From our archives. This story was originally published in our July, 2014 print edition. Click the images to enlarge, or read the text, below.
It’s Mick Jagger on grand piano for the tender opening notes of 1975’s “Memory Motel,” his ode to a girl, to a damp and windy Montauk spring, and to life on the road. Keith Richards arrives a few moments later, not on guitar, but on an electric piano. And when sideman Billy Preston joins them on a string synthesizer, it’s clear that the Rolling Stones are a long way from the adolescent sneer of “Satisfaction” or the louche swagger of “Tumbling Dice.” This is a slightly older man’s song, more vulnerable and knowing. “Hannah, honey” Jagger sings wearily, “was a peachy kind of girl…”
By some accounts — no surprise that they are hazy — the music was floating around in some form during recording sessions held in Munich in late winter, 1975. But the song’s lyrics and its emotional core emerged only in April and May after the Stones had picked up and moved their circus to east of the then-genteel Hamptons, beyond Montauk Village and nearer the lighthouse built originally at George Washington’s direction in 1792.
“The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band” had nearly a decade-and-a-half of mayhem behind it by 1975, and it was a group forced by its UK tax-exile status to work on the run. Since 1971, the Stones had rehearsed and recorded on the French Riviera, in Switzerland, Los Angeles and in Jamaica, as well as Rotterdam and Munich. But New York had been a special destination since 1972 when, during their blockbuster American tour, the band became a rowdy diversion for the city’s most fashionable circles. Andy Warhol, Lee Radziwill, Truman Capote, Ahmet Ertegun and photographer/adventurer/legendary ladies’ man Peter Beard ventured out on the Stones’ road to destinations like Dallas and Kansas City. It was Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” at its zenith. And after the shows wrapped up at Madison Square Garden, Mick and Bianca Jagger took their holiday with Princess Radziwill at Eothen, the sprawling and very private Montauk estate owned by Warhol in partnership with the filmmaker Paul Morrissey.
The seaside paradise (Eothen is “at first light” in Greek) made an impression. And so it was that Jagger returned with his bandmates three years later: In a cluster of old hunting cabins perched above the sea, the Stones hid from the rest of the world for five weeks as they rehearsed for the coming summer’s massive 1975 Tour of The Americas. The windswept Montauk of fishermen and carpenters was at the time hosting its first few surfers. And artists. And celebrities.
Warhol and Radziwill (sometimes accompanied by her sister, Jackie Onassis). Richard Avedon and Peter Beard and Candice Bergen. Truman Capote (over from Sagaponack) and Lauren Hutton. And later, Edward Albee, Julian Schnabel and Ralph Lauren. When their 2014 descendants make their way to Ditch Plains and the Point this summer, they’ll be tapping into a vibe that the Stones helped create and exemplify four decades ago. Montauk’s weathered sea dogs and the haute bohemians who love them. It’s a textured glamour that is these days reaching a new apogee. Montauk is again in high season, a beacon of hip. We’re lucky that the Stones left it such a graceful anthem.
Jagger’s knack for a sly lyric is at its best in “Memory Motel” as he starts to recount the story of “Hannah” and their brief liaison. “We spent a lonely night at the Memory Motel,” he sings. It’s an elegant sketch of the isolation within a passing affair, and of the sometimes-desolate feel of the seaside village. The eponymous motel sits to this day at the head of Montauk’s commercial strip. The 1926 building is battered and worn; it’s reputed to have done its patriotic World War II duty as a bordello serving the nearby air and naval installations then maintaining a lookout for German U-Boats. By the time the Stones came to town, the place was being run by two sisters, both heavyset and aging, who believed that wearing their bikinis at all times was a draw for male patrons. The funky barroom still has some cheap Stones memorabilia — none of it relating to the song or to the 1976 Black and Blue album — scattered across walls painted black. And the oft-told tale that the song came about in some boozy Mick n’ Keith singalong at the Memory’s long-gone piano is pure canard. The Stones wandered in looking for a hard-to-find pool table, but were quickly shown the door lest their presence damage the place’s sterling reputation. Jagger got a line out of the indignity, anyway. Mick’s “lonely nights at the Memory Motel” are in the art, not the life.
“Hannah” herself (not her real name) is a different matter. I found her quite by accident a few years ago. She’s still out East, but has long since decamped for the Madison Avenue-by-the-sea splendor of East Hampton. She didn’t require a whole lot of poetic license from Mick. The period photo she showed me over a recent lunch has that glow that’s completely specific to Ivory Girl 1970s blondes. Jagger’s lyric nods to her hazel eyes, and she’s “a honey of a girl” to this day. Her first meeting with the singer came “down by the ocean” at Eothen. Hannah was walking her dogs on the beach below the compound when she cut across the property to reach the long, sandy private road that threaded out toward her cabin at the Deep Hollow horse ranch. It had just started to rain when Mick pulled up slowly in a vast sedan, a Lowenbrau wedged between his legs. At first she demurred, but as he drove away — even more slowly, to let her consider it — she thought, “What am I, crazy?” and ran to the car. Back at her place, things, ahem, took off. It was, after all, 1975. The affair “just felt so easy and natural,” she told me. The world’s biggest rock star facing the world’s biggest tour made every last move seem effortless.
