‘Musicians always like to say that it’s only about the music. It isn’t, of course.’
NEW YORK – If there is any doubt about whether the Rolling Stones have contributed as much to culture, fashion, film, and design as they have to music over more than a half-century in the public eye, a visit to “Exhibitionism” in the West Village will erase it.
The Stones’ journey from their first squalid flat in London’s Chelsea neighborhood to record-shattering worldwide tours is tracked across nine themed galleries in the Industria studio complex, which is hosting this exhibit of more than 500 Stones artifacts through March 12. Along the way, admirers and collaborators from Martin Scorsese to Andy Warhol to Tommy Hilfiger weigh in on what many people have called the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band.
The Stones first joined forces in 1962 through an ad placed by Brian Jones for a new rhythm and blues group. Jagger and Keith Richards answered it, and within a year Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts latched onto the group, which played its first gig in July of ’62 as the Rollin’ Stones.
The band’s longevity is as noteworthy as its proclivity toward outrageous, headline-grabbing behavior (look for the 1979 letter to Atlantic Records chairman Ahmet Ertegun railing against the “morally offensive” song “Some Girls”).
“Exhibitionism” starts with a video wall that splices together music, concert footage, and images old and new, as well as newspaper headlines referencing, among other events, Jones’s stunning drowning in 1969, the Altamont concert tragedy later that year, and Richards’s drug arrest in 1977.
The music came first, however, and the Stones caught fire in 1963, as hundreds, then thousands of fans began lining up to see them. “It happened so fast,” said Richards. “It was like hanging onto a tornado.”
Their interest in and eagerness to play R&B music led them to record in 1964 at Chicago’s Chess Studios, where they met Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Richards noted that “having the backing of people you admired so much was [like] taking a shortcut to heaven.” The Stones’ early success is reflected by tour posters from the 1960s, as well as a band fanzine (“Do screaming audiences put you off at all?” Wyman answers: “No, it’s when they don’t scream that we get worried.”).
Watts’s first drum kit sits just outside a recording studio mockup, where you can gain insights into the studio process from Don Was, who has produced several of their albums.
“They are relentless in the pursuit of a good take,” said Was. “They don’t mind coming back every day for a month and trying the song. The reason they’ve lasted so long is because they refuse to accept OK.”
Watts noted that Richards’s preferred studio method was “to play it 20 times, and let it marinate over another 20”; he called it “working on Keith time.” Guitarist Ron Wood, who joined the band in 1975, said, “We timed it once; Charlie was sitting at his drum kit for 18 hours straight.”
The resulting music has stood the test, undoubtedly aided by the realization that their trailblazing album art, concert tours, and fashion conveyed as much attitude as the songs themselves. The exhibit concludes with a peek backstage and a high-energy, 3-D performance of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” As concert set designer Willie Williams, who has worked with U2, David Bowie, and R.E.M. as well as the Stones, put it, “Anyone producing live shows who says they haven’t been influenced by the Rolling Stones is a terrible liar.”
And there’s that distinctive tongue-and-lips logo, which artist Shepard Fairey called “the most iconic, potent, and enduring logo in rock ‘n’ roll history.” It’s not the only enduring aspect of this band, which put out its 25th studio album, “Blue & Lonesome,” in 2016.
Said Jagger back in 1989, when the Stones were inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame: “Americans are funny people: first you shock them, then they put you in a museum.”
Unless you’re the Stones, in which case you beat them to the punch by creating your own exhibit.
Ron Driscoll can be reached at email@example.com.