Sitting In

Close Encounter With The Rolling Stones

Issue 122

As music lovers, we all have our most favorite concert experiences. A lot goes into deciding which shows were the best, including the venue, the sound, the seat location, and, of course, the artist’s performance. Other variables include where the listener and artist are in their respective musical arcs and stages in life. When an artist’s performance dovetails with or exceeds a listener’s expectation, it is the perfect union.

Concerts to me are like special occasions. Not all special occasions are the same. Like weddings, birthdays, etc., some are more memorable and historic than others. As a music aficionado, I’ve attended over a hundred concerts. My three most favorite are, in ascending order: The Allman Brothers with Duane Allman at Stony Brook University (1970); Led Zeppelin for $2.50 in Central Park (1969) – and the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden for their Exile on Main Street tour (1972). I experienced all as a highly impressionable teen, a time in my life that no doubt contributed to the deep resonance these shows had for me.

Why I’ve ranked the Stones’ Exile concert number one is partly because of what unexpectedly happened to me the evening of the performance. In allotting the tickets to the Stones’ four shows at Madison Square Garden, the promoter introduced a then-novel concept: a postcard lottery system. The fear was that ticket demand would be so strong it would swamp both the box office and the widely used and unreliable Ticketron computer system, a precursor to today’s Ticketmaster. The lottery required that fans mail in a postcard, and if their postcard was randomly selected they could purchase up to four tickets to a show.

The promoter received over 500,000 mail-in postcards. There were so many, they literally had to store them in massive bins, and then stir each with a shovel prior to selection. This was no senior citizen bingo game!

I mailed in a ton of postcards and luckily two were selected. It was like winning Lotto! I sold off a few tickets and went to the July 24, 1972 show with friends. Our assigned seats were horrible, halfway up the venue’s highest tier. Back then the upper-tier in Madison Square Garden was called “the blues,” because of the section’s seat color, though a more apt explanation is that you were so far away, that’s how being there made you feel. Although disappointed, still, I was grateful to be in the building.

The opening act on the Stones’ Exile tour was the great, even-then legendary Stevie Wonder. He delivered an incredibly good set, not surprising, but the sound from our vantage point was piss-poor. As the roadies began re-setting the stage for the Stones, I told my friends, “I’m gonna take a walk.”

Exile on Main St. album cover.

Like the sun’s gravitational pull, I immediately was drawn to the venue’s lowest and best seats. Now venue security in 1972 was not nearly as tight as today’s concert experience, though certainly challenging the closer one got to the stage. Like many venues, security at Madison Square Garden is entrusted to these massively large, burly guys. They could steamroll their way through an aisle just via their natural gait. As I weaved my way down to the first row front of stage, I realized, once the house lights dimmed, security was going to clear the aisles up and down orchestra level. I also knew that once the lights dimmed, everyone was going to stand.

As the house lights went down, and before anyone’s eyes could fully adjust, I did what any positively rock-crazed, insane teen would do. I impulsively dove under the seats in the first row, as the patrons in those seats stood in anticipation. Yup, I was literally down on the floor in the dark, with the gunk, grime, grease and whatever else lived down below. I’m not sure antibiotics could kill what likely was growing there. But I knew I had to withstand this horror show only for a minute or two.

When the security guards and their size 14 shoes sauntered past me in their aisle sweep, I realized I was home free. I popped up like a jack-in-the-box and moved to dead center. As everyone else was standing, nobody paid mind to who did or didn’t have a seat.

The next thing I heard was the voice of legendary announcer “Chip” Monck of Woodstock fame: “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones.” As Keith Richards hit the opening notes to “Brown Sugar,” Jagger began to prance across the stage. I was so close I could see the glitter painted around his eyes. Right away, you could feel the tightness of the band, living up to its reputation as “the world’s greatest rock n’ roll band.” You could tell the boys were really enjoying themselves, and the sound was just the way I like it, loud. Keith Richards was wrinkle free. (Yes, there was a time.) He could have starred in a Neutrogena skincare commercial.

This would be the last US tour for Mick Taylor on lead guitar. Mick seemingly never quite fully blended in with the group, fame and adulation likely not his thing, though musically he arguably was the group’s most skilled guitarist and I say that with the deep respect for Keith, Ron Wood and Brian Jones. Rounding out the band was expressionless Bill Wyman on bass, Charlie Watts on drums, (yes, “Charlie was good tonight”), Bobby Keys and Jim Price on horns, and Nicky Hopkins on keyboards. Not too shabby a rhythm section.

When you’re that close to the stage, it’s easy to judge how into a performance an artist is by their body language, facial expressions, and how they engage with everyone else on stage. I could easily see how excited the Stones were to be playing in the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” and the energy they exhibited was infectious, easily spilling over to the audience. The concert was a “pinch me” type moment, exceeding any and all expectations.

The set list for the evening consisted of (6) tracks from Exile, (3) Let It Bleed, (2) Sticky Fingers and (1) Beggar’s Banquet, in my opinion the lads’ finest LP. The set did not include “Sympathy For the Devil,” a song some have stated, incorrectly, that the Stones were playing at the infamous 1969 Altamont Speedway concert while an attendee was killed by a Hell’s Angels member who was working security. “Sympathy” was performed earlier in the concert. For some time, the song and the tragedy at Altamont were inextricably linked.

Upon further reflection, a few additional things stand out: New York City was the last stop on a grueling 32-city tour. The show I attended was opening night, with a top ticket price of $6.50. For a little modern-day perspective, I recently saw a used ticket stub for that exact NYC concert selling for $125 on eBay, and that stub was for a lousier seat than the one I was assigned! The tour grossed a then-record $4 million, certainly not chump change, but a far cry from the now-record $776 million set by Ed Sheeran on his recent Divide tour.

The 1972 tour was infamously named the “Stones Touring Party” cause that’s what it was, one big party. There was a film crew covering the tour for a soon-to-be-made documentary. Rumor has it, when Jagger screened a rough cut of the documentary he allegedly said, “I love it, but you can’t release it.” Why? It was too realistic, accurately covering all the drugs and debauchery. (I have a bootleg copy of the film, and that is a very apt description.)

Now if you’re still with me, this is where the story gets real interesting. I reconnected with my friends after the concert, who were concerned about my whereabouts, though I never gave serious thought to vacating my first row “seat.” Some of them believed my story while others did not. And there were no smartphones or digital cameras to corroborate my story.

Then a few years ago while surfing the internet one late evening, I amazingly discovered a picture with me in it. Click on this link and you'll see me, dead center first row, both arms leaning over the railing in front of Mick. Irrefutable evidence shot 48 years ago. Complete vindication.

So, without further ado, the defense requests for an immediate dismissal on any and all charges of fraud or deception in the telling of this tale.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikipedia/Jim Pietryga, cropped to fit format.

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