It was just a moment in time, a time when legends lived like fucking legends. I remember as a kid seeing paparazzi photos in the papers of a dazzling beauty in beyond-Carnaby Street boho rags, glued to the side of Brian Jones, then Keith Richards. Anita Pallenberg.
There was a cadre of these exquisite Sixties girls in the mid-late ’60s, strutting around London under monochromatic skies – models, actresses, an occasional singer but all of them gravitated towards the rock scene.
The girls who hung with bands back then were a different breed from those later-decades groupies blowing roadies to get a backstage pass. Girls like Anita and Marianne Faithfull, the other quintessential Sixties Girl with a Rolling Stones boyfriend, were aristocracy – more so than the authentic English blue-bloods who fawned over these working-class/ lower-middle-class artists musicians and invited them to their mansion parties. The Sixties girls were muses and consorts but also scene-makers, influences, players in their own right. Just look at Keith pre- and post-Anita; she gave him her sense of style and mystery. London boys weren’t too good at mystery back then, they were kind of awkward. Anita was fearless.
She was half-German and half-Italian – two countries that Britain had been at war with not that long ago, which added even more bite to that famous photo where she sat nursing a doll at the feet of Brian Jones who was dressed in a Nazi uniform. She was a provocateur, sharp as a knife and fluent in four languages. She had acted and modeled in New York, Paris and Germany and her movie roles, before that unforgettable appearance with Mick Jagger in Nic Roeg’s Performance, included the cult sex movie Candy and, the same year, Barbarella. In Roger Vadim’s film Anita played the Black Queen. Gleefully evil. She once told Marianne that of all the roles she’d played this was her favorite. Many years later, when Anita and Marianne were asked to guest-star in an episode of Ab Fab, Marianne played God and Anita the Devil.
Popular history has it that Anita’s relationship with Keith began after he rescued her from a beating by Brian. Keith would laugh about that and say that Anita was “the one woman in the world you did not want to try and beat up!” Anita was fiery. When your best friend calls you a diva and that best friend is Marianne Faithfull, that’s saying something. Anita and Keith would go on to have three children (one died in infancy). When they parted, Anita went to art school to study fashion design, before returning to acting now and then and becoming an avid gardener.
I only ever spoke to her once, and not about her whole life but one particular episode in 1971: when the Stones became tax exiles and Anita, Keith and their son Marlon moved into a tumbledown French villa where the Stones recorded their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. I’d forgotten all about this interview until last week, when I heard of Anita’s death on 13th June, aged 75. So here it is, another of those times when legends lived like fucking legends.
S: Villa Nellcôte, what was it like? A: It was a fantastic place, very decadent. In WWII it used to be a Nazi headquarters and there were swastikas engraved in the iron-work on the heating system. The doors were all mirrored, so you could put the doors at an angle and sit in one room and see everything. It had an incredible garden; the English admiral who owned it originally and brought in all these unbelievably exotic trees. The villa wasn’t very secluded. It was out on a point that made a kind of L-shape into the harbor, but the harbor had been washed away and there were just some rocks. Keith had a speedboat at the time, so he’d always drive out on those rocks, which was pretty scary.
Keith decided the album should be recorded in the basement?
It was a massive basement. We only used half of it for the studio. It had all these brick and concrete cubicles so they just put in some compartments and screens for the sound and a few chairs, but basically it was just standing up or sitting on the floor. Very very basic. People were playing under the staircase just to get the right echo. The old kitchen was in the basement. We had to open it up again because we had so many people in the house that we had to have a 24-hour room service. Hamburgers at midnight and chips [fries] all the time. It was like an ongoing McDonalds really.
Band aside, who were all those people you were feeding?
Just about everybody we knew from London turned up at one point or another to check out what we were up to. It seemed like everyone had to make the pilgrimage. Some stayed the weekend, some stayed longer, some wouldn’t leave, some we had to make leave. We had no privacy. It was exhausting. There would always be around 30 people for lunch. I remember throwing loads of tantrums – all the stress of these people walking in, and I couldn’t say ‘You can come, you can’t come.’ There was no way of stopping this flow of people, and at the end of the day it got irritating. I remember having a fit with Nicky Hopkins, the piano player, when he came down; I treated him pretty badly. So I did have my bad moments I must say.
Just about everybody we knew from London turned up at one point or another to check out what we were up to. It seemed like everyone had to make the pilgrimage. Some stayed the weekend, some stayed longer, some wouldn’t leave, some we had to make leave.
Was Marlon the only kid in the house?
