You're just a memory of a love
That used to mean so much to me
Memory Motel, the Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones' Exhibitionism opened at Chicago's Navy Pier this past week. Today, I had the opportunity to experience the 18,000 square-foot exhibit of memorabilia from their personal archives.
Overview. For the $39.20 admission fee, I had the opportunity to see some terrific photographs (the better ones in black and white), a replica of the band's first communal apartment, a mock recording studio, Charlie Watts' 1965 Ludwig drum kit (used through 1968), a wide array of guitars, an assessment of Stones-related films by Martin Scorsese, stage maquettes, more mannequins displaying costumes than I could imagine, a back stage area, and a 3D film of the Stones performing Satisfaction at what I believe was the 2016 Coachella Golden Oldies concert that also featured Paul McCartney, the Who, Neil Young, and Pink Floyd. There are plenty of video screens that explain the objects. As I proceeded through the 10 or so often black-walled rooms, I heard a mish-mash of Rolling Stones music bleeding from one room to the next, with occasional commentary by band members. There is not a lot of written explanatory material.
The Rules. The rules are designed to move people through what is billed as a 90-minute experience. I spent roughly two hours, read most of the explanations on the walls and in the cases, and listened to virtually all of available segments at individual listening stations equipped with old-fashioned headphones--no disinfectant wipes for cleaning between uses. Fortunately, I did not need to go to the bathroom, because there are none in the exhibition hall. If you need to go, you need to buy a second ticket at full price for re-admission (assuming they are available).
I was particularly irritated by the photography policy. Had they said none, I would have been fine with that, but the online FAQ specifically states that photography is permissible (except in one room--the backstage area). I brought my Sony A7rii, and was told that I had to put it away because only cellphone photographs were permitted. I suspect the cellphone policy is a concession to reality, and the no "professional" camera policy is designed to keep the crowds moving.
Entryway. Upon entering the exhibit, I was confronted by a large sign (LED lighting) with the words, "Ladies and Gentlemen." When standing directly in front of the sign, to my right was a wall-sized map of the world, with animated white lines representing travel pathways as time and the 41 tours passed by. As time moves from 1962 to 2016, every concert stop that the Stones made is identified, all in about 2 or 3 minutes. In total, the Stones have played 1,823 concerts, performing before 46.3 million people.
On the opposite wall there is a similar display. It identifies each recording and the total number of hours of recorded music that the Stones have put out--bootlegs excluded.
It is then onto the giant video room, which is quite well done. i was treated to a 2-minute history of the band. It is here that some of the controversial aspects are dealt with, which means those events are given short shrift.
As I said at the outset, the photographs are one of the highlights, particularly because the prints are of such high quality. Everyone has always thought of the Stones as the bad boys of rock and roll, but as one photograph demonstrates, at one point early on, it would have been hard to differentiate Mick from Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits. As legend has it, Herman might have noticed that Mrs. Brown had a lovely daughter, but it was Mick who would have deflowered her.
At this point, I entered the portion of the exhibit that recreates the first communal apartment in Chelsea. It is a real pigsty, which was how it was advertised. I love the poster on the wall for a performance by Alexis Korner, one of the pioneering musicians behind the early Sixties British blues scene. Of course, there were the record albums strewn about the flat that brought back many memories. This was the exhibit's only reference to the late Chuck Berry, and fleeting it was. Later on, the curators do a better job paying homage to Muddy Waters.
Next, I entered the room that recreated a recording studio and features (literally in your face) Charlie Watt's drum kit that most likely was used during appearances on the Ed Sullivan show--a critical stepping stone in the band's career that was not even mentioned, as far as I recall. It is always fun seeing the large tape boxes, with handwritten labels identifying iconic songs--the physical manifestation of iconic sounds and ideas. Sort of like discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls. I loved the large Leslie Amp and the organ.
For me, the remaining portion of the show was far less interesting. I saw far too many of Keith's guitars in display cases that had unacceptable levels of glare. In that same room, I had the opportunity to remix a number of Rolling Stone recordings, including Miss You and Angie, as well as four or five live recordings. The Stones were always known for burying the vocals in the mix, and that was readily apparent as I isolated Mick's voice on Miss You. He is grunting rather than singing (and the bottom of his voice sounds like he has a soar throat, but that all disappeared when I added the instrumentation back). It is interesting to isolate the instruments on the concert recordings. I could really hear how the sound bleeds into an isolated mike.
I then headed to two rooms heavy on graphics, including album covers and photographs. Helmont Newton, Robert Frank, David Bailey, and Andy Warhol's polaroids were well represented. I never liked the album cover for Goat's Head Soup, but today I gained an appreciation for it. Newton told Jagger that he was going to make Jagger look like Katherine Hepburn, and sure enough, Newton did. Ah, to have been a photographer who tagged along, but could I have kept up with the pace?
Then there was a room that addressed staging, with some interesting videos explaining the creative process behind set design. Next there was a short video narrated by Martin Scorsese that covered films about the Stones, including Jean-Luc Goddard's infamous Sympathy for the Devil. Then there were the costumes, which I found to be a terrific bore. The mannequins were cheap, and there was very little explanation.
At this point, the exhibit was wrapping up. I passed through the backstage area. To the Stones' credit, there was a video wall here that identified and briefly discussed those other musicians who had contributed to the Stones sound, particularly on stage. Included in the montage of video clips were Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys, Jim Price, Billy Preston, Chuck Leavell, Darryl Jones, Bernard Fowler, and Lisa Fischer. At this point, the Stones committed a major crime: Ian Stewart was noted as one of the side musicians. The Stones would not exist without him. Legend has it that he did not become a full-fledged member because he didn't have the right looks, but that doesn't mean that he wasn't critical.
