One of my favourite ever quotes is Keith Richards describing Mick Jagger as “a mixture of James Brown and Maria Callas” (said while talking to NPR’s Terri Gross in 2010), and it’s a phrase that stuck with me after venturing into the Stones exhibition that’s come to NYC from their hometown of London. Exhibitionism doesn’t just center on the iconic frontman, to be sure, but it does bring together many of the complements he embodies and imbues in the band – the flamboyance and the artistry, the masculine and the feminine, the low brow swirled in with the high.
It’s no wonder they made up a new word for this display: from the moment they ditched the dogtooth suits, the Stones have always been showboats and nothing less than this kind of spectacle would have done. I missed seeing Exhibitionism in London when I was there briefly this past Summer, where it must have had such great resonance, given their roots. But thanks to a re-creation of the apartment Mick, Keith and Brian Jones shared in Chelsea in the early ’60s, I could at least feel like I was there.
And smell like it too! The one-roomed apartment, where many of the early songs were written, is one of my favourite parts of the exhibit. Recreated by text and anecdote only, as no pictures of it existed, it made me think of the defunct CBGBs bathroom that the Met recreated for its Punk: From Chaos to Couture exhibition. Instead of graffiti-strewn walls and blocked toilets, these rooms had the stench of copious cigarette butts and old broken egg shells that wafted in from the kitchen. At least, it seemed real enough to want to turn my nose away and focus more on the record-player in the next room with Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry LPs next to it.
“Mediocrity is the enemy” – the Stones.
Other favourite parts include the miniature models of the band’s various set designs, from Voodoo Lounge to Bridges to Babylon – tours that never came close to my home country South Africa, and Keith’s little mini-diaries in which he kept detailed notes of rehearsals and sessions (never expected him to be so meticulous). Hearing Martin Scorsese commenting on the films made about the Stones, before talking about his own, Shine A Light, is another highlight.
My jaw dropped at the sight of all the incredible fashion brought together in one room – from a rhinestone-covered flicking-tongued vest to all the custom Heidi Slimane pieces. Then it dropped even further at seeing the guitars in one room. The Les Pauls! The Fender Stratocasters! The detail and personality within their bodies – art to be studied up close, albeit behind very expensive glass walls, as voices of the band play overhead, telling stories of the instruments.
“That’s the fun of it,” reads a quote from Keith on one of the walls. “Trying to find the sound you’re hearing in your head until it matches that or you get as close to it as possible.” Over 5 decades of the Stones doing that has yielded this experience right here. And if you’re in New York, you wouldn’t want to miss it!