Exile on Brain Street, Part I: A Rock & Roll Story Media, politics and tech have put too many into intellectual exile — and it’s time we came out of it.

(Originally published 1/20/17 on Medium.com)

“I hear you talking when I’m on the street,

Your mouth don’t move but I can hear you speak.

What’s the matter with the boy?

He don’t come around no more,

Is he checking out for sure?

Is he gonna close the door on me?”

—The Rolling Stones, “Rocks Off”

“What did you want to take my dad?” I hop into my dad’s car and he doesn’t even try to hide his curiosity about the gift I told him I wanted to visit the cemetery to leave with my grandfather.

“A drink,” I reply, holding up a flask. It’s my first chance to visit the cemetery with my father since Fidel Castro passed — it’s been about a week. In case you didn’t know this already, I’m a second-generation Cuban-American, y soy guajiro.

The spartan green flask is filled to the cap with Havana Club — El Ron de Cuba. Fitting. Founded in 1934, it was one of the many businesses nationalized at the heels of Castro’s revolution in 1959. For those new to how La Revolución worked, ‘nationalized’ means a guy or forty show up in a guerrilla uniforms with rifles slung across their backs, and they take your land and everything on it. In the name of the revolution.

They keep taking to the tune of $25 billion worth of private property and assets owned by 1960 (that’s Cubans only, excluding foreign-owned assets). Cuba was a nation of 7.1 million in 1960. That’s roughly $3,520 per person. Adjust for inflation, and that’s over $28,000 in buying power, per person. On a Caribbean island.

But I digress. Back to the rum. Havana Club is the 5th-best selling rum worldwide, but it’s not available in the United States. However, it commonly makes its way into the US via travelers — which is how I came to have a bottle. It was a 30th birthday present from a Chilean friend that had just visited family back home.

That’s how most Cuban-Americans like me have grown up: relegated to experiencing anything Cuba might have to offer through the offerings and anecdotes of others. This is the great disconnect of the experience of exile: your roots become something you can almost never experience first-hand.

You can’t go home again, and so on.

Anyway, I shared most of the bottle with friends, and poured the last bit into that green flask — intent on slipping it into a jean pocket before sliding out the door on some forgotten Miami night.

The forgotten night I imagined in my mind never came. Instead, the flask sat atop my bar for nearly two years, waiting for some unknown moment.

When Castro passed, I thought of my grandfather’s sacrifices to get my family from Cuba to the United States. I thought about how, with a third-grade education and not able to speak a word of English, he provided a home my grandmother still lives in and put two sons through college. And I knew who I had been saving the rum for, because I never really got the chance to thank him.

Abuelo Pablo

As we draw closer to our destination, my dad reminisces on how he was my age, 31, when his father passed away at 66. He tells me something he’s never shared before:

“He waited for me — when he was dying. He asked my mom to call me, because he wanted to hear my voice.” After they spoke for a moment, my grandfather passed away with my father on the line.

We sit in silence as we approach the cemetery gates. I don’t ask what they spoke of. What mattered was that my grandfather waited — and my father picked up.


— Keith Richards, Stones in Exile, 2010

Since Trump’s election, every would-be professor with a blog and History 1101 on their transcript has drawn parallels between Trump’s rise and the downfall of the Roman Empire. In a word:


In a few more words, spare me the comparison between the guy who brought America this:

and Julius Caesar. There is no poignant parallel to be drawn between the guy in that video and the guy who crossed the Rubicon, started and won a civil war, was proclaimed “dictator in perpetuity” and ruled until the Roman Senate decided the only way to get rid of him was to assassinate him.

Spare us the cliche, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper,” subtext. I can appreciate that “the empire is falling” is catchy headline fodder. But the man in that video hasn’t actually done anything in office yet, he’s no general and no one thinks we’ll have to kill him to get rid of him. With the right candidate, Trump is sent packing in 2020.

More importantly: with the right electorate, Trump is sent packing in 2020.

It might be premature to talk about candidates for 2020. But it’s not too early to start a conversation about how we need to evolve as an electorate.

Through the popularity of both Trump and Bernie Sanders, what we previously thought impossible in our political world was shown to be possible. This is true whether you believe that’s for better or worse.

What’s the good news? We are no longer obliged to be bound by preconceptions or political dogma about what kind of candidate or ideas are best. Leveraging that reality represents injecting new life into a democracy showing signs of aging.

What’s the bad news? We have some pressing questions to answer. There’s a rising tide of misinformation and ideological entrenchment spreading across our country and beyond.

