NOTES FROM THE MEMORY MOTEL: Half A Century of Stones in Two Days

Click your device on individual photos if so desired, to see in close-up. (These were all taken by me, so if you share on social media, as a courtesy please credit the photographs to ‘RPM: Jonathan Perry’s Life In Analog’, thank you in advance)

I’ve finally caught my breath and stopped reeling. Now I’m just reliving, and writing about, what made me sweat and stagger in the first place. It happened earlier this week (I don’t think I’ve ever had a better-spent Monday and Tuesday), which I spent reveling through two days of “Exhibitionism,” the sumptuously executed half-century career retrospective surveying the life and times of The Rolling Stones, from their scruffy beginnings and blues-infused ascension to the ranks of ’60s British rock royalty, to their grit-and-glitter-encrusted glory years of the ’70s, to their global fame as a stadium-sized band and brand during the ’80s, ’90s and beyond.

To truly consider the Rolling Stones, it’s simply not adequate to ponder a clutch of hit singles or a few best-selling albums, or even an epochal moment or movement in music history (like, say, 1967’s so-called “Summer of Love” or “The Year Punk Broke” ten years later; the omnipresent Stones are one of the few artists that were around for, and responded to, both periods).

No, to properly contemplate the Stones is to throw a wide net across the stretching seas of the decades encompassing music, fashion, and culture that’s informed their existence (and vice versa). And bring your magnifying glass and microscope.

Thanks to my indulgent wife Roxanne, I was lucky enough to be presented with a special ‘VIP’ pass to partake of such a task for my birthday. In a proverbial nutshell, “Exhibitionism” allowed me to visit this singular group’s career-spanning installation for as long as I liked — twice! (Fret not pilgrims, as Stan Lee might say; a regular $30 ticket gains you one-time access to the entire exhibit for as long as you like; if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to set aside two to three hours — okay, four or five –to feel as though you’ve done it thorough justice).

There is, to start, a satisfying splash to the eyes and ears (I won’t spoil it) — a biff, bang, and pow to the proceedings that sets the stage for, well, the stages to come. There’s something here for everybody to savor, from the casually curious to the lifelong obsessed, and the exhibit does an exemplary job of showcasing the mediums of sight, sound, art, and design that the Stones favored (and that favored them) during the last half of the 20th century (and into the 21st century until now, although frankly, I was less interested in that).

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The Dulcimer (on left) Brian Jones used on “Lady Jane” and during the “Aftermath” sessions

As a side note, I wondered, as I wandered, how many other Stones fans of a certain age were reminded of the promo mini-movie the boys put out more than 30 years ago called “Video Rewind” as a cheeky tie-in to a similarly titled greatest hits album? In it, bassist Bill Wyman is a museum curator giving a guided tour of its inhabitants — a curious group of relics who played concerts during the ’60s and ’70s. My lasting memory is of a 1984 Mick Jagger, decked out in his ’73 mascara and shoulder-padded jumpsuit from the “Silver Train” video, frozen and preserved in a protective glass capsule. The funny thing is, more than three decades later, the Stones — thanks to this living, breathing, retrospective — feel far more alive than they did in that video.

There’s an interactive kiosk, for instance, where you can make like an amateur Jimmy Miller and custom mix your own Stones songs utilizing simple eight-track levers that can add or subtract, in incremental degrees or bold swoops up or down, not just the riffs and melodies you’ve heard all your life, but ones you never even knew were there.exhibitionism-063

You can do as I did and go extreme, ram everything down to zero, and crank up and isolate Mick Jagger’s lead vocal, or bring up Keith Richards’s electric guitar track, or pull the curtain back to reveal nothing but Bill Wyman’s bass line and the crisp crack of Charlie Watts’s drums to hear how he drives the moving parts with martial efficiency. Not only does this feature offer a window into the creative process, it also throws the singular talents and personality of each individual musician into sharp relief of one another.exhibitionism-156

You can listen to (and watch) iconic director Martin Scorsese opine about a band that has long been one of his greatest creative muses, contemplate Keith’s personally owned LP copies of “Some Girls,” or gaze upon a wall of Warhols.

