you get kicked out of The Rolling Stones for doing too many drugs, honey, you got problems.) Within two months, he was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool, his system crammed to the pores with intoxicants of every make and model. So, in my current incarnation, I all but wept watching this contraband video and seeing what a scene I’d been in. (And, believe you me, paying off Brian Jones’ karmic debt has been a bitch.)

Still, neither Cocksucker Blues nor my past life as Brian Jones sullied my love for The Stones or for Exile. I have little interest in the band’s drug abuse, sex scandals and studio politics. I am floored, however, by how they suddenly managed to get past all those things long enough to let it loose with jam sessions that comprise a double album that so gloriously spans the genres from Tin-Pan Alley to greaser rock to country and blue grass to gospel, from the most soulful Mississippi melodies to the sluttiest Chicago blues. If Picasso had spent 78 years and 15 minutes on that one sketch at the café in Spain, then the Stones had packed countless lifetimes of rough roads into one randy-ass record in France.

My Life, Pre-Exile
“I’m no schoolboy, but I know what I like…”
– Jagger/Richards, “Brown Sugar”

I’m the youngest of seven kids. My oldest sibling Colleen is 15 years older than me. She saw the Stones twice, once at the Chicago Stadium in ’75, a year after I was born, and another time at Soldier Field when she was in college for their 1978 Some Girls tour. Once, when I was 12, I helped Colleen move apartments and she returned the favor by giving me a ragged copy of Sticky Fingers on vinyl. It was the first full-length album to feature those slag-banging Stones lips that Andy Warhol had designed. He’d also done all the cover art, where there was an actual steel zipper over a man’s bedenimed crotch. You could yank it down to expose the bulging briefs inside. Many years after Colleen had moved out of my folks’ house, I also found a program in our crawl space that she’d brought home from the ’75 show. Annie Liebovitz had done the photography. (All these little tributaries of decadence slipping into my formative years – now a mother of two, my sister teaches catechism at a Sunday school in Illinois.)

At the time I first spotted the program, my head was half-shaved. This was two years before I’d find Exile. I wore a spiked bracelet and was into Sex Pistols, Millions of Dead Cops, and the Revolting Cocks, so I feigned apathy for dinosaurs like The Rolling Stones and once even committed the unpardonable blasphemy of breaking Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World LP in two over my knee just to show that I was over my old tastes. (David, if you’re reading this, know that I’m sorry.) But then I flipped to a certain page where I was arrested by a black-and-white, Liebovitz still of Jagger looking like he was about to fellate the microphone he was crooning into with his Hindenburg lips and doorstop mouth; his glitter-greased owl eyes upturned and a shower of white rose petals cascading around him on to the stage that he stretched his lithe, Leonine body across. I tried to cast the program aside, but I couldn’t, couldn’t put it down. Nor could I bring myself to defy my newfound punk religion (I still can’t say why, my punk-rock loyalties were whorish at best), so I placed the ’75 program back into its cardboard box with the same care a lovely child might for a fledgling that has tumbled out of its nest. Periodically, I climbed back into the crawl space for clandestine encounters with it.

“To experience the loneliness of our soul is the hardest thing in the world.

– Brigitte Bardot

I’m afraid to write the rest of this memoir piece. It will require that I delve deeper into my teen years. It’s the only way I can begin to describe what Exile was to me at 16. I don’t want to make myself out to have been cooler than I was. We all know what happened to James Frey when he did that. Truth is, I was a lot like Lily Tomlin’s character, Agnes Angst, who wore so much chains-and-leather that she set off electric garage doors whenever she walked down the street. Every time she got kicked out of her house, she’d go to a payphone outside IHOP’s piss-oire and suck up the airtime on this one radio shrink’s call-in show. She’d do readings at a place called the Anti-Club: “No matter how much contempt I have for society, it is nothing compared to the contempt society has for me!” Her grandparents said she had the manners of a terrorist.

