Exile, the Stones, Diane Arbus, & Robert Frank

With the Stones re-release of Exile on Main Street this week,  I've found myself thinking about how closely tied in this album is with my own relationship to the medium of photography.  In the summer of 1971, the Rolling Stones were down in the south of France, recording the basic tracks for Exile.  That same summer - on July 26,1971 - Diane Arbus took her own life in her apartment at Westbeth in New York City. Within months of her tragic death - "late fall of 1971" -  plans were already underway for a book and a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art.  This according to Neil Selkirk, who personally made all the prints for the exhibition at Diane Arbus' own darkroom on 29 Charles Street in the West Village (His fascinating essay that is the centerpiece in the "Diane Arbus Revelations" catalog is must reading). 

Meanwhile back in the south of France that fall, the Stones had just finished up recording  the basic tracks in Keith Richards' rented villa, and headed to Los Angeles for a few months to add background vocals and instrumental tracks. And in early 1972, according to Exile's cover designer John Van Hamersveld, at a meeting with Robert Frank, Mick Jagger, and Marshall Chess, it was decided to proceed with the concept of creating a cover based upon Robert Frank's  photographs of a "tatoo parlor" wall, incorporating new photographs of the Stones with some of Robert Frank's photographs from his masterpiece The Americans. That photograph of the "tattoo parlor" wall, was probably taken at Hubert's Museum in Times Square, where Diane Arbus frequented and took many of her photographs in the late 1950's. In fact one of those photographs on the "tattoo parlor " wall - of Hezekiah Trambles, "The Jungle Freak" - was indeed taken by Diane Arbus who at the time was friends with Robert Frank. It would be published in Esquire in 1960, and a print was probably given to Hezekiah Trambles by Diane Arbus.  

In New York, in the spring of 1972, Neil Selkirk began the incredible task of printing for the Diane Arbus exhibition and Aperture monograph that would stun the photography world that fall.   What's incredible is how quickly this exhibition was pieced together - a testament to Diane Arbus' extreme talent and her friends' love and admiration. Diane Arbus died in July 1971, and the Museum of Modern Art show opened in November of 1972 - just 16 months! The Stones finally released Exile on Main Street in May of 1972. Undoubtedly Selkirk was hearing the strains of "Happy" and "Tumbling Dice" while completing the prints for the exhibition that summer.

In Boston during the winter of 1972, I was taking my first photography course in Boston, which led me down to New York City to see the Diane Arbus exhibition at MOMA that changed my life. I remember it being an intense experience, with crowds lined up to see the photographs. But it was the line up of the photographs themselves on the wall, and the monograph catalog that I left with that day that changed the direction of my life and my whole way of seeing.  And I'm sure it changed the dynamic of all who passed through the Museum of Modern Art that winter of 1972 - think of the New York Dolls, think of Richard Hell, think of Robert Mapplethorpe, think of Patti Smith, to name a few - all of whom were no doubt also listening to the Stones Exile on Main Street.  I was headed for a career in photography by 1973, studying at Imageworks in East Cambridge Massachusetts, where I was exposed to the work of Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Brassai, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, to name a few. It was there that I saw my first copy of Robert Frank's "The Lines Of My Hand". 

In June of 1972, Robert Frank began filming the Rolling Stones on their tour of America, for his documentary "Cocksucker Blues", which despite Exile's 38 year history, has never been released - though parts of it have made their way into the new Exile bonus documentary. The Rolling Stones kept Cocksucker Blues itself in exile - Robert Frank's documentary was considered too sordid to be released to the public. On April 14th of 1975, while I was still in East Cambridge, I made my way with friends to Wellesley College where my new hero Robert Frank was speaking and showing his photographs. This turned out to be four days after the death of his mentor, the great photographer Walker Evans. His daughter Andrea had recently died in a plane crash. I remember his sadness as he related both those things to us. What he showed us that night, was one reel of "Cocksucker Blues". What he said about Mick Jagger was not very flattering - it had to do with power and fame and the artistic process. I didn't know it then, but I had caught Robert Frank on a particular night at a particular moment in his lifetime. What he said that day in Wellesley (he had been there for an afternoon seminar as well) is quoted extensively in the large catalog that accompanied his recent stunning exhibition at the National Gallery, "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans." (I suggest you hunt down online "Photography Within the Humanities" published 1977 by Addison House, which has all the quotes from the Robert Frank seminar that day). 

At the end of 1975, I moved to New York City to look for work in photography. When I found it, I began looking for a place to hear music and have drinks. That turned out to be CBGB's. And one night in 1977, while I was hanging out at CBGB's and shooting photographs in the style of Robert Frank (I was trying to turn the CBGB jukebox into all those jukeboxes in The Americans), the man himself came walking through the door .  I had no idea at the time that he was living just steps away on Bleecker Street near the Bowery. All I knew was that Robert Frank just walked in past me. I was stunned. He said to me in his Swiss accent - "It seems dat it's important de way people dress here". Dead on. Later, when I was asked who that guy I was talking to was, and I tried to explain that it was Robert Frank - "you know,  The Americans" - I got no response. This was not exactly a room full of photography freaks. But when I mentioned Exile on Main Street, which was quite a touchstone album at that time for all of us at CBGB's, and that he did the cover, the response was "Wow - What was his name again?".  I told that story in "Please Kill Me."

In those days, the Stones were better known for hanging out at Studio 54, and were being overtaken by the punks in NY and London, who were recording and packaging themselves in the style of Exile. John Lydon would later confess to Exile designer John Van Hamersveld, that "the Exile package would set the image of punk in 1975 - we used that graphic feel to communicate our image graphically".  And by1978 the Stones would steal that image from themselves, waking up out of their slumber to record and package the LP "Some Girls". 

So here I am now in 2010, sitting and thinking about how all of these things have been swirling around my relationship with photography and music for years. I cannot separate the sounds of Exile from the photographic places I have been. My original LP cover is an artifact that is half Stones, half Robert Frank, with a bit of Diane Arbus mixed in - a photography book and a record cover all in one. Now a bit "Torn and Frayed", just like me. Hey, may I suggest that Aperture do a deluxe re-release of the Diane Arbus monograph, one of the greatest photo books of all time?

special thanks to these sites:  RockPopGallery   FansInAFlashbulb      showHistoryHuberts

Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum, St.Augustine FL 1995

Tattoo Parlor, NYC circa1958 by Robert Frank

Diane Arbus, Esquire magazine July 1960

Robert Frank, NYC 1980

Rolling Stones, NYC 1980


  1. Fuckin' A, this is your best piece yet. I'll send a link when I put up my post tying all the Exile artwork links together.

  2. This was a great read. Thank you .

  3. You put The Stones where they belong, in the background [for this article]. Thank you for focusing on what was significant. How very rare it is to find...