Everyone brought their families so there were other children there and people to mind them. We didn’t go out much except onto the terrace. We didn’t have a beach and I don’t really remember swimming or even getting out in the sun that much. But children adapt. And Marlon would never get up and feel on his own. There was always somebody there, or he would come and see me if he wanted to see me, or Keith if he wanted to see Keith, or he would go down into the studio. He had access to the whole house. Marlon started to walk onstage, basically, so he was familiar with conforming around our lifestyle, more than these days where the family runs around the children. I must say that Marlon turned out pretty good.
Are there any guests you particularly remember?
Gram Parsons. His wife came down as well. They were very close, Keith and Gram. He had kind of lived with us for quite a long time before that in the country in England and he came on tour with us.
I also remember John and Yoko both being very sick on the staircase. Puking all over the place. That was after the wedding [Mick and Bianca’s]. Afterwards most people at the wedding stopped off at our house because we were the closest.
What do you remember about Mick and Bianca’s wedding?
Not much. I think it lasted about two or three days. It just went on and on and I remember passing out at some point. But I do remember going dressed in white which was a big mistake. But then I didn’t know much about weddings. When I got out of the car all dressed in white, people thought I was the bride until Bianca eventually showed up. That was one thing I learned: that you’re not supposed to wear white to a wedding.
With all this going on, how did the band get any work done?
Well most of the work was done at night. They would lock all the doors and make it kind of soundproof. No-one got any sleep. They would emerge from the basement at sunrise and get in Keith’s speedboat and get something to eat.
When I got out of the car all dressed in white, people thought I was the bride until Bianca eventually showed up. That was one thing I learned: that you’re not supposed to wear white to a wedding.
Did the band hang out much socially or only for recording?
Mick Jagger was somewhere up in the hills with Bianca and everybody else had little houses in the area, but we didn’t see that much of them socially. I guess this was when they started separating: Keith didn’t like Bianca and blah, blah, blah, all that kind of Eastenders [British soap opera] rubbish. I never really saw Mick and Keith sitting together and working as they used to do in the old days, back when they kind of relied on each other. But because of families and stuff and everybody kind of distancing themselves, that hadn’t been happening for a few years. Mick was the one who suffered most from that. Keith didn’t mind. Mick would expect to go to work with a notebook and keep it all on paper, but Keith was improvising and would just go into the studio and play. Mick always wanted to have Keith around but Keith doesn’t always oblige! I rarely saw them all together in the basement. Some days Keith never showed up, some days Mick or Charlie never showed up, sometimes it was just Keith or Jim Price, a kind of scatty thing, people recording quite separately, but on a regular basis.
How did you get along with the local police?
Well there was the time when Keith got into a fight with an American sailor in the village. Villefranche was like a pirates’ cove, but it had the deepest harbor in the South of France, so the American and German military fleets were there all the time. When the Americans came in with their huge boats, the whole village would open up, there would be drinks everywhere and everyone would get really drunk and obviously they would be picking fights. I guess that’s how sailors are, and probably Keith got caught up in it. There was another fight that Keith got caught up in, at the harbour in Monte Carlo. I think he took somebody’s eye out or something with this ring he wore on his finger – he just went bash! and this guy’s eye started to bleed.
But the police never bothered you at the house?
Well we had all sorts of weird people hanging out in the grounds, informers, so there was all sorts of police activity, but mostly it was undercover. Everybody got – not really paranoid, but we all had our eyes open, because we were foreigners. We always had these escape routes planned in case of the police. The mobile studio was parked very close to the house in an area that was quite overgrown so that the truck was hidden. We’d planned it so that if the police came down on us we could jump out the windows onto the truck and down onto the ground. Eventually we had to split overnight.
Why was that?
It had something to do with the cooks and staff who used to live in the gatehouse. I think their mothers went to the police – French mothers are very protective, almost like Italian mothers – and they were worried about the wholesomeness of their children working for us. So they picked them up and they started to talk about us and it started to get pretty heavy all of a sudden and they said, ‘You’d better split before something happens.’ When we split, we had to leave the dog there, and Keith paid the rent for another six months just to keep the dog there. Eventually the dog was given to somebody in the South of France.
We always had these escape routes planned in case of the police. The mobile studio was parked very close to the house in an area that was quite overgrown so that the truck was hidden. We’d planned it so that if the police came down on us we could jump out the windows onto the truck and down onto the ground. Eventually we had to split overnight.
Was it weird leaving a place like that and going to L.A to finish the album?
By that time I was pregnant and not part of it so much. I didn’t really go to the studio in L.A. I remember spending about six months in L.A living opposite Mick Taylor in a canyon and I think I never even went out. I gave birth not long afterwards [a daughter, Dandelion].
What’s your one overriding memory of the whole Exile experience?
It was pretty nightmarish actually. A totally displaced, disassociated feeling the whole time. Being in another country, working on a record. It was like being outlaws. That’s how we felt. Out of everything. That was my main memory.