John Hendrickson is a freelance writer, guitarist, and, as you’re about to read, one very lucky bastard. He is also the guy who won the very first 50 Licks free book contest. I’m handing the blog over to him today for a guest post. He’s been obsessed with the Rolling Stones since he was 9 years old. You can find him at http://www.borntorockandroll.com.
Shattered: The Stones, the City, and Me
The Rolling Stones and New York City have been inextricably linked for almost 50 years. The Stones opened their first U.S. tour in 1964 with a photo op in Times Square and wrapped it up at Carnegie Hall. The mid-’60s saw the Stones hanging out with the Warhol crowd, riding out the 1965 blackout with Dylan, and raising hell at the Academy Of Music, the Palladium and Forest Hills. The live peaks of the Stones’ fabled “Golden Era” are indisputably their stands at Madison Square Garden in ’69 and ’72. As the seventies hit full swing, the Stones seemed like as much of a New York band as the Ramones and the rest of the downtown upstarts. From announcing the ’75 Tour Of The Americas from the back of a truck on 5th Avenue to Mick & Bianca at Studio 54 to the Some Girls/Emotional Rescue/Tattoo You trilogy, the Stones became ubiquitous with NYC, and vice versa. They lived and recorded here – the city was their adopted home base. New York City was at its most bad-ass, and the Stones were here to feed off of it and mythologize it.
By the time the ’90s rolled around, both the Stones and the city had become far more respectable. The band paid New York lip service by kicking off tours at such underground hotspots as Grand Central Station and the Brooklyn Bridge and would only play at venues with the surname “Stadium”. New York might as well have been any other tour stop – the relationship between the Stones and NYC was based almost entirely on past glories. And that’s when I moved down here.
Immediately after arriving, I managed to score a pass to a Bridges To Babylon listening party at the Tribeca Theater on Varick St. I thought I was destined for the inner circle – instead, I watched a bunch of music journalists absolutely decimate the open bar before we were all herded into the theater to listen to the album while watching a bunch of weird Japanese anime. Suffice to say, there was not a Stone on the premises. Not even Ronnie, which I figured was a given what with the open bar and all.
A week or so later, my plans to drive up to Port Chester and try to get in to the MTV Live At The Ten Spot taping were curtailed when I had to run interference between a friend and a supremely disgruntled ex-girlfriend. As I was crashing on his couch at the time, I couldn’t say no. (I found out years later that the theater was letting everybody without a ticket into the theater – that still hurts.) The Stones and I finally crossed paths on a freezing cold night at Giants Stadium. I was on the 50 yard line… in the very top row. But hey – that night we got the second-ever live airing of “Factory Girl”, so it was somewhat historic. And the heat from the flames that shot up during “Sympathy” was actually quite welcome. Regardless, my NYC/Stones experience was off to a slightly inauspicious start…
1998 rolled around with the Stones scaling it down and playing three nights at MSG. Yes, the Stones were back at the site of their finest moments – this was a must-see. As I was barely employed at the time, a hawked Fender Telecaster financed a floor seat for the first night. It was well worth it – that show remains the finest gig I’ve ever seen, bar none. I had to go back two nights later for the next show. I braved the cold to try my luck with the scalpers, figuring that once the band hit the stage, they’d be practically giving away their tickets. Turns out I wasn’t far off the mark. While my initial offers of $25 (the sum total of my life savings in January ’98, thank you) were justifiably scoffed at, the Stones hit the stage right around the time the novelty of a 25 year old kid pathetically groveling for tickets wore off. A kindly old tout took pity on me and actually gave me a ticket. I didn’t prostitute myself, I swear. I was in my seat, right above the B-stage, by the end of the “Satisfaction” opener. Highlights included the finest version of “Out Of Control” they ever played as well as an impromptu “Little Red Rooster” on the B-stage while waiting for someone to come fix Ronnie’s guitar, during which I’ve never seen Charlie Watts happier. The Stones at MSG lived up to the legend.
Surprisingly, ’99’s No Security tour skipped NYC altogether (thank God for Boston, Hartford, Philly, D.C., and Chicago). Aside from Mick & Keith turning up at the Concert For New York City in October, 2001, the turn of the century was pretty quiet Stones-wise. The band’s 40th anniversary found me cordoned off in a park in the Bronx, watching the band arrive at their tour announcement in a gigantic yellow blimp. Was it worth the trip up there from Brooklyn to see them for about 15 seconds from a distance of 500 feet? Hell yes. Not only did I witness Stones history but I got interviewed by a German news crew, too.
