Satisfaction: Seeing the Stones, Large and Small

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Somewhere between Niagara Falls and Toronto, we heard the tantalizing news on the car radio: "The Rolling Stones are gearing up for a club show in the city tonight."

Then, an instant later, the reality check left us shattered: It's too late, the Toronto DJ said, eight hours before the surprise show. The club's a mob scene, and the chosen ones have been chosen, corralled in a fenced-off area until the doors open. Don't even bother, you'll never get in.

My wife looked at me, shuddering at the prospect of spending a precious vacation day trying in vain to get in. She frowned and shook her head. "He's right," she said. "We'll never get in. We're too late."

But she knew there was no hope for me this time.

For she had seen my basement Keith Richards imitations again and again -- all limbs, flailing and chopping at a cheap Fender Stratocaster copy. At our wedding, she danced as her new spouse sang "Honky Tonk Woman" with the band, and endured other versions by the now (mercifully) disbanded "Cruel and Unusual" -- two other Sun reporters and me -- a group whose name strongly hints at its entertainment capabilities.

She had done her best to seem genuinely interested with each retelling of how Keith Richards and Mick Jagger marveled at the angst of old bluesmen and then did their best to pay homage.

She had heard the set lists from the last three tours. She had sat with me through a monsoon at RFK Stadium in Washington and a chilly fall night at Shea Stadium in New York to see Jagger prowl a 100-yard-wide stage, his image projected, larger than life, on 50-foot video screens flanking the band.

It was never meant to be this way, of course. Rock 'n' roll's supposed to be played in bars and grungy, sweaty clubs in the wrong part of town.

But for as long as we could remember, anyway, the Rolling Stones existed only larger than life, on my big brother's albums, old and tattered even decades ago, on CDs and pay-per-view and videos and oversized screens in oversized football stadiums in Philadelphia and Washington and New York.

Best we could hope for was a spot in the field somewhere near the 10-yard line -- if we would pay $150, that is. We did, again this tour, figuring it gets no better than this. And, well, this really could be the last time for the band that outlasted them all, the British Invasion contemporaries of the Beatles, now led by a 51-year-old grandfather who exercises obsessively and has long since traded his Jack Daniel's for bottled water and bananas backstage.

* When we got to the SkyDome Hotel in Toronto, I began plotting and picked up the phone. Surely, back home, readers -- and their trusted surrogates, editors -- would be at least as interested in this bit of rock 'n' roll history as the latest school board controversy, wouldn't they?

They were. Good luck trying to get in, one said, before hanging up.

I dialed the phone frantically, on the off chance of finding a reporter at one of the three local dailies -- at a desk, instead of the club -- who knew somebody important or maybe knew somebody who knew somebody important.

Elizabeth Renzetti, pop music critic for the Globe and Mail, gave me the name and number of the Stones' publicist for the tour. She held out little hope. Good luck, she said, before hanging up.

The Stones publicist, Jim Monaco at Concert Productions International, wasted no words: "You're not making this up, right? I mean, you are who you say you are?"

Yeah. I stammered.

"If you could guarantee me you'll print a story, I'll get you credentials."

I sweated and babbled. He chuckled. Look for the CPI people outside the club, he told me.

* For a long time, nobody could find the CPI people outside RPM, grungy, sweaty club in the wrong part of town, a hardscrabble industrial section on Lake Ontario.

And you could hear the reporters sighing, all down the line. The story that mattered to them long before the others they covered in their lives seemed to be slipping away. A radio station blared "Time Waits for No One" onto the street from huge speakers at metalhead volume -- among nine straight hours of Stones fare.

From inside, if you listened closely, you could hear strains of Mick blowing "Little Red Rooster" on a harp during a sound check. His wife, Jerry Hall, made her way inside, mugging briefly for cameras. Dan Aykroyd followed, along with a few photographers.

Countless motorists stopped, stunned by a roadside sign, vintage Ritchie Highway mattress-sale variety, except for the words: "ROLLING STONES. LIVE TONIGHT. 8:30 P.M. REG. COVER $5."

But no CPI people, no satisfaction.

Finally, a woman appeared by the fence with a check list. She asked for credentials,checked the names and handed us white stickers that said "PRESS."

"Don't forget your drink tickets," she said, giving each reporter two tickets good for a media-only bar.

* Inside the cavernous former warehouse with black walls adorned with oversized masks, we proceeded directly to front and center, by a stage that could be from any club anywhere. There, aging hippies, kids in Metallica T-shirts, twentysomething grungers, accountants and bricklayers stood, spellbound all.

Two hours later, the familiar opening riff to "Live With Me" rolled off Keith's guitar, and Jagger poked fun once more at the band's bad-boy image: "I got nasty habits/ I take tea at 3."

From 10 feet away, truth be told, they looked more old than bad -- proof that time can destroy not only a woman's face, but a Rolling Stone's, too.

Playing 16 songs in 90 minutes, the Stones dispelled any notion of being too old to rock. They tore through rockers like "Tumbling Dice," "Monkey Man," "Shattered," "Honky Tonk Woman" and "Street Fighting Man," along with a handful of new numbers that, if a bit predictable, at least held up well next to the older stuff. "No Expectations," with Ron Wood seated to play slide, mesmerized the place, a slow, soulful ache of loss and goodbyes.

At last, from here, the Rolling Stones appeared not larger than life, but as mortal and vulnerable as the rest of us.

Keith looked tired, haggard, and sang three words all night, perhaps sparing what's left of his Marlboro-worn voice for the stadium circuit.

Mick constantly eyed the sea of bobbing humanity to gauge reaction -- it was, after all, a dress rehearsal -- and grimaced when nobody took him up on his invitation to sing along with a new number.

Ron appeared frail, anxious, at times tentative, gritting his teeth and occasionally wincing as he reached for notes.

Charlie Watts, unfazed as usual, kept them all together on drums, but even the unflappable one started the wrong song about halfway through the set, forcing Keith to wave the band to a halt and try again.

It's only rock 'n' roll. No explosions, no lasers, no gigantic video screens, no computer-operated lighting systems, no inflatable characters, no synthesizers, no prerecorded backup filler.

Just a handful of aging men and a few backup singers doing what they do and doing it superbly, true to the example of their heroes -- bluesmen like Muddy Waters, who gave all they had, to do what they did best until they couldn't do it anymore.

*

At RFK, 13 days later, the Stones delivered with a vengeance, opening their tour with a 27-song set that left 60,000-plus fans exhilarated, exhausted and hoarse. They jammed on a steel work of architecture that cost $2 million to build, and pumped out CD-quality sound on a 1.5-million-watt system.

The show blended a lot of rock 'n' roll with a little bit of Broadway and Hollywood and Disney World. An oversized inflatable Elvis and a cleric and a dragon appeared out of nowhere. Costumed women on stilts walked the futuristic stage, illuminated with lasers and walls of lights. Pyrotechnics blazed, making the uninitiated wonder what terrible accident just happened up there.

Then, hours after bolting out of RFK in nondescript blue vans as fireworks distracted would-be interlopers, the Stones told President Clinton's staff they might visit the White House. Maybe, but not right now.

The transformation -- from gritty, rocking bar band to mega-stars now respectable from the White House to the cable TV network that became "Stones TV" every night for a week -- happened somewhere between Toronto and Washington.

Or so it would seem, if you would momentarily indulge a silly illusion.

After the club gig, though, even in the best seats, the stadium spectacle seems too much larger than life, too much bigger than simple music rooted in ancient bluesmen's songs of hard living -- too big, somehow, for rock 'n' roll.

Gary Gately is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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