Yes, I was a delight like Agnes Angst. Yes, I was an outsider like James Frey claimed to have been. Yes, I was lonely like Stephen King’s Carrie and I still think that cheerleader skank got off easy at the end. Yes, I was a low-GPA fuck-up like Marshall Mathers and, just like him, have never gotten over how the school system failed me instead of the other way around. Yes, I smoked and drank my share. Yes, I took early residence with my notebooks in coffeehouses and have been in them ever since. Yes, in my south-side Jesuit high school, guys tagged graffiti on classroom and bathroom walls about me being the class faggot. Yes, I entertained one or two proto-Trench-Coat-Mafia fantasies.

The bullies found they couldn’t dismiss me so easily, though. I wasn’t their typical Tinkerbell. I didn’t swish down the halls with a snippy comment, falsetto voice, Preppy Handbook and haywire Oedipal Complex. No, I liked my music raw, my philosophy existential, my parents absent, my jokes raunchy, my smokes rolled and my men…well, I’d slept with a couple girls, but I was bad at it. No sooner would I get it up than it would flop back down. It’s a wonder I ever got the condom on. Still, I managed and cringed my way through the ordeals. I only did it to prove myself straight and vanquish a Catholic guilt complex that would have kept me a virgin till worms would crawl up and eat my male hymen in the grave. My hetero insurrection never succeeded, though. I still found myself changing my fifth-period route to biology class just to moon over Chuck at his third-floor locker. It wouldn’t be long before I would go all the way with a Phase II insurrection, this time with my same sex – and the rubber slid on good and tight then. The Church purported to dislike those transgressions all the more, citing passages from Paul and Leviticus and a special circle of Dante’s hell, even though so many of them were moaning in the same dark corners.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There was this chick Sarah. We had a routine. She’d lead me on. I’d follow. I’d send her letters like Young Werther. She’d snub them like Lotte. She didn’t want to accept my overtures. I didn’t want to perform them. I’d stroke her ego. She’d perpetuate my denial. She’d waltz her litter of boys in front of me. I’d watch. I was her slave. She was my beard. It was an even exchange.

“i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

– e.e. cummings

Then something happened. I began to notice Sarah’s charms. She had heavenly flowing chestnut hair. She’d toss it back and bare the curve of a luscious neck, her chin poised in a cultivated hauteur. Most chicks in our school hated her. They said she had a big ego and an even bigger ass. What did they know? They all wore sensible underwear. I began to daydream about Sarah in class and on the L. I composed suicidal love poems to her instead of doing homework and flunked tests instead of considering my future. I pissed away an education – the perils of having a crush on a girl.

Sarah ran with boys who bought GQ, could afford Girbaud, got their hair cut in salons, and lived in Lincoln Park or Gold Coast with moms who were rolling in alimony and let their sons stay out till all hours even on school nights. They played sports. They dressed to the nines. They pulled good grades. They knew how to outclass. They knew how to kiss ass. They knew how to stand out. They knew how to fit in. They got into top schools. They slammed imported beer. They liked fucking girls. Their parents didn’t dare cramp their styles, didn’t mandate mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Their parents championed them. They got away with getting stoned. Their futures were assured. Normalcy triumphed. I didn’t stack up – not in Sarah’s eyes, not in anyone else’s, not in my own.

Back then, I didn’t hear a lot of talk in the mainstream about self-esteem. If I had, I would have known what I was missing. After about a decade of sleep, pop psychology had only just begun to reawaken as a genre. Oprah hadn’t gone New Age yet. Nobody was grabbing TV cameras to badger us about how we had to love and accept ourselves in order to manifest abundance. The prevailing convention was: if you don’t get your validation from the outside world first, you’re fucked. I didn’t. I was fucked.

