Mick Jagger in 1972. photo/Jim Marshall

Mick Jagger in 1972. photo/Jim Marshall

The lights are low.  The images on the walls, and a few laid across display tables, emerge from the sinister darkness.  And “Exile On Main Street,” possibly the greatest album from the band being feted in these photos, plays on a loop.  Oozy murk supporting distant, plaintive vocals recorded seemingly in a next-door snoozing abattoir, soul and country and gospel sung neck-deep in a factory-runoff river teeming with snapping turtles and cracked Jack Daniels glass, it remains some of the toughest and least-scrutable rock and roll ever made.  This new exhibit at Experience Music Project, “The Rolling Stones 1972, Photographs by Jim Marshall,” gives us the most comprehensive visual record of the group at the time. The exhibit runs through Jan. 6, 2013.

 But the men who made that music, that season, in France and sometimes elsewhere, seem shockingly alive, sleek, sometimes inappropriately healthy.  The Rolling Stones, who put together “Exile” out of dissipation, frustration, drug addiction (most famously Keith Richards’), basement ambiance, and genuine exile of the tax variety, were older than most rock stars in 1972—pushing 30.  But they came, we should remember, from an era which would not make sense to most young people today, an era where rock and roll itself was less than 20 years old, and even its stars wondered how long they could continue getting away with it.

Against such now-unimaginable uncertainty, specific uncertainties, such as Richards’ drug habit, seem much less like enshrined myth, more like disasters begging to happen.  But the work of photographer Jim Marshall (1936-2010) captures the young men as yes, young, but even more, determined to get their work done.  Even if their work sometimes become play.  Richards and Mick Jagger laugh and slap with, among others, Robert Frank, who shot a film about the Stones whose title cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

Jagger laughs and slaps a little too readily, straining gamely to always be having a good time, but letting slip, shot by shot, a a certain hollowness behind his smile.  His eyes sometimes seem detached from his grin.  Keith Richards, on the other hand, looks handsomely malignant, his own eyes always gleaming, a sly satisfaction never far from his lips.  He seems more overtly alive, even in his disease, than his glad-handing partner.

Except for one shot.  It is a relatively-rare color shot. It is an onstage shot, and Jagger hovers mid-stage, mid-air, mid-leap.  And his eyes burn.  His famous mouth hangs open.  For a moment, it’s like looking at a demon manifesting.   For once all the essential nastiness of the singer and his merry men—all the years they’ve taunted us with our worst instincts and taught us to live with them at the same time—menaces the lens.  I wonder if even Marshall bristled at the brimstone.