Flip the Switch
"Yeah, when you call my name
I salivate like a Pavlov dog
Yeah, when you lay me out
My heart is beating louder than a big bass drum."
The phone is already ringing. Who? "Somebody with the Rolling Stones," yells an office mate. Yikes. Hello? Yes -- wait, let me sit down. Okay, go ahead. The guy delivers his pitch. I listen --incredulously. You gotta be kidding. My mouth is probably hanging open. Finally, the voice on the line stops, waiting for a reply. Long pause. Long pause. Instead of an answer, Bill Cosby is all that comes to mind, his classic routine of Noah being called on by The Lord ringing in my head: (in a booming voice) "It's the Lord, Noaaah." Long pause. "Riiiight!!!!" Then later, "Who is this really?!?!"
Right. Who is this really? "Believe me," says Brad Locker from the public relations firm of TBA, located somewhere in Los Angeles, California. Sure. Did Andy Langer put you up to this? Corky? Locker is growing impatient. Again, all that comes to mind is Cosby: (Noah) "How come you want me to do all these weird things?" (The Lord, booming) "I'm going to destroy the world!" (Noah) "Riiiight!!!!" Long pause. "Am I on Candid Camera!?!"
So, let me get this straight. You're going to fly me -- no, no, The Rolling Stones are gonna fly me -- to one of three shows, put me up for the night in a hotel, and then fly me back to Austin?
And what's the catch?
"All you have to do is write a live review of the show you see."
"We've got a huge budget to promote their show at the Texas Motor Speedway, and since it's the only Texas date on the tour, we'd like to try and sell it out."
How many tickets have you sold so far?
What's the capacity there?
And all I have to do is write a "Live Shot?"
I better see if this is okay. Can I call you back?
Great. Oh, and Brad?
You called the right guy.
Let It Bleed
"Well, we all need someone we can bleed on
And if you want to, well you can bleed on me."
Let It Bleed wasn't the first Rolling Stones album I bought when Steve Stone and I started spending our 13-year-old time in Berkeley. It was the second, actually -- or possibly the third, since '78 was the year AM radio couldn't get enough of Some Girls. Whatever the order bought, Let it Bleed was the album that changed my life. I remember bringing the record home, late one Saturday after dinner, and going up to my room to listen to it. For some reason I turned off all the lights, and in the red glow of my turntable, I touched the needle down on the first cut on side one, "Gimme Shelter."
Out of the darkness rose Keith Richard's dark cathedral of riffs, followed by Merry Clayton's foreboding choir-of-Satan intro, and Mick Jagger's testament that he needed shelter from the storm -- right now. Holy Jesus. Maybe my parents shoulda let me watch more television. It was the next song, though, a cover of Robert Johnson's graveyard blues lament, "Love in Vain," that made me an instant convert to the church of the Rolling Stones. All it took was a few minutes of Jagger's forlorn singing -- coupled with Ry Cooder's desolate slide guitar -- and my parent's only child understood loneliness to be universal. And by the time the service ended with "You Can't Always Get What You Want," I'd been creamed on ("Let It Bleed"), acquired nasty habits ("Live With Me"), been gouged and gored ("Monkey Man"), raped and strangled ("Midnight Rambler"), and finally pledged my heart and soul to Richards ("You Got the Silver"). Nothing was ever the same.
After that, every trip to Berkeley brought home another Rolling Stones album -- Exile on Main Street, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, Made in the Shade. In 1980, Emotional Rescue was the first album I was waiting for. It was the first thing Steve handed me after I'd spent the whole summer in Yucatan trying to convince an uncle that the Stones were better than the Beatles. We hated that album at first, but by the following year when Tattoo You was released there was no such thing as a bad Stones album (except Metamorphosis). And no such thing as a bad Stones tour. Not when you'd never seen a show.
Steve cut school to buy tickets for the Stones' 1981 tour. When he walked into fifth period biology late, the class stopped. He walked back to his seat, and just before sitting down, he turned and fanned out 12 bright blue tickets, each emblazoned with portraits of Jagger and Richards from Tattoo You. In the center of each ticket, the band's red tongue 'n' lips logo glistened. A Magic Ticket. I was 16 years old.
"Oh, the storm is threat'ning my very life today
If I don't get some shelter, oh yeah I'm gonna fade away."
