A few days ago my husband and I went with friends to see Exhibitionism at Navy Pier in Chicago, the musical history of the Rolling Stones. This is the first major Rolling Stones exhibit, apparently curated by the boys themselves, spread across 18,000 square feet of space and that encompasses about 500 items representing the band’s 50-plus year career. As a testiment to their continued popularity, since 2012, when they celebrated their actual 50 years together as a band, they have sold more than $400 million in concert tickets, according to Boxscore.
I didn’t particularly follow them in high school. I was totally devoted to the Beatles in those years, although if I am honest, I tended to like many of the Stones’ songs in the ’60’s, sometimes more than the Beatles’ songs. Ironically, the Stones first hit single was I Wanna Be Your Man which was written by Lennon and McCartney (as lore has it, while Mick and Keith were talking in the same room. The Beatles later recorded it as well.). Satisfaction came out the week before I graduated from high school and I remember that the song was played non-stop at the parties that night. Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown and Mother’s Little Helper were hits the following year. Brown Sugar came out a few years later, and on and on. Stones’ songs were certainly edgier and grittier fare than anyone else was doing at the time unless the song was about the Vietnam War. Even my beloved Beatles didn’t get particularly topical until Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles were the good boys (although we found out later that they really weren’t always!); and the Stones were the scruffy bad boys. While the Beatles still wanted to hold your hand, the Stones wanted to spend the night together. Where the Beatles initially came off as cute and funny, a little “cheeky” as they themselves said, the Stones had attitude, were sarcastic and seemed dangerous.
Over the years, while paging through tabloids, I paid scant attention to Mick’s highjinx with various fashion models, and drugs. I was also vaguely aware of Keith’s long stay in druggieland. Despite all the sex, drugs and rock ’n rolI, I recognized Mick’s shrewdness and the band’s longevity although the top guys – Mick and Keith – obviously didn’t see eye to eye on many things. They apparently love creating music, know where their bread is buttered and somehow have seen it through.
In those rare occasions throughout my life when the subject of the Stones came up, I remembered joking with friends that the beauty of being Mick Jagger was that there was no aging process involved: he was as craggy-looking 50 years ago as he looks today. The old pictures that I saw in the exhibit reminded me that that was not at all true. While never what one would call handsome – he was no Paul McCartney, for example – I took note that as a young man he had a sort of menacing babyish face, always with those big sensuous lips. So in my dotage, I definitely can see why one might have given him a second look back in the day. But always being someone who believes that beauty fades, dumb is forever, much later when I learned that Mick was an A student in his primary grades and had the brains to be admitted to and studied at the London School of Economics, I realized there was likely more substance here than I was giving him credit for. That and his musical talent and his business instincts.
And what about Keith? I always viewed him as a supremely talented but burned-out junkie, blessed with the luck that the drugs and lifestyle didn’t kill him over the years, as it did many of his contemporaries. Much more classically handsome than Mick in his youth, as again the exhibit’s pictures reminded me, his current pictures show that his face is rather weathered, shall we say, and I’m being kind. I became intrigued by Keith after reading his widely-acclaimed memoir, Life. It shows us Keith as a boyhood choir boy, an Eagle Scout, a huge fan of the American and, particularly, Chicago blues world. It’s not hyperbole that he’s described as among the best blues guitarists in rock history and in the world. He takes us through his drug hell that lasted for years but a habit he said he kicked 30 years ago. And of course, in his youth, handsomer than Mick, and as a rock star, he too had his pick of women eager to hang on. Now he comes across as something of a country gentleman, living among his eclectic collection of books that he actually reads, with his wife of 32 years, his 5 children and his 5 grandchildren – a life come full circle indeed. As he holds his grandchild in one picture, he now sports a beautiful, wide grandfatherly smile. Besides Life, he’s also written a children’s book called Gus and Me, about his relationship with his own grandfather, himself a dance band leader, who taught him to play the guitar and be a rebellious non-conformist. According to Keith, Gus told him if he could play Malaguena, he could play anything.” And learn to play Malaguena he did! Gus and Me is a lovely book written by this erstwhile iconoclastic hellraiser illustrated by his daughter, that shows the bond between a grandparent and a grandchild – one I bought to read to our grandchildren. I just have to smile at the circle of life here.
About 15 years ago I went with some friends to my first and only Rollings Stones concert at the United Center. I went because I enjoyed their music, they were still a curiosity to me and I knew that it would be a fun night. My friends and I had great seats at the sold-out concert. But, I think maybe because of my diminutive stature (5 feet tall on a good day) that a guard actually came up to me and asked me if I could see. No fool, I said it might be better if I could be closer. At which point, he unexplicably ushered me to within feet of the stage! And there right in front of me was 60+ year old Mick, prancing around that stage like he was a teenager! His lithe body still fit and buff, not taking a break for almost 2 hours. His body was impressive but when he talked with the crowd, what really captured me was how engaging, smiling and charming he was. And when he did finally take a break, there was his frenemy, Keith Richards, brilliant blues musician that he is, riffing on his guitar for a wonderfully long set. While Mick may be the business brains of the group, Keith is clearly, in my opinion, the heart and soul.
Oh yes, what about the exhibit? I loved it! My husband who was skeptical about going, also completely enjoyed it. It illustrated how it was Brian Jones who may be credited with bringing the group together when he posted an ad in 1962 for musicians interested in joining a blues band he was trying to form. Keith and Mick answered the ad. It showed the early years with a reproduction of the filthy hovel in which they lived and wrote their music. It has sidebar notes of some of the music as it was written. It chronicles how their costuming went from a short stint of wearing very staid hounds-tooth jackets to bizarre multicolored velvet dandy-wear. It tells how their band logo was envisioned and commissioned to an art student by Mick, who eventually approved the “tongue” logo that has become probably the most oconic logo in rock history. Their story in the exhibit evolves through the many years and ends finally with a fabulous 3-D concert performance of them doing Satisfaction. The whole exhibit was a lot of fun and very well done!
According to fan club questionnaire completed by the band in 1964, Mick Jagger’s response about his primary desire, he said wanted to “own my own business.” I’d say, “Mission accomplished.” So as this blog post closes, I have done what everyone who writes about them does – focus only on the Glimmer Twins even though today’s Rolling Stones also still include the substantial talents of Charlie Watts, Ron Wood. Kind of like with the Beatles, back when Ringo was the cute one with his sad-sack eyes and George was the intense one with his spirituality and his virtuosity on the guitar but Lennon and McCartney still got all the attention.
Until next time…..