Rolling Stones Roll On: A Scare in Boston; Success in Toronto; A Slip in NY - Rolling Stone
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The Stones Roll On: A Scare in Boston; Success in Toronto; a Slip in NY

Shenanigans aside, the Rolling Stones bring their powerful road show to North America

Rolling Stone Keith RichardsRolling Stone Keith Richards

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones backstage on December 23rd, 1974.

Graham Wiltshire/Redferns

New York — The scariest moment came in Boston, when overzealous fans grabbed the writhing, confetti-spitting dragon that appears at the end of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” yanking its head off. Jagger and percussionist Ollie Brown lost their grip on the head as it skittered across the stage, and the flying skull bumped Billy Preston into the front row seats. But the crowd was in good humor (more carnivorous sorts would have eliminated his solo spot) and tossed Preston back up.

This has been the sort of tour where beds are filled with ice cubes, mattresses soaked with beer (and the covers replaced so that an unsuspecting victim will come up soggy rather than snoozing) and a lady’s brown plastic handbag stuffed with a hamburger (everything on it, emphasis on the ketchup). In Toronto, Jagger even had to borrow a pair of green Henri Bendel bikini underwear after his jockstrap fell apart from the strain of touring. Similarly, the Stones have spent their off moments sightseeing everywhere from the Alamo to Niagara Falls. And, based on the two Toronto shows, the last stop before the six-show Stones-produced big deal of New York, they deserved every break they could get.

On both nights, the atmosphere at the Maple Leaf Stadium in Toronto had more in common with a steambath than a hockey rink. The first show reflected the strain, but never dropped below a level of competence; the second was nearly perfect. Charlie Watts kept his incredible pulse beat going without working up a sweat and Keith Richards seemed as inspired as he ever has been. It’s possible that the chief musical news of this tour is Richards’ return to onstage prominence. Working with Ron Wood hasn’t necessarily improved his style so much as it’s awakened his competitive instinct, but Richards will never play better than he did that night in Toronto. His licks on “Rip This Joint,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and especially “Tumbling Dice” were searing, simple, supple and affecting. When he stepped out to sing “Happy” with a little-boy cock of his head, you understood once more just how important he is to this group.

And how important Ron Wood has quickly become. Bill Wyman summed it up a few days later in New York. “I loved Mick Taylor for his beauty. He was technically really great. But he was shy, maybe like Charlie and I. Mick wasn’t so funky, but he’s led us onto other things.

“Woody’s a bit like Keith; he takes us back. He’s not such a fantastic musician, perhaps, but he’s more fun — got more personality.”

Wyman’s claims were true in Toronto. Spotting an old drinking pal backstage, he snatched him up, careening through the dressing and tuning rooms, oblivious to Charlie Watts’ jumpy leer — the pal happened to be a reporter — wisecracking all the way. “Let’s go watch Mick put on his makeup, that’s always good for a laugh.” And, beer in hand, an inevitable cigarette perched in his yapping jaw, he raced down the halls like a kid on a vacation. But the makeup man hadn’t arrived yet, although Mick’s four compacts, half-dozen lipsticks, tweezers, eyebrow pencils and other makeup were arrayed on the vanity table in the dressing room. It was back to the tuning room, to string one of the 12 guitars he and Richards carry to each gig.

“What am I doing!” Wood yelped in glee. “I’m with these blokes till August 14th, then I go straight out with the Faces, then with these guys again. Then I have a decision to make!” He cackled with edgy hysteria. Wood really doesn’t know how long he’ll be a Stone — and either choice means hurting friends.

Consider the way he joined in the first place. “We were looking around and finally Woody said, ‘I’ll do it if you like,'” Mick Jagger explained. “So we said all right.”

“Where it changed,” Woody said later, “they were looking around and looking around and finally said, ‘Look, we aren’t gonna do the tour if you don’t do it.” So I said, well, it’s serious then, is it? I’d known all along that I’d like to do it, but I hadn’t dared to think about it too long. Same as they hadn’t, because they like our band as much as we like theirs. And I always think of the Faces before I do anything. But I thought, well, they can’t blame me, really.”

Onstage, Wood is as much Jagger’s foil as Keith’s. Jagger kicks, pokes and prods him, yanking him across the stage like a puppet, pretending to attack him savagely. How come you pick on him so much? I asked Jagger. “Welllllll, he picks on me, you know . . . We’re just doing this sort of David [Bowie] and Mick Ronson routine.”

Wood says he enjoys the whole thing. “I think Mick’s been dying to get his hands on another guitarist,” he noted with an air of comic confidentiality. “He came to me and said, ‘If I come and attack you . . . you don’t mind, do you?’ He really loves to make it look real.

“In Montauk, when we were rehearsing, we’d be sitting there playing and he’d suddenly come up and kick me. And he tried it on Charlie’s drums — once he never tried it again. Charlie did a mild flipout, said, ‘Listen I don’t unplug your mike lead, so don’t upset my drums. And while we’re at it, don’t keep buggin’ Ronnie.'”