“It’s not that [art] batters you down, gets rid of barricades or opens doors. The person inside has to be accessible. There has to be a little crack already…some willingness.”
– Toni Morrison

Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Even as a minority-majority city, its history of apartheid is enough to make Maycomb, Alabama look good. Fortunately, even those with the inside edge say that race relations are a hell of a lot better now than they were back in the day. Yet, even now, there’s no denying that demarcations between black, white, Latino and even straight and gay in Chicago remain thick as prison walls, but this was even more the case when I was growing up there. Before I moved into my grandfather’s house in the Rogers Park area – an anomaly of a mixed-income neighborhood where there is an even balance of black, white, and Latino – I grew up on the lily-white northwest side, but had to commute to and from school on the south side. This meant traveling through neighborhoods as different as heaven and hell. To me, hell was my neighborhood, where manicured lawns, Cadillacs (leased or owned, nobody asked, nobody told) packing the parish parking lot, single-family homes, gay bashings, racial profiling, and the imminence of white flight were the norm. Heaven was due south of where I lived.

Down the middle of the Kennedy Expressway, the L ran past Montrose Avenue, where bungalows predominated all the way to Irving Park Road, where rabbit-warrens of courtyard apartment buildings began to appear, only for the L to descend into a tunnel and, two stops later, reemerge into a totally different locale starting in Logan Square. By now, developers have razed all those old-style tenement buildings in favor of luxury condos with upwardly mobile whites stepping out of them. When I was a kid, that area, commonly known as West Town, was a cluster of Latino barrios.

The L rode past rows of West Town buildings, where pit bulls and Dobermans patrolled tar rooftops against a preponderance of Popes and Disciples graffiti, two rival gang syndicates who dominated the city at least as much as the Daley administration. Their presence was so powerful that Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi had allegedly held negotiations with the largest gang, the El Rukins, to overthrow the American government. Some of their graffiti was on par with the best mural art of any city. Some was downright scary – pitchforks, arrow-headed letters, severed heads impaled on spikes over hellfire, coded hit-lists with names crossed out, often denoting members of a Nazi-sympathizing white gang called the Gaylords.

In the rush-hour commute, the women who boarded there stood in stark contrast to the white women from earlier stops, who sat in tailored suits, poring over open manila folders on their way to work, with smart little attaché cases on their laps. The women from the barrio stops were often stouter and sported flowing manes of highlighted hair, lacquered ceramic nails and, if they worked in offices, vivid chintz. If they had children in tow, they reined them in with a firm hand, often exclaiming, “Callate!” The men did not appear to work in offices. They were too dressed-down. There was a quietness and humbleness about them that I did not see in the white-collared white men. If they had children with him, their faces seemed to reflect a worry that my Dad often said his immigrant parents had: “How are we going to pay for it all?” For many, I’m sure there was an added trepidation, one that my grandparents didn’t have: “What if they catch us and send us back?” I used to wonder how the dinner-table conversations of each group of passengers compared and how different each group’s race and standard of living made their conversations. But I could only imagine. The walls between us all were too thick for me to actually witness what I’d wondered about.

In time, I began to notice another element emerging on those L platforms. A lot of white guys with flowing manes like the Latinas, though otherwise they looked nothing like them and were much taller. They were thin, dressed in ripped-up Am-Vets rags, often carrying leather-bound portfolios with paint smudges on them. A lot of the chicks wore Manic Panic dye jobs, pummeled leather jackets, kilt minis, skull rings and don’t-fuck-with-me glares. They did not make eye contact with anyone, though so many eyes, including mine, were right on them. Some would remain standing while the L was in motion, reading socialist digests, to stand out all the more. I saw others reading used copies of plays by authors like Samuel Beckett and Dario Fo. Many seemed lost in their headphones and I wanted to make my own coolness known whenever I could identify the bands sounding from them. Now, it’s not as though I hadn’t seen their kind before. They proliferated in somewhat less cerebral form on Belmont and in Rogers Park, where I hung out all the time. But what the hell were they doing in these Hispanic neighborhoods?

One day I was in my favorite café in Rogers Park, aptly named Ennui, where I sat writing yet another tragic ode to Sarah in my Geometry notebook. I overheard a young woman telling a matronly older woman that she’d seen a version of Medea at a storefront theater near Milwaukee and North. I screwed up my eyes, only to hear the older woman ask a question that I was too cool to admit was on my mind too: “You mean, they have theater in that neighborhood?” To which the younger woman replied: “Oh, yes. It’s the second largest artist community in the country now, next to the one in New York. You see all those starving artists walking down the streets. You wonder where they’re going. They’re just going home. These are the only places they can afford.”

