Rolling Stones Unzipped is a look back at the gloriously decadent ‘age of the rock star’

This is a story about a rock and roll band called The Rolling Stones.

Long ago, before computers and social media, where delicate, long-haired guitarists and singers with crooked lips ruled the world, and pop music was the obsession of every teenager, there was an intense rivalry between this schooling group of disgruntled Englishmen and a rival, healthier group, The Beatles.

Light vs. darkness. Good vs. evil.

If The Beatles were pure, inspired, imperishable, The Stones were dark, brooding, defiant.

“Would you let your daughter go with a Rolling Stone?” That was the question in 1964.

Music historians will argue that The Beatles won this battle between the bands, their singing art is as honored today as Beethoven’s and Mozart’s.

Their decision to break up just the moment their alchemy lost its luster was, in hindsight, an ingenious move to ensure that their legacy remains intact forever, immaculate from middle-aged malaise or disco.

The stones? Well, they never really grew up, never broke up – other than for a brief period in the 80s – never embraced their status as sacred rock pioneers.

For 60 years, they have just hung around, the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band, riding out of musical trends, releasing albums – some of which flirted with discos – and soldiers through one concert tour after another, until 2021, they have become carbon copies of the aging blues legends that inspired them.

Impassive, unforgiving and yes, still in need of haircuts (especially Keith), they radiate a worn majesty that transcends the whims of musical fashion, stubbornly bound – after 60 years – to the glowing embers of a fading rock revolution.

This, more than anything else, is take away from TheMuseum’s colossal exhibition “Unzipped”, a 300 object, thematically arranged study of six decades of art, music and fashion by a band known for its talent, ambitions and shrewd, chameleon-like marketing savvy.

When you leave the building after two hours of cultural immersion, you will have a sharp understanding, not only why “the sensational Rolling Stones” – as they were once quoted – are one of the longest running acts in rock history, but how they have come to embody an era that, in the wake of MeToo and Black Lives Matter, seems as archaically outdated as the big band ensembles and croons with megaphones that preceded them.

What “Unzipped” documents, on its only Canadian tour stop, is a band “of its time,” for all time, a strategic flashback to an era in which white male rock stars were pop culture conquistadors roaming the earth in Lear jets. with groupies galore, the world at their feet.

“The rock star’s era ended with the demise of the physical product, the advent of automated percussion, the dominance of the committee’s approach to hit production, the widespread adoption of choreography and, above all, the mystical-destructive advent of the Internet.” writes David Hepworth in his book “Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars.”

“Everything has to pass. Like the cowboy, the cavalier, the wandering minstrel, the raven, the burglar in the striped sweater, the top-hat banker, the painter with his beret and the writer in his smoking jacket, the rock star must be handed over to the wardrobe of anachronistic stereotypes in vain.”

“Rocker time is over. We now live in a hip hop world.”

But which era: a wonderfully decadent, glam-bent, cultural Caligula, denoting the apotheosis of post-war ambitions with boundary shifting, gender-bending experimentation, and some pretty awesome guitar hooks.

Because the Stones are still on the move, hitting hits, you can assume that this show is a brave attempt to make them seem hip, trendy – relevant – as its members around the corner in 80.

But that’s not what it’s about.

As you wander through one thematically arranged space after another, spread over several levels and 10,000 square meters, you experience the story – of the Stones, rock music, pop culture – in all its decadent, politically incorrect glory.

The highlight, no doubt, is Edith Grove, a meticulous re-creation of the band’s first habitat, a miserable Chelsea apartment shared by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and early manager Brian Jones in the days when they were junky blues lovers. no one wanted a break.

What’s the point of this, you might be wondering, while looking at dirty, guk-greased dinner plates, empty beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays and cupboards stuffed with canned spam and stewed steak?

How is this dilapidated landfill – which should have a “damned” sign over the door – different from studio housing on Waterloo’s Ezra Street?

It is not. Which is part of the Stones myth, the idea that moneyless (but talented) never make wells who listen to Howlin ‘Wolf records and play dirty R&B cover tunes could catch the lightning in a bottle and a few years later get dressed on. in cheetah-print fur jackets and sleeveless velvet jumpsuits on massive scenes shaped like lotus flowers.

They are all here, the scenes (in miniature), scenographies, posters, personal diaries, fashion clothes (including Jagger’s famous white dress with puffed sleeve) and album covers that, when grouped in chronological order, form a defiant middle finger greeting to what used to to be known as the Establishment.

From the forbidden record cover for “Street Fighting Man” – with its fiery shot of police violence – to the censored cover of “Beggars Banquet” with its graffiti-lined toilet box to the crotch-crotch crotch on the “Sticky Fingers” album that gives this show its name, Stones loved to press buttons and test limits.

There are also guitars – many of them – a recreated recording studio with a tape-looped conversation that makes you feel like a fly on the wall, and a Charlie Watts drum kit that can evoke a hard swallow for anyone mourning the deceased drummer passed away a few months ago.

There are handouts from 1964 filled out by a youthful, straight-to-star Jagger who lists his personal “likes” (girls, dining, clothes) and antipathies (intolerant people who cut my hair).

And there’s director Martin Scorsese telling a short film about the Stones on celluloid, including a notorious behind-the-scenes document that was never released and remains anonymous in a family newspaper.

All this speaks to the unrecognized subtext of the exhibition: the passage of time.

As we watch band members evolve from rebels with delicate lips to the rugged faces they are today, while Jagger’s flashing discomfort calcifies – like the rock head figures on Mount Rushmore – to an iconic horny mockery, it’s clear that the main reason for the Stones deserves an exhibition like this is just the fact that they still exist.

With no plans to retire – a position they postponed in 1989 – “Unzipped’s final stop is fittingly a three-dimensional, surround sound mini-concert from an outing to Cuba in 2016, where the boys proved to be as sinewy and relentless as ever. churning out “Paint It Black,” a 55-year-old song about the darkness of the soul, like a Dorian Gray painting that comes to life (in their sixth decade of touring, they certainly seem to be a part).

“First, you shock them,” cracks a sardonic Jagger in the multi-screen news film starting the show. “Then they put you in a museum.”

With “Unzipped”, they achieve both: perfectly preserved but infinitely provocative, luminous post-war discontent whose rock and roll dreams came true. . . and then some.

“Unzipped runs at TheMuseum Nov. 30-Feb. 27. For more information, go to www.unzippedkw.ca

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