“I was breakfast for him!” she laughs. “But I never, ever, felt dirty or used.” Hannah’s still impressed: “He was just so cool and laid-back. They all were.” Even back in the village, the local code of rugged individualism worked for the band. “No one made a big deal about the Stones because they didn’t make a big deal. Montauk gave them their space.”
If there’s a clubhouse at the heart of Montauk’s “Wild East” culture, it’s Jimmy Hewitt’s Shagwong Bar (primary) and Restaurant (very secondary) in the middle of town. Hewitt has by now owned the place for 45 years and he’s got the weathered mug to prove it. While running the saloon by night, he used to procure Bluefish blood (which doesn’t turn brown, but stays a deep, rich red) for Halston to use in hand-dyeing his coveted and très cher curtains. Paul Simon, Robert De Niro and Elizabeth Taylor have hoisted drinks with the fishermen at the bar over the years, and celebrity status has never conferred the same clout and distance it does elsewhere. The first time Jagger came by, he had a strange notion to bring his own bottle. “I kicked him out,” Hewitt told me. “I didn’t know who the fuck he was.” But the relationship was mended, and Mick was in the bar often. Local artist Noel Arikian remembers the singer arriving in “a copper-colored Mercedes with English plates.” Altered states and culture shock may have been in play: Jagger drove the car in from the east and slid into a spot immediately in front of the gin mill — convenient, but pointed into traffic on the Imperial “wrong side of the road.” The impossibly chic Bianca Jagger had a smoother run in the Shagwong. She sat in the corner, where she learned how to open clams during the summer of 1972, a little more than a year into her ill-fated marriage to Mick. In that spring of ’75, the singer was arriving with Hannah, sometimes by bicycle, sometimes in the battered turquoise truck that she had driven into town from Taos, New Mexico. “She drove a pick-up truck,” goes the song. “Painted green and blue. The tires were wearin’ thin. She turned a mile or two.”
Back at Eothen, film producer and Warhol confidant Vincent Fremont served as the artist’s emissary and trouble-shooter for the Stones’ rehearsals. Fremont had circulated within the overlapping Stones and Warhol orbits for a number of years since 1972, and had passed seaside afternoons with Mick, Bianca and Catherine Deneuve. “All the Europeans who visited loved the place,” he told me. “The lawns and grasses reminded them of moors, I think.” But the rich social history didn’t spare him the singer’s tough business approach. Jagger flatly declared the estate’s proposed rental fee “a rip-off ” before a deal was finally hammered out. Later, as the Stones’ workweeks unfolded, Fremont oversaw the security detail that eventually had to be put in place. The Stones, who are these days chronicled moment-by-moment on Facebook, had run into New York and pulled a memorable pre-tour publicity coup by performing “Brown Sugar” while on a flatbed truck rolling down Fifth Avenue. As anticipation for the Tour of the Americas built, New York rock stations spread word of the Montauk residency, spurring obsessed fans to make the three-hour expedition east. Fremont’s second security brief involved keeping the Eothen groundskeepers safe from Keith by delaying their noisy work until four in the afternoon, when the Stones finally arose for the coming night’s work.
“They made the most god-awful racket I ever heard,” Jimmy Hewitt exclaimed when I asked about his privileged audiences with the band at work. Stones sessions and rehearsals have for decades had a lore unto themselves in which observers are stunned by how absolutely dreadful the band is — right up to that magic moment when it’s not. I visited the compound a couple of times in the mid-2000s and it still boggles my mind to think about the musicians setting up on the stone floors of Eothen’s main hall, bashing the music into road-worthiness. Hannah remembered coming in off the beach and spending several afternoons smoking pot before repairing to the hall’s far corners for discreet visits with Mick as band members and roadies began to drift through the large darkened space. But with all the chaos and challenges of the setting, the work got done. “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band” found itself once again. Vincent Fremont, for whom there were so many logistical and interpersonal challenges, remembered standing out in the seaside mist and listening to the Stones do an aching version of “Wild Horses.” “That was, you know…pretty good,” he told me with a laugh.
“Memory Motel” the song eventually shifts locations out of Montauk and onto the road. Not long before the band had “to fly today on down to Baton Rouge” and opening night of the Tour of the Americas, Hannah brought Mick and Keith over to see the horses at Deep Hollow Ranch, not far from Eothen. “It was a rodeo!” she told me with a laugh. “There were maybe eight people there. Just another quiet night in Montauk.” Richards, who had grown up working-poor in drab post-war Britain, had spent his entire childhood dressed as Roy Rogers and dreaming of an America that he saw in the cinema. But that spring evening, he was dressed for the rococo middle 1970s. Keith wandered around the ranch, among riders and spectators, over hay and manure, positively resplendent in a three-piece pink satin suit. The Rolling Stones had gotten what they had needed from the town before leaving it with stories to tell and a song to be sung: “Just a memory… of a love that used to be.”