That’s all I had to hear. I packed up my book bag and headed down, lighting on West Town soil for the first time. This was a place where kids from my school would never dare set foot. In search of new life, I started patrolling the West Town streets as regularly as the guard dogs did its rooftops. I couldn’t wait to grow up and live there. I decided that, since I didn’t know how to draw or play an instrument and some people had already told me I had a flair for words, writing might be a way for me to be an artist like these strange folks. I could be one of them. I decided to be a writer. It all seems so silly now, my enthrallment. But I was raised in a world where different universes paralleled and sometimes collided but never quite converged. Now it seemed, for the first time, they could.

Like I said earlier, in my teens, I avoided any and all contact with my family. Only cold silence with intermittent hot eruptions came out of me. Only cutting remarks, smirks, and bare knuckles came out of them. Our clan had all the earmarks of an Irish play.

Still, I’d accepted an invitation from my sister Colleen to her newborn son David’s christening. While my mom, Colleen, my grandfather, and my nephew posed for a photo that would show four generations in a single frame, I busied myself digging through my sister’s record collection. I’d recently entered a back-to-basics phase – one I’ve never left – after it became clear that it wasn’t working out between me and flash-in-the-pan hardcore and industrial bands. I now had every intention, for instance, of replacing that Bowie album I’d broken. Looking back, I have to say, my sister had some good stuff. There was Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love & Hate, lots of Beatles, early Lou Reed, Thin White Duke period Bowie, Songs in the Key of Life, Prince’s Dirty Mind, Dusty in Memphis, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Then my finger traced the spine of a double album that I couldn’t help but pull out and examine.

The cover bore multiple rows of old-timey black-and-white photos. Scrawled over the right margin in harlot-red lipstick were the words: ‘Rolling Stones, “Exile on Main Street.”’ I would later learn that photographer Peter Black had lifted this montage right off the walls of a redneck tattoo parlor near Harlem. It depicted circus freaks – the dwarf lady; the Siamese twins; the man-dog; the fat man in one of those old-fashioned bikini-looking one-pieces; the electric-chair survivor. There’s no denying that it also presented racist images of yesteryear’s African-American – a buffoonish picture of a black carny performer with three golf balls stuffed into the front of his mouth and a minstrel with buckwheat hair, recoiling, the whites of his eyes glaring like those of a shellshock victim. The cover was an artless paragon of Found Art controversy, a subject that would reemerge in Terry Zwigoff’s movie Ghost World (2001) with its Found Art object “Coon Chicken.” The Stones seemed to be sending the same message that Zwigoff would about thirty years later: You can’t have the past without its shadows; try whitewashing them over, they’ll just jump right up to dog your trail.

On the back cover, alongside some blown-up selections from the ugly tattoo-parlor montage, was an arrangement of surprise shots of different band members, all in black and white. Each had long, unkempt hair and the camera had often caught them with unabashed, convivial smiles on their faces. What struck me even more, though, was the inside of the grainy, black-and-white gatefold.

A movie house’s box office was papered with a collage of press photos for a Joan Crawford retrospective, one of which shows the silver-screen bitch goddess screaming in film noire terror. Imposed on the edges are liner notes, dashed off on scraps of paper, with lyrics like, “I gave you the diamonds/You give me disease,” “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes,” and “I don’t want to talk about Jesus/I just want to see his face.” Then there were other found photos of gangs of kids from the 40’s, hanging around a nickelodeon, and others of the inside of seedy old bars like the ones Nathaniel West wrote about.

But the greatest to me by far were the ones of Mick and Keith. There were studio shots of them, singing together over sheet music into a hanging microphone, bottles of bourbon in their hands. Another showed Mick in a Seventies plaid blazer outside a porn theater and then another one showed him inside of it, standing with a beer in front of an ad for a skin-flick called Sweet Taste of Joy. It showed a pair of Joker lips with a rattlesnake’s tongue darting out of it and inside the mouth was a frame of a couple fucking in the missionary position. The promo copy read: “She never knew who was COMING to dinner, but she always kept it warm.”

