Monday, October 23, 2017

Exhibitionary: The Rolling Stones Exhibit in NY

Waking up at four in the morning is always a bit surreal, let alone when one is about to take to the sky to visit the most venerated shrine of Stones fandom. Clambering into the cold leather of the 325, the Captain taking the wheel, Ottawa International lies an hour away from the Carp Hills. Our flight is on an RJ series, meaning no chance of business class, and no entertainment consoles. As such, the other passengers and I are forced to read, thumb aimlessly at phones (no in-flight WiFi, either), or just endure our own thoughts for the duration of the flight. The lone exception to this rule is the young Chinese man sitting in front of me playing the new Legend of Zelda on a fresh new Nintendo Switch, who I stare at with puerile envy and craven loathing.

Landing in LaGuardia, the Captain and I are forced to try and decipher the MTA’s instructions for purchasing a bus pass. (Buy a magstripe-equipped card, load it with cash—in LaGuardia—and then redeem your ride in a machine at the bus stop, before getting on said bus.) When the bus finally does arrive some twenty minutes later, we clamber on; seconds later, the bus driver begins to hammer away on the horn at the surrounding swamp-like traffic, viciously trying to manoeuvre out of the lane and away from the terminal. We survive the trip to the subway, which is less distressing than the pugilistic bugling of the bus driver, though a dozing woman nearly spills her cup of coffee on my leg and shoes a couple of stops down the line. She does, however, have the courtesy to apologize for her sleight; I nod my benevolent Canadian apology.

The calamitous card one jury rigs to ride the MTA
The West Village is quiet this time of the morning. The chill from the night still clings to the shadows between the buildings, giving rise to regret for foolishly not bringing gloves to complement my scarf. The box office is open when we arrive, different bits of the Stones pumping out from speakers in the gift shop. Pausing to admire the tack, both my father and I are flabbergasted at the cost of the abominations therein contained.
After purchasing our tickets, we enter the small queue already waiting for the ten o’clock opening. The doors open, and people start to file into the lip-licked entrance. Audio tours and coat check are both offered for a nominal fee, but I’ve come prepared to be my own beast of burden, leather satchel slung over my shoulder, ready.
Charlie's Ludwig kit
The opening spectacle is a corridor lighted by projectors on the wall. Clips of songs, headlines, photos, and footage appear in a twenty foot panorama; you have to turn your head just to try and catch what you missed outside your periphery. The room following is filled with various gear and band memorabilia from the early days; there’s a Ludwig kit owned and played by Charlie Watts, and a mockup of a Stones studio setup, the exhibit/recording booth stocked with guitars and amps safely behind an admittedly voyeuristic monitoring window. Included are Keith’s lucite 70s Dan Armstrong six string, a twin humbucker-equipped black 1957 Gibson Les Paul, Brian Jones’ 1968 Les Paul goldtop, Keith/Bill Wyman’s 1970 Dan Armstrong bass, Charlie Watts’ 1972 Gretsch black nitron stop sign badge set, and Bobby Keyes’ 2005 Selmer Mark VI saxophone (the earlier, more legendary one having been donated to the Hard Rock Cafe). This is without even touching on the pianos, organs, amps, and other percussion present in the studio setup. Interviews with Keith and Don Was are queued up on iPads surrounding the glass, talking about the esoteric, gruelling, and extravagant recording processes employed, such their mobile recording studio; it first served at Stargroves, Mick’s manor in Hampshire, before moving to Nellcote, Keith’s mansion at Villefranche-sur-Mer (near Nice in southern France) to record ‘Exile on Main St.’, eventually leasing it to other bands, such as Led Zeppelin, Queen, Fleetwod Mac, and The Who.
1970 Dan Armstrong six string; 1957 Gibson Les Paul Custom, 1975 Ampeg SST & SVT

2005 Selmer Mark VI; 1968 Gibson Les Paul goldtop

1972 Gretsch black nitron stop sign badge set
The next exhibit is a facsimile of the soi-disant Chelsea flat that Mick, Keith, Charlie, and Brian Jones shared, complete with filthy dishes, overflowing ashtrays, and manifold beer bottles; Keith’s bed—the couch—sits outside the singular bedroom stuffed with three single mattresses.
1957 Gibson Les Paul Custom

However, it is, without a doubt, the following exhibit that steals the show: a hall filled with Mick, Ronnie, and Keith’s guitars, including the infamous 1957 Gibson Les Paul Custom that Keith hand-painted while on LSD. (Notably conspicuous are any of Mick Taylor’s guitars, he presumably some kind of persona non grata anymore, shorn from the Stones’ payroll and history with grim determination.) The other star stealing the show is the 1963 Gibson Hummingbird that Mick penned ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, ‘Sweet Virginia’, and ‘Dead Flowers’ on. To let this holy grail out of his possession seems strange, but his loss is my, the exhibit’s, the world’s gain. In the centre of the room is another iPad setup with ninety second long clips from various Stones albums that patrons can mix for themselves with the touchscreen. The Captain elects to spend an hour or so in this room alone, listening to each individual track on each of the songs, subversively, obsessively recording the isolated tracks on his iPhone’s hands-free headset, sandwiched between the studio headphones and his head—to what end (beyond fanatic collection), I am unsure, but this part is his holy grail, his coup de grace. My indulgence of his mania? A sore shoulder.

1963 Gibson Hummingbird

The following exhibit is dozens of pieces from the Stones’ legendary wardrobe, including the marabou stork feather cape famously worn by Jagger on their recent 50 & Counting tour—but there are far too many stars here to rhyme off. The back of the hall has flames projected onto it, and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ thrums away in the background, the fire ghoulishly cheery. The wardrobe pieces lead to an exhibit that is a facsimile of the backstage at a concert, complete with road cases, guitars and basses, vanities, and more; the final spectacle a soi-disant “live concert experience” that shows the Stones playing ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. It’s an anticlimactic finish after the one-two-three-four punches of nonstop holy relics. Another patron remarks that some sort of special effect failed to work, to which one of the exhibitors apologizes and says its an ongoing issue with the technology, and they’re trying to fix it.

Leaving the exhibit, I feel joyous and glorious, yet seethe inside; the meteoric fame seems, in some ways fortunate, even arbitrary. In seeing the unimaginable successes of others, my own lack of such manifest meteordom is all the more magnified. The day brought me a zephyr to ride to its zenith, and am now feeling gravity tugging me back earthwards, back to the dirt, the lair of worms.

New York has warmed up since we entered the exhibit. (I slap an ooluu sticker on an electrical box near the exit of the building, and pose for a photo: one step closer to infamy.) We stop at a pub to grab some lunch before returning to LaGuardia for the flight home. I discover a Platinum Amex lounge upstairs, and with a fatherly flash of platinum, I am indulged in complimentary cognac—1738 Accord Royal Rémy Martin—and a single malt—Bruichladdich Port Charlotte—before getting back on the RJ to MacDonald-Cartier. The surreal nature of what I’ve experienced only hits me when I tell my band members about the trip, relating the relics witnessed—my own resolve has been tested.

 And so I wonder: will my own history ever mean anything to anyone but myself? (I can only dream as much, so filled once again with that earlier feeling of puerile envy and craven loathing.) But maybe they will amount to nothing—just like this voyeur’s account of someone’s else’s exhibitionism.