The Stones Put the Weight on Mick and He Carried It

Stones leader Mick Jagger breaks loose onstage in California

December 13, 1969
Rolling Stones Mick Jagger Madison Square Garden New York City
Mick Jagger performs onstage at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York on November 28, 1969.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

OAKLAND, California—We flooded into the Oakland Coliseum in 1969 with memories of the Cow Palace in 1966 – but this time there weren't any twelve-year-old kids kicking over the seats and wetting their pants. The Sixties are over – the first thing that hit you when the Stones came out on stage was the evidence of the years in Mick Jagger's face. It seemed to have fallen into place for good. His features were no longer supple and loose; they were hard and thick, like the marble ridges of a statue. But that's a long way from the House of Wax. He still looked beautiful.

Jagger was dressed right out of Sympathy for the Devil, but for me the costume didn't take hold until near the end of the show, when it no longer seemed like a costume. Black tight pants with silver studs up the side; a black blouse with a beige horseshoe on it, special astrology for the warlock's tour; an Uncle Sam hat out of Ginsberg; and a red scarf that might have been ten feet long. Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, even Mick Taylor, they all looked like Rolling Stones; but they weren't stepping out. They put the weight on Mick, and he was carrying it. The band was nervous, and it wasn't all that clear whether or not they were going to make it this time.

Listen to the audience on the live cuts from Out of Our Heads or December's Children or to Got Live If You Want It! There must have been a time when the Stones played to crowds that didn't rise up screaming the moment they hit the stage, kids possessed with that Stones' demon that made them charge the bandstand with every new song, keeping up the clamor until the Stones had played their last encore and left for good—but if there was such a time it's been a long, long while. Those times are here again, and both the Rolling Stones and the audience had to take this night and make a great show out of it regardless.

The screams don't come so easy any more. The flashing excitement of simply looking at the Stones is displaced. Dylan doesn't tour, the Beatles don't tour, and it's been three years since any of us have seen Mick Jagger. So we had to look at him to make sure he was really there. The giant TV screen up above the stage held images that in an odd way were more real than the show itself— somehow it made more sense to see a picture of Mick Jagger than to see Mick Jagger himself. We were all quite out of time.

"So happy to be here, and all that bullshit," said Mick, after the opening shot, a metal-hard "Jumping Jack Flash." He was clearly pissed that the crowd had clapped with merely uncertain enthusiasm for both his entry and for his first vocal. He'd danced stiffly on that first number, feeling out the stage, but the audience had been feeling out Mick. It was as if there were complaints that this band had been, you know, "over-hyped."

Things had not gone smoothly during the first set, some hours before. Richards' amp had blown, and he'd tossed his see-through plexiglass guitar into the air and walked off stage. The Stones had been forty-five minutes late – not, as Jagger told the audience, because no one came to pick them up at the airport, but because Tina Turner had put on such a dynamite show the band hadn't wanted to follow her too quickly. Then in the middle of "Satisfaction" Bill Graham and the tour manager got into a pushing and shoving match right on stage. A hassle all around. That was what some people talked about when they left the first show – that and the bad sound.

It was 2:30, the Stones had been on for ten minutes, and while Jagger pranced with growing enthusiasm and Richards stung the hardest notes from his guitar, the sound system booming in perfect balance, the audience was still warming up. "Oh, Carol" – "Oh, groovy, Chuck Berry, hmmmmmmmmm . . ." "Sympathy for the Devil" somehow slipped past. We were, I think, judging the music, not responding to it, and this too must have been new to the Stones. Years ago we'd just groove with the loud hum of the band and the ranging dark cheer of the crowd into one giant instrument: THE STONES! And us. Now we heard the guitar solos.

Mick sneered at the audience. "Since you're all so quiet tonight . . . Since you're all sitting down, well then, we'll sit down too." He and Keith Richard squatted down for two slow southern blues: "Prodigal Son" from the last album and a new one, "Gotta Move." They were a lot of fun. Keith played a very classy old steel guitar, and Mick found the night's best moment up till then when he let out with a soft, low Robert Johnson moan – very moving, very intense – while he mugged at the audience and rolled his big eyeballs.

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There was a queer distance between Mick and the Stones – this devastating band and their devouring leader – and the audience. It'd be easiest to think the reason was the massive Oakland Coliseum, but it was more than that. We've grown up with the Stones, and we are more likely closer to where they are than we were four or five years ago – we have influenced them too – but somehow this closeness of spirit increased the distance between the Stones as performers and ourselves as the audience. Or perhaps it was another incident that brought the new feel of the concert home. I walked upstairs to the men's room between acts, and sitting on the can I noticed two cats blowing each other in the next stall. Somehow I can't imagine that having happened at the Cow Palace in 1966. The transfiguration of wet pants has come – She blew my nose, and then she blew my mind . . . closer and farther away. Mick kept trying to catch it.

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