It’s happening in tandem with — and to some extent has been caused by — being exposed to more information than we often have the ability or time to stop and think rationally about.

We are being presented with practical societal problems requiring fluid approaches and critical thinking — two skills many of us have neglected to a greater and greater degree as we’ve become more and more ideologically entrenched.

We’ve lost the ability to speak with clarity about many issues. That’s so for many reasons, so no need to try and reductively pin it down to one. What’s one clarity-killer this election cycle was a clear repudiation of? Political correctness.

I hate political correctness as much as the next guy. So removing it as a requirement from the Office of the President sounds good, right?

Maybe not if what takes the place of yesterday’s politically correct leaders is a President that takes to Twitter to personally retort with an ad hominem attack to every jab someone with an IMDb page takes at him, uses press conferences as a bully pulpit to belittle and mock reporters trying to provide the American people with a free press, and rationalizes war crimes. And does all of this before getting started with — you know — the actual job.

That being the state of affairs, the fall of the Roman Empire is a fitting analogy for what happens under President Trump only in some journalistic reality that escapes me. So does the world in which it’s fun to read or write about analogies between world history and Donald J. Trump.

So let’s do it a little differently. Let’s not make a parallel between the politicians and historical cliches we’re all tired of talking and hearing about.

Let’s talk about ourselves. Let’s draw a parallel between what’s happening to us as a society and a slice of pop culture history that’s decidedly a bit more modern. Let’s talk about how our media, politicians, and technology have put us into an intellectual exile — and how now is the time to come out of it.

And let’s look at it all through the lens of one of my personal favorite historical exiles: The Rolling Stones’ 1972 album, Exile on Main St.

The album runs the gamut of all sounds Americana. As it does, it transports you to every forgotten locals-only venue, hopeful gospel choir crescendo, and dimly-lit street corner with a guitarist cathartically humming through 12-bar blues across a disjointed 1950’s – 70’s America.

What does any of that have to do with Trump’s America? Is this just more fake news? The answers may shock you.

Turd On The Run

By the spring of 1971, The Rolling Stones found themselves owing exorbitant amounts of back taxes they believed had already been taxed by managers that had swindled them out of their earnings.

Having spent too much on what we can imagine to be some sort of heady mix of drugs, booze and the occasional banger in the mouth. With no cash on hand to pay their taxes, The Stones went into a self-imposed exile in France. It’s from this unwitting place where they would go on to record the lion’s share of their most revered work: Exile on Main St.

Keith et al at Nellcôte

Mick Jagger took up residence in Paris, but the majority of the band found new digs spread across the South of France — with Keith Richards renting the now-infamous Nellcôte, a 16-room waterfront mansion in the French Riviera that once served as Gestapo headquarters.

Nellcôte would serve as an apex for and symbol of the band’s debaucherous peak. And the unraveling that followed. Its ornate design and decor on the above-ground floors contrasted starkly with the low-slung, carpeted basement The Stones used as a makeshift, drug-filled recording studio for a large chunk of the Exile sessions.

In this chaos and duality, The Stones created an album encompassing all of their American influences. From the jangling guitars kick-starting the album with “Rocks Off,” to gospel-soaked tracks “Shine a Light” and “I Just Want To See His Face,” a band of foreigners, misfits and cultural outsiders created a synthesis of American music that transcends genre and is at once pure rock and roll.

They did it while on the run from a tax they couldn’t afford and a government made unsympathetic to whether or not they could pay their dues. And disinterested in asking whether those dues had grown unjustifiable.

The Stones fell apart after Exile. It’s impossible to pin down one reason why. Maybe they pushed themselves to a level of excess their creativity could never outpace. Maybe tensions between different members grew to an irreconcilable fever pitch.

Maybe they stopped caring what was, even if only for a brief moment, the greatest rock and roll band in the world get away from them.

It’s a bittersweet moment of rock and roll history best captured by The Stones themselves with a line from Exile’s “Let It Loose:”

“Bit off more than I can chew

And I knew what it was leading to,

Some things, well, I can’t refuse”

Tumbling Dice

“Always in a hurry, I never stop to worry,

Don’t you see the time flashin’ by.

Honey, got no money,

I’m all sixes and sevens and nines.

Say now, baby, I’m the rank outsider,

You can be my partner in crime.

But baby, I can’t stay,

You got to roll me and call me the tumblin’,

Roll me and call me the tumblin’ dice.”

Living in America today means for too many—one way or another — feeling like you’ve been watching the greatest show on earth get away from us.

This is true if you’re a liberal that thinks we need to get corporate money out of politics. This is true if you’re a conservative that legitimately wants to make a visibly fractured America great again.