At 10am on a warm San Francisco Saturday fall morning, we ran onto the green field at Candlestick Park where the 49ers and Giants play. Thousands of us. They opened the gates, and in poured humanity. I didn't really pay much attention to the crowd -- looked like a huge casting call for Dazed and Confused -- but it didn't take much to figure out this was more than just another concert. This was an event. Some kind of cultural convergence. The gods had come, and the masses turned out for worship. By now, the ritual was old.
Since it was still hours before George Thorogood or J. Geils would start, Steve went to look for some friends. That was the last time I saw him that day. And as the afternoon wore on and people continued to stream into the stadium and onto the field -- the day getting warmer and warmer -- I began to feel more and more like the proverbial lost lamb. Alone. Just me and 80,000 other people. A mob that was growing ugly by late afternoon and long, hot, beer-soaked sets by the openers. I retreated.
One flight, two flights, three flights more, five, six, seven, eight flights more... until I was on the upper deck, sitting in aisle, hunched over the railing, and looking down and around at more people than I could fathom. As captured on 1982's Still Life, the PA was playing Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" when Bill Graham stepped through the curtain, and bellowed what to me were the six most exhilarating words in the language: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones." Of course, the place went nuts.
I don't remember much of that 27-song set, other than the opener, "Under My Thumb," and Wyman, Wood, Richards, and Jagger coming down in a line to the foot of the stage and hammering out the song. "Little T&A" stands out because I'd become such a Richards fanatic, and let's not forget "Let It Bleed," played back-to-back-to-back with "Waiting on a Friend" and "Beast of Burden." Still, it's not the show that's tattooed on my psyche, but the spectacle. The sight of such a huge throng literally rocking this massive concrete coliseum. I felt small and scared.
Later that night, after the many hours it took to get bused out of Candlestick and down to trains for the East Bay, I walked alone up the hill toward my house. I think I was in shock. I couldn't believe I had seen my favorite band -- survived the experience -- and was now returning home. I couldn't really get my mind around all that. But I did feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. And somewhere in my pre-teen brain, I knew intuitively what my father later said about a college degree: They can never take it away from you.
Hand of Fate
"The Hand of Fate is on me now
It picked me up and knocked me down"
Look, it's Johnny Walker.
Margaret Moser turns and looks. "Oh, yeah!" In her typically demure way, she leaps up -- startles several sleepy early-morning travelers -- runs over to Walker, and wraps herself around KLBJ's bread 'n' butter deejay.
Now, he's awake.
Actually, no one in the Austin airport is really awake at 7am, least of all our little group, which includes Walker's friend Gary; Hunter Thompson used to travel with his lawyer, Walker travels with his mortgage broker. The four of us, all wearing leather, are in first class ($1,450 each roundtrip), and pretty happy about it. Vodka, I think, was the first word uttered on that morning's connection to St. Louis, and right before our little quartet falls fast asleep, a toast over mimosas: "To the Rolling Stones."
"...Gonna mess and fool around like we used too," sings Gary, and six hours later we're standing in Newark, New Jersey.
After checking into an airport hotel (already comped, but figure $200 for two rooms, one night), we've got a couple hours of downtime before the limousine (Gary's idea -- $35 divided by four) arrives and takes us across the Jersey turnpike during Friday's rush-hour mess. Traffic is terrible, but our driver weaves drunkenly through the mafiosos in their Cadillacs. Wasn't it a chauffeur who killed Princess Diana?
Radio is all over tonight's concert, the second of two sold-out shows at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford ("The Meadowlands"), which is where we arrive around 6pm. Schedule says Foo Fighters at 8pm, and the Stones from 10pm-12:15am. Right. Let's go get our tickets. Right. They're not there -- Walker's, anyway. Right. Let's go look at the swag, overflowing from officially licensed merchandising booths scattered at the base of the enormous football stadium.
It's like the New York stock exchange down in the booths, and I manage to lose $125 in the pit (two T-shirts, a program, and a mouse pad). Margaret buys one shirt, some stickers, and desperately wants the "RSNY" tee. Gary's got four shirts on under his jacket, and Walker is debating whether to buy a shirt to cover his big bald head, since he was in denial about this being an outdoor venue, in Jersey, in October, and obstinately left his leather at the hotel.
