||Let's face it: if most men had their choice, they would choose to be Mick Jagger -- bundles of cash and sultry South American girlfriends, not to mention the ability to gyrate to ''Jumpin' Jack Flash'' in front of 50,000 people in a pink satin suit and still be cool. Steelier men would probably opt to be Keith Richards. Now so weathered that he almost resembles a stubbed-out cigarette, Richards is and has always been the R & B ringleader, the boogie-woogie bluesman, the poet, the genius behind the Rolling Stones.
Keith Richards playing his acoustic Gibson Hummingbird guitar.
That's why, 30 years ago, when the band fled to the French Riviera in tax exile, it was Keith who orchestrated the making of ''Exile on Main Street'' -- their rawest, most energetic album. He set up housekeeping at the Villa Nellcote, with Anita Pallenberg and their son, Marlon, while the other band members rented places nearby. Besides the cash flow problems, there was plenty of pressure. By 1971, the Stones had released three of rock 'n' roll's best albums back to back: ''Beggars Banquet,'' ''Let It Bleed'' and ''Sticky Fingers.''
''They built a studio in the basement of Keith's house because the band knew it would be easiest for Keith,'' says the photographer Dominique Tarle, who had an all-access pass inside the villa for six months. Engineers and technicians slept over, illegal power lines from the French railway system juiced their instruments, and when the temperature hit 100, they rehearsed with their pants off. A carnival of characters paraded through: Terry Southern, Gram Parsons, John Lennon, even a tribal band from Bengal, the Bauls. There were dope dealers from Marseille; petty thieves, who stole most of the drugs and half the furniture; and hangers-on, all of them there to witness what was happening in that humid, hellish basement. Tarle collected his photographs in a signed, limited edition of 2,000 that Genesis Publications has released under the title ''Exile'' (www. genesis-publications.com). As Robert Greenfield, a journalist who visited the villa, recalls in the book:
TOP At their own home, Château du Roi, Mick Jagger serenades his new wife, Bianca, who kept her distance from Keith's rock 'n' roll commune at Villa Nellcôte. BOTTOM Keith skips pebbles into the Mediterranean.
The scene at Villa Nellcote was most definitely straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald by way of Noel Coward and W. Somerset Maugham with a bit of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs tossed in for fun, and the Shirelles always playing loudly in the background and kids all over the place. Personally, I take continuing pleasure in the fact that Keith himself has steadfastly refused to die before he got old. For as he might be the first to tell you about Villa Nellcote -- That place had one hell of a view, man.
As always, the last word on the subject belongs to Anita. At Nellcote one day, in an accent which only Marlene Dietrich and Nico have come close to approximating, she plaintively said to me, ''Vy is it no one ever says goodbye?'' Back then, this was not a question which I could answer. But now I think I can.
Keith on his boat
At Villa Nellcote, no one ever said goodbye because the party never ended. Inside those high black wrought iron gates, time had no meaning. All days of the week were the same. Whenever you walked in through the big front door, the same people were sitting in the same chairs getting high and laughing at everything just as they had the week before.
In my mind, they are still there now -- Frozen in time, never to grow old, everyone still sits for hours around that long table in the dining room drinking far too much Blanc de Blanc as Keith strums the chords of ''The Jerk,'' by the Larks, over and over again.
[Edited by CS]