“I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read/Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead.”
– Bob Dylan, “Idiot Wind”

I saw Mick in the gatefold. He seemed like me. I wasn’t attractive by most standards. Neither was he. I didn’t have a conventional mind or manner. Neither did he. I had pasty skin. So did he. My lips were thick for a white boy. Few were thicker than his. The only difference was, he didn’t care. He was liberated, alive, and ugly. He flaunted it. Like Richard III, he was not “made to court an amorous looking-glass,” but he turned canons of beauty inside-out and made himself the hottest thing ever. Like I said, he was alive. As I mused on those pictures of him, I said to myself, I may be strange and ugly, but I don’t have to play dead anymore. From that day forward, Sarah never got another poem or letter out of me, nor even so much as a look, except when she’d corner me and rail about how I never paid attention to her anymore. My new fixation would be my mirror, and I would soon have a whole new soundtrack for it.

As usual, I saved my lunch money until I could afford to go to Dr. Wax record store. I found a used copy of Exile in a mile-long Stones stall. The scratches on it made each track look like spastic little heart monitor screens, but my record player had a diamond-pointed needle that could ride over even the craggiest groove and not miss a note. I already had some Stones in my collection – two years later, I’d have about two dozen of their LPs – but they were mostly compilations like Hot Rocks and Through the Past, Darkly. I didn’t have a deep sense of their discology yet. Exile had only two hits to its name, “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy,” whose titles I didn’t even recognize.

As I put the needle on the first song, I was unprepared for what was coming next. The song was “Rocks Off.” It was anything but clean. From Keith’s opening guitar licks and Mick’s first ejaculation (“Oh…yeah…”), it was raucous as all get-out, nothing smoothed-over, all jagged. All Side One sounded that way. I sat on my bed staring at my stereo, wondering what the fuck this scrawl was, how it ever made it to market, how it ever sold. I was done by Side Three. I got up and went for a walk along Lake Michigan.

By and by, as I kicked along the gravel walkway, trying to clear my head of aesthetic shock, I remembered the Bayou bass on “Sweet Black Angel.” Those tones came from somewhere deep down, somewhere only my soul, not my mind, knew. This was music from the Mississippi backwoods. I watched the waves, “Sweet Black Angel” playing in my head. I pictured swamps, crickets, long dry stalks under a menacing moon. How did these British boys capture all that? They were even farther away from it than I was. They were from the land of Tea Time, Worcestershire sauce, and crumpets. I grew up in the metropolis of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. If the Stones could do all that they did in blues, coming from where they came from, I thought, who knows what I could do with writing? If I practiced a lot like they did, opened my mind to the annals of the infinite past and attained mastery like that one song alone showed they had, then time and space could not contain me, just like it couldn’t contain them, and I myself could achieve godhead, just as they had. Maybe that album I’d just walked out on could save my life. I walked a little farther down the lakeshore, ruminating on this maybe.

I soon found myself tearing back to my bedroom in my grandfather’s house and stuck the needle back on “Rocks Off.” I lay back on my bed and let each side run roughshod over me the way I used to let more refined albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road wash over me years before my punk phase. Track by track, it busted me open in the same way I’ve read that people experience the sudden apparition of a saint. Afterwards, I even felt fearless – fearless, even as the rank outsider – almost the way people have said they do after dying and coming back to life.

Summary of Songs
I would spend hour after hour, day after day, further eroding the grooves on that record. The songs seemed to mark a jailbreak from my old condition. One could reign as both icon and outsider, the songs seemed to say.

