KEITH RICHARDS & GRAM PARSONS 1971 | SUMMER IN EXILE @ VILLA NELLCOTE

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In the summer of ’71, The Rolling Stones, seeking shelter from their UK tax woes, exiled to the South of France.  Keith Richards set up house with Anita Pallenberg and their son Marlon in Villa Nellcôte– a 16 room waterfront mansion that once served as Gestapo headquarters for the Nazis during WWII.  The infamy continued with it now best remembered among rock fans as the grand flop-house where Exile On Main Street was recorded.

French photographer Dominique Tarle chronicled perhaps the most notorious house party ever, and had full access to goings-on over a period of six crazy months.  He later recounted to the New York Times– ”They built a studio in the basement of Keith’s house because the band knew it would be easiest for Keith,” says Dominique Tarlé, 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… 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.”

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Keith Richards & Gram Parsons

Keith Richards & Gram Parsons

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During that time, Keith Richards & Gram Parsons were close friends– with Gram feeding Richards a steady diet of country music influence.  They both were pretty wrecked most of the time on anything from marijuana, cocaine, heroine, you name it, to plain ol’ booze.  Keith Richards recalls–

“I first met Gram in 1968, when the Byrds were appearing in London — I think it was a club called Blazes. I knew the Byrds from Mr. Tambourine Man; the Stones had worked some shows in California with them back then. But when I saw them at Blazes with Gram, I could see this was a radical turn. I went backstage, and we hooked up. Then the Byrds came through London again, on their way to South Africa. I was like, ‘Man, we don’t go there.’ The sanctions and the embargo were on. So he quit the Byrds, right there and then. Of course, he’s got nowhere to stay, so he moved in with me.”

“As a songwriter, Gram worked very much like I do, which is knock out a couple of chords, start to spiel and see how far it can go. Rather than sitting around with a piece of paper and a pen, trying to make things fit neatly together, if you just get on the microphone, things come to you. Lines come to you that you wouldn’t dream of, because they have to come to you in a split second. Gram liked to do that. But he would also work very hard — harder than I ever did — on honing it down.  It’s difficult for me to pick one of his songs as a favorite. Sin City, on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ first album, is great. I love I Can’t Dance, on GP. But you’ll never get a full portrait of him from one or two songs.”

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Anita Pallenberg (far left), Keith Richards, Gram Parsons & Gretchen Parsons.  Reflected in the mirror is Dominique Tarle, the French photographer who shot The Rolling Stones that summer at Nellcote while they were recording Exile on Main Street.

Anita Pallenberg (far left), Keith Richards, Gram Parsons & Gretchen Parsons. Reflected in the mirror is Dominique Tarle, the French photographer who shot The Rolling Stones that summer at Nellcote while they were recording Exile on Main Street.

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“Mick and Gram never really clicked, mainly because the Stones are such a tribal thing. At the same time, Mick was listening to what Gram was doing. Mick’s got ears. Sometimes, while we were making Exile on Main Street in France, the three of us would be plonking away on Hank Williams songs while waiting for the rest of the band to arrive. Gram had the biggest repertoire of country songs you could imagine. He was never short of a song.”

“The drugs and drinking — he was no better or worse than the rest of us. He just made that one fatal mistake — taking that one hit after he cleaned up, still thinking he could take the same amount. And it was too f*cking much. But he didn’t get into dope because of us. He knew his stuff before he met us.  I think he was just getting into his stride when he died (In ’73 Gram Parsons fatally overdosed from a lethal combo of morphine and alcohol). His actual output — the number of records he made and sold — was pretty minimal. But his effect on country music is enormous. This is why we’re talking about him now. But we can’t know what his full impact could have been.”

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Keith Richards, Gram Parsons, Anita Pallenberg (and crew) outside of Villa Dellcote, 1971.

Keith Richards, Gram Parsons, Anita Pallenberg (and crew) outside of Villa Nellcote, 1971.

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Gram Parsons tagged along with the Rolling Stones on their 1971 tour, hoping they’d sign him to their newly formed Rolling Stones Records to record a duo album with Richards. Parsons extended his stay by moving himself into Villa Nellcôte during the recording of Exile on Main Street, and from most accounts he was routinely smashed and feuding with his girlfriend a lot– aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell, who would later become his wife. Eventually Pallenberg had enough and kicked Parsons out.  Some say that he appears somewhere on Exile on Main Street– Richards believes that Gram Parsons is most likely among the chorus of singers on Sweet Virginia, but no one truly knows. After parting from Richards and The Stones in France, Parsons attempted to reconnect on their 1972 tour– but with no luck.

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Keith Richards on guitar with Gram Parsons attentively tuning in despite Anita Pallenberg and crew in the background.

Keith Richards on guitar with Gram Parsons attentively tuning in despite Anita Pallenberg and crew in the background.