After catching the Licks tour opener in Boston (my hometown and the site of such adventures as “Fainting At Steel Wheels” and “Sneaking Up To Their Hotel Floor ’94”), karma got me back – hard – at MSG in September ’02 when I was taken for a $100 ride by a scalper and unceremoniously mocked by the ticket-takers. Ouch. Standing outside the Roseland with about a hundred Japanese Stones stalkers and listening through the walls more than made up for it, though. Four months later, the Stones were back at the Garden for a live HBO broadcast. A friend of mine worked at one of the surrounding sports bars. She stashed me in a basement room with a needle and a spoon (OK, some wings and a few bottles of Bud) and told me to sit tight. I watched the first few songs on a wide-screen TV. This wasn’t so bad, actually. At the start of “Angie”, she came bursting in the room, screaming “YOU’RE IN! YOU’RE IN! GO! GO! GO!”. I grabbed the ticket, made a mad dash up the block, and was in the arena by the start of “Let It Bleed”. I stationed myself directly above the stage and watched Mick, Keith, and Ron gather around Charlie’s drum kit to start riffing on “Midnight Rambler”. I had a birds-eye view of the ultimate alchemy. You can’t put a price on something like that, so it’s just as well that I got in for free.
All was calm until one gloriously sunny day in May of 2005 when I found myself standing with a couple of hundred people outside at Lincoln Center, staring up at a balcony. Rumors had been swirling for days. When promoter Michael Cohl’s voice came booming through an unseen PA system, we found out the rumors were true. T magic words – “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones!”. The stampede commenced just as Keith hit the intro to “Start Me Up”. “Oh No Not You Again” and a stripped-down, absolutely vicious “Brown Sugar” followed. I saw the top of Mick’s head for about three seconds. It was the greatest lunch hour ever.
Seeing the Stones kick off the Bigger Bang tour at the home of the defending world champion Boston Red Sox that August was the best of both worlds, but scoring a last-minute ticket for MSG the following January made for a far better show. Especially when they knocked off “Love Is Strong”, “Rocks Off”, and “Worried About You” all in a row. They were back in NYC a few more times that year – a charity show at Radio City, shooting Shine A Light at the Beacon, and one final go-round outside in East Rutherford, NJ. I had to settle for some cool photos of iconic marquees for the first two and Keith’s weird moustache kept me away from the third. What the hell was he thinking, anyway?
And once again, the Stones went on ice. Ronnie wrote his book (more of a pamphlet, really) and did a signing at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. We had a mutual love fest – me because I was shaking Ron Wood’s hand and him because I described his guitar playing with the Faces as “filthy”. That tickled him. I wondered how a body that small could support a head that large. No such luck when Keith published Life and held court at the New York Public Library, however.
All was quiet for a while, barring a couple of screenings of their ’72 and ’78 tour documentaries. Mick was pissed off at Keith, the vaults were finally being opened… it had to be the end, right? Oh well – no regrets. I continued to get my rocks off with a Ronnie Wood solo show in Atlantic City and Charlie Watts playing boogie at Iridium, just outside Times Square. And Mick killed it on Saturday Night Live. Hey – if the Stones breaking up meant that I could see individual members play clubs as well as watching Mick Jagger do sketch comedy, life could be worse, right?
And then rumblings of rehearsals in Paris started spreading around the internet. And then they all showed up at the Museum of Modern Art for a 50th anniversary exhibition, which really chapped my ass as it was two blocks away from my office – and I didn’t even know about it! Then – live shows. First, secret gigs in Paris. Then London gigs with Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman. And then the bomb dropped – one show in Brooklyn and two in Newark. I was 40 and they were all hovering around 70 but it was time to mobilize.
Brooklyn almost seemed too easy. I figured I’d see how things played out there and then come up with a plan. No regrets about skipping that one – it was apparently the worst show of the mini-tour. A few days later, they were a last minute addition to the 12.12.12 Sandy benefit show back at their living room, MSG. I got in. I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but I got in. That said, on what might have been the biggest collection of rock & roll stardom ever collected in one room, they made everybody else look like amateurs. Paul McCartney? Nice try, Macca, but you’re gonna have to come up with something better than fronting a reformed Nirvana to compete with the Stones at MSG.
Less than 24 hours later, I found myself too tired to question how I fell into a situation where I was gorging on free beer and hot dogs at the Prudential Center before winding up in the 15th row for two hours of what can only be described as controlled excellence. I saw the Stones focus on nothing but their own legacy and they pulled it off with dismissive aplomb. It was utterly ridiculous how good they were – they eclipsed every show I’d seen since the ’90s.
Stones sax-man Bobby Keys played a bar in Brooklyn the following night (no Stones sat in with him but everyone had a blast, anyway) and then it was the grand finale Pay-Per-View show and the houseparty that accompanied it. Those were the victory laps of an unexpected and unprecedented reunion between the greatest rock & roll band in the world with the greatest city in the world… and the obsessives like myself who follow them.
The Stones announced another round of live dates for 2013 this week. No New York shows were included. However, there is a week-long gap between Boston & Philadelphia. Stay tuned…