‘I get to the top/I’m too tired to rock,” sang Mick Jagger in front of seven sold-out houses — half a million fans — as the Rolling Stones‘ 1981 tour hit the West Coast. And while that line from Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” is a charge many cynics have leveled at the band in recent years, the Stones were anything but weary on their western swing. By all accounts the most professional and calmest of the band’s career, the tour has also produced some of the best music the Stones have played onstage in some time – fiery, two-hour sets that belied early tour reports of shaky performances and, in Los Angeles at least, blew away the memory of some dull, uninspired shows three years ago.
The West Coast trek — which included one show in San Diego and two each in Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco — was not without incident, however. At the second show in Seattle, on October 15th, a sixteen-year-old girl, Pamela Lynn Melville, died of massive head and back injuries after falling fifty feet from an outside stadium ramp onto the Seattle Kingdome parking lot. At the same show, another woman was arrested when guards outside the stadium overheard her threatening Jagger; she was later released, and no charges were filed.
But for the most part, the tour, coordinated by San Francisco promoter Bill Graham, was running like a well-oiled machine. “Even the weather has been great to us,” bassist Bill Wyman said enthusiastically the day after the second San Francisco show, as a blanket of fog that had been noticeably absent during the Stones shows enveloped the city. “Everywhere we go, it clears up just in time for the shows – even in Boulder, where it rained until eleven o’clock the day of the concert. Somebody up there likes us.”
Wyman said the Stones tinkered with their set after the initial Philadelphia shows, and by the time they hit San Diego, on October 7th, the twenty-six-song program was fixed. “The Philadelphia shows kind of ironed out a couple of duff songs,” he explained. “We dropped things like Bo Diddley’s ‘Mona’ and ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’ and ‘Tops,’ because they weren’t right for the outdoor stages.
“It was conscious thinking that we should put in some old, lesser-known things – album tracks that the young kids who are coming into the shows might not know. We wanted them to be able to hear some of the things we did in the Sixties.” He laughed. “Sounds like a long time ago, doesn’t it? ‘Back in the Sixties . . . ‘”
Wyman is so conscious of the older material’s age, in part, because so many of the fans at these shows are young teens. “It always surprises us when this happens,” he said. “The audience is still expanding – we have fourteen- and fifteen- and sixteen-year-old kids down there in the audience and out in front of the hotel.”
(Wyman’s assessment was borne out by a sampling of fans at the second show at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, on October 11th. “I’ve been into the Stones as long as I can remember,” said one eighteen-year-old. “I go back with them a long way.” Just how long? “Some Girls – man, that brings back some memories.”)
While the Stones have been whipping up a surprising amount of excitement onstage, offstage the tour is calm and professional, despite clumps of fans in every hotel lobby and a virtual monopoly on the gossip channels of every town the band touches. “The more times you do it, the more professional it gets,” said Wyman. “And Bill Graham is a lot more controlled and calm than [former tour manager] Peter Rudge, who used to go over the top quite regularly. The security on this tour has worked with us many times; they are on top of it. The road crews, the sound people — a lot of them have worked with us before. It gets better all the time – even the hotel rooms. They’re actually letting us stay in the same hotels as before, but letting us have really nice rooms because we didn’t smash ’em up last tour.
“It’s well organized,” he continued. “Everybody sticks to their own job and doesn’t override anybody else.” True, said one crew member, adding that “the band stays in its own little area all the time and never comes out to mingle. And Mick – nobody talks to Mick.”
Apparently, no one rides with Mick, either. Parked next to the stage in San Francisco were two rented vans and one limousine; immediately after the shows, Jagger hopped into the limo and the other band members split up into the vans. According to Wyman, the vans are one way the group is trying to cut costs this time around. “We’ve laid off the limousine bit,” he said. But on the whole, Wyman added, the tour is expensive.
Even so, it doesn’t look as if the Stones will go away with empty pockets. For the first thirteen dates on the tour, the band grossed more than $15 million in ticket sales. With nine more weeks of dates yet to go, and shows being added all the time, previous reports of a $39 million gross seem low, if anything. In addition, a similar amount of money is being made on the sale of merchandise. Wyman, however, called such figures misleading.
