Re-Creating Rolling Stones History
For the show “Exhibitionism,” a curator brought together the band’s artifacts and reconstructed the rooms where the Stones worked and lived.
By John Seabrook
It is certainly possible to view “Exhibitionism,” the travelling show of Rolling Stones artifacts, costumes, and memorabilia which recently opened in the West Village, as yet another attempt by the group—whose most famous song is a stinging critique of consumerism—to wring every last dollar out of that big, lascivious tongue. (Tickets are thirty-five fifty; V.I.P. treatment is seventy-six fifty.) But for the true Stones fan “Exhibitionism” also gives satisfaction, and a good deal of it comes from the immersive environments created by the show’s curator, Ileen Gallagher.
A few days before the show opened, Gallagher, wearing a leather motorcycle jacket, was wandering through the event space looking for somewhere to sit.
“I know just the place!” she declared. Seventeen thousand square feet have been given over to “Exhibitionism,” which began at the Saatchi Gallery, in London, and will remain in New York until March. The idea was to create real-seeming historical rooms in which artifacts from the Rolling Stones’ archives could be “situated,” and to employ state-of-the-art sound, video, and set design to heighten the experience. The result is something between Madame Tussauds and Tracey Emin’s bed.
Here is Olympic Studios, where “Sympathy for the Devil” was created—Gallagher based the room on the film that Jean-Luc Godard made of the sessions. Here is the backstage area, where guitars are racked in the order in which they will be needed that night, and a stage manager’s tense voice is saying, over the intercom, “House lights down in five, four, three . . .” Geeky? Perhaps. Sneakily thrilling? Fasho.
Gallagher turned a corner and arrived at her re-creation of 102 Edith Grove, the one-bedroom flat in Chelsea where Keith, Mick, and Brian all lived together, with sleepovers from Charlie, for thirteen months beginning in the late summer of 1962.
Gallagher, who was born and grew up in Stuyvesant Town, has been a Stones fan since the early seventies. Finding the spot she was looking for, she perched on a couch in the Stones’ old sitting room. A 1958 Muddy Waters album sat on the table in front of her; there were beer bottles, and an ashtray brimming with butts.
She explained that she had honed her skills in the museumification of rock history as the director of exhibitions at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, during the nineties. “The Rock Hall of Fame was the first to treat rock in a visual-culture way,” she said. “And MTV made that possible, because you saw the clothes, and it became about stuff.”
The problem with re-creating 102 Edith Grove was that there were no good photos of the interior. Gallagher relied mainly on her separate interviews with Mick, Charlie, and Keith, in which she recorded their memories of the place. (Visitors can hear these as they walk around the flat.) Mick recalled that “it smelled really bad and it was, like, people would be sick everywhere and they’d be, like, leaving dirty plates and dirty food.” Charlie noted, of Brian and Keith, “They were the laziest buggers in the world. They would never pick anything up, so the sink was always full . . . penicillin was growing.” That was because, as Keith explained to Gallagher, “we were too busy, you know, avidly learning how to be blues players and that was all we had time for.” Also living in the flat was James Phelge, a beatnik, who was the foulest of the lot. “We’d get back from a gig and Phelge would be standing at the top of the stairs saying, ‘Welcome home,’ pissing on you,” Keith told Gallagher. From this fecund bog sprang one of the greatest songwriting partnerships of all time.
So Gallagher made a mess. “But a period mess,” she noted, curatorially. “The bottles and crisps are all period.” The heaps of cigarette butts are not; they were smoked by the workmen who built the exhibition in London, and were told to save them. The only item in the flat that is semi-authentic is a wooden guitar, a Valencia—a replica of one that Keith lost. (Several exhibitions could be mounted from things that Keith has lost.)
“When the band saw Edith Grove, they were thrilled,” Gallagher said proudly. Richards, who has lived for some years on an estate in Weston, Connecticut, previewed the space in London. “I’m home!” he cried upon entering the pigsty. One note from Jagger, who now lives in a mansion not far from Edith Grove: “Get rid of some of those cigarette butts. It wasn’t that bad.”
Gallagher kept her eye on the workmen, who were putting the finishing touches on the squalor. “I just have to make sure they don’t clean up the wrong stuff,” she said.