Exhibitionism - the first international exhibition on The Rolling Stones at Saatchi Gallery (through September 4, 2016 )
By Kirill Kobrin 11/05/2016
For years, I have been amusing myself and random companies of friends with a silly game. The idea is the following: I ask people to name the best songs by the Rolling Stones. After this inevitably short list of Satisfaction, Lady Jane, Ruby Tuesday, Jumping Jack Flash and perhaps three of four other pieces that vary depending on the age and personal taste of the respondent, I move on to the next item, a considerably more Jesuitical one. The best albums by this great band? This is where the problems start. Only genuine melomaniacs can remember Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll or Some Girls (Rolling Stones-maniacs do not count; admittedly, it must be some 35 years or so since I met the last specimen of this tribe). Interestingly, what people come up with are not ‘the best albums of the Stones’ – simply the ones they are able to remember. And finally, the third and cruellest stage of this game: I ask for the titles of tracks in these ‘best albums’. This is where my amateur sociology experiment comes to an end – at a stage that is frequently the most dangerous for the social scientist himself. Simply said, I risk getting my ears boxed for being so tiresome.
The word ‘tiresome’ is a perfect fit for anything to do with the Rolling Stones. They have been performing and recording tiresomely for fifty-odd years now (and there is some talk of a new album in the works). They keep tiresomely stirring up public controversy with innocent nonsense like drugs, adultery and smoking in forbidden places. They keep tiresomely making money with anything that catches their eye. They keep tiresomely boasting about their tiresome musical longevity, tiresome petty vices and tiresome wealth and greed. And, last but not least, the music itself is quite tiresome. It is not as if they were bad musicians (they are not); it is just that there is so tiresomely much of it – and 99% of it is tiresomely boring, uniform and predictable. And they have not managed to make something genuinely interesting even out of this last count of tiresomeness, despite its wealth of artistic potential – unlike the black American bluesmen whom they supposedly admire so much. Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters play (-ed) and sing (sang) very monotonous, melancholy and, essentially, tiresome music – but they took these qualities to extremes with their dogged determination and unwavering resolution – which is actually the whole appeal of genuine blues. The blues does not entertain – it simply sort of speaks about life. And ordinary life is tiresome – which makes songs about life, if they are real art, tiresome to the second power. The main difference between the Rolling Stones and the Chicago bluesmen who raised them on the bourbon in their bottles lies in the fact that the Stones a) do not consider life tiresome; b) do not in the slightest consider their own life tiresome – quite the opposite, in fact; c) do not consider it tiresome to entertain the public endlessly with their, as they see it, non-tiresome life and their, as they see it, non-tiresome music. As a result, several generations now live in a world that is – once every few years – toured by the Rolling Stones, who continue to sing about their prolonged state of not getting any satisfaction. I – a man some twenty or even more years younger than the members of the band – honestly believe that Mick Jagger will still be demanding satisfaction many years after my death. Naturally, reports of my death will not reach him, thank Goodness, whereas, should anything happen to him, Heaven forbid, I will get to hear about it within an hour of his demise. In other words – we do not actually know what the Rolling Stones are; we barely remember a dozen of their songs and (at best) the titles of a few of their albums; we are sick and tired of them (at best!) or we simply do not care at all (most likely) – but we do know that they exist. Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie will make sure that we do not ever forget about that. Their principal skill lies in knowing how to exhibit themselves.