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Gram Parsons starting spending more and more time at a place that had long been dear to him– Joshua Tree National Monument. He’d spend days there on LSD getting lost, chasing UFOs, whatever. Tragically it was there that Parsons overdosed in ’73 at the age of 26.  According to to girlfriend Margaret Fisher’s account in the 2005 biography Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons by Jessica Hundley, the amount of morphine consumed by Parsons would be lethal to three addicts– it’s thought that he’d likely overestimated his tolerance considering his past experience with opiates.

Parson’s stepfather arranged for a private ceremony back in New Orleans, and neglected to invite any of his friends from the music industry.  In a strange turn of events, Parsons’ body somehow disappeared from LAX before it could be shipped to New Orleans for burial. You see, prior to his death Parsons stated that he wished to be cremated at Joshua Tree and have his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there.  To fulfill Parsons’ “funeral” wishes, Phil Kaufman and a friend stole his body from LAX and drove it in a hearse to Joshua Tree– where they attempted to cremate it by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. Police chased them, but according to one account they were unencumbered by sobriety and got away. The two were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined around $750 for stealing the coffin, and were surprisingly not prosecuted for leaving 35 lbs of Gram Parsons’ charred remains in the desert.

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Keith Richards & Gram Parsons, summer of 1971.

Keith Richards & Gram Parsons, summer of 1971.

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Keith Richards on Gram Parsons’ passing–

“In a way, it’s a matter of lost love. Gram was everything you wanted in a singer and a songwriter. He was fun to be around, great to play with as a musician. And that motherf*cker could make chicks cry. I have never seen another man who could make hardened old waitresses at the Palomino Club in L.A. shed tears the way he did. “

“It was all in the man. I miss him so.”

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Keith Richards, Anita Pallenberg and their son Marlon-- headed in their Cadillac to the port of Villefranche for some fun on the sea.

Keith Richards, Anita Pallenberg and their son Marlon-- headed in their Cadillac to the port of Villefranche for some fun on the sea.

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Anita Pallenberg entered The Rolling Stones’ lives when in 1965 a friend took her to Munich for one of their concerts, and they worked their way backstage. Anita offered The Stones some hash, but they said they couldn’t smoke before a concert– though Brian Jones was ‘kind enough’ to invite her to his hotel room afterwards. They stayed together for two years but he was increasingly abusive, drunk and paranoid. On holiday in Morocco in 1967, Keith saw Brian beating Anita up and grabbed her, threw her in his car and took her back to England. She from then on lived with Keith Richards.

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Anita Pallenberg's personal style was said to rub off on The Stones and influenced the bands look.

Anita Pallenberg's personal style was said to rub off on The Stones and influenced the bands look. I kind of look at her as an early, "dirty" version of Tory Burch.

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Life with the Stones was fun at the beginning, Anita Pallenberg says, because they were always playing music– but soured once they became a huge money-making machine. She says she didn’t even see them that much, “because at that time no girls were allowed in the studio when they were recording. You weren’t allowed even to ring. I did other things, I didn’t sit at home.”

What she did do– a few films, lots of drugs and tons of screwing around…

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Anita Pallenberg proved to be a handful, for even Keith Richards.

Wild and insatiable Anita Pallenberg proved to be a handful, even for Keith Richards.

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Author A. E. Hotchner has this to say about Anita Pallenberg’s influence on the development and presentation of The Rolling Stones from the late 1960s and through the 1970s– She played an unusual role in the male-dominated world of rock music in the late 1960s, acting as much more than just a groupie or partner of a band member.  Mick Jagger apparently respected her opinion enough that tracks on Beggars Banquet were remixed when Pallenberg criticised them.  In the 2002 compilation release of Forty Licks, Pallenberg is credited as singing background vocals on Sympathy for the Devil.

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Anita Pallenberg is often cited as The Rolling Stones' style muse-- seen here showing the boys how 1970s Bohemian chic is done.

Anita Pallenberg is often cited as The Rolling Stones' style muse-- seen here showing the boys how 1970s Bohemian chic is done.

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Throughout the decade that Anita Pallenberg was Richards’ companion in vice, her interest in the occult was a featured style component that marked The Stones concerts and public presentation.  Tony Sanchez’s account of his time as Richards’ bodyguard and drug dealer mentions Pallenberg’s strange spiritual practices– “She was obsessed with black magic and began to carry a string of garlic with her everywhere — even to bed—to ward off vampires. She also had a strange mysterious old shaker for holy water which she used for some of her rituals. Her ceremonies became increasingly secret, and she warned me never to interrupt her when she was working on a spell.”

