I had the good luck to see the Rolling Stones show at the Fabulous Forum, with 18,000 people ushered by high-school football players in orange rayon togas. The arena was swirling: strings of blinking, multicolored lights were hung all over. It looked like Shanghai. The audience flickered with reflected light and colors. A gauze curtain, lit in purple, hung over a stage with star-shaped points upright like closed flower petals.
With the first notes of “Honky Tonk Women,” the petals lowered and we saw Mick Jagger hanging on the forward tip of the star. He was instantly dancing and was constantly moving from then on, whether he was singing or not. He is a nearly perfect showman. It was impossible to take your eyes off of him. That is presence.
At the end of the first song I was wiped out. You could detect the Stones working with each other onstage — glances, moves, kicks, cues — realizing they were into one of their hottest sets, determined to keep it going. At the end of each number I was screaming at the person in the next seat: “We’re seeing the best show of the tour!”
Within the wall of lights glowed a bank of amplifiers like a campfire around which shadows were whipping out “Tumbling Dice,” “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” or “Rip This Joint” in a classic rock formation of three guitarists, a singer, a piano with drums in back, hitting a deep-down groove, the rock & roll beat. This could be 1966, Mick Jagger twirling his sports coat as if he might throw it, teasing and exciting the crowd.
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There are no two ways about it in rock & roll — either you is or you ain’t. They still is. They will probably never not be.
Then the show slowed for a few songs: “Wild Horses” — Mick and Keith soloing together, bathed in red lights; “Fingerprint File” — Mick offering a petite ballet, curling up to sleep at its conclusion, this time swathed in blue; and “Angie” — wherein Keith’s guitar weeps with the improvisations.
Mick Jagger is the Queen of the Hop. He is also absolutely controlled and calculating — as in the nightly dousing, with buckets of water, of himself and the audience. It is a gesture designed to selfdeprecate and thus endear the audience to a showman of the highest, rarest order.
Yet it is Keith Richard who clinches the performance. He is proof that older age — whether of performer or audience — has nothing to do with it. All it really means is more experience and greater strength. Jagger runs the performance — always watching from the corners of his eyes, coaxing, building and leading — but it is Keith’s guitar that is the key to the Stones sound. The band’s deepest strength is the rhythm section and Keith runs it; in fact, everyone onstage, except Mick — up to seven men — is the rhythm section. (A nod of the hat to dour-faced Ian Stewart, the piano player without publicity, a true master of funk and the nasty rock & roll.)
Keith is the musical heart of the band. Without him, there would be nothing. It is the power of his guitar and his beat that, on this tour, make a horn section usually unnecessary. It’s a guitarists’ band; the percussion suits it better than a full-time brass section.
On the opening in L.A. they were disappointing; I thought brass would have made the difference — and it might have — particularly for my friends back East who saw the Madison Square Garden shows or other middling performances. How disappointing to find that the greatest are often merely great.
But interesting things happened on Friday night in L.A. They did a threehour show — a long one by anyone’s standards. Billy Preston was an ideal second act coming from within the group, picking up the audience with hard-porn R&B licks and tricks, almost making you forget the Stones. So toward the end of Preston’s second and final number, Jagger reemerged onstage (from which he had subtly retired when Preston began), dancing wildly around the rim of the stage, entirely circling it, playing to the whole audience. Then he circled Billy Preston and engaged him in 16 bars of a disco bump and overtly intimate grind.
As if that didn’t bring the show reeling back to Mick, suddenly he was on a trapeze, like Peter Pan, flying over the first 50 rows and back to the stage. Preston was superb but Jagger took no chances. It was his show, and the trapeze was followed by “Brown Sugar,” and the Stones were back on top, rocking like mad. They were in a groove and their show got better every minute. You could watch them realize this onstage: Everything was working.
On “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” there was a long guitar break and then a sax player, Trevor Lawrence, appeared to join the solo. The guttural, pure instrumental voice was stunning. Ron Wood’s weakness on solo runs was embarrassingly displayed — it was one of only four mistakes I counted at that performance. This is a so-called sloppy band — though in fact, they are one of the tightest in the world — and four mistakes in toto is as perfect a night as anyone ever gets.
Next came a set of songs that I call the Danger Suite. By this time, the crack of cherry bombs had doubled the intensity, reminding one of the possibility of violence that has always charged a Rolling Stones concert with tension and catharsis. The Danger Suite begins with “Midnight Rambler,” moves to “Street Fighting Man,” returns to rock frenzy with “Jumpin” Jack Flash” and closes with their encore, “Sympathy for the Devil.” Three more horn players (Jesse Ed Davis, Bobby Keys, Steve Madeo) emerged for this last part of the show and drove the rhythm section to a peak that must have lasted a half-hour or more.
“Midnight Rambler” is a show-stopper under any circumstances. Its very texture is tension. There were six different tempos in the live performance of this song. On some nights they have used the long guitar sections for riffing and ad-libs, but this night “Rambler” was controlled, frightening in its precision, not an extra bar or slip in it, every note honed to the unceasing buildup.
This ritual dance on the theme of murder is shaking. It is followed by the nostalgia and excitement of the themes called forth by the blunt, similarly violent mood of “Street Fighting Man.” The collective effect is one of mystery and abandon. But I like it. I like it. I like it. I like it. I like it — only rock & roll. I like it. Only rock & roll — But I like it. I like it….
“Sympathy for the Devil” — though not among the finest of their songs — is a finale that cannot be denied. There is something about it like a firestorm: the introduction of evil and the simplicity of the lines, “Just as every cop is a criminal, and every sinner a saint,” … Gimme shelter, indeed, oh please. …
In San Francisco, where I saw two more shows, Greil Marcus, author of Mystery Train, reminded me of something I had said to him at the time we were assembling our coverage of the Altamont concert. (Which was five-and-a-half years ago. It is time to remove the curse of Altamont from this group, from rock & roll itself, from ourselves.) I had pointed out that the victim was snuffed as the band played “Under My Thumb,” not, as everyone still believes, during “Sympathy for the Devil.” Apparently, I said it doesn’t matter; no one will ever think that it didn’t happen during “Sympathy”; even if it didn’t happen during that song, it did. And so, this last song in the show, in the Danger Suite, calls forth the reality of an actual, remembered, distinct death.
In this year’s performances of “Sympathy,” in L.A. at least, the blatant evil of the piece was diminished by the deliberately considered addition of other elements, particularly the several dozen Latin drummersand dancers who circled the stage, with Jagger joining in, dressed in all types of everyday outrageous funk, giving the whole stage and song — as Jagger was playing call-and-response with the wild-eyed audience, screaming high-pitched “wooo-wooo”s back and forth, making the hall resonate with wild, electrifying, haunting screams — the partial ambience of a Caribbean Mardi Gras dance, as if in blissful ignorance of the most popularly frightening of all of the Stones strains.
At the end I was convinced that I had seen not only the best show of this tour but possibly the best Stones concert ever. They are better as a band in 1975 than at any previous time. That’s a conceited claim, stated in a conceited fashion, but I think it’s true. I was raving about it for days afterward to anyone who would listen.