The first promotional video for the exhibition
And Exhibitionism is actually the title of the exhibition dedicated to the Rolling Stones at the London Saatchi Gallery. The title contains the main message of the whole event. The idea is approximately the following: yes, we are exhibitionists and that is what you all admire us for, and we are now exhibiting our exhibitionism in front of everyone; plus, we are also exhibiting the mechanism that makes our exhibitionism work – for which you should admire us even more, and as a result, our exhibitionism will only grow bigger – although, of course, it is already huge enough. And that is the only approach that will allow you to appreciate the show adequately. People who have not realized that either shrug dismissively or pretend that everything is fine: the Stones will be the Stones: a great band, a great in-depth overview of the historical background and all that. If you take a look at the reviews of the Exhibitionism exhibition – and there are not many of those available – you will find both types of reaction. Some people are not happy because they do not get the point of showing the venerable public this load of dust-covered rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia; others cop out with clichéd phrases about ‘rebels’, ‘generational anthems’ and ‘artistic longevity’, dropping names like ‘Brian Jones’, ‘Anita Pallenberg’, ‘Jerry Hall’, ‘Jean-Luc Godard’ and
‘Altamont’. The most advanced ones mention Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman with a hint of reproach. I cannot comment on the former of two, but as for the latter, he, if we can believe the gossip pages, visited the Saatchi Gallery accompanied by his sizeable family: very old, octogenarian, ill – as if, by escaping the Stones, he had pulled a sort of secret personal plug out of the energetic socket of life.
The vernissage of the exhibition apparently was a real celebrity magnet: it was attended by the subjects of the show and all sorts of people from fashionable circles, from the designer Tommy Hilfiger to the former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell who nowadays uses her married name – Geri Horner. A funny coincidence: she was born in the same year when the Stones released their Exile on Main St album – if I am not mistaken, the only record that could actually be called a ‘rock album’ instead of a compilation of songs written during the ‘reporting period’. Proper critics who have taken the trouble to listen to every single record by the Rolling Stones tend to consider Exile onMain St the band’s best album; some even go as far as lauding it as one of the greatest rock records ever. I will not deny myself the pleasure of teasing the reader of these lines a bit and suggesting that they try and remember a single track featured on said album. No googling please! As for the presence of girls – including the non-Spice variety – at the vernissage, the event had also attracted quite a few lovely ladies half the age of Geri Horner, née Halliwell, and even younger.
The official trailer for the exhibition
I am, of course, describing the vernissage based on reports in the British tabloid press – I was not present at this festival of exhibitionism. I mean, what were the odds. I almost wrote ‘it’s not as if I wanted to’ – but I will not lie to you. Vernissages at Saatchi’s can be great fun. Last autumn, for instance, at the opening of the Saatchi art fair, Bollinger (Special Cuvée) was being poured for four hours non-stop, while at a small table in the corner of the room the guests were offered some weirdly served yet brilliant sake – chilled and in white wine glasses. The sake was of such quality that, after the fifth glass, I asked the servers where I could buy a bottle of this stuff. I was told that this free tasting was actually part of the promotional campaign by a Japanese producer who was keen to break into the British market. Basically, it was as yet impossible to buy a bottle of this sake anywhere in London; however – since they liked me – they would sell me one on the spot, for 80 quid, half its export price. I grabbed my last glass and disappeared into the crowd, having promised to consider their offer.
No such tricks can be pulled off at a Rolling Stones event. Vernissage my foot! They did not even send me a press pass, explaining in a letter that the number of said passes was strictly limited and that only the right journos writing for the right publications were admitted to the Exhibitionism exhibition free of charge. I was left with no other option than purchase a ticket for 22 pounds. Just three additional tickets, and you could buy a bottle of the best sake in the world. However, this epistolary exchange with the organisers of the show left me quite satisfied. After all, the Stones have never done anything free of charge or without any other sort of benefit for themselves. It is a stalwart principle of their existence. Why should these wrinkly geezers renounce their principles? Keith Richards would rather give up smoking than miss an opportunity to charge a London loafer 22 GBP for a chance to admire his guitars, his photos and listen to Satisfaction just one more time. Never mind the fact that said loafer is waving a press card in front of his eyes. The more indignation, the more noise. The Rolling Stones factory of vanity at work.