The four trucks carrying the special gigantic mechanical stage arrived at Madison Square Garden from upstate Newburgh, where the platform had been used for rehearsals in an airplane hangar at the old military airfield there. Construction began at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 18th, and proceeded for the next 48 hours. On Friday morning at eight, the light, rigging and equipment trucks arrived. Work began in earnest to get ready for the Garden party.

The hall was completely decked out by 6:30 p.m. Saturday, when dress rehearsal was due to start. Strings of blue Christmas tree bulbs were cast across the Garden ceiling, where they winked on and off not so much like fireflies as a used car lot or carnival midway; 350 ten-foot leaves made of white gauze with silver foil trim (like the back of the stage petals) were suspended randomly from the roof. With the conical tent covering the band’s equipment, the hydraulically powered petals, which would fold down to reveal the Stones and form the six-pointed star stage, gave the empty arena the general appearance of an Apollo launch, an impression augmented by the headsets of the 100-odd crew members.

Manager Peter Rudge paced the Garden floor nervously; his sudden jumpiness was surprising. In Toronto, he had been extraordinarily open, even letting a reporter sit in while he made a long, wise-cracking mid-afternoon telephone call to his New York office. “Tell him,” he told one of his assistants about a complaining promoter, “that if he doesn’t knock it off, he’ll never get another Golden Earring date,” a reference to the middle-level Dutch band Rudge also manages (as he does Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Who).

Later he offered an extensive overview of their finances. “Expenses are up 350% over 1972,” he explained. “That’s for a smaller touring party but a much bigger production. We’re getting from 60 to 70 to 80% of the gate, depending on costs.” The cost percentage breakdown was about 30% for taxes (52% in Toronto and the Canadian revenuers weren’t taking any foreign checks; they wanted cash), 20% for legal expenses, which includes hotels, the hall rent and slices for the various co-promoters (Bill Graham and the like), and 30% for other costs, which include travel, cartage for stages and equipment, salaries and other incidentals like Charlie Watts’ phone bill. That last expense must be enormous by now if Bill Wyman’s story that a homesick Watts spends at least an hour and a half on the phone to his wife (who’ll join him in Los Angeles) is true.

Based on an $11 million gross (which comes well within reason), the Stones will pay more than three million in taxes on this tour. The city of Cleveland alone received $25,000 for the single show there, which grossed $840,000 from 82,000 patrons. In the one show for which we were able to obtain definite gross information, the Milwaukee Stadium date, which packed in 54,000, the gross was $540,000; the Stones received 61.5%, about $350,000. The six Garden dates — 19,500 customers at an average of better than $10 a head — will gross in the neighborhood of $1,200,000.

Twenty percent of $11 million is going to make Mick Jagger’s statement to one journalist that “about all I’ll end up with is a white suit and $1000” seem a little silly. Dividing the profits five ways (with a full share to each of the four core members and a half share to Billy Preston and Wood — who, Rudge says “have incentives; they deserve ’em”), means that Jagger, Watts, Richards and Wyman will each net about $450,000 for the tour, Wood and Preston about $225,000. (Percussionist Ollie Brown is apparently on straight salary.) Assuming 50% income taxes, which is reasonable, that leaves a six-figure net per man, a quarter of a million per Stone. Yet, as anyone who has seen Jagger leap about at top speed for two-and-a-half hours in temperatures approaching 100° will acknowledge, he earns it. So do they all.

It was a bit past 7:00 p.m. on Saturday. Jagger circled aimlessly on the arena floor, dressed casually in jeans, white socks, black loafers and a belted tour jacket which, like many of his stage costumes, has a vaguely Oriental look and jibes with his recently begun study of karate. Jagger is in remarkable physical condition, and his movements onstage reflect the reason why. Many of them — particularly those which find him lifting one leg, storklike, for power-kick bursts — are drawn directly from the first kata of karate.

By 9:30, with the fine line of tension which characterizes even informal Stones performances amplified by the Garden’s union crew verging on double overtime, the band finally took the stage for rehearsal. Bill Wyman was somewhere else in the hall, but the band began to play with Keith on bass, Ronnie holding down the guitar by himself.

The song began with the pulse beat which characterizes so many Stones songs. Lost in idle reverie, presuming that at dress rehearsal the group would run through the entire show, I thought for just a moment that they were doing “Honky Tonk Women.” Suddenly the reality registered: That beat was particular and unmistakable. For the first time since Altamont, the Rolling Stones were playing “Sympathy for the Devil” in a remotely public appearance. Notions of hubris and violence reigned.

Relief came from the wings. The more than 100 steel drummers the Stones had retained for its opening act circled the stage, banging and dancing while Jagger moved among them, beer in hand, sunglasses perched atop his head, as casual as a man strolling in the park on Sunday. With their sublime arrogance, the Stones had found a way to do the one song presumably denied them, and to defuse it in the process.

The rehearsal dwindled. The Stones ran through “Cherry Oh Baby,” a reggae number they’d discovered in Jamaica, “Honky Tonk” — at last — and “All Down the Line.” The only problem was that the stage petals refused to drop. A problem in the hydraulic jacks stalled the music for a half-hour. At 11:45, the word came: The rehearsal was over.

The show opened Sunday night without the hanging leaves, which had been removed because they were considered ineffective, and because it was too much of a temptation to try to touch them from the balconies. At 8:35 the steel band began playing at the foot of the stage, 45 minutes after roving knots of drummers had begun circling the hall. At 9:15 they stopped, and the crowd booed when they started again. Four minutes later, the first of the cheers went up as those with line-of-sight seats spotted movement under the tent. It was an hour and 19 minutes after the scheduled start; the guitars had been plugged in and it was discovered that, according to one observer, “they were picking up every radio and television station in the city.” New guitars — Wood and Richards take six apiece to each gig — had to be brought to the Garden. At 9:30 came the inevitable chant — “We want the Stones,” as angry and petulant as the look on Mick’s mug — but it was not to be rewarded for another three minutes.

Then the tent went up, the petals dropped (smoothly and completely this time), and “Honky Tonk Women” began. But by the time they’d finished “All Down the Line,” the second song, it was clear that something was drastically amiss.

The bass was far too loud, and so was Jagger’s voice. In some parts of the hall, Preston’s keyboards drowned the guitars; in others, they couldn’t be heard at all. Worse, Jagger seemed uncomfortable with the new stage, which looked a lot larger than the regular one. He didn’t really know what to do with the space, and the wireless microphone which had given him such increased mobility in the other shows, couldn’t be used. “Happy” and “Tumbling Dice” sounded fit for a roller rink. It was awful — still, parts were sublime as Watts held it together and Richards riffed wildly, pulling Wood in from solos that suddenly seemed to reveal just what Mick Taylor’s advantages were.

After “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the band didn’t leave the stage, even though the houselights were up and the crowd recognized that something special was going on. As Richards moved to bass and Wyman to guitar, the first throbbing note of “Sympathy” split the air. A firecracker, tossed from the crowd, erupted a foot from the stage.

From the wings a mystery guitarist appeared. In drape coat and a cap, with a big auburn beard, he at first seemed to be John Lennon with Clairol. Then the shouts of recognition went up. It was Eric Clapton — so besmirched with makeup that he was virtually unrecognizable even through binoculars. If the set had been a drag — easily the worst of the tour, though it was later learned that one of Wood’s amps had blown — this made up for it.

Finally, Wood descended on the elevator from which the 15-foot cock and the dragon appear, played through the resultant feedback and rose again with Jagger leering beside him. As the petals folded and the music concluded, it was Richards, though, who raced to the gap and waved goodbye.

The group adjourned to Atlantic director of artist development Earl McGrath’s apartment, overlooking Carnegie Hall. Prince Rupert Lowenstein had planned a spaghetti dinner for 20 but it wound up a revel for 80. Together with Clapton the band jammed in the McGraths’ bedroom until 7:30 Monday morning, causing Clapton to miss a singles session slated for 11:00 a.m.

The critical reception from New York’s daily press was wary, as though the reviewers couldn’t quite believe it. John Rockwell, in a 1500-word New York Times essay, spent his time avoiding the New York performance by enumerating the differences between it and the road shows. Ernest LeoGrande of the Daily News called the Stones “the Rolls-Royce of rock & roll,” but allowed that “the mechanics of the induced excitement showed through at times.” Only the Post’s Jan Hodenfield, always the most waspish of the lot, went all the way. Though they were “always a good little rock & roll band,” he suggested that “perhaps even the Rolling Stones have to move on.”

The Stones reportedly were not satisfied. McGrath claims otherwise, but Mick and Keith supposedly slipped out to check over the Garden’s sound system. At any rate, someone adjusted something, because Monday’s show was a vast improvement musically, even featuring the public debut of “Cherry Oh Baby.” Jagger rode the stage with much more ease, working off the tension between Richards and Wood’s taut, suddenly audible riffs. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” one of the tour’s consistent touchstones, was mesmerizing, the pure, breathtaking solos breaking over the waves of rhythm. The rockers had their punch back, particularly on “Tumbling Dice,” the tour’s centerpiece. And if Monday was still a bit calculated, Tuesday was inspired — although Richards was so exhausted — he’d had virtually no sleep for 48 hours — that he declined to sing “Happy” and slumped back to the hotel without playing on “Sympathy.”

This has been the kind of tour that survives its catastrophies. “All of a sudden Keith was gone,” Wood told a visiting Al Kooper back at the hotel, “Charlie leaned over and said, ‘Set the beat’ — and I couldn’t even remember the fucking thing! But I just tried to remember the record, and it went all right.”

As Bill Wyman put it: “We’ve settled into it now. Every night we learn something new.”

This is a story from the July 31, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.


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