Two Concerts (TWO Big Ones!)
1. The Rolling Stones
I opened the paper one August morning in 1975, and read some great news. The Rolling Stones were coming back! Or at least they were coming back to Buffalo, NY, just an hour away. They had played there earlier in the summer, in a 20,000 seat auditorium, and I had not managed to get tickets. But now they were going to be playing Rich Stadium, which held something like 80,000, so I had a chance. Tickets went on sale that morning, and there were still tickets left when I finally got to the record store after work.
(Remember, this was a much different time, not only before the Internet, but before any sort of computerized system for selling concert tickets. No, they printed up physical tickets, however many they planned to sell, and then distributed them to the various outlets which would sell them -- mostly the box office and selected record stores, which meant it took a bit more effort to buy a ticket, but it also meant there were still tickets left at the local record store at five in the afternoon).
I’d wanted to see the Stones ever since I first saw the movie Gimme Shelter, some four years earlier. ,em>Gimme Shelter is one of the greatest rock documentaries ever. It has a built-in advantage over other classic concert films (Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Stop Making Sense) in that it has an actual story to tell -- the story of the disastrous Altamont free concert.
If you are not familiar with Altamont, the Stones decided to close their 1969 U.S. tour with a free concert outside of San Francisco. Woodstock had been held that summer, and the Stones wanted to prove they were down with the whole peace/love/free concert thing. Unluckily, they decided to hire the Hell’s Angels for security. (They had used the Angels, successfully, for security at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park earlier that year, but the British Hell’s Angels, as it turned out, were a bit different from their American counterparts). The predictable disaster ensued -- the Angels spent all day beating up on the audience (and even a musician or two -- Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin got knocked out on stage). The day climaxed with a young man stabbed to death by an Angel right in front of the stage while the Stones played. The incident was coincidentally, yet conveniently (for the sake of the movie) captured on film.
In addition to telling this story, Gimme Shelter contains much concert footage of the Stones playing Madison Square Garden. The Stones were in top form. This footage captured them at their absolute best, especially Mick Jagger’s showmanship. I walked out of the movie an instant Stones fan (I hadn’t really paid much attention to them before that).
But any chance to see them lay in the distant future. At that point (1970), it wasn’t clear if the Stones would ever tour again.
From Christmas 1971, I got a Rolling Stones double header -- the album Hot Rocks (which had just come out) and ,em>The Rolling Stones, An Unauthorized Biography, an amazing, and amazingly complete, chronicle of the Stones up to that point. The two of them together solidified my Rolling Stones fandom.
I generally prefer whole studio albums to greatest hits collections. An album is usually a complete artistic statement. The best albums have a coherence beyond that of a mere collection of songs; the various songs play off each other and provide a deeper listening experience. Also, at least to my taste, musicians don’t always release their best songs as singles. Many of my favorite songs by my favorite artists are album tracks which never get played on the radio.
Hot Rocks is an exception. Many of the Stones best singles in the late 60’s (“Jumping Jack Flash”, “Honky Tonk Women”) never made it onto albums. (The same is true for the Beatles of the same period.) In order to fully experience the late 60’s Stones, you need a greatest hits collection. And Hot Rocks does have a flow rare for such a collection; on vinyl, each of the four sides captured a stage in their musical development.
As for the book, it collected reprints of interviews and reviews from the mainstream press (esp. Rolling Stone Magazine), some original writing by editor David Dalton, a chronology of their career, sheet music for every Stones song, and photos, tons and tons of photos. The message (or at least the one I got) was that you have to see this band live.
Then there was Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, the official live album of the ‘69 tour. It remains the best live Stones album ever, capturing them at the absolute peak as a live band. (There are rumors of bootlegs from the ‘72 tour which are better, but I have yet to hear one.) But however much I listened to it, it only made me thirsty for the real thing. I had to see them, somehow, some way, someday.
(For the record, my first Stones album was Got LIVE if You Want It, a sped-up, overdubbed travesty of a 1966 live recording, which gave no hint of the powerhouse live band they would become. I believe I bought it because it contained “Under My Thumb” and “Satisfaction”, two songs I was familiar with that early in my Stones fandom. And my favorite studio album is Let It Bleed, followed closely by Aftermath.)
We (my family and I) made a half-hearted attempt to see the Stones on their 1972 tour. The closest they got to Rochester, NY, was Montreal, Canada. But coincidentally, we were traveling in Canada that summer, and would be close to Montreal on the date of their show. Again, this was long before the days of Ticketmaster. If you wanted tickets to a show, you camped out at the box office. There was such a thing as mail order, but that literally meant sending off a check and crossing your fingers. So we did not get tickets to the Montreal show.
But now (now being that August day in 1975) I actually had a ticket to a Rolling Stones concert. The concert was only a week away, and I damn near died out of fear something would prevent me from going (like I might actually die before the concert).
Rich Stadium was a huge football stadium. The Buffalo Bills played there (I have no idea if they still do; if so, I’m certain it has some corporate name now). I was literally in the back row. Seriously, the very back row of an 80,000 seat stadium. And this was before the days of big video screens at concerts. (Actually, they did have a primitive screen, but it only worked during daylight hours; by the time the Stones came on it was worthless.) It took me half way through the concert to even figure out which guitarist was Keith Richards and which one was Ron Wood.
They played for close to two and half hours. That was long enough to fit in nearly every major song from their later (1968-75) catalog. They did pretty much limit themselves to those selections; “Get off My Cloud” was the only pre-68 tune they played.