The second promotional video for the exhibition
The exhibition, though. I visited it on a weekday morning to get a better view of all the shades of exhibitionism, undisturbed by crowds. For those not in the know: the Saatchi Gallery is currently located on Sloane Square, in a neighbourhood populated by Arab princes, Russian oli- and mini-garchs and a small number of other kinds of wealthy people. Some seven years ago, Madonna used to reside here with then husband Guy Ritchie; she reportedly decided that this part of London was, after all, obscenely expensive and moved away. In the early 1960s, however, the picture was completely different. It was not very far from Sloane Square, in Chelsea – on Edith Grove – that the young Stones used to rent a flat. The very first room of the exhibition demonstrates a painstakingly restored setting of their young lives: a horrible mess; fag ends in ashtrays and empty cans of Heinz Baked Beans; empty bottles; greasy beds that have not been made for months; mountains of dirty dishes. I may have imagined by I think I caught a serious whiff of unwashed bodies and smelly socks as I passed through the room. If my nose did not deceive me, the curators of Exhibitionism deserve top marks for that, if nothing else. It could have been someone among the visitors, though. It turned out that I had been naïve: at 11 a.m. on a Thursday morning, a full-blown crowd was slowly making its way around the exhibition. The Rolling Stones signature trick had done its job once again.
In fact, the room with the soiled bed linen and fag ends was the most interesting of all, first and foremost because it showed so many different things from the 1960s London – generally; the Stones have nothing to do with that. The design of the cardboard Kellogg’s boxes practically hasn’t changed since then. Ale is no longer sold in this kind of bottles. Similar chairs and tables can still be found at a junk shop next to the Stoke Newington church near my home. I should go and check them out – a stylish look. No TV. Boots with pointy toes are in again. It is the world of a still very poor post-war Britain: food rationing was lifted only seven years ago; life is meagre and black-and-white like the great ‘Servant’ film starring Dirk Bogarde. Incidentally, the film was made in the same 1963 that saw the launch of the exhibitionist career of the Rolling Stones. To wit, the room explains a lot of things. In the grey and damp British life an American blues record was the only medicine for emotional vitamin deficiency – the record Mick was carrying under his arm on the historic day in 1960 when he ran into his schoolmate Keith on an empty railway platform in the town of Dartford. In reality, there were two records – one by Chuck Berry and the other one – by Muddy Waters. Since that day, Mick and Keith have been playing chuckberry and muddywaters, as it were, for 55 years and counting – with certain sad exceptions.
Which is the story told by the next room of the exhibition, featuring a replica of the early-1960s studio where many of the Rolling Stones’ 1960s hits were recorded. After this room, the exhibitionism is becoming more and more pompous and high-techy and less and less appealing – just like the Rolling Stones records, put in a chronological perspective. The 1960s and early 1970s are more interesting than the second half of the 1970s and the early 1980s – and so on. It seems that the only exception to this rule is the 1978 Miss You album. I would definitely name it as my favourite, should anyone attempt to inflict on me the same torture that I love to impose so tiresomely on others. Miss You is in some sense an analogue of David Bowie’s Young Americans recorded three years earlier – an expressly American record styled out of deliberate self-serving mimicry of stateside music. The brilliantly protean Bowie did a much better job: he actually transformed himself to an extent that it was practically impossible to recognise his previous incarnation, Ziggy Stardust, in this white soul singer of black music. It is not just the image; Young Americans is a great pop album. The Stones, having trifled with soul (and even gospel) in Exile on Main St, decided to put their money on the most current sound at the New York clubs of the time. As a result, Miss You even features a song remotely reminiscent of punk – of the American variety, mind you, not the British one. However, the best track by far is the title track, a paranoid-tiresome disco with a great bass line by Bill Wyman and vocals by Jagger who sounds (and looks – in the promotional video) as if he spent his nights prowling the Central Park in a leather coat and nothing else, exhibiting his ‘sticky finger’ to careless girls. So as not to scare their American fans too much, they have thrown in for good measure a monstrously boring country song with excellent lyrics, Far Away Eyes, and Beast ofBurden, a typical catchy Rolling Stones hit with Keith’s signature guitar riff. A special mention should also be made of Mick’s ridiculous attempts to master, finally and irrevocably, the American accent.
Promotional video for the ‘Some Girls’ album
And now, from a dubious exercise in the dubious area of ‘rock journalism’, let us return once again to art critique or, to be precise, the genre of art essay. It is not an easy task – for the simple reason that there is nothing to say about the Exhibitionism exhibition. While the first room offers something for a historian of the British post-war material culture to sink his teeth into, and the second one does the same for a researcher of the 1960s – 1970s British and American pop music, there is not much to do in the rest of the exhibition – for an ordinary person, of course, not a hard-core fan of the band. There were quite a few of the latter type in the crowd – old gals whose faces spoke of erstwhile ballsiness; shabby geezers whose rock ‘n’ roll past could be guessed by their old well-worn jeans, heavy old fashioned boots, black T-shirts under their suit jackets – and here and there even a thin ponytail fashioned from the remains of a once massive mop of hair. While languishing from boredom in a room exhibiting every (!) single guitar Keith has ever played and almost all of Ronnie’s, I eavesdropped on a private conversation. One of the old gals was telling another of the time she saw Mick almost close up, a mere three metres away – at a gig in Hammersmith. Oh-oh-oh.
So yes, a room of musical instruments and song paraphernalia followed, then a room of record sleeve design, then a poster room, then a video and film room, a small room dedicated to the subject of ‘Andy Warhol and the great Mick Jagger’, then a stage set and concert design room, then a huge room with their stage outfits, then a huge room featuring a replica of a backstage area at a stadium gig (touchingly displaying some heart pills on the make-up table – yes, they are old men after all, old men) from which people, gathered in a small herd and equipped with 3D glasses, were ushered into a small room where a recent Rolling Stones stadium concert was being shown on a screen. There, thanks to the 3D technology, you can immerse yourself in the incredible enthusiasm of 100 000 Brazilians who have come together to listen to... what did you think? To Satisfaction, of course!
Photo: Kirill Kobrin
Then you put your glasses into a special box and walk out. ‘Out’ is inside a shopping arcade where people can buy T-shirts with the Exhibitionism logo; prices vary from 20 to 45 GBP, depending on the maker. Good old Hilfiger has excelled here as well: his T-shirts are the most expensive ones.
What can I say about the exhibition? That it turned out to be a long one. I spent almost two hours there. What did I do? I don’t remember. Examined Keith’s journals from 1964 exhibited under glass, his entries in beautiful tiny handwriting containing tiresome drivel about the state of combo amps at the Marquee Club. A crumpled sheet of paper on which Mick had scrawled:
I've been walking Central Park Singing after dark People think I'm crazy I've been stumbling on my feet Shuffling through the street People ask me, "What's the matter with you boy?"
Oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh Oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh I won't miss you child.
I also looked at the record sleeves of the Sticky Fingers, Goats HeadSoup and Some Girls albums and remembered how much I coughed up for these records at the melomaniacs’ flea market in the city of Gorky back in 1981 and how difficult it was afterwards to exchange them for something different. And how I spent months listening to these inarticulate loud and tiresome songs, trying to understand why they a) are so popular and b) nevertheless have a weird effect on my body – an effect that would be hard to call an aesthetic one. What else? There was a first-rate interactive thingy in the room with the replica of the studio – I spent a good 15 minutes in front of it. It was a panel featuring a row of iPads with a selection of eight Rolling Stones songs on their screens. You could tap on any one of them and have a ball, alternately taking away and adding various instruments or voices. And so, in a purely empirical way, I learnt that at least in some of their 1970s songs Keith did not produce a lot of sounds if compared with Ronnie.
Тhe third and longest promotional video for the exhibition
The exhibition is a success. It really does exhibit the make-up of the world of pop music, pop culture and, actually, modern life generally. You can knock yourself out digging deep for meaning, logic, special content and secret treasures – there is none to be found, and it could not really be any other way. There is only exhibitionism; instead of the jolly drunk Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ or ‘La société du spectacle’, there is a ‘society of the exhibition’ that exhibits the actual exhibition and its manner of exhibiting. This brilliant discovery was made by a bunch of British lads of assorted social background, varying from the middle class to South London have-nots – and they continue to entertain us, proudly exhibiting Buddhistic emptiness wrapped up in dirty guitar riffs. Mick Jagger has been chasing girls in the park for half a century now – ripping open his Satanic trench coat to flash at them. Only there is nothing under the coat. Nothing at all. No sticky fingers.