“Ladies and Gentlemen, the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world, the Rolling Stones!” So start about half a dozen Stones bootlegs I own. I always cringe ever so slightly every time I hear it. Although I believe it’s true. Just wish they didn’t have to say it.
I guess that expecting humility and taste and a lack of garish self-promotion is a lot to expect from the Rolling Stones. Actually, we can expect taste. In the music.
This ambivalence about the Stones’ unabashed and at times overwhelmingly tacky commercialism kept me away from their exhibition of memorabilia, named, in inimitable Stones fashion, Exhibitionism. The source of the review quote on the street poster tells it all: The Wall Street Journal. I also didn’t feel like paying the $30 admission price. But a friend offered me free use of her VIP pass, removing that obstacle.
So, Exhibitionism. First of all, great name. Just the right mixture of sleaze, shame, and information. l zipped in past the nonexistent crowds, my “VIP” pass easily accepted. The first room, with multiple monitors, showed promise. At least I heard music. “Brown Sugar,” great song. Great song about heroin. Like about half of the songs on Sticky Fingers. But “Brown Sugar” fades into the ubiquitous “Satisfaction,” just as I am getting interested.
The next room is a recreation of the apartment shared by Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards on Edith Grove, Chelsea. Pretty messy, but not an outlier in that category. It’s positively House Beautiful compared to the crib where I used to buy crack.
Then we enter a room, with exhibits, monitors with interviews, sound equipment, guitars, and the like. Especially depressing is an interview with Keith, whose deeply lined face is way beyond craggy. More like a rock in the Outer Hebrides. And I thought he looked rough 30 years ago. But he’s oddly coherent. What’s truly disconcerting are his perfect, extremely white teeth. What happened?
We soon go into a room with music, with a promise to be able to listen to complete songs, and even remix them! But the tunes chosen for us do not play to their ends, and cruelly stop short. Even more sadly, among the paltry number of selections are “Doom and Gloom,” “Under Cover of the Night,” and, appallingly, “Angie.”
We head upstairs to find an animated, three-dimensional version of the Rolling Stones tongue, their logo, and some information about its design. Whatever. Next room: posters, album covers, and the like. Eventually, we stumble upon a short documentary directed and narrated by Martin Scorsese. Of some interest, to be sure, but more of a reminder about why Scorsese is reknowned for his dramatic work.
I first heard the Stones’ music in the summer of 1977. I was working a summer job for the school district on the aptly named “weed crew.” We hacked away weeds and planted ivy and smoked pot all day. The radio was on, playing “Paint It Black.” After work, l dashed off to a record store and asked for the Rolling Stones album with sitar, and they sold me Their Satanic Majesties Request. Wrong album. A great record in its own way, but perhaps the worst one to get first. No matter. l soon found Aftermath, and a lot more.
I loved the Stones so much, but at some point the dissipated life they portray so enticingly and beautifully, with all of its romantic self-destruction, resentment, despair, and willfulness, stopped working for me. To my dismay, I accepted that I could not safely touch an intoxicating substance. Not that safety was ever a priority.
When I first got clean, I couldn’t listen to the Stones without wanting to use. Two years into my new life, with a lot coming back, not least of all the ability to keep salable electronic items such as a stereo in my apartment, I visited a used record store that specialized in classical music, but had a small rock section. I wandered over and found the Rolling Stones tab. I pulled up a copy of Let It Bleed, took a look at it, and could taste cocaine in my nostrils. I put it back in the rack.
Ironically, my way back to the Stones was via the Beatles. I could listen to “Get Back” without jonesing. After a while, I felt that I could take a chance on “Paint It Black.” In the music section of a now defunct chain store, I put on some headphones, listened, and I didn’t feel like using. That feeling had lifted. “Paint It Black.” Still so good. Exotic sounds and dark imagery (No colors any more, I want them to turn black), depressive lyrics (/ see people turn their heads and quickly look away), self-hatred (I look inside myself and see my heart is black), and more. Still one of my favorite songs, “Paint It Black” is the ring tone on my phone. A friend recently heard it go off and noted, with concern, that’s pretty dark, isn’t it? And?
Listening to the Stones now is a radically different experience from my sordid youth. I can listen to “Ventilator Blues” and hear it as a depiction of a life, not a game plan for living. I can appreciate my teenage self in Southern California and my adolescent desire to see the sun blotted out of the sky. The sunshine bored the daylights out of me.
“Rocks Off,” from Exile On Main Street. Super-8 footage by Robert Frank.
Unfortunately, Exhibitionism is more a celebration of the Stones’ commercial success than the music. The commercialism was inevitable, and, I suppose, a necessary step to getting those albums onto my turntable. As Robert Christgau wrote, “They never figured they’d spearhead a mass movement that went anywhere but record stores.” And I can’t help but compare this celebration of commodity with what Malcolm McLaren’s son recently did—burn $6 million dollars worth of Sex Pistols memorabilia. Yet on some level, I expected (hoped?) Exhibitionism to do the impossible: to somehow evoke the excitement I felt the first time I ever heard “Stray Cat Blues.” Or the pleasure I felt the ten-thousandth time I heard “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Or, for that matter, the euphoria I still feel listening to a bootleg of “Midnight Rambler” from the Mick Taylor era. I really don’t care very much about the posters or photos from 1964 or anything so tangible. It’s the music; specifically, the fact that Jagger and Richards together are way way more than the sum of the parts. They are one of the great songwriting teams of the Twentieth Century. And, at the risk of being obvious, neither of them works without the other. Concerning Jagger, as Richards put it in his autobiography Life, “Has anyone listened to She’s the Boss all the way through? I know I haven’t.” As for Richards, I do have a couple of his solo efforts, but I can’t remember a single song from either one. But together, with Charlie and Bill, Brian and the other Mick (and maybe even Ronnie) they remain the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world.
Exhibitionism is closing in New York City on Sunday, March 12, so in you live in New York, you don’t have much time left. In true addict fashion, I turned this review in late. But you can always fly to Chicago to see it. Too bad there isn’t Rolling Stones Air. At least not yet. Although nowadays it probably wouldn’t look too much like the airplane scene from Cocksucker Blues. Which is probably good. Or maybe not.
At Industria, 775 Washington Street, Manhattan, through March 12, 2017. Opening in Chicago at Navy Pier, Festival Hall B, April 15.