Speaking of iconic artists, photographer Robert Frank’s pictures and paste-up collages for “Exile On Main St.” are there, as are a row of John Pasche poster designs for a slew of early 1970s tour posters, and Mick and Charlie’s brainstorm sketches for what would become the 1975 Tour of The Americas flying eagle jet logo.

The glamorously disheveled recreation of a gear-strewn Olympic Sound Studio (yes, those really are the drums and percussion used in “Sympathy For The Devil”), accompanied by audio testimony from the Stones, and latter-day producer Don Was, about how they work in the studio is an illuminating centerpiece of the show.

If I had one criticism, it’s that there’s no spotlight on, or artifacts from, Mick Taylor, the band’s sublime lead guitarist from 1969-74 (examples of those electric guitars he wrung marvelous magic from on wax and on stage for five years are nowhere to be found). This is a complaint I’ve heard among fans of Taylor’s (of which I’m certainly one), and among those devoted to the band’s so-called ‘golden era’ run of classics that began when the Stones released their seminal “Beggars Banquet” LP in 1968 (when Taylor was not yet part of the group). Whether deliberate or accidental, it’s a glaring and unfortunate omission that gives short shrift to the Taylor tenure and the meatiest, most mythical part of the Stones discography.

But at least, Taylor is there embedded eternally in the music, the tape reels, the LP cover mock-ups, the film and the photographs from those salad days. To stand somewhere on the floor straddling the sacred space between “Sticky Fingers” and”It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)” — while overhead hangs David Bailey’s magnificently gauzy portrait of the five Stones standing shirtless and wearing facial feature-obscuring stockings for the “Goats Head Soup” photo shoot — is to feel that mysteriously decadent, artfully dis-arranged Stones aura where we’ve always felt it: somewhere between the heart, soul, and the lower regions.

Taylor is also present at the end of the exhibit, which concludes with an entertaining (though slightly cheesy) 3-D presentation of the Stones live in concert in 2013 at Hyde Park in London (where the Stones debuted with their new guitar virtuoso in July 1969, a few days after Brian Jones’s death). The guitarist is on stage with them playing guitar (albeit acoustic) on an encore of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” a song that predated his Stones tenure by several years, and he takes a deep, hugging bow with the rest of the group to an outpouring of love.

Now, I understand Jagger and Co. are deeply invested in appearing relevant,  contemporary — still of and in the rock moment. So having a splashy finale emphasizing the current image and incarnation of the band still “rocking out” into their 70s was not unexpected. But one couldn’t help feeling a bit let down by a missed opportunity to reflect and refract, in dynamic terms, what the exhibit was supposedly about: the arc of a grand, era-lapping history. And the period of Stones history most of us care about happened during the 1960s and ’70s. So a visual and sonic send-off showing the band during its 1965 (with Jones) or 1969 or ’72 zenith (with Taylor) performing would have offered a thrilling reminder and palpable piece of evidence (especially for younger fans) as to what really made the Stones’ bones as a creative force and touring act.

Upon reflection, I have a nagging feeling there are also Brian Jones-era devotees and latter-day fans who came of age after the 1975 Ronnie Wood-era was firmly established (as I did), who feel as though their guys could also have been accorded a wee bit more of the spotlight.

That said, the emphasis here, ultimately, isn’t on single personalities (and no, you do not come away with the feeling that this is merely the Mick & Keith Ego Hour), but rather on the Stones’ trajectory as a unit, a force, and a singularly monumental band, in all its complicated chemistry, remarkable history, and star-crossed cast of characters caught up and fed into one giant lapping tongue. Still, okay, one Taylor guitar would have been nice.

The exhibit takes us through the multitude of years, cities, and studios chronologically, and I soaked languorously in the fine wine of a history that began before even I did (although they didn’t beat me by much, my having been born in December 1963). For me, the original tape reel boxes, acetate discs, cover idea mock-ups, and journals of hand-written lyrics were my personal Shidoobee, er, Shangri-La. Yeah, my brains were battered, most pleasantly.