Finally, I was handed a pair of the 3D glasses for a video performance of Satisfaction. The song still overwhelms and delights after all of these years. What I found most interesting was the Stones' reactions shots. The spontaneous smiles on their faces demonstrated that they are still awed by the crowd's reaction to them. This is is the only point in the show that answered a fundamental question: What is it like to be a Rolling Stone?
Now it is time to Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is heavy with fashion wear and light on music and books. I might have popped for a book of black and white photographs, but the exhibition catalogue looked cheap and gaudy.
The Survivors Write the History. As noted, Ian Stewart did not receive his due. Nor did Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, or Mick Taylor. For my money, Ronnie Wood was given a far bigger part in the story than he deserves. He was late too the game, having virtually nothing to do with the seminal portions of the Stones' catalogue, although that catalogue has continued to dominate their shows for the last three decades.
The Best Quote. Hidden in a dark corner of the room that holds all the guitars is a great quote (under the blues harps) from Cyril Davies, another British musician that was responsible for introducing England's youth to American blues. When an 18-year old Mick Jagger asked Davies how to play the blues harp, Davies, who died in 1964, responded, "You fucking blow and you fucking suck it. And that's how you fucking learn to play it. Now fuck off."
The Inevitable Comparison. So was the Stones' Exhibitionism better than the Museum of Contemporary Art's David Bowie Is retrospective of three years ago? Hands down, the answer is "No." In fact, the juxtaposition of the two retrospectives identifies everything that is wrong with Exhibtionism. First, the Bowie exhibit combined audio and computer technology perfectly. Each visitor was given a headset, with the sound for a particular display automatically activating as the visitor approached it. For a $5 fee, visitors to the Stones exhibit could rent an audio set. I didn't, but it is clear that it was the old-fashioned museum version.
Second, the Bowie show did not separate visitors from artifacts with plexiglass cases--although there were some out of necessity. Many of the displays were open. Everything in the Stones exhibit was behind plexiglass.
Third, the Bowie show was more elaborately styled. The displays had texture and interesting colors and angles. Most of the Stones exhibit was simply hung on bare walls.
Fourth, as noted, the Stones exhibit had an excellent video wall in the second room. After that, most of the video was on flat screens. The Bowie exhibit made far more creative use of video.
Fifth, the Bowie exhibit focused on the development of Bowie as a person. There was extensive material on Bowie's teenage years and influences. Not so much with the Stones. For the most part, the focus was on the group rather than the individuals. The exhibit would have been much better had it devoted a room or seperate area to each of the original Stones.
Sixth, although there was focus on the Stones and their collaborators, the Bowie exhibit offered a much more interesting look at that collobarative process when it came to the fashion designers, photographers, fellow musicians, and filmmakers. Bowie was not afraid to share credit.
In sum, Bowie was much more of an art school student than a musician, while the Stones started as musicians (although several did attend art school), and then looked to other mediums to spice things up and differentiate themselves.
Demographics and Attendance. I was a bit surprised by the absence of people during my two-hour visit. I would bet that I saw no more than 75 people in the exhibit. No doubt that the promoters are relying on word of mouth and warm weather to bring in the crowds. To my surprise, the gender mix was two-thirds women, one-third men. The audience skewed old and gray. While the Stones' music may be familiar to younger audiences, I am not sure that they will turn out for the exhibit.
Overall Assessment. It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It). Yes, I enjoyed the exhibit. Having grown up with the Stones, it would be hard not to like seeing the memorabilia up close. I always like handwritten lyrics, tape reels, contracts (the Stones' first royalty was 6% of Decca's wholesale price), and personal effects. Yet, the exhibit was superficial, covering a lot of familiar ground and glossing over controversial matters, like the death of Brian Jones, Keith's drug problems, and feuds. As I noted, it would have been great to see a larger focus on the individual members. It would also have been better had the entire effort been put in historical context. There was no mention of side projects (e.g. Performance, or the New Barbarians). Nor were spouses, children, marriages, divorces, Keith's interest in British naval history, Charlie's jazz obsession, or soft-spoken Bill's body count mentioned. During their prime, the Stones produced music during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the druggy Seventies, and the nihilistic Eighties. The exhibit largely ignored what was happening in the greater culture--how the Stones absorbed, changed, and reflected it back. As worldly as the Stones appear to have been, the exhibit leaves the impression that they have lived an isolated existence.
Having said all that, it is hard for me to imagine any of today's rock and pop musicians staging an exhibit like this in 40 or 50 years. Given the web, social media, video games, and all the entertainment and expressive options available to people today, music just doesn't play quite the central role that it once did in the culture. I remember anxiously awaiting the release of each Rolling Stone album (at least up to 1978's Some Girls). Today's musicians simply don't have the impact that the Stones once had, nor do they have the longevity. The Stones are a phenomenon, even if they have been phoning it in for the last three decades in terms of creating new material.
As for the real story, listen to the records, read Robert Greenfield's Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones (the best book on the Stones, with a focus on the summer of 1971 at Villa Nellcote), and watch Charlie is My Darling and Jean-Luc Goddard's Symphony for the Devil.
In the end, the Exhibitionism is worth your time, but few people will go back for seconds, or remember the experience as an extraordinary one.
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need
You Can't Always Get What You Want, The Rolling Stones.
A New Fan Is Born Everyday: Heartbreaker