By Joe Bonomo
The tiny flat at 102 Edith Grove in west Chelsea, London, is located in a district that was derided, centuries ago, as the “World’s End.” The name still seems apt: from the looks of things, I could push my fist through a water-damaged wall pretty easily, but I’m scared of what I might find living behind it. Small lamps in a few corners offer dingy light. Food-encrusted dishes and sticky glassware are stacked in the sink and on most available surface areas, soiled hand towels of dubious purpose and dozens of half-smoked cigarettes and butts abound, wallpaper is streaked with dirt, days- or weeks-old milk bottles gather like so many low-rent science experiments, trash cans overflow, half-empty beer and liquor bottles waft stale scents of earlier good times. On the three unmade single beds, sheets are stiffened into dioramas.
Stilled in time, just beyond protected glass, these rooms archive a curious blend of chaos and stillness, pungency and airlessness, laddish mayhem and scholarly attention. I’m in Festival Hall B at Navy Pier, in Chicago, attending Exhibitionism, the extravagant, multi-media, nine-gallery tribute to the long, successful, apparently never-ending career of the Rolling Stones. The Edith Grove flat, shared by Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards in the early 1960s, is staged between the “Experience” and “Meet the Band” rooms, appropriately early in the exhibit, as the curated rooms evoke a sense of heedless now-ness and of a future erupting, of kids living on their own for the first time indulging in all sorts of youthful obsessions, including absorbing music; the in media res stereo console in the living room and the various records placed carefully so as to seem strewn about the place—scratchy LPs and 45s by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bobby Bland, Willie Dixon, et al—reflect the boys’ deepening immersion in the Blues, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock and Roll, loud music played loudly all day and all night among friends. These meticulously created recreations capture all of this—this living, these smoky hours of giggles and reverence—quite well, and surprisingly so, since they’re based not on photographs but on memories of the roommates and of visitors at the time, including Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts.
What am I doing here? I’m a skeptical fan, drawn to the exhibition by my longstanding love for the Stones and their complicated, fascinating career, and by positive word of mouth. Though I natively resist rock and roll under glass, the thesis that music might be dramatized and evoked by objects, truth be told, the amateur archaeologist in me is curious. Amy and I visit the exhibit on a beautiful, bright day in May. The breeze is chilly off of Lake Michigan, the choral seagulls above our heads in perfect voice. The sunny pier is full of strolling natives and countless tourists, many lining up in queues for the Seadog or Spirit of Chicago boat tours of the Lake, some pushing strollers or leading small children by the hand. There are many young couples, and handfuls of folk enjoying lunch and drinks in the open-air restaurants. At my fanly insistence, Amy and I take the requisite photos of each other posed alongside the several oversized inflatable Rolling Stones tongues outside, dotting the century-old jetty, leading toward the exhibit doors.
Inside, how do the Stones attract attention to themselves? At the start, with floor-to-ceiling lights and cranked decibels and many, many bright flashing screens blinking image-moments of decades of band and cultural history. In addition to the Edith Grove recreations, the galleries are stocked with over five hundred career-spanning artifacts that took three years to gather, including: dozens of the band’s guitars and keyboards; Watts’s Ludwig Sky Blue Pearl-Keystone Badge drum kit, which he played in the studio and onstage from late 1965 through the middle of 1968; bulky analog recording decks and mixing boards; a mock-up of a studio; recording session notes and tape boxes (including some from the band’s famous mobile studio); concert handbills and posters; original handwritten lyrics and diaries; album art in-process; miniature, to-scale stage sets and the design history thereof; Warhol lithographs; candid and promotional photographs; a room devoted to a frantically-edited dash through the band’s music videos and another room featuring a short film hosted by Martin Scorsese who holds forth on the artistic quality and cultural value of several Stones tour films; a brief history of the creation and design of the band’s tongue logo, featuring a floor-to-ceiling model that changes colors and prints; and dozens of extravagantly over-the-top costumes, primarily Jagger’s, worn in promotional photographs and onstage, spanning decades (and taste!).
Near the end of the exhibit, one enters a taped-off, all-access mock-up of a backstage area, complete with posted set-lists, snaking power cords, piles of roadie equipment and tools. Though corny in its staging of faux authenticity, the room’s instructive in demonstrating how Jagger prepares pre-show (a small makeup mirror, bottles of Evian water, a steam inhaler), and is frankly thrilling, to this spectator, for the proximity it allows to Richards’s and Ron Wood’s road-worn guitars, freed from under-glass specimen duty. (Yes, I believe I could’ve touched Richard’s beat-up 1953 Fender Telecaster, were I That Guy At A Museum. And I wanted to be.) The small “backstage” crowd is then ushered by a heroically enthusiastic museum employee through black “stage” doors into a tiny room, where we receive 3D glasses, turn to face a wall-size screen, and watch film of the band tearing through a deafeningly loud performance of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the encore from a show at Hyde Park, in London, on July 6, 2013. The 3D enhancement is, as is usually the case to my eyes, kind of silly; if it weren’t for the occasional foregrounded mic stand or speaker stacks or the millions of descending rose petals, I wouldn’t have noticed much. This version of “Satisfaction” (I believe it’s the band’s 11, 375, 298th performance of the song) is decent, energetic and elongated with call-and-response Yeahs! from a tireless Jagger, and features as a guest Mick Taylor, the band’s lead guitarist during the 1969 to 1974 peak era, who during the band’s 2013-14 “50 and Counting Tour” appeared with the Stones onstage, at the historically-minded band’s invitation. After the song, doors open on the opposite side of the room from where we entered. Departing, we dutifully hand back our 3D glasses and enter a penultimate gallery featuring several more rare, glassed-off objects, including Watts’s National Jazz Band “London Outfit” traveling toy drum kit, circa 1930, and the Phillips cassette recorder that Watts and Richards used to record the lo-fi, raw, timeless “Street Fighting Man,” in 1968.
We discover that we can’t return to the exhibit. We’re funneled into the last, and in many ways most revealing gallery, the gift shop. (“A great department store, easily reached, open at all hours, is more like a good museum of art than any of the museums we have yet established,” John Cotton Dana)
In 1997, Alan Artner, art critic for the Chicago Tribune, wrote “In Defense of Elitism,” in which he hoped to restore the luster that had been stripped of the term in the 20th Century. “Can anyone recall another word that has been so completely reversed in meaning?” he wonders.
Less than a half-century ago, aspiring to the elite in any field was among the most honorable of life’s endeavors. An intellectual elite earned our trust for having surpassed everyone else in the uncompromised pursuit that is learning for its own sake. An artistic elite inspired our awe for having created on a level so far above the rest of us that only a word with magical associations—“genius,” which originally meant a guardian spirit—adequately described them. How did a faith in the highest and most desirable come to be understood among Americans as something ugly and exclusionary?
Artner pivots toward museums, which, when founded in the United States in the middle of the 19th Century, “operated on the same elitist principle. They were not built for visitation by the many. It was understood that few people at any time truly seek to perceive what challenging artists are up to. This was unfortunate for artists who during their lives did not enjoy such understanding. But it’s the way things were, are and will be. Many are called, few are chosen.”
By the end of the 19th Century, art museums, shaken by evolutionary theory, stirred by challenging philosophies, and mindful of growing audiences, began embracing aesthetics, “a ‘religion of art’ that raised up and ennobled the faithful.”
This led to the misunderstanding that art, like diet or exercise, was a way toward mass self-improvement…. A few people did have positive reactions, though only after repeating the experience several times, learning something about the artists, understanding the range of their outputs, perceiving its relation to that of other artists and grasping their relative mastery of techniques and styles. But even then, aesthetic pleasure being different from moral or intellectual betterment, the exact nature of a supplicant’s change remained unquantifiable, mysterious.
Artner continues: “There lies the late 20th Century myth that one of the most profound experiences in life, the meaningful perception of art, is an American birthright. The highest order of artistic experience is for everyone. This has been the message of museums in our time, though it is patently untrue. The art that can give such experience should be available for everyone, but that’s something different. Availability and understanding—one does not automatically lead to the other.” The larger and more expansive museums became, Artner feels, “the more they propagated the myth, as they required more and more visitors to keep in business. If the click of the turnstile was not as quick as expected, something was wrong, but surely not the guiding principle. The highest order of artistic experience was supposed to be for everyone.”
Yet, Artner argues, artistic experience is not for everyone. “But because for so long we said it was and still it has not turned out to be so—think of children who were given every educational and financial advantage yet as adults could not care less about high culture—we now say lower the order, it's too elitist. Funders tell art museums to give people more of what they already know. Substitute what easily succeeds with the many for what arduously has succeeded with the few.”
In that way, museums will assure their own continuance. But what for? So they can provide a cornucopia of fun experiences? The finest works of art, no matter their continent of origin, are not fun. They do not give themselves at once, by osmosis, as visitors stroll past as in a shopping mall, for diversion. The finest works of art lead away from the immediacy of fun to a more gradually achieved condition of pleasure—which calls for a process requiring work.
Later in the piece, Artner argues that great art “does not excite us like sports or entertain us like movies. It does not titillate us like the Web or get us moving like rock music.” He’s clearly insisting on a stark, value-laden difference between, say, high art and pop music, between expression of the highest, most challenging order and low, body-driven impulses. The considerable limits of his argument aside, a worthwhile question surfaces: Is there a place for rock and roll in a museum? (And is it a problem if you’re having fun there?) After my one and only visit a couple of decades ago to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, I fantasized about a marauding group of (good-natured) juvees who, once they were assured that the building is empty after closing, blow up the place. At the time, that seemed a more appropriate rock and roll gesture to me than entombing hundreds of objects behind glass, not to mention the tiresome, narrow-minded politics involved in who does and who doesn’t get voted into the Hall. (I’ve since evolved a bit in my thinking about the place. More open minded about its cultural value, I no longer wish to see it leveled, but I doubt I’ll go back.)
Who, or what, is Exhibitionism for? Navy Pier, Incorporated, certainly (“…the click of the turnstile…”). The band’s fans, of course. Jagger and Company’s coffers, yes, and I don’t begrudge the band and their lengthy list of employees that; the cash registers were bulging on the day I visited the exhibit. Are the Stones’ strutting cannon and unruly spectacle too low for a museum? Of course not. The history and cultural context in Exhibitionism are worthy of the kind of sustained survey and elevated status common to museum exhibitions. The Stones have written and recorded songs that have moved people, literally and figuratively, as urgently as any other human expression, and they were pivotal figures in the popular, politically complex mid-century synthesizing of African American influences, expression, and culture, in the collapse of the divide between so-called High and Low Art, and in the broadening chasms between and among the generations. But the real issue for me is what I’ll call the index of mystery, and what Artner calls the unquantifiable: there will always be a tantalizingly narrow gap between what an exhibit about rock and roll might do, and what a rock and roll show can do, a gap somewhere between control and chaos, between structure and unpredictability. “There’s some incredibly interesting things that go along with the Rolling Stones, and it’s not actually the members themselves,” Richards remarked in 2015. “All of the bits and pieces, and technology, and instruments and stuff—the things that have passed through your hands in that time. Very interesting—at least to me, because half of them are stolen!” I love this observation, where Richards nails both the appeal and the limitations of Exhibitionism: the guitars “and stuff” versus a bandit's thieving spirit, the sexy, maybe dangerous essence of rebellion. Simple to catalogue the former. But the latter?
When I saw the Rolling Stones on their 1981 Tattoo You tour at Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, I was in the second row, and Jagger flew over my head in a cherry picker, dispensing flowers. He was so close that I could see the makeup caking on his sweaty face and momentarily peer into his eyes, which looked disinterested, “far away,” as the guys sang on Some Girls. Now when I recall the first moments of that show’s opening song, “Under My Thumb,” the thrill and fear in my chest return, the impossibly loud lines from Richards’s Fender and the boom of Watts’s snare ringing and reverberating from the inside of my body out. The heady smell of sweat and weed, the sight of knocked-out girls around me in tight Stones jersey-tees, the sudden plunge of the (long gone) Capital Centre into darkness, the slowly revolving stage revealing a prancing Jagger, the ear-ringing sound and spectacle. It’s all there, still, when I conjure or hear those opening notes. Such sensuality is difficult, if not impossible, to re-create materially; only in my memory and imagination am I brought fully back. The 3D film of “Satisfaction” tries to emulate a concert experience, but missing are the flying elbows, the flirty glances, the sweat and the smells. We stood in an airless room with paunchy tourists and watched a short film.
The coolest attractions in Exhibitionism are Watts’s drum kit (the very set he played on some of the band’s greatest recordings) and the “mixing boards” a couple of galleries over. Here, on small screens, you can access recordings of eight of the band’s songs—“Rocks Off,” “Start Me Up,” “Miss You,” “Angie,” “Undercover of the Night,” “Doom and Gloom,” and live versions of “Honky Tonk Women” and “Sympathy for the Devil”—track by track, raising or lowering digital faders to isolate vocals, guitars, drums, keyboards, horns, et al, or to blend, or “mix,” any group of tracks in any arrangement you wish. Tethered to headphones, we got off on these boards, jamming and dancing around as we set off Jagger’s raggedy street vocals on “Miss You” against Watt’s spare, funky drumming, dug the raw rhythms of Richards’s guitar riding the choppy waters of “Rocks Off,” or marveled at the prettiness of the piano and the acoustic guitars in “Angie,” stark and lovely echoing intimately on their own in a distant studio. These mixing boards offer sounds of something real, of moving hands on frets and throat muscle and sinew and bum-notes and fuck-ups—the nowness of making music, the ensemble playing of this great groove band ironically highlighted by attention paid to the individual parts, the guitars’ wandering reigned in by the drumming, the vocals given dimension and cushion by the bottom end bass playing. Exhibitionism felt the most alive, not to mention the most fun, to me here, at my fingertips, as I allowed myself the fantasy of moving around parts of a spontaneous creative process that the rest of the exhibit kept sealed off from me. I was curating, arranging my own exhibit in my own ears. (I have new respect for how a song and an album are mixed.) I wish they’d included more songs. I was barely aware of anyone else around me; I could’ve spent hours doing this.
Every once in a while, you stumble upon the right rock and roll band playing on the right night—right for them, and for you. This has happened to me more than once, happily, but never quite as urgently as on a night more than thirty years ago when I caught the Oysters at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. I don't remember what drew me and my buddies to the show; I know I hadn't heard their debut album yet; probably it was just a random night out; maybe they were opening for Lyres? (Both bands hailed from Boston.) Whatever the reason, there I was, drunk, young, ready for anything, and the Oysters blew me away. I was astonished at their coming-apart-at-the-seams playing, their literal crashing into one another on stage, the tuneful, anthemic noise, their beery grins often fading to desperate looks when it sounded, and likely felt, as if everything was going to fall apart: the song, the band, the friendships, maybe a romance, maybe my night. But the Oysters held it together for a show that's remained secure on my list of all-time favorites.
If I'd seen the Oysters the night before or the night after, would they have sounded and looked as if they were saving rock and roll, as they did the night I saw them? Maybe they were really on (or desperately off), maybe I was in the right place at the right time to have rock and roll grace bestowed upon me. One image stands out: the bass player J.R. leaping and then landing on the band's crashing note at the end of some sloppy song—or was it the ragged opening of another?—a messy grin on his face, We pulled it off! He looked like a kid who'd made a half-court shot, or like a younger brother who'd begged the band to let him play with them, Just for tonight! When I later picked up their one and only album (Green Eggs And Ham, released on Taang! in 1985; the band broke up within a year) there was J.R. in a group shot, wearing his guitar and more or less the same expression. I was happy to see that.
The album disappointed me—it had to. The drums sounded smaller, the guitars less raucous, the indefinable and unpredictable maelstrom of a show—sweat and girls and beer and a night without end and the surprise of being surprised by a great band, the threat of all of that—couldn’t possibly be reproduced. But that's OK. I have the memories. I did write a review of the show for the late great D.C. punk zine WDC Period, but my copy of the issue is long gone. That's OK, too: all I need is what I saw, though it’s disappearing a little over time: a young band of reckless kids hitting a stage, plugging in, and taking everyone and themselves down a shockingly steep hill that bottom of which is both blessed and regretted.
Around this time, I went to see the hardcore punk band Government Issue at the Sanctuary Theater on Columbia Road, in D.C. Afterward, a bulky, locally-legendary skinhead named Lefty chased me and my friends up 15th Street and tossed rocks at us, loudly denouncing my sport jacket and skinny tie. I was in my Mod phase. "This ain't prom night!" she yelled. The rumor was that she put a guy in the hospital in Philly. We were scared to death, and ran.
I conflate this show with another from around this time, the ska band Bad Manners’ at the 9:30 Club. Afterward, out on F Street, my friend Marty and I removed our vintage, old-man baggy suits we’d bought at a thrift shop that day and, guffawing, wrung sweat from them as if they were dishrags.
Exhibits from the Rock and Roll Museum of the Ineffable.
In the short film at Exhibitionism, Martin Scorsese mentions that as a young filmmaker, and a fan, what drew him to the Stones’ music was the contact it made with the “dark nature of human experience.” (Scorsese often uses the band’s songs in his films; think “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Mean Streets, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Memo from Turner” in Goodfellas, “Gimme Shelter” in The Departed, songs that soundtrack joyful depravity, desperation, and menace.) Scorsese cites Cocksucker Blues, the still-unreleased documentary of the Stones’ 1972 American tour directed by photographer Robert Frank, whose grainy, grittily surreal black-and-white work graced the cover of the band’s Exile on Main Street (arguably their greatest album). Over time, the film became legendary for its furtive, myth-creating absence. After watching it, band members allegedly were mightily embarrassed and, fearing the potentially incriminating material, lobbied to have the film shelved permanently; eventually a court ruled that, beginning in 1979, Frank could screen the film, at first with a Stones-edited and -approved version, but no more than four times a year and only when he himself was present in the theater. One of these rare screenings, with a Q & A with the director, took place at an art-film house in D.C. in the 1980s, but I couldn’t attend.
I regretted this for years afterward. I enviously hung on every word of my older brother’s friend who saw it, and marinated in my head lurid recreations of the movie’s scenes, of topless girls with lidded eyes and explicit smiles. What I’d heard about the film was pure raunch: hard drug use, of the smoked, snorted, and injected variety; groupie gang-bangs on planes and in hotel rooms; television sets launched out of high-rise windows; and, yeah, some great live rock and roll. You can find snippets of the film on YouTube, but act fast as they’re usually removed swiftly. The few scenes that accompany Scorsese’s comments at Exhibitionism—drunken stumbling about; laughing girls’ tops being yanked off; dazed women wandering pants-free up and down plane aisles; Richards and a buddy, the sax player Bobby Keys, tossing that TV set out the hotel window—offers glimpses of the debauchery. The rumor that gained the most traction down the years was that during group-sex on the plane, one of the band members accompanies the goings-on by banging on a tambourine. That kind of stuff.
Yet, the myth that is Cocksucker Blues was deflated a bit when news leaked that some of the sex scenes were staged. The Stones, who have a long history of courting a particular rough-boy, outcast image, were charged with re-creating—with curating, really—their own nastiness in the spirit of cinéma vérité. In 1977, Rolling Stone reported that Frank had approached a groupie during filming and said, “We want a chick to fuck someone on the plane for the movie.” As Charlie Finch writes at Artnet: big deal, right? “The tiresome Stones publicity machine has beaten the dead horse of the famous airplane pussy-eating scene as being ‘staged,’ conveniently forgetting that, as Truman Capote, who makes a brief appearance in the film with [New York socialite and fashion icon] Slim Keith and [Atlantic Records co-founder and president] Ahmet Ertegun, pointed out, ‘everything the Stones do is note for note exactly the same night after night’.” One might see the sex on the tour plane, manipulated for camera lenses, as one sees the Edith Grove flat recreation at Exhibitionism, manipulated for lines of attendees: reality staged, bottle by bottle, girl by girl, note for note.
Three and a half miles south of Navy Pier, at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, stands the modest building that from 1956 to 1965 housed the Chess label and studios, “hallowed ground,” as Richards describes the place in his 2010 memoir, Life. (In the early 1990s, Willie Dixon’s widow, Marie, bought the building, renovated it, and re-opened it in 1997 as Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation, which offers tours, a concert series, and educational scholarships.) In the second week of June in 1964, the Stones stopped in at Chess to record a handful of tracks, positively knocked out at visiting the label on which so many epochal records had been issued by artists they revered, among them Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters. The band was in the middle of an American tour, between gigs in San Antonio and Minneapolis, and were well-oiled, loose, and eager to record. “There in the perfect sound studio, in the room where everything we’d listened to was made, perhaps out of relief or just the fact that people like Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon were wandering in and out, we recorded fourteen tracks in two days,” a still-amazed Richards recalls, songs including, over the two-day sessions, “Don't Lie To Me,” “I Can't Be Satisfied,” “It's All Over Now,” “Time Is On My Side,” “Around And Around,” “Confessin' The Blues,” “Down The Road Apiece,” “Empty Heart,” “If You Need Me,” “Look What You've Done,” “Reelin' And Rockin',” and their grooving instrumental tribute to their place of worship, “2120 South Michigan Avenue.”
Also at Chess, on that first day, a myth emerged. “Some people, Marshall Chess included, swear that I made this up, but Bill Wyman can back me up,” Richards insists. “We walked into Chess studios, and there’s this guy in black overalls painting the ceiling. And it’s Muddy Waters, and he’s got whitewash streaming down his face and he’s on top of a ladder.” He adds, “And also Bill Wyman told me he actually remembers Muddy Waters taking our ampliﬁers from the car into the studio. Whether he was being a nice guy or he wasn’t selling records then, I know what the Chess brothers were bloody well like—if you want to stay on the payroll, get to work.” Here’s Bill Wyman’s take on that visit, from his exhaustively detailed 2002 chronicle Rolling with the Stones: “The next day we helped Stu [Ian Stewart] unload the equipment from the van, when who should appear beside us but the great Muddy Waters himself. We were staggered, lost for words. What shook us even more was when he helped us carry our things into the studio. Muddy very definitely was not up a ladder painting the studio, he was a major star at this time and had been for years.” Wyman is well-known as the band’s archivist—a hoarder, the lads affectionately call him—having over the decades obsessively collected and itemized scores of Stones memorabilia. There’s a wide gap between archive and legend, between the certainty of a document and the desire of memory. Here, the collector contradicts the myth spinner. Whom do you believe? Whom do you want to believe?
A triptych from the Rock and Roll Museum of the Ineffable:
First panel. Walking block after block in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, I was feeling placeless and lonely. I’d arrived early for a show at the Empty Bottle, and learned that the headliner wasn’t hitting the stage until midnight. So: between sampling the opening bands, I sat in my car for an inning or two of the White Sox game; I hit a couple bars along Western Avenue; I walked. I’d driven in from DeKalb, far enough from home that I was obligated to linger in the city—a favorite pastime of mine, yet on this night, inexplicably, a somewhat sorry sentence. I gazed up into silent, yellowed windows on the third and fourth floors of brownstones along Oakley Boulevard and on Cortez and Thomas Streets, gnawingly possessed by a blend of self-pity, curiosity, and grimly acknowledged fate that I recognized from adolescence, when I’d slowly drive alongside the impossibly gorgeous and stately homes and sprawling apartment buildings along upper Connecticut Avenue in D.C. and pine for the imagined lives inside, feeling them so beyond my reach as to be fictional. In “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf, having walked the streets of London one night, possessed by a similar, moody wanderlust, writes, “And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?” Woolf returned home that evening, changed; most cities in which I don’t live stir this What if in me—it happens to you, too, I know. But this night felt different, a gathering of doubts and missed opportunities that created a burdensome gray internal weather. Hours later in the club, standing on the top step of the landing at the far edge of the dance floor, beer in hand, my forlorn mood began lifting as I watched the wonderful routine of band members hauling their gear to the stage, plugging in, tuning up, exchanging small talk and jokes with the sound guy and with the previous band members now straggling off, taping hand-written set lists to the monitors, opening a couple of beers or water bottles, huddling and muttering among themselves, shading their eyes and hopefully peering into a room now subtly charged and changing by lowered house lights, the modest gathering of people moving toward the stage, curious, alive.
Second panel. The assignment in Introduction to Creative Writing was to write a Sensory Snapshot poem. I tried to capture a moment that occurred at the end of the long hallway in the 9:30 Club when, as I was waiting in line to get tickets, the thick glass doors opened and closed and in the interval out poured—stormed, charged!—a couple seconds of the Slickee Boys playing, a key moment in their tune “Here to Stay.” I was angry that I was missing the show, the divide between me and the song made so graphically vivid, hopelessly large by that moment of amplified rock and roll, which also brought with it and into my body the smoke and weed and beer and cocaine and promises made and broken and the darkness dotted with lights and roiling with movement and the melancholy of the drive back home up 16th Street.
Third panel. Ty Segall had packed the joint. High on a great show, my ears ringing a bit, I’m in a slowly-moving mass of people, all pressed together closely, shuffling our feet, inching toward the exit doors. A woman in front of me reaches behind and grabs my belt, slips her fingers in the loop and pulls me up against her butt. In a moment I know what’s up. “Ooops, wrong guy, you’ve got the wrong guy,” I say to the top of her head. She glances behind and, appalled, lets go of me and wraps her arms around her chest. “God, I’m sorry. That’s so embarrassing,” she says, searching over my shoulder for her boyfriend, a fella or two behind me. “No problem. It’s packed in here.” The moment was sexy, a surprise of intimacy, two strangers pressing together. I was her man for the moment. If this had happened to me when I was younger, I would’ve gone home that night and tried to write a poem or a short story about it, and fail epically.
“Actually meeting your heroes, your idols, the weirdest thing is that most of them are so humble, and very encouraging. ‘Play that lick again,’ and you realize you’re sitting with Muddy Waters. And of course later I got to know him. Over many years I frequently stayed at his house. In those early trips I think it was Howlin’ Wolf’s house I stayed at one night but Muddy was there. Sitting in the South Side of Chicago with these two greats. And the family life, loads of kids and relatives walking in and out. Willie Dixon’s there….”
That’s Richards in Life, vibing on the warmth and brotherhood of a long career experienced and on occasion shared with the great bluesmen he’s idolized since he was a teenager. In 2015, Netflix released Keith Richards: Under The Influence, a documentary made to accompany Richards’s album Crosseyed Heart, and in it Richards shares an anecdote with the director Morgan Neville. He brings Neville along to visit Waters’s old house in Chicago, and remembers a night when Willie Dixon accompanied him to a party there. “It was a lot more vibrant last time I was here,” he says in front of the dilapidated home with a pad-locked front door and the word “Muddy” and a pink flamingo painted on each door window pane. “It was rocking when I got here, I remember that. It's leaving I don't remember!” He’s smiling now. “I crashed out here, but I woke up at Howlin’ Wolf's house. I don’t know what happened—I got carried away. The party continued, and I went with it!” I searched in Exhibitionism for the gallery that showcased this rock and roll journey from legend to legend creating legend in the forgotten dark.
Exhibitionism. Navy Pier, Festival Hall B, Chicago, Illinois. April 15—July 30, 2017
Alan Artner, “In Defense of Elitism,” Chicago Tribune, November 9, 1997
“The Trouble With Cocksucker Blues,” Rolling Stone, November 3, 1977
Charlie Finch, “SOCKCUCKER BLUES,” Artnet, September 22, 2009
Keith Richards, with James Fox, Life (Little, Brown, 2010)
Bill Wyman, with Richard Havers, Rolling with the Stones (DK Publishing, 2002)
Keith Richards: Under the Influence. Dir. Morgan Neville. 2015
Joe Bonomo’s books include Field Recordings from the Inside, Conversations with Greil Marcus (Literary Conversations Series), AC/DC's Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), and Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band. A five-time “Notable Essay” selection at Best American Essays, he teaches at Northern Illinois University, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was (nosuchthingaswas.com) and at @BonomoJoe.