Still waiting on tickets -- and a pass for the Chronicle's "photographer" (Margaret) -- we hang out. Like Charlie Watts once characterized his 25 years with the Stones: "Five years playing, 20 years hanging around." But two hours pass quickly when you're in Jersey (the New York skyline looming in the distance), and people-watching at a Stones show is required. A mean age seems to be about 40-45, with lots of yuppies, students, and an almost total absence of what the Real Estatesman calls people of "color." Lots of Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and Good Fellas extras, but no blacks. Only the scalpers are black.
Finally, Walker's tickets arrive, and since the Foos are about to start, I leave Margaret waiting at the media entrance. See you inside when you're done, I say, hugging her, but I won't see her again 'til the show's over and us four Austinites are making our way through chaos to try and catch a bus back to the Port Authority so we can then take the train back to Newark. Like the aftermath of most Stones shows, getting home will take hours and hours and plenty of stamina. Moser and I finally make it back to the hotel at 4am, stay up 'til almost 6am talking excitedly, and I take the 8:30am flight back to Austin.
In all, it will be a 30-hour trip; a page from the "Touring Is Hell" handbook where superstar bands spend their lives traveling from one city to the next, checking into hotels, and getting to and from gigs. All for those two hours on stage. Those two hours.
"I'm all sixes and sevens and nines"
The Foo Fighters, naturally, were lost on the Stones stage, a 200-foot wide, 85-foot high "lost city in the desert" monstrosity with a 1,610 square-foot jumbotron screen that looked like something out of Stargate. Everything was (turning to) gold, too -- like the giant, gold, futuristic figures holding up spot lights. Totally Vegas. MGM Grand, Circus Circus, eat your heart out. Grohl never had a chance, but then no one was there to see the Foo. And besides, whatever happened to openers like Ike & Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, and Buddy Guy? PA was playing Al Green and James Brown between acts. What's up with the Foos, or worse yet, Matchbox 20 opening for the Stones? It's an oldies crowd, give 'em oldies. Which is just what the headliners did.
Opening with "Satisfaction," and then going right in "It's Only Rock & Roll," the charge was not the songs, it was the band itself. On a night with the temperature down in the fifties, Mick, Keith, and Ronnie were all dressed in full-length coats costing more than most local musicians make in a year: Mick in cream with peach scarves, Ronnie wearing black velvet, and Richards wearing tiger. And if they weren't larger than life on the huge video screen, the sound was.
"Flip the Switch," which opens the new Bridges to Babylon as raw as anything ever recorded by the band, was plenty ornery live, and with another new song, "Out of Control," coming off later like a modern version of "Midnight Rambler" -- long, dark, and nasty -- the Stones should've learned by now that new material is always one of the most interesting facets of their tours. "Anyone Seen My Baby," on the other hand -- the only other new song played -- was probably the reason more of Babylon wasn't glimpsed: It was hard to re-produce the song's studio gimmickry, though Jagger's brief rap with back-up soulman Bernard Fowler might've saved the song had it been longer.
Not surprisingly, it was another of the band's back-up singers, Lisa Fischer, who turned the show instantly. When Richards walked down center stage, playing the opening chords to "Gimme Shelter" with Fowler, Fisher, and Blondie Chaplin coming in on the "oohs," Jagger suddenly became his ol' devil self. Dressed in black leather trenchcoat with a red shirt underneath, he howled the song at Fischer and she howled it right back at him. It was chilling, really, and no more so than the following song, one originally recorded in Dallas in 1937, "Love in Vain."
It was during "Love in Vain" that it registered that I was experiencing another Stones show alone -- with 50,000 New Yorkers. Last I'd seen of Margaret, Mick Jagger was directly over her in the photographer's pit (see sidebar), while Johnny and Gary were a few sections behind me. As with my first Stones show, there was no one with whom to marvel at just how good Mick Jagger was, or how Richards sounded rawer and more ferocious than any album. When the guitarist did his customary two-song set, singing songs he had no business doing -- the exquisite knife-in-the-heart ballad, "All About You," from Emotional Rescue, and the Beatles-like "Wanna Hold" from Undercover -- there was no one there to cream on. No one to tell that this was the best Stones ever.
Sitting down, I stopped to figure out which Stones show this was for me. Let's see, Candlestick in '81, two in Oakland in '89, and three in Texas in '94. Six. No wait, this is... seven. Lucky number seven. Sixteen years ago, at the age of 16, I'd seen my first Stones show. Sixteen years later, at 32, I was seeing my best Stones show. Suddenly I was glad to be alone. Religious experiences are best had alone. And just as I was being gripped by some sort of strange fervor, Mick Jagger brought me back down to earth.
