There is no way to guess today that, behind this fence on a narrow street beside the train tracks between Nice and Monaco, hides one of the legendary places of rock’n’roll. Only the sign that reads Villa Nellcote will reveal to fans and scholars that this is the mansion where, 50 years ago, the Rolling Stones recorded their double album Exile on Main St.
That summer of 1971 was chaotic and brilliant in the coastal town of Villefranche-sur-Mer and on the peninsula of Cap Ferrat, where the mansion is located. There were months of unrestrained: dozens of people coming and going through the august portal, delinquents from the marginalia of Marseille mixed with a jet set of young millionaires, endless nights of recording in an unbreathable underground during the heat of summer. The conjunction of disorder and talent brought to light Exile on Main St., perhaps the Stones’ best album, an inspired compendium of traditional American music, blues and country.
But there was something more to those songs, something in the spirit of the time, according to journalist Robert Greenfield, who interviewed Keith Richards, guitarist for the English band, at Villa Nellcote, and later wrote several books about the Stones, including one about his stay at the Costa Azul and the classic A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones (A Journey through America with the Rolling Stones). “It’s possible it was the first album made about the seventies in the seventies,” says Greenfield of California. “What it reflects is the confusion in a world that was leaving the hippie era and entering an era of heavier drugs, heavier politics, a chaos different from the previous one, with less hope and less optimism”.
Now the publisher Le mot et le reste publishes in French Les Rolling Stones et Nellcote (The Rolling Stones at Nellcote), a history of the mansion from its construction in the late 19th century until today written by journalist Benoît Jarry and genealogist Florence Viard. The book includes images of Dominique Tarlé, who lived in Nellcote for half a year and left an intimate testimony of that building. La Galérie de l’Instant, in Nice, exhibits Tarlé’s photographs until September 19 and publishes La Villa, a catalog with the photographer’s text, one of the characters, like Greenfield, from the varied dramatis personae who paraded through that Villa full of stories that nurtured the Estonian legend.
One such legend claimed that during World War II the Villa Nellcote housed a Gestapo headquarters. “There’s no proof,” Jarry says in a phone interview. “The Germans closed the Cap Ferrat peninsula. Some houses were occupied and suffered degradation. But Nellcote clearly didn’t. Perhaps only sporadically, for a time to watch the bay, but certainly nothing else”.
Like some millionaire YouTubers many years later, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and company fled their country’s tax authorities and “exiled” in the south of France. It was the spring of 1971. Each one settled in a different place in the region. Richards, with his partner, actress Anita Pallenberg, and their son, Marlon, rented Villa Nellcote, a majestic house with a leafy garden, direct access to the sea and views of the bay. “I woke up thinking: is this my house?”, writes the guitarist in his memoirs, entitled Life. “There existed a magnificence deserved after the mediocrity of Great Britain.”
Tarlé, a young photographer who obsessively followed rock stars, explains in La Villa who learned of the Rolling Stones’ new country of residence, to those he knew, and one morning appeared at the door of chez Richards. “We had lunch together, as a family”, he recalls. “I spent the afternoon taking pictures and, after dinner, I thanked everyone for that wonderful time. But then Keith told me, ‘Your room is ready.’ I went upstairs to sleep and stayed with them for six months”.
Tarlé witnessed family life, with Richards getting up at seven in the morning to give Marlon breakfast, take him to the Monaco zoo, and ride in a boat named after the drug Mandrax. Things soon fell apart. Richards recounts in his memoirs that he had an accident at a go-kart track and the doctor gave him morphine, which revived, he says, his heroin addiction. The expatriate family’s life broke into a thousand pieces: the truck with a mobile recording studio arrived from England and in mid-June the night improvisation sessions began.
Greenfield was in Cannes, covering the film festival for the magazine Rolling Stone, and the magazine commissioned him to interview Richards. It was two weeks. The following year would cover the legendary tour of the United States. “It was like being in King Arthur’s court,” he recalls. “I was with the aristocracy. The rest didn’t know who you were, but if you were with Keith, it was somebody. And it killed a lot of people who wanted to be like Keith, dress like him, get high like him, and none of them are still around. I was always working and that’s what kept me safe. When I finished work, I left”.
a little happy ending
Keith’s and his troop’s stay in Nellcote ended in the worst possible way. It was autumn when someone came in to rob the house and took nine guitars and several saxophones. The other day there was a fire in Anita and Keith’s room. In November, convinced that they were at risk of ending up arrested and tried in France on drug issues, they fled to Los Angeles, where they would finish the record.
The mansion, at the time, had become a focus of consumption and trafficking. In the neighboring village, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, the owner of a café in the port, who was in her early twenties in 1971, says that some young people in the area were swept away by the turmoil. “It did damage,” he says on the same terrace where Richards and Anita drank pastis, the typical Marseilles liqueur, as seen in Tarlé’s old photos.
All that is already far away. Today the bathers who go to the nearby beach pass in front of the mansion, indifferent to what was cooked inside during the golden age of rock. The current owners, the family of Russian oligarch Viktor Rashnikov, have placed a black screen on the iron-bar gate to preserve intimacy. A surveillance camera. When journalists ring the bell, a light is turned on and the gate opens. A heavyset man appears and explains that he is responsible for security, his name is Álex, he is Romanian and the owners are inside and will not allow him access.
At another moment, a woman passes by, doing curious jumps, running and dancing at the same time while the song is played from portable speakers Ole Torero, by Luis Mariano. He is 71 years old and says that running and dancing at the same time is his way of exercising. The Rolling Stones? Do’nt know. “Here lived an actress, I think,” he says. “Tina Turner?”
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