Memory Motel & The Rolling Stones: How Montauk Inspired a 1976 Rock Classic

Memory Motel in Montauk
Memory Motel in Montauk

On the End of East End, near the Atlantic Ocean, there’s an unassuming but well-known motel. For decades, the Main Street structure has lured locals as well as out-of-towners, from ordinary tourists to celebrities galore. The A-list included one of the best-known rock ’n’ roll ensembles on the planet: The Rolling Stones.

MEMORY MOTEL

In the spring of 1975, the Stones caroused at the Montauk motel, to the dismay of its owners. According to montauklife.com, the owners were not big fans of the chart-topping celebrities. Undeterred, the 30-something rockers were intrigued by the place’s name — the Memory Motel — and they’d get all liquored up, shoot pool, brawl a bit and play the piano until the wee hours of the morning, when they’d return to the nearby estate they had rented.

They knew they wouldn’t be disturbed there, so they’d start working out songs for their next album and rehearsing for their upcoming tour of the Americas.

The original Rolling Stones: Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Brian Jones pose in London, Britain, April 23, 1964. Picture taken April 23, 1964. Before the Memory Motel
The original Rolling Stones: Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Brian Jones pose in London, Britain, April 23, 1964. Picture taken April 23, 1964.Alamy/ KOKO/ Handout via REUTERS

STONED AT THE OCEAN

The motel’s bar and lodgings provided inspiration for the rock ballad written by the band’s Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. “Memory Motel” recounted the loneliness of a one-night stand with a woman, and to this day people wonder about her identity. The lyrics of the melancholy single on their 1976 Black and Blue album, with both Jagger and Richards on lead vocals, painted a sad picture: “We spent a lonely night at the Memory Motel. It’s on the ocean, I guess you know it well.”

The song also revealed the rigors and regrets of life on the road: “We’ve been 10 thousand miles, been in 15 states. Every woman seemed to fade out of my mind. I hit the bottle and hit the sack and cried.”

Away from the motel, the remote estate named Eothen (ancient Greek for “at first light”) provided a reprieve from grueling tours and gossip. The sprawling 20-acre compound on the tip of Montauk, built in 1931 by the Church family, the heirs to the Arm & Hammer household-products fortune, was purchased in 1971 by pop-art icon Andy Warhol, who had met the band seven years earlier.

In the early 1970s, Montauk was quieter, many say — then rock’s bad boys came to town. As Warhol wrote in his book Exposures, “Mick Jagger really put Montauk on the map. All the motels were overflowing with groupies. When Mick went into town everything stopped. Surfers chased him from White’s Drug Store to White’s Liquor Store.”

During their five weeks at Eothen, Jagger also hung out at Shagwong Tavern in Montauk. While the flamboyant showman sat at the bar, his wife Bianca Jagger would “roll up the sleeves of her Yves Saint-Laurent dresses and open clams,” reported montauklife.com. The Jaggers also dined at Gosman’s at Montauk Harbor, where he had a shattering encounter one May evening several weeks before the start of the band’s tour. The story goes that he tripped and smashed his right hand through a window trying to break his fall. The severe cuts required 20 stitches, but healed in time for the tour.

Warhol, the outsider, shied away from drinking and dancing, quietly photographing the band and playing with their kids. He once said, “I wish I were like Mick. He’s a somebody. I’m a nobody.” But not everyone was an admirer. A few years earlier, in Rolling Stone magazine, writer Truman Capote called Jagger “… a scared little boy … about as sexy as a pissing toad.”

Pop artist Andy Warhol in 1976
Pop artist Andy Warhol in 1976AP Photo/Richard Drew, File

WHEN MICK MET ANDY

Jagger had been introduced to Warhol at the New York Academy of Music in 1964 when the band performed at a birthday party for high-society model “Baby Jane” Holzer, Warhol’s close friend. Warhol befriended Jagger, creating lithographs and photos of the singer when he was 20 and Warhol was 15 years older.

They kept in touch, and Warhol took the photos for the Rolling Stones Record Company’s 1971 Sticky Fingers album cover, which featured a photo of Jagger’s hips in tight pants that had a working crotch zipper. The same year, Warhol bought the Montauk property with his then-manager and film collaborator Paul Morrissey.

Morrissey told The New York Times in 2006, “People didn’t come here for big parties … it’s a place you come to for nature, for a breeze, for beautiful scenic things.” Among those who stayed at Eothen were Jackie Kennedy Onassis, John Lennon, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Halston.

SECRET IDENTITY AT MEMORY MOTEL

Today, the Memory Motel is still open, and the identity of the female companion immortalized in song is still a mystery. Was it Carly Simon? Photographer Annie Leibovitz? The truth remains a secret, as described in the lyrics of “Can You Hear the Music?”— another Jagger-Richards tune — “Love is a mystery I can’t demystify.”

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