“The figures you and I hear are out the window,” he said. “It’s profitable, yes, and it helps to sell the record, but it’s not like anything you would imagine. You don’t take the gross and divide by five; if you divided by 500, you might be nearer.” (Bill Graham, according to one report, will take forty percent of the gross.)
In Los Angeles, the shows were opened by the J. Geils Band and George Thorogood and the Destroyers — both of whom were well received — and by the less fortunate Prince. The day’s most adventurous performer and the one closest to the Stones’ early aura of sexual outrageousness, Prince was pelted with soft-drink cups and an occasional shoe from the moment he walked onstage, the crowd at the front apparently paying more attention to his trench coat and black bikini than his music, a five-song set of the hardest rock of the day. While pockets of the crowd clapped along, and most at least paid attention, the vocal minority was persistent enough for Graham to take the stage after the second L.A. show and berate the audience for throwing debris. When one fan threw something at Graham, the promoter barked, “I see you, asshole!” and had the kid dragged onstage and thrown out.
By Seattle, Prince’s stint with the tour had ended, and the shows slimmed down to the Stones-J. Geils-Thorogood lineup. That was the slate through San Francisco, where the two Candlestick Park shows – before curiously quiet crowds – drew the largest paid audiences in Bay Area rock history. (One local rock audience had been bigger, but it was for a free concert: the Stones’ disastrous 1969 show at the Altamont Speedway, which drew about 350,000 people, four of whom died.)
In both San Francisco and Los Angeles, rumors of possible club appearances were rampant, and every time the band had a night off, every conceivable club drew hordes of fans. In Los Angeles, Stones followers descended on Thorogood’s show at the Country Club, where Stones backup keyboardist Ian Stewart played but nobody else showed; in San Francisco, a band called Tattoo caused a stampede for tickets when it decided to play the Mabuhay Gardens just before the Stones came to town. In every city, club owners found themselves beneficiaries of reports that the Stones had, after all, said they wanted to play small clubs.
But with all the attention focused their way, can the band really do any small shows? “When we started, we really thought we could do a bunch of clubs,” said Wyman. “Our idea was to just go into a town, go to a club and watch the blues band that was onstage – Muddy Waters or Junior Wells or Buddy Guy or whoever – and then get onstage for twenty minutes. But when we got to Chicago, they told us, ‘You can’t go to the Checkerboard tonight and do that – there are three TV stations there, two radio stations and about a thousand kids.’
“The second problem is that you can’t just go onstage and jam for fun for twenty minutes. If we’d done the show tonight, for instance [a widely rumored date at Bill Graham’s Old Waldorf club, in San Francisco], there would have been 600 people there expecting a Rolling Stones show. They don’t want to hear us play old blues songs for fun — they want ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘All Down the Line’ and on and on and on. So realizing we’d have to do that, Mick said, ‘Well, I just did two shows, my voice is bad, I’m tired, I could really do with the day off. I don’t want to fuck my voice up tonight and then not have a voice in Orlando. How do you feel?’ I don’t damage my fingers playing bass, so I wouldn’t mind doing it. But after the show, Keith felt really bad; he had a massage. Woody? Gone asleep. Charlie? He was probably bashing around on his drums somewhere. We ended up saying, ‘Well, let’s have a day off.’ And it wasn’t like being lazy — it’s just thinking about the next important gig.”
After a swing through the South, the Stones were scheduled to hit the New York City area for three shows at New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne Arena (November 5th, 6th and 7th) and two at Madison Square Garden (November 12th and 13th). The band spent half a million dollars to hire an independent auditing firm to help with the distribution of tickets. Employing a sophisticated process not unlike the kind used for direct mailings by firms like Time Inc. and the American Express Company, the auditors determined how many potential Stones fans inhabited each ZIP-code area, and the tickets were allocated accordingly.
Though the five shows could accommodate only about 100,000 fans, more than 4 million pieces of mail were received within fifty-six hours of the announcement of the concerts. The U.S. Postal Service was forced to hire 125 part-time employees to deal with the barrage.
This story is from the November 26th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.