Just a Memory, Girl
What really happened at the Memory Motel that off-season when the Rolling Stones hung out at Warhol's place in Montauk? Christopher Walsh chases the lipstick traces of 1975
It wasn’t always this way. Long before the Surf Lodge and the Sloppy Tuna, before the corporations and their money rendered Montauk unrecognizable, before the arrivistes’ incessant yammering into smartphones and Instagramming every excruciating detail of their uniquely fabulous lives, people didn’t try so hard to be cool. They just were.
Like a postcard from the past, its colors fading like the memory of a long-ago summer, downtown Montauk in the fall of 2018 is buttoning up and settling down for another long winter’s slumber. But in the center of town, behind the locked door at the Memory Motel, echoes from a long-gone piano are still sounding, faint but true.
It was into that simpler, sleepier Montauk that Andy Warhol appeared.
In 1971, the Pop Art pioneer bought the Church estate, also known as Eothen, a 30-acre oceanfront compound featuring a half- dozen cottages and an equestrian farm. Eothen (“at first light” in Ancient Greek) had been built in 1931 as a fishing camp by the Church family of the Church and Dwight company, makers of Arm and Hammer. Warhol would entertain all the 1970s glitterati there: Jacqueline Onassis, her sister, Lee Radziwill, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Catherine Deneuve, Truman Capote, and Elizabeth Taylor. . . .
Rolling Stone magazine commissioned Warhol’s friend and neighbor, the photographer Peter Beard, to document the Rolling Stones’ 1972 North American tour, which was being organized to promote the band’s sprawling, druggy masterpiece Exile on Main Street. Like Warhol, Beard had acquired property in Montauk, to which he welcomed his artistic friends. The day after the legendarily debauched ’72 tour concluded in New York City with a bacchanalian bash to celebrate Mick Jagger’s 29th birthday, the singer and his bride, Bianca, accompanied Beard to Montauk for a few days’ vacation.
Warhol had designed the Stones’ iconic tongue-and-mouth logo, as well as the cover for their 1971 album Sticky Fingers, and when the band returned to the States in the spring of 1975, with the Tour of the Americas’ 46 shows looming, it was to Eothen that they headed to rehearse and work on songs for their next album. And that is how a nondescript motel in a sleepy seaside town came to be immortalized by the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world:
We spent a lonely night
at the Memory Motel
It’s on the ocean,
I guess you know it well. . . .
Andy Warhol's Montauk compound, Eothen, as it appears today. David Rattray / East Hampton Star
By 1975, the Rolling Stones—Mick Jagger, now a 31-year-old rock ’n’ roll singer turned international jet-setter; Keith Richards, the Stones’ guitarist-outlaw, now deep into heroin addiction; the rhythm section of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, and Ron Wood, newly hired to replace the guitarist Mick Taylor on the tour after the latter’s abrupt resignation—were on top of the world. A decade after Satisfaction had catapulted them to international superstardom, they had outlasted the Beatles, formed their own record label, sold millions of albums, and were filling arenas around the world. While Wyman and Watts were known as the straightest rhythm section in rock, the others, and the band’s entourage, were pushing debauchery to new heights—or depths.
Although the Memory Motel would be memorialized on the Stones’ next album, Black and Blue, the band spent a lot more time at Shagwong Tavern, toward the other end of Montauk’s Main Street.
“We’d go down to the Warhol estate,” says Jimmy Hewitt, the former, longtime owner of Shagwong, a bar and restaurant notorious, in the ’70s at least, for rough customers and barroom brawls. “That’s where they’d practice, and a lot of times we’d go and listen. They didn’t start until midnight. They would play and do their thing—in excess.”
Hewitt remembers the groupies who swarmed Montauk and, as the word spread, followed the sounds of late night revelry to Eothen. “The biggest pain in the ass,” he says, “was all the girls standing around, trying to get a look at them.”
“They stayed at Andy Warhol’s compound, and they came to Shagwong for dinner,” concurs Bruce Macarthy, a Montauk resident who tended bar there in the mid-1970s. “We were serving them drinks in the back room. They were all hanging out at the table with, I mean, F-ing piles of coke and smoke. It was the way it was back then.”
“Jagger would come in late at night,” Hewitt continues. “Most times it was with Ron Wood and some of the other guys. They’d hang out for a while, run up a tab, and Peter Beard would pick up the bill.” Sometimes, he said, Beard paid the bar tab with a photograph.
The Memory Motel in the early ’50s, when it was owned by Frank G. Roys, a charter-boat captain and war veteran who named the motel's nightclub room after his boat, the Seaglamour. East Hampton Star archive.
According to legend, the band, famously unkempt, under the influence, and exuding more than a hint of danger, was not especially welcome at many Montauk watering holes. Under the headline “Man Nearly Drowns” in the May 22, 1975, issue of The East Hampton Star, a roundup of the week’s mishaps included a report that “Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones band, in Montauk rehearsing for a three-month tour, was treated for a deep cut on his right arm at the Hospital last Saturday night after he slipped leaning on a door at Gosman’s Restaurant in Montauk and put his arm through a pane of glass.” A photograph of the arm in question, later published in a history of the Stones, shows a harrowingly long gash extending from the palm well up the forearm, zipped tightly with stitches.
Archival photos tell us that the Memory Motel was constructed in the late 1940s. Originally, it consisted of 19 rooms with an attached bar and cafe, according to Brian Kenny, managing director of Montauk Ventures, its current owner and operator. The man who built the motel was an adventurer named Frank G. Roys, captain of the Seaglamour charter boat, dock master of the Long Island Rail Road fishing pier, and a naval veteran decorated for his service in World Wars I and II. The memory in the motel’s name was in remembrance of his son, Bruce, who had drowned.