This is true if you think we need to drain the swamp. This is true if you’re perplexed that to drain it, we chose a crocodile of a man possessing obvious conflicts of interests. This is true if you think the people that wanted to task a politician with draining the swamp thought that one out using only the reptilian part of their brains.

You’ve felt like something has been getting away from us if you’ve noticed that our dictionary of terms canonical terms like “left” and “right” are becoming increasingly useless for parsing out our mutual interests or coming close to describing what’s actually going on in our country.

You feel it’s getting away from us when more and more people get their news from social media, and then you consider how social media rewards engagement (i.e., entertainment) over useful, empowering information (i.e., insightful, opinion-informing content).

It’s true if you feel more and more like a pair of tumbling dice someone else gets to roll. Or if you feel more and more like the dice are loaded against a bet we’re all asked to make — and should make — on ourselves.

As a nation, we’re similar in many ways to The Stones during the Exile era.

We both have some very amazing, inspiring and often very black influences. Similarly to how The Stones synthesized the worlds of white and black music in an unprecedented way, we’re also an unprecedented synthesis of cultures struggling to find common ground in world that tries to define us as one genre or another.

We both have enjoyed improbable and welcome longevity, in spite of our enemies, misfortunes and streaks of self-destructiveness. We’ve both changed “our sound” and lineups to adapt to new cultural eras, while still managing to remain tethered to our roots.

We’re masters of advertising and propaganda. We love symbols and logos.

We can ask if we’re the best show on earth, and we’re also the ones who get to answer that question.

Maybe we’ve also been on the run from a figurative tax. Maybe we’ve pushed ourselves to a level of excess our creativity might not outpace. Maybe tensions between different groups have grown to an irreconcilable fever pitch.

Maybe we’ve stopped caring that what was, even if only for a brief moment, the greatest democracy in the world get away from us.

Stop Breaking Down

“Stop breaking down, mama, please, stop breaking down.

Stuff is gonna bust your brains out, baby,

Gonna make you lose your mind.”

In the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, a reporter asked Chomsky about the “filters that propaganda is sent through, on its way to the public.” Here’s an except from his reply:

“It’s extremely important if history is going to be shaped in an appropriate way, that certain things appear, certain things not appear, certain questions be asked, other questions be ignored, and that issues be framed in a particular fashion. Now in whose interests is history being so shaped? Well, I think that’s not very difficult to answer.

Now, to eliminate confusion, all of this has nothing to do with liberal or conservative bias. According to the propaganda model, both liberal and conservative wings of the media — whatever those terms are supposed to mean — fall within the same framework of assumptions.

In fact, if the system functions well, it ought to have a liberal bias, or at least appear to. Because if it appears to have a liberal bias, that will serve to bound thought even more effectively.

In other words, if the press is indeed adversarial and liberal and all these bad things, then how can I go beyond it? They’re already so extreme in their opposition to power that to go beyond it would be to take off from the planet. So therefore it must be that the presuppositions that are accepted in the liberal media are sacrosanct — can’t go beyond them. And a well-functioning system would in fact have a bias of that kind. The media would then serve to say in effect: Thus far and no further."

Chomsky’s incisive words long-painted an accurate model for our media. With present-day corporate media seeking to hold on to this way of life, it is still very accurate in many ways.

That said, this election cycle challenged and repudiated the media’s role in establishing and predicting consent — evidenced by how blindsided they were by the rise of two populist candidates in Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Both found success in ideas squarely outside of what most would have considered the Overton Window before the election cycle. Trump’s were outside the window in their overt xenophobic and nationalist appeal. Sanders’ ideology was outside the window by virtue of welcoming the label of “socialist,” a word once considered political anathema.

On December 5, 2016, Noam Chomsky and Harry Belafonte appeared on stage together in conversation in front of an audience of several thousand at Riverside Church in Manhattan. During the conversation, Chomsky noted:

“We should also bear in mind what a remarkable phenomenon the Sanders campaign was. I mean, there’s — here’s somebody unknown, came from nowhere; practically no one in the country knew who he was. He was using words like “socialism,” which used to be a real curse word. No corporate support, no media support, no support from the wealthy — everything that has always been crucial to winning elections. Mostly we have bought elections. Had none of it and practically took over one of the two major parties — and could have taken it over if it hadn’t been for shenanigans we know about. That’s — and it was primarily driven by young people. All of these are very hopeful signs.”

Chomsky speaks poignantly about the remarkability of Sanders’ campaign. What’s the obverse reality we’re actually living in? Trump’s campaign, regardless of your position on the man, was also a remarkable phenomenon.