I lingered over the markings on those ancient tape boxes as if they were biblical tablets, and pored for secret clues and cues from Mick Jagger’s handwriting, and producers Jimmy Miller’s and Glyn Johns’s notations. I attempted to decipher the scribbled-out verses to songs we’ve all heard and memorized from the radio. What I was struck by, gazing at the handwritten notes and buzzed brainstorms, was how even the most famous, the most celebrated of songs, had humble origins that all started with a songwriting spark. So, the Rolling Stones were human after all, I thought.

A few people (read: guys) took note. “Hey, you must feel like you died and went to heaven,eh?” said one middle-aged guy, as he saw me drooling over a custom five-string electric guitar Keith Richards used on the band’s ’73 European Tour. “Yep, it’s guys like you who make it all worthwhile, make all this possible!” Huh? Me? What was my role, exactly, in making the exhibit worthwhile or possible? Perhaps I symbolized the insatiable public demand that such a spectacle exist? Or maybe, to this guy I was part of the installation too, a living example of anthropological phenomena known as “Obsessed Stones Fan.”

Then there were the stage costumes, not to mention the nostalgic, synapse-triggering suits that tapped my inner clothes horse. Jagger’s black and white checked jacket and slacks from ’69 that pops up in Ethan Russell’s striking L.A. photographs (just as the Stones were about to embark on that initially triumphant, ultimately tragic ’69 U.S. tour), has long been a favorite.

Another dandy was the pink silk-satin number Mick wore during the 1970 European Tour and donned for the “Brown Sugar” video shoot in 1971. The Pop Art splash and swirl of ’60s psychedelia was in full flower, the bright reds and greens and purples and yellows in full bloom across the room.

A few feet away hung Brian Jones’s black-and-grey hound’s tooth jacket, a relic of the period when the band were miserably outfitted in matching suits to capitalize on the British Invasion wave the Beatles had brought crashing to these shores (thankfully, the misguided experiment didn’t last long). I still can’t quite believe that a mere three years separated muted cookie-cutter coats from Carnaby Street’s carnival of color.

The stage costumes I most hungered to see were Jagger’s velvet and studded jumpsuits from the 1972 and ’73 tours. For me, those years represented not only the band’s pinnacle as musicians and a stage act, but Mick’s absolute apex as a personae, performer, and his reign as rock & roll’s most compelling, charismatic frontman — a pan-generational standard-setter in look, style, and attitude that would reverberate through the annals of hard rock, punk, New Wave, and beyond. Of course, similar things can be, and have been, said about Keith’s rooster-shag ‘haircuts’, marinated swagger and debauched, pirate-motif visage.

In a bout of exquisitely delayed gratification, upon entering, I had refrained from bolting upstairs to the rooms that contained this treasure trove of materials that made the myths. It was something akin to holding off on a knee-buckling climax, or skipping through a great book to find out what happens at the end.

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Midnight Rambler Mick’s Harmonicas, circa 1970.

But eventually, as I made my way from room to room, the tour drawing to its inevitable conclusion, I came face-to-fabric with not just three totems of that hungered-for history I was seeking to see, but something that held even more cultural weight: The infamous ’69 “Leo” costume and cape immortalized in the Maysles brothers film, “Gimme Shelter,” which captured the disastrous Altamont concert with brutal, awful clarity. There it hung in mute, strangely static silence — far removed from clinging to Mick’s gyrations and pleas on that panic-stricken night of murder and mayhem. Nearly 40 years later, it looked small and more quaint than menacing (much like Mick himself that day). Still, it held secrets.

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Leo & Lips: Mick’s iconic Satanic stage costume with cape (as seen in the “Gimme Shelter” film and elsewhere) for the ’69 U.S. Tour, flanked by an early custom jeweled tongue design T-shirt tank worn by drummer Charlie Watts on the ’72 U.S. Tour and ’73 European Tour.