Finished with a priceless version of "Miss You," Jagger looked down at the steam rising from the stage into the cold night. Just then a stage-hand brought him a black, velour coat.
"Is it getting colder up here, or is it just an excuse to put on another coat?" asked Jagger, putting on the coat.
Burying his nose in the coat's plush, white fur collar -- doing his best Liza Minelli, hugging himself and stroking his arms -- Jagger paused. Smiled. Yelled.
"It's just an excuse!!!!"
I laughed. Everybody laughed -- Jagger is rarely that camp anymore. I continued laughing through Richards' set, and probably right up to the moment when Mick Jagger appeared not 20 yards away from me.
Just Want to See His Face
"You don't want to walk and talk about Jesus
You just want to see his face"
My parents, good Catholics that they are (well, my mother anyway), laughed uneasily when I told them that seeing the Rolling Stones that close up was like looking into the face of God. When that bridge extended 140 feet into the middle of the arena floor, and Mick, Keith, Ronnie, Charlie, Darryl Jones, and Chuck Leavell walked onto the 20'x20' satellite stage not 20 yards from me, my jaw did drop. They were so close. Jesus.
Watching Richards play his Fender up close was a thing of sheer poetry. His innate understanding of his instrument, knowing when to hit the riff and let it ring (and the way the band parted to let it sound), was perhaps the most musically pure moment I've ever experienced. The man who gave the world riffs like "Honky Tonk Women," "Start Me Up," "Jumping Jack Flash," and "Brown Sugar" (the show's ending sequence), outplayed his legend, and loomed so very large on that small stage. And Jagger, stern-faced and tough, tearing through leathery, ragged versions of "Little Queenie," "Crazy Mama," and "You Got Me Rockin'," like some angry punk at the Hole in the Wall.
In fact, as I soaked my soul in that 20-minute set, all I could think of was the Hole in the Wall. How seeing this band this close was like seeing them at the Hole -- or Antone's. On this scale, the Stones were just another bar band, and yes, they were the best bar band. I thought of Buick MacKane, Superego, Fastball -- any and every band that ever liked the Rolling Stones -- and how they would have died to see such legends live up to their myths. These weren't just four, fiftysomething millionaires cashing in on another tour, they were four skinny little English blokes who've been playing live music for the better part of four decades. It was quite simply the most amazing musical experience I've ever had. It was where expectation met reality.
Rock & roll is a religion. Live music fans go out into the clubs searching for epiphanies, because music can and does -- on a regular basis -- deliver them. It's impossible to describe, and doesn't always happen at the appointed time and place, but if pursued, it can be a common occurrence. Albums? The music never changes. The opening to "Rocks Off" will, from now until long after we're all dead, always be the same. In an uncertain world, coming home after a tragic day and putting on Sticky Fingers or Let It Bleed could just save your life. Music is a rock to cling to, to celebrate with, and to mourn to. Isn't that what religion is all about?
I was lucky, I did in fact roll a seven -- from the moment I answered my phone right up until I discovered that my first Stones show and my seventh were both played on October 17. The latter will always be the best, but all are memorable (Keith harmonizing on "Far Away Eyes" at the Alamodome, or the torrential downpour at the Bronco Bowl in Dallas on the last tour). Can I promise a good experience at the Texas Motor Speedway? Heavens no; every time it's mentioned Margaret cries "Woodstock" while I grumble "Altamont." It's a huge pasture, come on. But I do know this: The Stones have lots of history in Texas, not the least of which is their kinsman Bobby Keys having been born in Ft. Worth on the same day and year as Keith Richards; they will put on a show for the Republic.
Will their 13th American Tour be their last? Hard to say, but just how many opportunities is one afforded to see the Rolling Stones? Will it be your lucky number seven?
Wouldn't you like it to be?
The Rolling Stones, along with openers The Smashing Pumpkins, Dave Matthews, and Matchbox 20, play the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth this Saturday, November 1. Since the writing of this story, the Speedway has been re-configured for 65,000 instead of 120,000, and all seats are now reserved. Plenty of tickets still remain (20K) and are available through TicketMaster. If you already purchased general admission tickets for the show, they will be exchanged at the venue for reserved seats. Doors open at noon, show starts 4pm.