For some, the word royalty conjures up images of Elizabeth, Charles, William and Kate. But for rock and roll fans, royalty means the likes of Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie. And an exhibition debuting at Navy Pier this weekend features what you might call the Crown Jewels of the Rolling Stones.
The Rolling Stones retrospective – called “Exhibitionism” – has a little bit of everything. Handwritten lyrics. Concert posters. Costumes. Reel to reels. Instruments. Costumes. Original artwork. Costumes. Vintage photographs. And did we mention costumes?
“Most of it came from the band’s archives,” said “Exhibitionism” curator Ileen Gallagher. “They have an archive outside of London. They kept a lot of the clothing and the instruments. Unfortunately, when they were first starting out they had no idea that they were going to be the Rolling Stones, so we had to get a lot of things pre-1975 from collectors.”
“Exhibitionism” premiered last year in London before moving to New York and now to a city that helped define the band.
“First and foremost, right, the Stones are crediting Muddy Waters with even giving them their name, and we know the role that Chicago blues played in influencing the band,” said Michelle Boone, Navy Pier’s chief program and civic engagement officer. “Chicago had such an intimate connection with the Rolling Stones. So in addition to this show, we’re also showcasing the work of a local photographer, Paul Natkin.”
Natkin first met Keith Richards on assignment for the Chicago Sun-Times, when he made an offhand comment to give him a call if they ever needed a photographer. To Natkin’s surprise, they called. After photographing Richards’ solo tour in 1988, Natkin got invited to shoot the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour in 1989.
“And that was flying around on a private jet. Everything was about as cool as it could possibly be,” Natkin said. “And then, [in] ’93, Keith went out on the road again, and they called me again. And that included Channel 11’s Center Stage, which I was the official photographer for.”
“Every time it’s like, hey, can’t get any better than that.”
“Exhibitionism” goes back to the band’s inception, including a recreation of their first London flat.
“You get to see the artifacts from their inception,” says JAM Productions cofounder Jerry Mickelson, who’s known the band since producing their sellout 1978 show at Soldier Field. “I mean, reading Keith’s diary from 1963 where there is one page that you can see he says Bo Diddley went down really well, and they talk about how they were in their shows. So they were critiquing themselves in the very early stages. You’ll never see this again.”
The show also stirs up memories of discovering the Stones – and of a certain long-running musical rivalry that attends them.
“When I was a kid, you had to pick between the Stones and the Beatles,” Natkin said. “You couldn’t like both of them.”
“I always gravitated to the Stones, because they were a little bit bad, and a little bit naughty, and a little bit sexy, and a little bit dirty,” Gallagher said with a laugh. “That really appealed to me for some reason!”
Natkin falls into the Stones camp too. “The Beatles were too clean. They had the nice suits and the nice hair, so I liked the Stones from the beginning.”
While “Exhibitionism” doesn’t get into that debate, it does show the balance between the two stars at the band’s core. As Natkin puts it, “Keith is the music guy, Mick is the show guy.”
At 18,000 square feet, “Exhibitionism” is a lot like the Stones catalog itself – it’s massive, it might seem a little intimidating when you first dive in, and it’s got something for diehards and casual fans alike. Curator Gallagher hopes visitors will share and discuss a cultural experience in real time.
“You can’t do that at the theater. You can’t do that at a movie. But you can do that in an exhibition space,” Gallagher said. “We’re always in our own little headphone space. I really wanted to get away from that.
“If you’re not a Rolling Stones fan in particular, this is really 50 years of popular culture, and it just resonates in art, in design, in film, in fashion, in photography,” Gallagher said.
Perhaps more than anything, “Exhibitionism” is a testament to the longevity of the Rolling Stones – a longevity that’s earned them both admiration and scorn. So, why keep at it? In his 2010 memoir “Life,” Keith Richards writes that performing elevates him to another space.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you give it up?’ I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me.”
Or, as Mick Jagger put it more succinctly in 1974, it’s only rock and roll … but they like it.
Note: This story originally aired on “Chicago Tonight” on April 13.
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