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The Rolling Stones Talk ‘Exhibitionism’ and How Their New Album ‘Made Itself’

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ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty

“First you shock them and then they put you in a museum,” Mick Jagger once quipped. Though his 2002 knighthood likely marked the end of his days as a rock provocateur, the second half of his prophecy has now come true.

Exhibitionism — an immersive memorabilia showcase tracing the Rolling Stones’ half-century reign as the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band — first opened in London last spring to rave reviews. This week it’s come to New York City’s Industria art space, complete with titanic twin lip logos flanking the main entrance like sensual sphinxes.

While some of the nearly 500 artifacts were culled from the band’s own archival warehouse outside of London, many were purchased or loaned from collectors across the globe. The end result brought the Rolling Stones face to face with possessions they hadn’t seen in decades.

“I’ve wondered where all this stuff came from,” Keith Richards marveled to PEOPLE Tuesday night at the grand opening celebration. “I turn around and think, ‘Oh, that’s where I left it!’ I don’t know how they found all this stuff. It’s quite touching.”

Jagger was particularly moved by the recovery of his old lyric notebooks, once thought lost forever. “Most of the them were stolen and bought back from other people. They were stolen from my desk. I don’t know how they got here!”

Though the 74-year-old singer played an active role in assisting curator Ileen Gallagher on the project, he admits that he’s not exactly a sentimental packrat. “I didn’t keep anything, I throw everything away. I’m not really interested in archiving. But I did keep the clothes. I put all my clothes in a warehouse, otherwise they wouldn’t be here.”

Aside from the wealth of clothes, many fashioned by top tier designers like Alexander McQueen, Ossie Clark and L’Wren Scott, Jagger has an affinity for the designs found on rows of tour posters and portraiture by Andy Warhol and David Bailey.

The Rolling Stone Archive
The Rolling Stone Archive

“I like looking at the visuals — the interaction of the graphic artists and fine artists, and the collaborations that we did over the years,” Jagger says. “When I went yesterday, that struck me as an interesting room. Looking at that as a whole, it’s really fascinating.”

The Rolling Stone Archive
The Rolling Stone Archive

Guitarist Ronnie Wood, who joined the band in 1975, brings a different perspective. “A lot of the things I see in here are from before my time with the band. So I can remember where I was and what I was doing back then [as a fan].”

He spent the mid ‘60s playing with his own group, a rhythm and blues outfit called the Birds (not to be confused with the Byrds). Still, he paid close attention to London’s answer to the Beatles. “My sights were always on being in the Stones. I would take their levels and see when I could zoom in and become a member…ever since I first saw them live in 1963.”

At the time, Wood lived in close proximity to the flat shared by Jagger, Richards and founding Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, located in southwest London’s Edith Grove. “I had an apartment with the Birds just around the corner, so we’d walk by. We knew the Stones lived down there. We lived in a similar scruffy basement apartment.”

Philip Townsend
Philip Townsend

The young Stones’ Edith Grove apartment has been painstakingly recreated for Exhibitionism by an expert team of set designers drawing on original blueprints. The final product is delightfully disgusting. Predating the rock star practice of hotel suite trashing by at least a decade, the degree of filth is truly remarkable.

For Richards, 72, it’s the highlight of the show. “I look at it and I’m home!” he says gleefully.

It was during the days (and nights) in Edith Grove that Jagger and Richards first absorbed many of the blues classics found on their upcoming album, Blue & Lonesome, due out Dec. 2. The band’s first full-length since 2005, it’s filled with deep-cuts from Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, and other under-appreciated musicians whose work forms the DNA of rock and roll.

If Exhibitionism is a visual reminder of the band’s roots, then Blue & Lonesome is the sonic companion piece. Far from museum pieces, the songs pack an immediacy undiminished by time. When the band began jamming on these titles in the studio last December, they turned the calendar back 50 years and the music flowed effortlessly. “The album made itself,” Richards says. “Something inside the Stones went [whistles]. We cut a blues track and [we said], ‘Oh, that sounds good.’ And Mick said, ‘Oh, let’s do this other one,’ and before we knew it we cut twelve tracks in about four or five days. And I love it when that happens because it’s easier [laughs].”

But that wasn’t the original plan. The intention had been to record an album of new, self-penned material. “We did the blues record in the middle of recording the originals,” explains Jagger. “This was just a little sidetrack, then we went on to do the new songs.”

While the unused originals will likely see release on a future album, Jagger says Blue & Lonesome has a raw power all its own. “I think the blues record is wonderful because it was really not planned.” Instead of laboring intensely, it was made by “jumping quickly from one thing to another and just doing a few takes of one song.” According to Jagger, it’s the best way to work. “You get to move on and make a record really quickly, and likely you’ve got something really good at the end of it. I think all of the band played wonderfully—Keith, Ronnie and [drummer] Charlie [Watts] played brilliantly on it.”

Though nothing is set in stone for the Stones, one thing is for certain: “We’ll definitely be on the road,” insists Richards. “We’ll definitely be doing something.”