In the 1950s, the Memory Motel was a reputable place—with office parties and wedding receptions held in the “Seaglamour Room,” and a pianist at the keyboard in the evenings, even in the off-season—but things had turned a bit saltier by the mid-1960s, when published police reports noted bar fights and disorderly-conduct arrests there.
Beard today, relaying a message through his wife only a few weeks ago, says he definitely does remember taking the Stones to the bar. It was probably Beard who introduced them to it, Kenny says: “The then-owners of the motel were not exactly fans, and rumor has it that their few visits to the establishment were usually accompanied by subsequent ejection after only a few drinks.”
The Memory had been sold by Capt. Roys around 1960 to a pair of Russian-immigrant sisters named Sara Kline and Esther Kline Agtas. By the time the Rolling Stones came to town, the Kline sisters were in their 60s; they later admitted they had had no idea that rock stars were drinking downstairs. “[The sisters] lived up top,” says Tom Ferreira of Montauk, who worked at the Memory later, in the 1990s. “It’s a prime location, but it was sleepy, dead. Nobody went in there.”
The question is, did all members of the band sit down for beers at the green Formica tables of the Memory Motel’s bar? Did Mick or Keith gaze out toward the stormy April ocean from its porthole-shaped windows? No one seems to recall. “Mick just thought it was a great name for a song,” opines John Nilon, the caretaker of Beard’s property. “I’m not really sure he went there.”
In 1982, Esther Kline Agtas told a Newsday reporter (who described her as “a substantial woman who clutched her arthritic white poodle, Shu Shu, to her breast”) that Jagger, as far as she knew, had never really spent a night, lonely or otherwise, sleeping or having sex in one of the motel rooms, despite what the song says. But, then again, Esther also admitted that she hadn’t known what Jagger looked like back in 1975, that too many people wandered in for her to keep track, and that she hadn’t even known about the Rolling Stones’ presence in Montauk until Black and Blue came out.
It may be the stuff of myth—a story repeated so often that it bears little resemblance to fact—but another longtime local claims that Jagger had a habit of setting his drink on the Memory Motel pool table. In this telling, Jagger was warned not to, then warned again, then told to leave, before eventually being allowed back inside.
The pool table had drawn the Stones to the bar, according to legend, but crucially, the bar also featured the old piano from Seaglamour days.
Something of a rarity in the band’s otherwise raunchy, guitar-driven oeuvre, the sound of a gentle piano opens Memory Motel and dominates the exquisite seven-minute ballad. Jagger played a simple progression in 4/4 time; Richards did not even play guitar on the track, which was recorded later that year in Munich. He, Jagger, and the late Billy Preston played electric piano, acoustic piano, and string synthesizer, respectively, while Harvey Mandel and Wayne Perkins—the eight tracks on Black and Blue were, in effect, an extended audition for Mick Taylor’s replacement—played electric and acoustic guitar.
Rolling Stone magazine, founded by Jann Wenner, who also has a house in Montauk, once put Memory Motel at number 38 on its list of the top 100 Stones songs. “When the Stones decided to have a bash at mega-sincerity, they really went all the way,” the magazine said. “Memory Motel is unique both in its heart-on-sleeve tenderness and its seventies yacht-soul keyboard sound.” The Glimmer Twins—Jagger and Richards—“trade off lead vocals in the tale of a guitar-toting hippie girl named Hannah . . . who meets Jagger at a cheap motel on Long Island and leaves him drunk and crying.”
Down-tempo and wistful, Memory Motel is filled with oblique references to an affair, as well as to the band’s imminent concert tour. Carly Simon, the ravishing folk-rocker, has been mentioned as inspiration for Hannah, and over the years at least a few local women have claimed a memorable tryst with Jagger, but according to Wenner, the singer’s muse was the photographer Annie Leibovitz, whom the Stones had hired to document the 1975 tour.
In Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, Joe Hagan writes that “Annie and Mick had become lovers, an affair that began in Montauk and allegedly inspired the song Memory Motel from Black and Blue. Leibovitz listened to Jagger work on the song every night in hotels. . . . According to Jann Wenner, Jagger confessed to him that the girl whose ‘eyes were hazel’ and nose was ‘slightly curved’ was Annie Leibovitz.”
Mick Jagger carries a box out of an East Hampton liquor store, late 1970s. East Hampton Star archive.
By Memorial Day the Stones were gone, but the media, in those pre-digital days, were still catching up. The same issue of The Star in which Mr. Jagger’s mishap at Gosman’s was noted featured both a picture of five men standing on Main Street in East Hampton, Richards and Wood among them (“Some of the Rolling Stones, minus Mick Jagger,” the caption helpfully noted), as well as a brief snippet in the Montauk Village notes: “The rock singer Mick Jagger is in Montauk this week visiting Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic Records, the company Mr. Jagger records with.”
On June 1 and 2, the Stones played two warm-up concerts at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The tour formally began the following night at the San Antonio Convention Center and continued into August. Jagger, who throughout his 55 years of stardom has carefully maintained a barrier between his libidinous-Lucifer public image and an enigmatic, private persona, nonetheless revealed much in Memory Motel, now a postcard from the past, its colors fading like the memory of a long-ago summer.
I got to fly away on down to Baton Rouge
My nerves are shot already,
the road ain’t all that smooth
Across in Texas is the rose of San Antone
I keep on a-feeling,
that gnawing in my bones
You’re just a memory,
of a love that used to be
You’re just a memory, of a love
that used to mean so much to me.
At top: The 1976 Stones album Black and Blue. Its cover shot was by the Japanese fashion photographer Hiro.