Exile on Main St: A season in hell with the Rolling Stones, By Robert Greenfield

In the summer of 1971, Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg holed up in a villa on the Riviera with the other members of the Rolling Stones and an entourage of liggers and dealers. The result was an album that has become a music legend

From the title you might reasonably infer at least two things. One, Robert Greenfield makes a title go a long way. Two, he makes the Rolling Stones go even further.

This is the same Robert Greenfield who, in the mid-Seventies, published STP: A journey through America with the Rolling Stones, a book which not only went the distance in its titling but also did so with the Stones themselves, then embarking on the epic concert tour which would transform them from rock stars into cultural ubermenschen.

It was a brilliant book. Greenfield made absolutely the best of the kind of fly-on-the-wall access today's chroniclers enjoy only in their wildest dreams. He puffed doggedly across the US, sucking in the thick air sealed within the Stones bubble, and captured the atmosphere of anomie and whizziness which pervaded everything and everyone in that most flattening of all hippie come-down years, 1972 – from Truman Capote and his mobile fanclub, Princess Lee Radziwill, via the shockingly vulnerable groupie caste, to the Ordinary Joes queuing at Ticketron outlets in shopping malls across the Midwest. It was a book which captured the nuances of its times and locked them down for ever.

God alone knows why Greenfield waited 35 years to write this book, but the feeling you get from reading it is that it was an itch he never got round to scratching, one that has bothered him ever since, the more so as time has gone by. It is fortunate indeed, then, that it's a book quite a lot of people might want to read.

Exile on Main St, as you are probably aware, was the title of the record the Rolling Stones made during their first year of tax exile in 1971, in the rancid basement of Keith Richards' rented villa on the French Riviera. The record has lived its own life ever since.

This is partly because, taken on its own musical terms, it is a remarkable piece of work. But equally Exile... has entered into legend because of the social and domestic arrangements entailed

in its making: the story of that long, hot summer at Villa Nellcôte is the very model of the troubling indulgence we have come to call the "rock '*' roll lifestyle". Nellcôte in summer '71 was, to use different language, the coolest scene ever.

Basically, the Stones and their entourage fetched up in dribs and drabs on the Riviera and let themselves get away with a variety of displacement activities before finally knuckling down. They were centred around Nellcôte, in which Richards and his "lady", the beautiful Italo-German scene-maker Anita Pallenberg, held court like the witchiest, twitchiest salon hosts ever to spend all day having lunch. Greenfield describes the lengths the couple went to to deflect drug-squad harrassment and get clean-ish prior to arrival in Villefranche. It is not an edifying story (though not as unedifying as the story of the clean-up operation that followed their departure, which is mind-boggling in its desperation).

Despite being himself only a periodic visitor to their gilded mini-Versailles, Greenfield tracks the ups and downs of the back-sliding junkie's diurnal trajectory, including that drastically euphemised passage of the day during which Keith would spend unreachable hours "putting Marlon to bed". Marlon (Keith and Anita's son, then a toddler) was not interviewed for the book, so we do not discover precisely which bedtime stories he was told.

It sounds like all concerned had lots of fun at one level, and none at all at another. You quickly grasp that this is not a book about music at all. It's a book chiefly about consequences: the consequences of extreme celebrity, social modulation, fractured optimism, domestic power and an unlimited supply of drugs. It's also about the consequences of guilt.

Greenfield by no means overplays his hand in this, but he is keen to install the shade of the late Brian Jones as the ghost at the banquet, tormenting the Macbeths at the high table with the occasional shake of his sodden locks.

Chief informants of the story, in addition to the writer's own ears and eyes (he was sent by an American magazine to interview Richards in situ), appear to have been the sound engineer Andy Johns; Rose Taylor, wife of Brian Jones's unhappy replacement in the group, Mick; Elizabeth Heimer, the housekeeper; Tommy Weber, a posh "racing driver"/ligger; and the scion of the Chess blues dynasty, Marshall, who ran things from a management point of view – circling moons, all of them, but none with any real gravitational force of their own. Each has his or her own perspective on the unfolding events and each of them is prepared to deliver a little of what Greenfield needs to shape a pretty repulsive story of self-centred hedonism as a necessary adjunct to a certain kind of creativity in a special kind of place. Fortunately, he has no taste for such academic figleafery as "Dionysian rites".

In a way, the most fascinating aspect of the whole affair was neither the unfettered indulgence nor the descent into collective despondency (Jagger, who got hitched to snooty Bianca that summer, clearly had the most frightful time), but the way in which the extended group shaped itself into a rigid yet competing hierarchy, a concentric structure with Keith and Anita at its centre, rippling outwards in decreasingly enfranchised circles to a ragged edge populated, as far as one can tell, by a ragtag of local nutters and dealers. The servants, in other words. Readers of a certain age will shudder as they recall the hippie fondness for an undeclared hierarchy.

If there is a disappointment with the book, other than its grumpy tone, it's in Greenfield's failure to find anything to interest him in what was going on downstairs in that stinky basement – he is, he says sniffily, a "music writer", not a "music critic". If nothing else, Exile on Main St (the album) is a pungent document of a peculiar time, and of course the writer is quite entitled to suggest that it has the strength as an artefact to stand on its own. But the greatest mystery of all the many mysteries represented by that strange house, with its mirrored walls, its chandeliers, its hidden bedrooms and its Nazi insignia on the central heating system, is, How did they get it all done? And how come it all turned out so well in the end? The music, I mean, not the people.