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Keith Richards & Anita Pallenberg, summer of 1971.keith richards

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Anita Pallenberg more than shared Richards’ drug addiction and was charged in the 1977 Toronto heroin arrest that almost destroyed The Rolling Stones. A warrant for her arrest was the reason that police came to search Richards and Pallenberg’s hotel rooms; she pled guilty to marijuana possession and was fined, several weeks after Richards’ headline-grabbing arrest.  Richards and Pallenberg separated on the advice of Richards’ lawyers, who believed that if they stayed together, they would end up in more serious trouble. Richards stated that he still loved Anita and saw her as much as he ever did, despite his relationship with his future wife Patti Hansen. In a 1985 Rolling Stone interview, Mick Jagger claimed that Pallenberg “nearly killed me“, when he was asked whether The Rolling Stones had any responsibility for the personal drug addictions of people close to the band.

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Mick Jagger & Keith Richards  --Villa summer, 1971.

Mick Jagger & Keith Richards --Villa Nellcote, summer of 1971.

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There were persisting rumors that Anita Pallenburg also had a brief affair with Keith Richards’ band-mate Mick Jagger while the two worked together during the filming of Performance, although Pallenberg denies this.  Personally, I wouldn’t put it past either of them, if you know what I mean.  They both were easy pickin’ back then.

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exile on main street keith richards villa nellcote

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Above left is Keith Richards with the recording equipment truck used to record Exile on Main Street at Villa Nellcote, and to the right is Richards standing by the massive iron front doors at Villa Nellcote. Note the commentary in regard to the swastikas that were reportedly throughout the Mansions on the floor vents.

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Keith Richards  --Villa Nellcote, summer of 1971.

Keith Richards gets the last laugh --Villa Nellcote, summer of 1971.

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24 thoughts on “KEITH RICHARDS & GRAM PARSONS 1971 | SUMMER IN EXILE @ VILLA NELLCOTE

  1. Good post, I have always been interested in this time for the Stones, the drugs the decadence…The album that came out of this time period is indeed classic, described by many as the first “garage album”, whatever the hell that means.

  2. Pingback: The Rolling Stones in Exile | Villa Nellcote, Summer of 1971 « Black Watch

      • Nickname, quick when I was a toddler, not so much now as I approach 50. I was drawn to your site through the motorcycle articles, I ride. Those articles were very good as well, love the nostalgia.
        Count me in, JP.

        Scott

  3. Great post, as usual. For an in-depth description of this period in the stones, definitely check out Robert Greenfield’s book on the making of Exile. Also, check out (it’s rare, but may be on Youtube) the tour documentary “C-sucker Blues” (1972), in which the Mick and Keith listen to acetates of the forthcoming album.

    Always love Stones posts, could discuss their history all day and night.

  4. i think the killer slim bod goes a long way for making anita look particularly awesome and very rock n roll.

    great post. those black and white “real” photos are pretty special aren’t they?! the digital camera does all sorts of things, but there is something about the old images…they had a kind of sexy inner quality that hints at something…but i dunno what.

  5. This crazy time, these crazy people. You do it justice, sir. Poetic. Polished. Perfect. Thank you for sharing these photos. Some of them, I’ve wanted to have electronically for a long, long time. The one of Mick et Keef at the dinner table, classic.

  6. Nice post, Exile is my favorite record. And funny enough, Phil Kaufman is a friend of mine. He’s a founding member of the British motorcycle club I’m in. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: Summer in Exile | Say Mayday

  8. “In Twenty Thousand Roads” by David N. Meyer, it states that Gram Parsons was jealous of “Stash” hitting on his old lady, and Keith Richards had to show Gram the door due to his excessive Herion use. Gram became a liability,that the Stones couldn’t deal with.But according to the book Gram was off the sh*t for a few months, before the fatal morphine dose. Who Knows?

  9. Great piece! I was in the biz and have written with Jim Lauderdale-a big fan of Grams. He was definatley clean from July 1973 until that Joshua night in Sept.1973. It was in the stars.

  10. I represent all of the *incredible* photography above by Dominique Tarle and Ethan Russell … among many many others. Please send me a note at shannon@sfae.com if you are interested in more information or details on pricing and edition sizes.

  11. Pingback: MARIANNE FAITHFULL | SISTER MORPHINE « The Selvedge Yard

  12. Amazing photos and thanks for the detailed article…one thing – you say that Gram’s girlfriend Margaret Fisher wrote Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons – but it was actually me. Margaret gave Gram’s daughter Polly and I an amazing interview for the book however and is certainly an eloquent source of Gram history. Thanks for keeping that history alive!

  13. Pingback: 1969 DESERT TRIPPIN’ | GRAM PARSONS, ANITA PALLENBERG & KEITH RICHARDS « The Selvedge Yard

  14. Pingback: THE ROLLING STONES | ROAD WORN, FORLORN & ALMIGHTY GUITAR PORN « The Selvedge Yard

  15. Dear JP
    I’ve been reading your blog for some days now and all I can say is that I’m blown away. Incredible stuff. I’ve always been into 60s-70s style and music, but your photos and articles really broadened my horizon!
    Too bad many of the pictures in this one don’t seem to work – a fix would be very much appreciated ;-)

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