I mean, there’s — here’s somebody politically unknown, came from nowhere; practically no one in the country took him seriously. He was using words like, “expanding nuclear capability” and “pussy,” which used to be real curse words. Little corporate support, little media support, no need for support from the wealthy — everything that has always been crucial to winning elections. Mostly we have bought elections. Had none of it and took over one of the two major parties — with the help of shenanigans we know about. That’s — and it was primarily driven by forces outside of the political establishment.

Unlike Sanders, there isn’t anyone arguing that these are all very hopeful signs. But Trump’s rise means a couple of things are certain:

[1] Methods of establishing consensus have been challenged and shattered.

[2] As Belafonte put it to close out the conversation, “There’s some ass kicking out here to be done. And we should do it.

Shine a Light

“Oh, couldn’t see to get a line on you

My sweet honey love”

Before we knew the GOP could be commandeered by handing out nicknames like “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary,” there was a moment when many thought the possibility of another Clinton vs. Bush election was the worst thing imaginable.

The idea of a choice between a Clinton pseudo-monarchy and Bush pseudo-monarchy — aside from not seeming like much of a choice at all—provided a much greater ideological dilemma for many than whether their party of choice would win the election.

20 of the 32 years I’ve been alive have been spent with a Clinton or Bush in the White House. But for Obama’s unlikely rise in the 2008 Democratic Primaries, that might have been 28 of 32 years.

So why the surprise many millennials siphoned votes to third parties or stayed home?

It seems none of us can afford another election cycle where we’re force-fed a candidate embodying somebody else’s ideals.

If an established party can’t provide us with a candidate, platform or workable proposals that treat our problems and outcomes with intellectual honesty, can we set aside some room in our discourse for a party and candidate that can?

Can we agree that in Trump’s America, the rudderless Democratic Party is not a viable political alternative? Can we demand better?

Casino Boogie

“Wounded lover, got no time on hand.

One last cycle, thrill freak Uncle Sam.

Pause for bus’ness, hope you’ll understand.

Judge and jury walk out hand in hand.”

There’s a shifting paradigm in politics: the concepts of who’s on the “left” and “right” are becoming increasingly unhinged from 20th-century definitions of liberal and conservative.

To maintain political relevancy in an increasingly global world, the shift demands we look past 20th-century post-industrial questions — like healthcare, equality, gender and civil rights. That’s difficult to do in world where so many are still struggling through healthcare, equality, civil rights and gender-related issues on a daily basis.

But making room for 21st-century talking points in our discourse is necessary in a world where the incumbent Commander in Chief rushed the oval office by answering 21st-century questions of globalization — albeit in regressive, impracticable ways.

What galvanizing answers was Clinton able to provide for any of the decidedly more 21st-century questions framing this past election:

What to do with our borders? How to react to outsourcing and automation?How to be proactive about repurposing our workforce? How to reconcile economic abundance with lack of opportunity? How to recapture economic rents privatizing value built by the public sector? What to do about terrorism? How to combat crony capitalism?

What does the DNC’s failure to provide galvanizing answers to those questions suggest? We bought the wrong product? Or they offered the wrong alternative?

Soul Survivor

“When you’re flying your flags

All my confidence sags,

You got me packing my bags.

I’ll stowaway at sea,

You make me mutiny,

Where you are I won’t be,

You’re gonna be the death of me.”

The developed and developing worlds spent the latter part of the 20th-century attempting to answer a question: capitalism or communism? The question framed the entire Cold War, along with the media, policy and cultural divide following in its wake.

Was communism ever something we needed to invade Vietnam to fight? By comparison, did the Soviets put missiles in Cuba to fight capitalism? Or are our politics, discourse and media hijacked by fears over what’s happening in places many of us can’t point to on a map?

If an ideology is bound to fail, that often has a way of taking care of itself without necessitating a third-party’s boots on the ground. That’s obvious by the untenable conditions that have followed in the wake of every communist revolution. To those of us who are not far removed from such conditions, it’s self-evident.

As the Cold War waned, we moved away from the post-New Deal era of prosperity America enjoyed through the 70’s. Then the middle-class began to shrink, corporate profits and CEO pay began to exponentially outpace wages, and productivity became decoupled from increased wages. We got sold that bill of goods under the name of “trickle-down.”

Meanwhile, we defeated communism. That must have meant a win for capitalism, right? Here’s what’s followed in the wake of capitalism’s big win:

Am I saying that communism should have won or that capitalism really lost? No, but that’s what a decades-long trend of privatizing and concentrating America’s wealth and resources looks like.