Side One: After tearing his throat lining out on “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint,” Mick slows it down to a sultry Slim Harpo shimmy, “Hip Shake,” which made me more excited than anything ever had, even in puberty. Like a leering despoiler of roadside nymphs, he growls: “Well, I met a little girl/In a country town/She said, ‘What do you know!/There’s Slim Harpo!’/Didn’t move her head,/Didn’t move her hands/Didn’t move her lips/She shook her hips/Do the hip-shake, babe…/Shake your hip, babe!/ Shake your hip, babe!/Well, ain’t that e-e-e-easy.” Then we hit my all-time favorite Stones song, “Casino Boogie.” The vocals alone show more sass than Missy Elliott herself. Unlike any song I’ve ever heard from any time period, “Casino Boogie” seems to elevate actual sound bytes from soused speakeasy habitués to an art form – “Dietrich movies, close-up boogies/Kissing cunt in Cannes” – and Keith tears through with rhythm riffs that could shake the dead from their caskets. This takes us to the hit song, “Tumbling Dice,” which rouses the bravura backup singers who’ll resurface as a sublime gospel choir on Side Three in “Just Want to See His Face” and “Let It Loose.”

Side Two: On Side Two, the Stones do an even better job of bringing rock back to its country roots than Dylan did in his seminal John Wesley Harding (1967). It all begins with “Sweet Virginia.” A deep-south harmonica introduces this score like a clarion above the heads of an after-hours jam session on old Maxwell Street in Chicago. You can hear the band cheering Mick on as he croons: “Wadin’ through the waste stormy winter/And there’s not a friend to help you through/Tryin’ to stop the waves behind your eyeballs/Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues.” The refrain they all sing in scattered harmony essentially tells the song’s beleaguered heroine both to lighten up and to endure: “But come on, come on down, Sweet Virginia/Come on, honey child, I beg you/Come on, Come on down, you got it in ya/Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes.” This live-in-the-studio ditty leads into the polished heartbreaker “Torn and Frayed,” which, much like “Moonlight Mile” from Sticky Fingers, tells the story of a musician who seems to walk straight off the pages of a Steinbeck novel, having traveled through field, moor, mountain, and bordello, winding up all the worse for wear: “Joe’s got a cough, sounds kind of rough/Yeah, and the codeine can fix it/Doctor prescribes, drug store supplies/Who’s gonna help him to kick it?/Well his coat is torn and frayed/It’s seen much better days/Just as long as the guitar plays/Let it steal your heart away.” Next up is “Sweet Black Angel,” where Mick puts the issue of racial discrimination right on the table in a song written for his friend, Black Panther leader Angela Davis: “But the gal in danger/Yeah, de gal in chains/But she keep on pushin’/Would ya take her place?/She countin’ up de minutes/She countin’ up de days/She’s a sweet black angel/Not a sweet black slave.” Once this plea for liberation concludes, the album takes us to “Loving Cup,” where a Niagara of emotions drenches Mick’s soul as he uncharacteristically begs for the love of a woman: “I’m the man on the mountain, come on up/I’m the plowman in the valley with a face full of mud/Yes, I’m fumbling and I know my car don’t start/Yes, I’m stumbling and I know I play a bad guitar/Give me little drink from your loving cup/Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk.”

Side Three: This side starts with Keith Richards’ chart-topper, “Happy”: “Always took candy from strangers/Didn’t wanna get me no trade/Never want to be like papa/Workin’ for the boss ev’ry night and day.” Then, Mick collars us for a trip down the dark alley of ugly breakups with “Turd on the Run” – “Fell down to my knees and I hung on to your pants/You just kept on runnin’ while they ripped off in my hands/Diamond rings, Vaseline, you give me disease/Well, I lost a lot of love over you” – only to ram us right into the powerhouse polemic, “Ventilator Blues”: “When you’re trapped and circled with no second chances/Your code of living is your gun in hand/We can’t be browed by beating, we can’t be cowed by words/Messed by cheating, ain’t gonna ever learn/Ev’rybody walking ’round/Ev’rybody trying to step on their Creator/No matter where you are, ev’rybody, ev’rybody gonna/Need some kind of ventilator, some kind of ventilator/Whatcha gonna do about it?/Whatcha gonna do?/Gonna fight it?/Gonna fight it?” After Mick and Keith are done raging, the album mysteriously moves on to a whole new course, bringing us in media res into “Just Want to See His Face,” a Stones gospel song, complete with the world’s most worldly preacher and a rhapsody of swelling Siren voices: “Sometimes you need somebody, if you have somebody to love/Sometimes you ain’t got nobody and you want somebody to love/Then you don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus/You just want to see his face/You don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus/You just want to see his face.” When this song fades, another arises with the same sisters of mercy in tow, “Let It Loose,” where the cuckolded singer nurses his shattered heart: “In the bar, you’re getting drunk, I ain’t in love, I ain’t in luck/Hide the switch and shut the light, let it all come down tonight/Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger/Some face you’ll never see no more.”

