No really. Keith Richards is my fashion icon. There I said it. If I was even half as cool as him, I’d wear silk shirts open all the way to my killer belt buckle. I’d wear skull rings and scarves and jackets and boots and bandanas. Or even go shirtless. To me, the guy embodies dangerous rock and roll. Remember when rock music was dangerous? Mess with Keith and he’ll pull a knife out of his boot. He is a Rockstar with a capital R. If he didn’t write the Rockstar For Dummies book, he’s certainly mentioned in chapters 1, 4, 7, 9 and 12. He lives a Rockstar lifestyle as far as he can take it.
Unlike so many others he’s still around to talk about it. This man lives the dream every boy and girl dreams of when they first pick up a guitar. No not access to the best drugs, but longevity in a business littered with forgettable one hit wonders. Over the years, his riffs have become a huge part of the soundtrack of our lives. One of the very few who is a Living Legend.
As soon as we decided to travel to the South of France, I knew I had to visit Keith’s place. At least, a place he once rented forty years ago. Famously, in 1971, the Rolling Stones relocated from wet and soggy England to sunny Cote D’Azur for tax reasons: their income was taxable in the neighborhood of 90% in the UK. So Keith rented a mansion on the Mediterranean called Nellcote. It was in the basement at Nellcote that the Stones recorded a huge chunk of what a lot of fans have come to see as their masterpiece: Exile On Mainstreet. I had to make the pilgrimage. Finding the address was easy enough.
From the Gare de Nice, Dianne and I hopped the intercity train for 20 minutes to Villefranche Sur Mer. The train drops you off along the bay – the Rade de Villefranche Sur Mer. Behind you up the mountainside is the main autoroute. Countless sailboats, yachts and a handful of cruise ships gently lolled to the motion of the Med. You can’t miss that this is a playground for the rich and famous. Or at least the rich. The cab driver you’re about to meet was full of interesting little tidbits concerning this part of the world.
St Jean Cap Ferrat. Nellcote is on the point in the foreground.
There are tourist shops and restaurants mere footsteps from the train station. My inner Keith had been looking for a hat but all I kept seeing were the same ridiculous white things with a black band. Pimp hats we called them. I did see a hat in Villefranche in a style I hadn’t seen before, a sort of tan colored fedora style with beads instead of a black band. My inner Keith approved. But I thought it was pricey at 30 Euros. So I passed on the hat, much to my inner Keith’s dismay. It didn’t seem like such a long walk around the bay to St Jean Cap Ferrat, but we took a taxi instead. In this scorching heat, a taxi meant one thing: air conditioning.
We got into the first cab at the front of the line and gave the driver the address to Nellcote. Even though I speak French, I spoke English to the driver so Dianne could understand what was going on. The driver seemed clueless about the street address I gave him. Although he did speak a bit of English he refused my directions. Instead, he’s on the radio with dispatch, asking for directions. The dispatcher seemed clueless too. But I steered the driver in the right general direction. After several wrong turns, I exclaimed “That’s it!! C’est la!!” The driver swerved and we felt the G’s in the car as he turned down the road we were looking for.
Nellcote’s front gates keeping riff raff like us a safe distance away.
This is a nice neighbourhood. I wondered what all these mansion owners might have thought of the Rolling Stones and their entourage in their midst back in 1971. Surely they weren’t thrilled with the loud music and shady characters. My anticipation grew as I counted down the addresses until there it was: Nellcote. I wasn’t sure what to expect outside the wrought iron fence. Somewhere in my mind, I suppose I was hoping to meet other other fans who’d made the pilgrimage. Probably shirtless fans strumming Honky Tonk Women on their beat-up acoustic guitars, smoking joints…
But it wasn’t so. Outside the fence, a couple of Vespas were parked on the street – how un-Rolling Stones is that! I motioned the driver to stop, and now it’s his turn to exclaim in French “Ah! Les Rolling Stones”. I was taken aback, why yes, OUI! – LES ROLLING STONES! He knew exactly where we were. Then this guy became the tourist bureau, telling us as he pointed vaguely towards the hills that Tina Turner has a place up there, that Bono has a home in the next village over, Eze Sur Mer, and yes he’s even picked him up at the airport before, and how U2 had built a recording studio in Eze. He might have been full of crap (I’ve never confirmed any of what he was riffing on about), but he was entertaining. In the end, our cab ride cost 22 Euros roundtrip from the train station.
This is not the view from the road!
Face to face with this one-time WWII Gestapo headquarters and later Keith Richards’ home, and Stones base, Nellcote turned me into a blubbering idiot. Exile on Mainstreet recorded here. Some would tell you it’s the Stones’ high water mark. Tumblin’ Dice, Happy, Lovin’ Cup and many other swaggering Stones tracks, all recorded here in (by all accounts) the shitty damp and dark basement. Right here.
I took pictures of the Vespas. I took pictures of the lush green property through the gate. I took pictures of the brick wall with a small plaque that read “Nellcote”. I took more pics of the Vespas. Then the cab driver offers to take pictures of me and Dianne standing right there, at the Church of Rock. I was about ready to hyperventilate, walking the same ground my musical gods walked. Nellcote peeking through the palm trees at us mere mortals, outside the gates of heaven.
This was a moment in my life, and I knew it. Dianne, the cabbie and myself stood in something of an awed silence. Perhaps the reverence I felt at that moment was infectious. The spell was broken when we saw movement on the property. An obese man with a Mediterranean tan. He was truly large, walking around like he owned the place, stomach rolling over his belt. He was shirtless.
If you would like to visit the Cote d”Azure and the South of France, or elsewhere along the Mediterranean, visit us at www.travelloafers.agentstudio.com Make your own travel plans, or we can certainly assist you as well.
– Dianne & Mike, see you on the road!
4.5-minute Nellcote clip from youtube:
Nellcote clip from Stones in Exile documentary:
Yours truly at Nellcote
Text © Dianne and Mike
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Dianne & Mike