Beginning next weekend, a big chunk of rock 'n' roll history will be in residence on Navy Pier. "Exhibitionism," a collection of artifacts and interactive displays spanning the Rolling Stones' more than five-decade career will occupy 18,000 square feet in Festival Hall, toward the pier's east end.
Opening April 15, the show has drawn mostly glowing reviews at its two previous stops, in London and New York City. In an interview last week with the Tribune, band frontmen Mick Jagger and Keith Richards said they are glad it will have a home in Chicago, a city whose blues music was so influential in the development of the Stones' sound.
The 73-year-olds once known as the Glimmer Twins both emphasized that the show is not about setting the Stones in stone, as it were, that theirs is still a going concern. But there is, they acknowledged, a certain amount of nostalgia to pulling together the pieces of such a career.
"The story is really about a band that has influenced our popular culture for over 50 years," said Ileen Gallagher, the exhibit curator. "They've done this not only with their music but their album covers and the clothes they wear and who photographs them and what films they do. They realized early on it wasn't just about the music, but how they've shaped culture."
I talked to the band leaders about "Exhibitionism" in separate phone conversations, Jagger from London, Richards from his longtime home in Connecticut. This is a merger of those interviews, which have been edited for space and clarity.
Q: Not that the band needs it, but is this show in any way about affirming or cementing the legacy of the Rolling Stones?
Richards: This band still looks forward in its own way. I think this is more a celebration of the 50 years. Nobody sat around and said, "We've got to have an exhibition."
Jagger: Of course, in one way, it must be about that. But I think it's pretty tongue-in-cheek, to be honest. I hope it's not over-reverential. I tried to avoid that in this exhibition. It's more amusing than reverential, I hope.
Q: Why did you decide to do this exhibition now?
Jagger: Well, Patrick Woodroffe, who does our lighting design, and some of the stage design too, we've been talking for ages about doing something. Because we've got all these stage designs and pictures, Patrick always said, "You know, we should do an exhibition. We've got so much stuff." Over a couple of years' discussions we talked about it, then we got someone who actually wanted to put it on. So we decided to do it as we're doing it now.
Richards: Obviously this thing sort of started three or four years ago; the whole idea was put to us. Quite why, I think the 50 years was up and it was a fitting time, you know? Basically, it's a little trip in and around the Rolling Stones. I enjoyed it.
Jagger: We engaged this designer to design it as an exhibition. And then we worked it through. It was a very good concept, but we made a lot of changes to the original concept to make it more something that belonged to us, you know, and that felt more personal in some ways.
Q: Who is the hoarder in the group? In other words, how did you manage to save all this stuff?
Jagger: Oh, Bill Wyman is the hoarder. No one else cares about anything. Bill had loads of stuff. I kept loads of my clothes. I did keep not only huge amounts of stage clothes, but street clothes. Everything else I just throw away because I'm not a hoarder. Charlie has some things. But Bill collects everything.
Richards: Probably Charlie Watts. Or, if you're talking about the band throughout its years, Bill Wyman absolutely tops the hoarding area. Everything. Yeah, we have enormous storage warehouses. Charlie Watts has one. I don't know how many drum kits are stashed away there. I take up quite a lot of room with a thousand guitars.
Q: How much input did you and your bandmates have in what visitors will see? What did you change?
Richards: I didn't have that much of a hands-on, except choosing some of the guitars — and generally having a look-in every now and again to see how things are going. I mean, I know very little about putting on exhibitions.
Jagger: I saw the original design and models. It was very beautiful and everything, but it was sometimes just a little bit on the slick side in places. One of the things we put in was the Chelsea flat that Keith and I and Brian (Jones) lived in (in the early 1960s). So you go from this rather beautiful entrance where you see all the shows, this expanding touring universe, this rather tech presentation, and you go through a corridor and then you get into this tacky flat, you know? So it's more touchy-feely and more personal. That was something that I put in, very much at the last minute.
Q: It sounds like that early apartment, reportedly strewn with cigarette butts and beer bottles, very much sets that tone of irreverence you wanted.
Jagger: Yeah, exactly. It's interesting. It's period, but it's also like an art installation because it obviously isn't the flat. But it's a facsimile of it. What are you supposed to make of it? "Is that really the flat they lived in? Is that really what it was like? But why am I in here?" Do you know what I mean? And then you might say, "Oh, my flat was like that when I was in college." Or, "God, that was awful." Or, "I wish I'd had one as big as that." It is all about your interpretation.
Richards: They asked us, "Can you remember what it looked like?" We all had to really think back. They did an incredible amount of research on it. And after all, that's where the band was born, in that terrible place. It was everything. It's where you lived, where you worked. Most of the time when we were there, we rarely had a gig. We were just constantly studying the blues, or records, and rehearsing. That's all we did there. We actually couldn't afford to go out.
Q: In a lot of ways that's the thrilling part of a life story. There's the part where they were just regular people, right, and suddenly ...
Jagger (laughing): Or were they really regular people? Maybe they are still regular people. Maybe they never were. Who knows?
Q: What is your favorite artifact or section in the exhibit?