And then, next to the “Leo” outfit were those clothes I came for, hung on mannequins with weirdly stocking’d skulls right out of “Goats Head Soup”: A blue sleeveless jumper and gold bodysuit from ’72, and a white cotton Elvis-esque number from ’73. (I never knew it was plain cotton). How many covers of LP and CD Stones bootlegs, how many magazines and books, how many bedroom wall posters, had these ensembles graced? It was almost too much to comprehend with a cool and clear head (and I don’t think I qualified for either at this juncture) Hanging there at a grand distance of three feet — just out of arm’s reach — I was close enough (but did not dare) to touch the hem of his garments.

The cherry red on top of my emotionally towering, over-piled birthday cake (I like to think of it as the one from the ‘Let It Bleed’ cover) came during the final minutes of my last afternoon, when I headed over to the gift shop to inspect the baubles.

Minutes earlier, I had recognized Lisa Fischer sitting with a couple of friends in a nearby restaurant adjacent to Industria (how do you not recognize a face you’ve seen on stage and in film dozens of times since 1989?). I smiled inwardly at this serendipitous bit of trainspotting as I decided to snap a few more, farewell shots of the sun-dappled “Exhibitionism” mural on the street.

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Ian Stewart’s piano

I must have taken longer than I thought. Because when I swung open the gift shop-lobby door a few minutes later, BOOM! There she was, Mick’s duet partner and the Stones’ backing vocalist for 25 years. Lisa was in good spirits, sharing a laugh with friends. I walked up to her and as unobtrusively as possible — I’ve never been good at these things, even after 20 years of interviewing rock stars for a living — murmured an “excuse me” and said, “I just wanted to thank you for making the Stones sound so good all of these years.”

Not a bad line on the fly. She was instantly gracious and thanked me for the compliment. Then she took my hand in both of hers, asked my name, and cooed politely over my homemade acrylic-painted Stones leather jacket as I blubbered something or other about being a hopeless Stones lifer. She noticed my ‘VIP’ pass dangling from my neck, jangled hers, and chortled that she had one too!

No, I didn’t ask for a picture. I also didn’t ask her to sing a few bars (“rape, murder, it’s just a shot away!”) of the impossibly pitched vocal in “Gimme Shelter,” as she’s done on the worldwide stage in front of millions of people for decades. It’s always struck me that Lisa has been afforded one of rock’s most enviable guest platforms, and unenviable tasks: attempting to replicate Merry Clayton’s immortal performance in what has become possibly the most well-known, blood-curdling vocal in rock history. And she’s always nailed it.

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Charlie’s vintage toy drum kit and Keith’s nearly-as-vintage tape recorder, both used in the recording of “Street Fighting Man.”

Instead, I simply smiled and told Ms. Fischer she “was well represented in the exhibit” (in a nice audio-visual tribute to the players, singers, and sidemen who’ve augmented the Stones sound from the beginning), and we parted company. I headed out into a grey day turning gold, my Stones experience at last complete.

How did I know that it was complete? That I really could not have gotten any closer save the Stones stopping by to swap stories? I’m now looking at a photo I took of the mannequin’d, “Midnight Rambler”-belted crotch of Mick Jagger’s blue velvet jumpsuit from the ’72 “Exile On Main St.”tour. If that doesn’t sum up rock & roll satisfaction I don’t know what does.exhibitionism-174

For more information and tickets, go here: http://www.stonesexhibitionism.com/

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3 comments

  1. As I’ve grown older, I thought I would become less of a gear and artifacts freak. But the opposite has happened. Jonathan, thanks for feeding the beast with this excellent close-up! -Ted

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure Ted! Funny, I never thought I’d grow up and out of it (and never wanted to).
      But I didn’t think I’d just keep going deeper and deeper into the crazy. And while five or ten choice photos may have been a tasteful representation and made a better, streamlined layout, I thought, naaahhhh….that’s just not who I am! (In a bit of obsession-enabling irony, I won a contest held by the lovely people of Exhibitionism for best Stones memorabilia..so I’m going back!)

      Like

  2. Wow! Just wow. Thanks for sharing with the unlucky ones — like me — who won’t get to see it in person.

    Liked by 1 person

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