After 54 years, more than 20 studio albums (the exact number differs depending which side of the Atlantic you’re on) and countless concerts, what more do the Rolling Stones have to show us?
It turns out, quite a bit. The Stones’ career-spanning retrospective exhibit Exhibitionism finally makes its New York City debut this week (where it runs through March 2017 at Industria) after a successful London stint. The rundown of the Stones’ culture-changing career does an effective job of demonstrating how a few guys with a lot of love for the blues and a flair for style ended up as the definitive rock band of the 20th century (you can argue ’til you’re blue in the face about Beatles vs. Stones in terms of quality, but Mick & Keith’s band is inarguably history’s quintessential rock n’ roll band).
Exhibits centered on musical icons can sometimes be disappointing slightly, or worse yet, just plain hokey. But the Stones’ Exhibitionism is a surprisingly robust collection of instruments used on classic recordings, handwritten lyrics and hand-drawn artwork, iconic outfits, fan memorabilia and random delights, such as Andy Warhol’s sensual sketch of Mick Jagger or the original LP cover art for Some Girls (which was changed because it used the likenesses of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball without permission).
It’s a rush to see a beautifully hand-painted guitar from Keith Richards (the one that appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil) or the early sketches Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts made for the band’s album covers.
But the most unexpected treat is the digital mixing board that allows you to turn up or down the volume of every separate instrument on various Stones recordings. Want to hear “Rocks Off” with just Watts’ shuffling, funky drums and Bill Wyman’s libidinous bass line? Go for it. “Sympathy for the Devil” with just Mick’s yowling and Keif’s snarling guitar licks? No problem. A Stones obsessive could easily spend an hour happily playing around on that station (and since the exhibit provides numerous digital mixing boards, there’s no pressure to move on quickly).
Even the memorabilia that doesn’t come from a band member’s closet is still carefully curated. An interview with the late Brian Jones from an early ’60s fanbook is particularly fascinating. Take this exchange for example:
Q: Any big ambition for the Stones?
A: I’d love us to do well in the United States. Visiting there is a gas of an idea and it’d be marvelous to have a hit record in a country which has produced so many greats.
SPOILER ALERT: The Rolling Stones would go on to have a hit record in the United States.
The exhibit also does an effective job illustrating the dichotomy between their lean early days and their arrival as an oversized arena rock institution. Exhibitionism opens with a life-sized recreation of squalid, shared flat they lived in prior to making it big, right down to the dirty dishes stacked in the sink. But somehow that walk-through apartment feels smaller than the dioramas of the Stones’ latter day stage setups that appear toward the end of the exhibit. From the amusement-park-meets-space-station Voodoo Lounge Tour stage to the absurdly ornate Bridges of Babylon Tour setup, these models are a testament to the period when the Stones emerged as live rock’s version of Cecil B. DeMille.
Since then, the Stones have toned down the overstuffed staging and focused on the music. When they delivered one of the highlight sets of Desert Trip this year, the stage trimmings were at a minimum, allowing fans to focus on the fact that in their sixth decade, the Stones are an astonishingly vibrant, dynamic stage presence. The fact that Mick, Keith, Ronnie Wood and Watts are still kicking ass onstage after decades together is highlighted in the final portion of Exhibitionism, a six-minute 3D movie showing the modern day Stones knocking out “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and owning it like it’s still 1965.
One of the best things about Exhibitionism, though, is the fact that it’s not a museum piece. The Stones are still alive and kicking, preparing to release the all-covers album Blue & Lonesome on Dec. 2 that finds them returning to the blues classics and deep cuts that got them hooked in the first place. And following that, they’ve still got some new material to hash out in the studio for an in-the-works LP of originals.
In short: When you leave Exhibitionism, the Stones’ story isn’t over. There’s still plenty of fire coming from a spark that started over half a century ago when two childhood friends reunited in their teens and discovered they both dug the same American blues albums. And we’re all better for it.