Richards: I was really quite amazed how it all came together and what the reaction was. Of course, when it's your stuff — I mean I'm turning a corner and saying, "Oh, there are those boots." Probably the weirdest is the replica of the old apartment. Everything but the smells is correct. It's kind of a trip. I think it's well laid out, and there's some interesting stuff for musicians. There's quite a guitar collection and there's some drum stuff. It's for anybody who's interested in the Stones — or popular music, really. With a bit of fashion thrown in.
Jagger: I think the section on the stage design, it's quite detailed just to kind of look at it, and the models and everything. In a way, that was really quite a revolutionary thing. It was the first — obviously you're blowing your own trumpet to some extent, but it's just the way it was — the 1969 tour was the first tour of arenas that ever carried its own sound equipment. Yeah, in all of rock 'n' roll. Before that, you had equipment, it was always on the stage and it was local stuff. This was hung and it was your rental for the whole of the period. And that had never been done before. Now it sounds really small, but that's kind of a big step in the world where you don't have video screens, and you've only got sound.
So that's quite a good room, and then I like the costume room. My clothes are in there — they're really mad — from, you know, a long time ago until now.
Q: I did want to ask about the appropriateness of it being up in Chicago, given the band's deep connections here. Is it fitting in a way that this is your second stateside stop?
Jagger: We played there quite a lot in the early days and not-so-early days. Recorded there. And obviously the Chicago blues thing has been one of our biggest influences. You know we did that "Blue & Lonesome" album (last year), which is basically Chicago blues. Going to Chess Records and recording there in the early days, we cut quite a few records there and then met a lot of the artists there, people we looked up to and wanted to emulate in some ways.
Richards: Absolutely. Our first recording sessions in America were in Chicago, 2120 South Michigan Avenue. And most of our early influences were Chicago bluesmen, specifically. To us it's always been a second home. It's one of our favorite towns.
Q: I was wondering if the David Bowie exhibition that began at London's Victoria & Albert Museum was in any way an impetus for this.
Richards: No, I didn't get to see that. But I don't know if maybe the spark of that was in other people's minds.
Jagger: I unfortunately missed the Bowie show. I didn't even know the Bowie show was in the works, to be honest. I knew there was a Pink Floyd show in the works; that, I had heard about. The only thing I had seen was in Stockholm, the ABBA Museum. It's not that hugely dissimilar except it's much smaller. It gave me a very good idea of how much square footage we were going to need. I realized that the costume room would have to be much bigger than the ABBA costume room. I mean, it's never enough square footage to put all the stuff in.
Q: People seem to come away impressed by the range of other artists you all worked with, making those connections with Warhol and others.
Jagger: Hopefully that comes out. It's pretty wide ranging in its topics, going through film and video, art, design. There's a lot of design in there. You see how much work has been done in the visual world, not just in the musical world. Which is quite amazing, considering. You know, Keith and Charlie went to art school; I never went to art school. I got interested in visual arts through, you know, working on the Rolling Stones posters.
Richards: Yeah, I suppose so. People think of the Rolling Stones just in isolation. But of course we've worked with some of the most incredible people. We got to play with the people that inspired us. It's quite a career when I think about everybody we played with. It's sort of amazing you now.
Q: It's not a bad career. It's really not bad.
Richards (laughing): No, it's not.
Q: Was it a fun experience for you, going back through these memories?
Jagger: Yeah, it was really fun. What was really interesting to me was, I've never done an exhibition like this before. How do you present the things? Are people going to be interested in this? Are they going to be bored by that? To me it was the challenge — and fun — of the presentation. Of course, a byproduct of that is seeing some of these things, but that was kind of overtaken by the project: How does it work? It's like doing a show: a beginning, a middle and end of it.
Q: So with something like "Exhibitionism" — and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for that matter — there's this idea of rock 'n' roll being a museum piece. Does anything about that bother you?
Richards: I'm not into all that hall of fame idea, except that when people start things like that, inevitably you become involved in them. I'm not a big one for nostalgia, but I do like good memories. I found a lot in this exhibition which provided that for me. I hope it does the same for anybody else who goes to see it.
Jagger: It's not in a museum. Where it was before was like in a funky warehouse in New York. It wasn't a museum space at all. Where it was in London was in an art gallery. To me it's more like art, like "now art." I don't see it really as a museum piece so much as an evolving kind of lifestyle piece.
Q: And what do you want visitors to take away from "Exhibitionism"?
Jagger: I just want them to have a good hour in there, whatever they're going to spend. It's quite wide ranging, you know. It's not just about being onstage. Or it's not just about being in the recording studio. There's a kind of sense of your kind of lifestyle a little bit, there's a sense of things changing through the years. I just want people to go in — and maybe they don't know who the Rolling Stones are, it's just an exhibition — they walk through and say, "Oh that's kind of fun." "I didn't like that room." Or "this room is really fun." Do you know what I mean?
Richards: I should imagine it'll be totally different depending on who you are, what you're into, and how old you are, as well. To me it's just an experience of and a collection of memories, really. I suppose people that want to go and see a Stones thing, it's probably to do with memories. That's probably what they'll take away.