‘If it happens anywhere, it matters not’ – it’s a mantra that many of the best storytellers have clung to since time immemorial. The notion of narrative, even in music, is deeply entwined with the location. The same tale of star-crossed lovers in Blackpool, UK just takes on a different tone altogether if it is transposed on Bologna, Italy. In short, the importance of geography is a self-evident ever-present, and musicians have always exploited this fact.
Take, for instance, a track like ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ by Peter Sarstedt. It is suddenly transformed into a French New Wave dream of Anna Karina perched on some sun-drenched flower-potted window sills reading Yeats because he piped in an accordion to the melody. However, you fill it with the sounds of his native Croydon and it’s a tale of a woman who sneaks off to the Bingo without him knowing. The unfurling bluesy masterpiece of ‘Memory Motel’ does much the same.
As it happens, ‘Memory Motel’ is also actually one of The Rolling Stones’ best songs, and that is a scientific fact that you can look up for yourself by giving it a listen and then giving your head a wobble if you disagree. The atmosphere it conjures is of yearning — the equanimous unspooling of drunk-mellowed melancholy that it captures — and the smooth sonic cacophony that it sails on (particularly Charlie Watts less is more drum fills) are scintillating if it finds the right moment of reverie in your daily march.
Although the choral utterance of “Memory Motel” sounds like a poetic metaphor, the place is actually real. The Memory Motel is in Montauk, Long Island and you pass it en route to Andy Warhol’s Church Estate where the band stayed a few times after they became friends when Warhol designed the Sticky Fingers album cover. Thus, Mick Jagger and the gang presumably passed the motel many times and he was stirred up enough by the beguiling name that he saw a use for it in song.
It was the spring of 1975, and the band were warming up for their Tour of The America’s run. Looking for a place to hide from the glare of prying eyes, Warhol’s church cast away in the rocky dunes offered them the perfect place to get busy working on Black and Blue, and all for the reasonable fee of five thousand dollars a month; with the added bonus of ongoing visits by Warhol’s coterie of attractive friends and sea views. Thus, the Motel up the road proved the perfect place to slip away to.
According to the Motel owner, Arthur Schneider, his fine establishment was the only one in the area with a pool table and a piano so the Stones’ would often pop up from Warhol’s divine abode for a hangout. Whether Carly Simon, long-believed to be the Hannah Honey that Jagger sings of, ever stayed at the Memory Motel is a contentious point with some speculating that she wrote ‘You’re So Vain’ after a one-night stand with Jagger at the rest-stop, but this has never been substantiated.
Others claim that Hannah is the tour photographer Annie Liebovitz who was present with the band on their various stays. But Catherine Deneuve was also knocking around which further muddies the picture. Alas, regardless of the specifics, the song is surely more about the imagery that is conjured up by this flickering neon roadside establishment where kitchen sink drama’s play out in both actuality and pillow-prop reminiscing about memories gone-by.