With our attention on the Cold War, we were distracted from critiquing the “political voodoo” — as Ross Perot once described trickle-down economics —behind it all. Turns out they’re still using Russia to distract us, the fall of communism notwithstanding. When Russia won’t do, we have an entourage of substitute boogeymen to take its place.

What if the question we should have been asking ourselves as the middle class eroded wasn’t if capitalism was at odds with communism, but if it’s at odds with democracy? What if there’s room for opposing forces and ideas to coexist, but we need to start acting now for that to be possible? What if we start holding capitalism to a higher standard, because we value democracy much more than we are skeptical of communism?

“There was something in the air…There was definitely the sense that the sixties didn’t work and that you either had to blow up the system or flee from it.”

— Don Was in Stones in Exile

The Stones’ recording sessions at Nellcôte saw musicians, friends and crew make the pilgrimage to Keith’s waterfront mansion, along with every other imaginable person on the periphery of the rock and roll experience. It was a family-friendly atmosphere — within whatever context that’s possible around a rock and roll lifestyle. Sound engineers, photographers and friends brought their wives and children to enjoy the beautiful scenery and Bohemian way of life, with some families staying for months at a time.

The stunning above-ground architecture of the villa painted an almost Utopian vision for a tribe of musicians living and working together as a family. That Utopia had its counterpart in Nellcôte’s cramped, decrepit basement. Nightly booze-fueled recording sessions constantly spilled over into the next morning, making for the kind of music that can only be born in that kind of primal rock dystopia.

In describing the basement recording sessions his interview for Stones in Exile, saxophonist Bobby Keys — God rest his beautiful southern soul — said what currently sits atop my power rankings for the most rock and roll thing ever said:

“Hell, yeah, there was some pot around, there was some whiskey bottles around, there was scantily clad women. Hell, it was rock’n’roll!”

So I looked around. And I noticed there wasn’t a chair.

The basement wasn’t the big, open room many might picture. It was a floor like any other, with rooms, doors and halls trapping the airflow and creating echo chambers. Along with a few extra caveats: the low-slung ceiling, tiny rooms, lack of windows or proper ventilation (coupled with heat-spitting amps and gear) and decaying condition of the basement made for a brooding tension between band members and a literal fight against the elements, with the humidity constantly phasing guitars in and out of of tune.

Those legendary basement sessions weren’t just a rock and roll junkie’s archetypal wet dream. The surrealism was taken to a higher plane thanks to a strange quirk most wouldn’t expect to see at the recording sessions for one of rock’s canonical albums: a bunch of kids running around.

Many that came to Nellcôte brought their children with them, including The Stones. While the grown-ups drank, got high and made one of best albums of all time, the kids watched. Some joined in:

“My function in life was [to be] a joint roller,” said Jake Weber, son of The Stones’ Exile-era drug dealer, Tommy Weber.

Rip This Joint

“I’m gonna raise hell at the Union Hall,

Drive myself right over the wall.

Rip this joint, gonna save your soul,

Round and round and round we go.

Roll this joint, gonna get down low,

Start my starter, gonna stop the show.

Oh, yeah!

Mister President, Mister Immigration Man,

Let me in, sweetie, to your fair land.”

A new era of uncertainty and challenge has begun. This is true whether you’re fighting to realize Trump’s vision for an America made great again, or if you’re troubled by the signs pointing toward a slide into autocracy.

What do all of us know for certain? There are going to be endless attempts to distract us along the way — there already are.

Many of us have grown complacent with allowing our discourse and politics to be hijacked by issues and individuals that serve only to distract and polarize. Many of us have been told to bottle up and neglect our capacity to be agents of change, and instead settle for promises of change from those lacking the power to affect it.

Many of us observe the caliber of today’s politicians and hold it as self-evident that there has to be better Americans out there for the job. Many of us won’t be told that we can’t criticize our leaders — not until we have leaders unworthy of criticism.

For too long, many of us have wondered if our greatest potential lies in those saving their talents for some unknown moment. Many of us believe that moment has arrived.

We know for certain that we are many.

The line is ringing, and what we say once we take back the conversation doesn’t matter too much.

We just need to pick up.

“They would play very poorly for two or three days on whatever song and then if Keith got up and looked at Charlie, then you knew something was about to go down. And then Bill would get up and put his bass at about that 84-degree angle, and then you went, ‘ah, here it comes. They’re gonna go for it now.’ Then it would turn into this wonderful God-given music.”

— Andy Johns in Stones in Exile

Created By
Javier Carabeo

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.