Side Four: After “Let It Loose,” the album dries its tears and crescendos on Side Four with “All Down The Line,” which invokes the Harlem Renaissance: “Well, you can’t say yes and you can’t say no/Just be right there when the whistle blows/I need a sanctified mind to help me out now/Won’t you be my little baby for a while?” Next up is an electric take on Robert Johnson’s classic “Stop Breaking Down,” where Keith puts out one of the finest blues solos in all rock. Then, something happens. The album intones a pause before sliding into “Shine a Light,” rumored to have been written about Brian Jones. Here The Stones show a compassion that rarely, if ever, manifests in any of their other work: “Saw you stretched out in Room Ten O Nine/With a smile on your face and a tear right in your eye/Oh, couldn’t see to get a line on you, my sweet honey love/Berber jewelry jangling down the street/Making bloodshot eyes at every woman that you meet/Couldn’t seem to get a high on you, my sweet honey love/May the good Lord shine a light on you/Make every song your favourite tune/May the good Lord shine a light on you/Warm, like the evening sun.” The album ends with the ball-buster, “Soul Survivor”: “Running right on the rocks/I’ve taken all of the knocks/You ain’t giving me no quarter/I’d rather drink seawater/ I wish I’d never have brought you/It’s gonna be the death of me.”

Exile is the pinnacle of a series of masterpieces that the Stones released over a four-year period, beginning with Beggars Banquet (1968) and continuing with Let It Bleed (1969), Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out (live, 1970), and Sticky Fingers (1971). Unlike Exile, however, all the other albums in the series were highly stylized and even commercialized. Not that the Stones weren’t interested in making money off Exile. In fact, they launched a sold-out North American tour for it, featuring a young Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner, that became the subject of Cocksucker Blues. But, for one reason or another, they let it rip with Exile and took no pains to rub down its rough edges. The album bears no resemblance to the band’s pre-Beggars Banquet outputs, not even the early Blues covers. It’s the damndest shame that the Stones would never again match the vision, energy or talent displayed in this treasury of rough cuts. But, then again, neither has anyone else.

“It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for living.”
– Simone De Beauvoir

My Life, Post-Exile
I might never fully understand the shifts that took place inside myself after finding Exile on Main Street. But I can say it marked a transformation of consciousness, deep, sudden, and pervasive – a bona fide peak experience, a miracle, the likes of which I have never again experienced, not even after years of meditation practice. Was it an enlightenment experience? Not to the extent that I suddenly knew everything or that I would never suffer again, not by the longest of long shots. But it was the beginning of warts-and-all self-acceptance without which I would have surely taken my life long ago.

To me, Exile was the essence of honesty. Seeing Mick’s unadorned photos and hearing his raw voice helped me to start looking at myself for who I truly was, rather than for who I wished I could be. I would soon decide to come out – first as bi, then as gay – and let the chips fall where they may with my family and everyone else, though it meant enduring others’ denial and denigration of the truth. Instead of spending my lunch money on the latest records at Wax Trax, I spent more and more time and pocket change on self-education, scouring used book stores and sitting through old Hollywood matinees and foreign films at the Music Box. I no longer feared being cast out of Eden or forever blacklisted from the in-crowd. I knew to the core of my being that all that had already happened long ago, so there was no need to worry about whether I could reclaim a seat at a table to which I’d never been invited in the first place. Exile on Main Street is a north star for exiles from the mainstream, helping us to navigate emotional valleys with integrity, verve, and dignity.

Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY.