The Umbly Tumbly

Riffing Away With The Rolling Stones’ Actual Best Song


in Set List • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


Released in 1972, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street was one of those works of art that, in its time, was seen as heralding a demise. The Stones had come to their end as a creative force of nature, or, put another way, What the hell is this mess?  

One might have supposed that 1971’s Sticky Fingers provided a clue as to a dearth of focus and material, having been extemporized — or stuck together — from various sessions over multiple years. Exile, meanwhile, was a clearing of the chest — and the decks — worthy of Milton’s Satan preparing to launch into a filibuster. Double albums still had a novelty component, which Exile would help them to shed, but this was a lot of heavy material to get through. Further, it was coated in muck and murk and didn’t sound particularly joyous, raucous, or sinister, as the Stones were alternatively — or simultaneously — known for. But it did sound inevitable, like something that happens to you. Spend enough time with it, and one might say that it sounds like life — or having a life experience.  

Exile was one of those albums that took a bit of time for people to fall in love with, which we can say about other works of art, like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, or Miles Davis’s On the Corner, so what does that really mean? Maybe even it’s a pretty cool badge to have pinned to the old record jacket.  

There is a lot tucked away on Exile. And while it doesn’t have the tour-de-force stylistic range of the Beatles’ White Album, that wasn’t its intention. Even with 1968’s Beggars Banquet in their discography — a rock and roll repurposing of Mississippi delta blues — Exile feels like the Stones’ most American album. It has that quality of Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, which could only be an American undertaking. The Browning film emphasizes both the need and value of being “in the know” and understanding that the nominal sideshow is often where we find the meat of life. Similarly, Exile is a record of carnival barking, sideshows, tall tales, long rides on lonely buses, juke joints, and lemonade stands on the sides of Southern country roads that are as forlorn as they are lined with the menace of advancing creepers.  

What is also tucked away on Exile is the best song the Stones ever recorded, which never gets the recognition as such. That title is usually left for the likes of “Satisfaction,” or if one is feeling impish, “Sympathy for the Devil” makes for a compelling, if tendentious, choice. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” may be the purest example of what is meant by rock ‘n’ roll, if we’re limited to a single song. The best Stones songs are driven by the riff, and it was said that Keith Richards — author of most of them — was himself a human riff. Different bands build in different ways. The Beatles built through chord changes, surprises in shifts of melody one never sees coming. The Stones built with reoccurring sonic patterns that nonetheless never lost their groove for all of their repetition. The riff for “Satisfaction” was written as a lark, which no one was supposed to take seriously, as was also the case for Guns N’ Roses’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Apparently, there is something worthwhile in larking about with a guitar, and the right person can fall into the right sounds.  

The finest riffs, though, have this magical, paradoxical quality to them: we don’t take much notice of the repeating musical pattern at play. The reason why no one discusses “Day Tripper” as one of the Beatles’ top works is because it’s all riff. I love it, but a riff needs a little more tact, some room to breathe, germinate. Think of a riff like a life lesson; you want them to come to you, but not pound you upside the head. I think that’s why no one has ever turned to AC/DC for counsel, but Bob Dylan can offer you wisdom with Blood on the Tracks, which I’m not sure is actually any smarter than AC/DC was at times.  

Think of the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” or the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” — riff mastery, because the riff is there, but it’s not the point. Those songs have more to say to us than what they offer via ostinato, like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” I think we can state that Chuck Berry meant more to the Rolling Stones than he meant to anyone. “Memphis” was a short story — a heartbreaking one — that also happened to be a rock ‘n’ roll song, with a riff, if not to die for, that you’d want to someday match, allowing that you possessed sufficient talent. 

The Stones did, and they got there with Exile’s “Tumbling Dice,” a song that only and ever ages better than it seemed to do the year prior, or the decade, or the second. We can’t say that about all of the Stones’ songs, especially in our current age. “Stupid Girl,” “Under My Thumb,” and “Bitch” are doozies of misogyny, if you want them to be. They were satirically intended, but I’m not sure the Stones created enough separation between their satire and their image for listeners to give them the benefit of the doubt, or even hear something as it was written and intended.

They were a dark forces band before it was hip, and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin got in on the grimoire game. Exile is a stygian album, and I think of it as the sonic version of the mud of Grimpen Mire in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, but it has what is tantamount to two fountains of light; one of them is “Shine a Light,” fittingly enough, and the other is the wonder of “Tumbling Dice.”  

A young Mick Jagger had read some advice in a magazine from Fats Domino, which was that you shouldn’t sing any lyrics too clearly if you didn’t have to. Give a song the mush-mouth treatment, like Jimmy Reed, another Stones hero. Jagger by no means possessed a great voice, but he was a great singer. These are different conceits. Consider Billie Holiday on 1959’s Lady in Satin, the last album released in her lifetime. Her voice is shot, as if she’d been made to dash off a bumper of battery acid, with some thumbtacks floating at the bottom. But notice how much she conveys in the phrasing, the sagacity of understanding how the words she sings contain worlds of meaning. She cracks those words open for us, geode-style, and her voice lets us look at those insides.  

That’s Jagger on “Tumbling Dice,” minus the acid and tacks, and he lets the words roll around the back of his mouth. Star athletes will talk about letting the game come to them. That’s how the entire Stones unit treats “Tumbling Dice.” You want the game to come to you, yes, but you also have to know when to seize the game and be aggressive. That’s the same if you’re LeBron James or a rock and roll band from London.  

We slide into “Tumbling Dice” via the riff; it’s an ambulatory device, a preface that we don’t even know is happening. The song is nominally about gambling—rolling the dice—but, of course, it’s not about gambling at all, and rather throwing the dice of life. Going for that which matters. Anything that matters requires vulnerability on our part. And here are the Stones with a song for that very subject, a musical example put in rolling — tumbling — practice. “Tumbling Dice” is bluesy, but it’s not a blues. Fittingly, the Beatles’ best song—as a piece of writing—in “She Loves You” could wear the same hat. Bluesiness sans outright blues was a Stones hallmark. It’s when they sounded their wisest. This is the blues both ancient and modern. The Stones loved their blues heroes, but there’s a push towards the future within their bluesiness, which still retains — and benefits from — the experiential knowledge of that past and present-tense blues. The Stones’ bluesiness — as heard on “Tumbling Dice” — was akin to a New Testament, the up-to-date word in these matters, a practical message about the need to advance, keep it rolling; don’t just rock in the rut.  

There’s a lot of movement in this song, from the associative imagery of the title on out. Constant flow. No stasis. The Stones are grooving, because they’re moving. This is their version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which was also bluesy without being the blues. The blues can lock into place. That’s the nature of the medium. Slim Harpo sounded as radical as he did with his swamp blues constructions because he added the shuffle. “Tumbling Dice” swings. It’s the closest the Stones get to jazz, unless we count the coda to “Can You Hear Me Knocking?” which feels more like an add-on than part of that song proper, whereas “Tumbling Dice” is a study in cohesion in which we all feel like we’re equal participants.  

An early version of the song was called “Good Time Women,” the title meant as a placeholder, a verbal riff for Jagger to toy around with, but again, suggestive of flow, even at the larval state. It’s not like these good-time women were locked in the poses of models for a couple of hours. I picture a blur of bottles and appendages, among other accouterments. This version is skeletal, but it has one of rock and roll’s ultimate new dawn moments when we first encounter the riff. It’s not the full-blown riff — call it the seed of the riff. That riff is as elemental as fog rising off a river in the morning. Joy in its discovery is palpable; to hear this nascent version is to hear the Stones enjoying their own pleasure with this find, which is also a birthing — and a means forward.  

That joy approaches the beatific in “Tumbling Dice.” At the opening gig in support of Exile in Vancouver on June 3, 1972, the Stones played “Ventilator Blues” from the album for the first and only time because, I’m certain, it didn’t sound sufficiently loaded with earth, as it did on the record. But they played “Tumbling Dice” at every gig on that tour, this aerated anthem of emerging from the gutter — or a basement, which is what Exile was recorded in — to soar to the sun, and not have to worry about your wings melting. In late July in Philly, Jagger introduced the song by saying, “And now it’s time for the umbly tumbly,” before the band gave as compelling performance of a song as you’ll ever hear. Just like I’d maintain that that Philly show is as good as the Stones ever got.  

In the live context, the band would arrive at this apogee point, just before going downhill into the coda. It’s a coda that can stand with the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and it’s as soulful and swinging as the Stones could be, or you’d ever need anyone to be, a swing maestro like Ellington included. Nor is the coda some sonic graft; the outro manages to reach back and infuse all that we’ve already heard — our memory of those notes, verses, choruses — because it germinates out of that progression, and is a further — albeit finalizing — bout of movement. It’s what sends us back out into the world.  

You can tell that Jagger wants to linger there some. He hums, relishing the moment. It’s the sound of someone being fully present. On the record, that same coda features drummer Charlie Watts delivering at a level few drummers ever reach. He was no showman, and was a backbeat guy, which made him perfect for the Stones, but he will absolutely lay you out with those fills. It’s a song you don’t want to end, that ends just when it should, at the perfect time. It is perfect.  

Perfect art isn’t always the best art, because sometimes it doesn’t risk as much. I feel like “Tumbling Dice” is itself a call to risk-taking, and we would do well to hear it now in a world where we try so hard to fit in, and it can be like we’re all vanilla robots. Why would we want that, when we can do our version of embodying this song, this work of art? The Stones don’t get accused of being inspirational all that often. That was more of the Beatles’ bag. But to dance in the fountain of light that is “Tumbling Dice” is to find and assert one’s self as galvanized, recharged, and super-charged. Let it roll you.•


colin fleming’s most recent books are an entry in the .33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a volume about 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film; and a work of fiction called If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. He's the author of the comic novel Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, with his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. His op-eds feature in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit.