As I write this, the world is waking up to the news of the singer and songwriter, Prince’s untimely death at the age of 57.
Prince was at the top of his game, so if we are to look dispassionately at the statistics of early deaths amongst rock stars, he has bowed out at a time when it could be said that most of his brilliant work and performances are behind him.
It is of course, extremely tragic that he has died at an age where he could start to wind down and reflect on his past triumphs, and like David Bowie before him, perhaps collate an exhibition of his work, songwriting notes, MTV edits and stage clothes.
The Rolling Stones have done this brilliantly, in ‘Exhibitionism’ which opened on April 5th at the Saatchi Gallery in London and runs until September 4th and then will tour to major cities. For bands or solo artists who have reached the pinnacle of their careers and yet are seeing ever dwindling recorded music profits, touring has been one of the few antidotes to a declining bank balance, until, that is, the blockbuster exhibition came along. If Monet and Manet, or even Alexander McQueen can do it, why not Bowie or the Stones? After all, they have a built-in audience of people still alive and kicking and yet ready to nostalgically look back to a ‘golden age’. We will no doubt see a plethora of such shows in the future, as Pink Floyd and other major bands are all planning major touring exhibitions, but right now, for the price of a ticket you can get a terrific slice of the Stones.
I must confess, that I went to the private view, hanging out with the band (whom I have known for years) in their private Winnebagos or downing cocktails at the bar (swank swank – sorry!) so I went back the other day to see the show properly.
It is meticulously and beautifully curated, dating from their early days when they shared a flat in Edith Grove. The show starts with a recreation of these rooms, a fascinating glimpse of the ’60’s in itself (think stacks of dirty dishes, unmade beds, overflowing ashtrays and dubious underclothes).
Following in chronological order come the benchmark moments in the bands life told through video clips and photographs; the Andy Warhol ‘Sticky Fingers’ album cover, the filmed horrors of Altamont in 1969, the rare guitars in glass cases, stage props, film footage by Martin Scorsese, and interactive multimedia in the following nine rooms.
The highlights for me were the clothes (Michael Rainey and Michael Fish’ frilled shirts, Moroccan velvets, embroidered jackets, Chelsea Antique Market flares, all of which I am old enough (young enough?) to have lived through and remember well. There was a recreation of the white ‘dress’ which Mick wore at the 1969 Hyde Park concert just after Brian Jones died. Mick read a poem by Shelley and released thousands of white butterflies. But actually seeing the reproduced costume brought a little tear to my eye.
Another highlight was the darkened room in which, armed with a pair of 3D glasses, the audience watches a video film of ‘Satisfaction’ which renders you (quite literally) stage struck at being so close to the action. It is as if Mick and Keith are jamming in your own front room and this recreation is every bit
as exciting. I watched young kids who have never seen the Stones live, leave the room open mouthed in admiration is every bit as exciting.
And that may be the point of these exhibitions. Mick himself is openly non-nostalgic, a healthy sign in my view, as there is nothing more depressing than a Mrs Haversham reclusive rock star, (a part he once played to brilliant effect in Nic Roeg’s film ‘Performance’) but as we lean more and more in to the snake pit of invasion of privacy with ever more interest and fascination in the lives of (to use that awful word) ‘celebrities’, making an exhibition of yourself is the obvious way to control any retrospective of your career.
As a photographer myself, (I named a recent exhibition of my vintage photographs ‘Looking Back is the New Forward’) I can recognize that it is a great way for a major artists to be making some money while not having to put themselves through yet another gruelling tour and endless meet and greet with sponsors and VIP’s
who feel entitled to a piece of you. I’m always amazed by this level of entitlement in otherwise reasonably intelligent and well behaved guests when around the Stones.
Recently, Mick invited me to one of their European concerts, and I was asked to look after a minor member of royalty and bring her backstage after the show. As she was being “papped” relentlessly by her own country’s press, she asked to come back stage sooner, a roadie was sent out to get us. The young man led us through several barred gates, but then looked at me beseechingly “I was only asked to bring you and her” he said, pointing. I looked round and to my horror there were six others with us, two of them carrying large pieces of video equipment “This is my camera team” she said “we are making a documentary. I’ve got two of them already, but I want the other two”. By the ‘other two’ she meant Mick and Keith. I found myself literally jumping up and down in protective fury, (barely restraining myself from clubbing her over the head!) “Do you realize how privileged we are to go backstage five minutes before the concert starts when they are warming up their voices and guitars?! They are artists, not performing monkeys you know?”
Even royalty behaves badly around true stardom.
The Stones exhibition, like every blockbuster, ends at the gift shop, and on the day I visited some very young Japanese were snapping up mugs and t-shirts and jackets emblazoned with the lips logo. The cognoscenti of rock may sneer at this perceived “sell out” , but as we now live in a product placement world, who can blame the Stones for stamping their logo on anything fans are prepared to pay for.
On the night of the private view as we left the Winnebago and Mick was swallowed up in an adoring crowd of fishnets and flashbulbs, I hung out with Mick’s talented brother, musician Chris Jagger, and his beautiful wife Kari-Ann, when – an hour later – we asked a wide eyed pretty young Asian usherette which room Mick was in intending to catch up with him. She looked confused as to who Chris was enquiring about, so Chris mentioned the colour of the jacket his brother was wearing, whereupon she brightened visibly and pointed to the shop. ‘Mick jacket in there’, she said ‘ very good price. Buy now before gone” …
Volume 30 number 5, May / June 2016 pp 34-36