The Rolling Stones are playing in Orlando tomorrow (Friday, June 12). I love the Stones, they were the first rock band that I really got into, but I never had any inclination to go see them live again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it will be a really great spectacle (I hesitate to use the word “concert,” because Rolling Stones shows have been more spectacle than concerts for years now), but I have seen them once, I don’t need to see them again. For one thing, I’m just not into paying top dollar to see 70 something year olds play music, but for another, I have no real desire to deal with that many people in one place unless it’s really something special. The one time I did get to see them, it was indeed something special.
I saw the Stones on the Steel Wheels Tour in 1989, playing the football stadium in Clemson, SC, and it was absolutely packed (So that means 70, 80K). My friend and later college roommate Tommy and I camped out overnight outside of the venerable (and by venerable I mean “absolute dump”) Greenville Memorial Auditorium to score tickets, paying what was then a kings ransom of $45 (45!) to sit a few rooms from the top of the stadium.
Even though we camped out, I remember that we were still pretty far back in line, and we were worried that we weren’t going to actually get tickets. Then, for reasons I still haven’t quite figured out, the line in front of us started to move, slowly at first, but soon it was a full gallop sprint. We were kind of slow getting up and moving, which was good for us, because all these people ended up doing was running in a circle around the building and losing their place in line. Some how, some way, the rumor had started that the tickets were going to be sold at a different window, and literally hundreds and hundreds of people ran themselves into a place at the back of the line. And I’ll always thank them, because I’m pretty sure more than a few of them walked away empty-handed the next day.
Fast forward then to November 29, 1989, as we begin the climb to our seats. If you’ve been to a football game at Clemson’s stadium and have sat in the upper deck, you’ll know that it is a steep climb. The deck angles basically straight up, so making that climb is more than a little daunting when your ticket is row “Double Letter.” The first thing we noticed on our climb is that our section was stage left, and by “stage left” I mean so far to the left of the stage that the only time we saw drummer Charlie Watts was at the end when he walked to the front of the stage to wave goodbye to the crowd. The other thing was how big the stage was. Where we were eventually sitting was pretty much eye level with the top of the stage setup, which (I may be misremembering this but it sticks in my mind) had warning lights on the top to warn low-lying aircraft.
Living Color opened the show, and I’m sure they were good but we didn’t make it into the stadium in time to see much of their set, but I do remember how good they sounded on our trek into the stadium. You know how at a lot of outdoor shows the sound is pretty terrible and actually gets worse the closer you get to the stage? Not at a Stones show, my friends. The sound setup was like nothing I’ve ever heard since, and it sounded like the band were playing in your living room no matter where you were within about a 1/2 mile radius of the stage.
The Stones kicked things off with classic track/eventual Windows 95 theme song Start Me Up, which was memorable from out vantage points because Keith Richards boot appeared out of the smoke and haze of the front stage fireworks about the same time as the riff from his guitar reached us. I remember it being a pretty great set, if a tad but heavy on the album they were ostensibly touring behind. A quick search of the Google tells me that 6 of 25 songs in the main set were from Steel Wheels, which in retrospect isn’t that bad at all (the ratio of songs, not the album Steel Wheels – that was a dud).
I remember the highlight being toward the end of the set with Happy (Keith on vocals!), Paint it Black, the underrated 2000 Light Years From Home (one of the few bright spots of the Stones short-lived psychedelic phase), and Sympathy of the Devil. Towards the end of 2000 Light Years most of the house lights went down and the stage was basically dark as the band faded out of the song, before the spotlight revealed Mick Jagger on a platform at the top of the stage, more or less parallel from us, as the opening percussion of Sympathy sounded. The entire audience went apesh*t and drowned out the band completely. It was AWESOME. Easily one of the best concert moments of my life, and I’m sure in a lot of people’s lives. This video from the Cotton Bowl in Dallas doesn’t do it justice, as you don’t get the perspective on where Mick was to start the song, but it basically took him the entire guitar solo to make his way back down to the stage mid-song.
Moments like that are why you pay the money, brave the crowds, and go see what even then was a band threatening to reach self-caricature status – not to go see a band play only their hits for the millionth time. The Stones back catalog is unfathomably deep, so that for every Satisfaction and Jumpin’ Jack Flash, you’ll get to hear songs like Midnight Rambler and Dead Flowers as well. I doubt they let Mick journey to the top of the stages any more (probably for a litany of insurance reasons), but you’re guaranteed to see something amazing, no doubt. I just never need to see it again. I do hope everyone going enjoys the show, regardless.
Editor’s Note: I fully stipulate that I am old and there was enough marijuana smoke gathered in a haze in the upper stratosphere of the stadium where we were sitting to give everyone in the upstate of South Carolina a contact high that night, so I may have misremembered and/or hallucinated some or all of the details described here. The important thing though is that this is how I remember it, so that’s just as good as it actually happening. Caveat emptor though, just in case.