Rock Royalty

Find satisfaction in a new exhibit on the life and times of the Rolling Stones.

The creamy silk satin jacket begs to be touched, its fabric shimmering seductively in the fluorescent light. Only the presence of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum assistant curator Meredith Rutledge-Borger prevents the stroking of belled sleeves, the fingertip tracing of sinewy dragons in the oriental print. The fact that the garment belongs to Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, rock god extraordinaire, makes the unspoken hands-off directive even more difficult to obey.

Rutledge-Borger continues her tutorial on the items hanging from the chrome rack she’s wheeled from the Rock Hall vault to a nearby conference room. She explains that Jagger wore the jacket for a 1967 press conference in London’s Green Park to promote the release of the album “Between the Buttons.” She then turns her attention to his circa-1968 red-wool Scots Guards tunic, distinguished by its silver buttons and abundance of trim, and a cropped purple jacket guitarist Keith Richards favored during the Stones’ 1994–1995 Voodoo Lounge Tour.

“Note the wear from the guitar strap,” she says, running a white-gloved finger across a shoulder of pilled wool gabardine as she speaks.

The jackets are among the 200-plus items in “Rolling Stones: 50 Years of Satisfaction,” a major exhibit that opened Memorial Day weekend at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, and remains on display until March 2014. The show chronicles the group’s half-decade of songwriting, recording and performing, a prolific period that earned it the title of “Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band in the World” — a designation many rock historians and fans believe it still holds. Associate curator Craig Inciardi notes that the Stones created the prototype for the rock star and accompanying sex-and-drugs lifestyle. Yet millions of listeners identified with the songs.

“That’s just what’s so amazing about their music — it connects to a lot of people,” he says. “They were writing for themselves, but their songs had a lot of resonance with the public and became the soundtrack of several generations.”

According to Inciardi, talk of staging a Stones retrospective at the Rock Hall began before the building opened in 1995. Over the years, museum curators worked with band members and collectors to keep a permanent exhibit stocked with treasures that include the 1963 Harmony 12-string acoustic guitar Richards used to write and record “Tell Me” and “As Tears Go By,” the white-velvet lace-up jumpsuit that Jagger wore during the band’s 1972 American tour and distinctive lighting fixtures from the 1989–1990 Steel Wheels Tour stage. Some of those items are included in the new exhibit, so expansive that it’s overtaken the museum’s fourth, fifth and sixth floors.

Rutledge-Borger singles out drummer Charlie Watts’ 1966 Ludwig snare drum and late founding member Brian Jones’ circa-1965 dulcimer. “Dulcimers are relatively rare instruments in general, but especially in rock music, ” she says. “There are not a lot of medieval folk instruments used.”

But Inciardi insists that opening the exhibit in the middle of the Stones’ 50 & Counting Tour, within a year of the July 12, 2012, golden anniversary of their first gig at London’s Marquee Club, is pure coincidence. “It could have happened last year, it could have been next year,” he says. “It’s just an extraordinary amount of work.”

Rutledge-Borger describes the curatorial process that followed the first phone pitch of the project to Stones management three or four years ago as occasionally unnerving. The current tour, which began in early May, delayed finalizing which instruments would be available for display until well into April.

“We were biting our fingers off,” she admits.

The Stones have come through big time. Jagger, Richards, Watts and guitarist Ronnie Wood have loaned a considerable number of additional artifacts, including the aforementioned jackets. Inciardi talks of the custom Zemaitis guitar Wood used on the group’s 1978 tour, while Rutledge-Borger mentions Richards’ Gibson SG. Jones’ onetime girlfriend, Linda Lawrence, also allowed the museum to borrow a number of items, most notably Jones’ black-and-white houndstooth jacket — one of the matching toppers the Stones briefly wore.

The evolution of the flamboyant Jagger’s fashion sense is particularly well documented with stage costumes from his own collection. There are also items from his daily wardrobe, including a colorful jacket that Jagger was frequently photographed in, most famously while dancing with Cher.

“From the psychedelic peacock clothes of the late ’60s and then into the ’70s, there was always something that was over-the-top spectacular,” Rutledge-Borger marvels. “We really wanted to represent all 50 years or at least a range of styles, of looks.”

Rock-memorabilia collectors from all over the world helped fill in other curatorial blanks, particularly those remaining in displays on the Stones’ first years together. In fact, it was a collector who loaned what Inciardi considers “the Holy Grail for the exhibit”: the first guitar Jones ever used on a Stones recording, a Harmony Stratotone that he estimates cost the equivalent of $30 to $40 at the time. “It was a fairly crude instrument — it didn’t have very good action,” he says.

Rutledge-Borger points to a charcoal-gray wool suit coat collared in black velvet that hangs on the rack as another example. “Brian Jones seemed to wear [it] in every early photograph taken of the band,” she observes.

Still other collectors have provided handwritten letters, including two missives Jones sent to a jazz publication that “very well document the formation of the band,” according to Inciardi. The first, penned in 1962, describes his musical interests. The second, written the following year, explained who the Rolling Stones were, what kind of music they played, and why they wanted to play it. Some handwritten song lyrics and set lists on curators’ wish lists, however, simply don’t exist. Rutledge-Borger theorizes that band members didn’t hang onto every scrap of paper and clothing because their association seemed so temporary at first.

“Mick Jagger said at a certain point that he didn’t think the band was going to last for more than three years,” she notes. “If you’re in that kind of mind-set, you’re not worried about your legacy.”

Inciardi notes that many bands, the Stones among them, now realize how important it is to preserve their history. He won’t divulge exactly where or how the Stones store their personal collections. But he describes them as meticulously maintained and managed.

Guitarist Mick Taylor, who replaced Jones after his death in 1969 and was in turn replaced by Wood in 1975, and bassist Bill Wyman, who left the band in 1994, will be represented in photographs. Rutledge-Borger explains that Taylor has no mementos to contribute. Wyman politely declined the museum’s request to borrow artifacts.

Additionally, “Rolling Stones: 50 Years of Satisfaction” uses song lyrics to explore the Stones’ treatment and portrayal of women as well as the band’s drug use and resulting run-ins with the law. It also includes original album art, including images snapped by noted photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank for the cover of 1972’s “Exile on Main Street” and the painting by Dutch artist Guy Peelaert commissioned for 1974’s “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll.” There are also pieces of Stones merchandise and promotional items, everything from early period toy guitars to a point-of-sale display used to promote “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll” that features a cartoon cutout of Mick Jagger stabbing himself with a pen. The image was inspired by the title cut’s opening lines, “If I could stick my pen in my heart, and spill it all over the stage.”

But Rutledge-Borger believes true satisfaction is provided by the band’s own possessions.

“That’s what people want to see,” she says.

When You Go

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
1100 Rock and Roll Blvd., Cleveland 44114
For hours and admission prices, call or visit website.