I was in heaven. How could I not be, after waiting so long? How could I not be, with them playing almost every song I might want (reasonably expect) to hear? I didn’t care about the distance. I was seeing the Rolling Stones! However tiny they might be. Besides, even at that distance, Jagger’s energy came through. At that point, that’s what it was all about to me -- Mick Jagger putting on a show.
It was only some time later, probably the next time I saw them, in 1978, that I saw the flaws in that first concert, that I realized they really could be much better.
The first problem was that, in fact, the concert was too long. This became obvious after seeing the '78 show, which was only about an hour and a half. This shorter set allowed them to give it some focus, some structure. Instead of trying to play everything, they chose a selection of songs which created a strong show. As a centerpiece (literally, it came in the middle of the set) they played most of their new album (Some Girls, by far their strongest album since 1972’s Exile on Main Street). By presenting the new material as a lump, it gave the audience a chance to really appreciate it. Also, somewhat ironically, by not trying to include every hit, the Stones were able to sneak some surprises into the show, including “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Love in Vain.”
By contrast, the 1975 show was a sprawling mess.
Of course, it also helped that, for the '78 show, I was up near the front (that concert also took place in Rich Stadium). By now, for whatever reason, I found myself more interested in Keith Richards than Jagger. Jagger’s showmanship, this time around, struck me as way too over the top. Keith, on the other hand, was the essence of cool. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that, by 1978, I was a hardcore punk fan (although a Stones concert was still acceptable). Keith was, and always will be, much more punk than Mick.
It is interesting that, in both of these concerts, I wasn’t really that concerned with how well they played, although my impression is they were much tighter musically in the 78 show. (I did notice that Ron Wood’s solos on “Love in Vain” did not come close to Mick Taylor’s work on the same song on Ya-Yas. But I have always felt that the Mick Taylor Stones (1969-72) were the musically strongest version of the band.) At that time in my life, it was all about the show. It wasn’t until the third time I saw them (1989) that I really concentrated on how well they played. But that is very much a story for another phase of my life. We’re getting far enough ahead of the game as it is.
Nonetheless, that first Stones concert was a dream fulfilled. If you’re keeping track, it was my second dream concert coming true, the first being Blue Oyster Cult (and the third being Iggy Pop). But there was never any real doubt that I would eventually see BOC -- a New York band, they played Rochester regularly. The Stones, on the other hand... At that time I seriously wondered whether I would ever get to see them. (No one expected them to still be playing thirty (!) years later). That August it felt like a once in a lifetime experience, and I loved it as much as I could love any such opportunity. I made sure I enjoyed every minute of the concert, I didn’t waste any of it.
One of my memories of that concert is the guy a few rows down from us, who drank so much he passed out before the Stones even came on. I remember thinking, what a waste! How could anyone ruin an opportunity like this, like that? I sure wasn’t going to.
2. Bob Dylan
Just a few months later, someone stood up in my college dining hall (my freshman year, if you’re keeping track) and asked for a ride to Springfield (about an hour away). To buy tickets for a Bob Dylan concert.
I was not a big Dylan fan. Of course, I knew a lot of Dylan songs, even loved some of them, but they were peripheral to my musical taste. Frankly, I just hadn’t paid that much attention, had certainly never really listened to him deeply. But I knew I shouldn’t pass up a chance to see him. It seemed to be another once in a lifetime chance, perhaps even rarer than the Stones; at that time Dylan was not known for touring (unlike today, when he tours near constantly -- again, who could have known?).
My friend Brian, who was a bigger Dylan fan than I, although his thing was really the Beatles, agreed. So I set out to hitchhike to Springfield to get us tickets. (To try to limit scalping, tickets were only available at the box office.) I got a ride right at the gates of the college, and when I explained what I was up to, they agreed this was a great idea, and drove all the way to Springfield to score tickets for themselves as well.
By then some posters had appeared on the campus, advertising Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in something called "The Rolling Thunder Revue." But they gave little hint at what we were really in for.
"The Rolling Thunder Revue" was Dylan’s version of a traveling minstrel show. He basically invited all his musician friends to come along and play a tune or two. And you can believe Dylan had a few musical friends. The show I saw featured appearances by Roger McGuinn and Arlo Guthrie. Other concerts on the tour included Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and others.
But not only did Dylan feature some incredible guest stars, he put together an amazing all-star band to back him up. Folk singer Bob Neuwirth was the front man, but the real musical director was T-Bone Burnett, a behind the scenes superstar responsible for producing some of the greatest albums of the past 30 years, including the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and a great songwriter himself. The band also included a superb Rob Stoner on bass, violin by Scarlet Rivera, and on guitar...
As we waited for the show to begin, I overheard the following conversation: “I hear Roger McGuinn might play.” “My friend saw the early show, and she said he had a blond guitarist who was pretty good.” Well, Roger McGuinn did play, but the “pretty good” blond guitarist turned out to be Mick Ronson! I was floored. (Mick Ronson was David Bowie’s guitarist from The Spiders From Mars. See my column on David Bowie for the details of just how much I loved Ronson’s guitar playing.)
I was certainly surprised to see Ronson in this context, about as far from the glam flash of the Spiders from Mars as you could get. But he did a great job, providing tasty fills and some strong, but restrained solos. I suspect that I may have paid more attention to him than was warranted; I followed every single note off his guitar.
But there was really too much going on to get too focused on any part of it. The show was structured to give everyone the spotlight, and then mix and match. For example, everyone in the back-up band got a chance to do a song or two before Dylan even came on.
Once Dylan came out, they played a set of hard rock versions of Dylan classics. Then, after a short break, Dylan and Baez came out together to sing an acoustic set (a combination of Dylan songs and old folk songs). Baez took a solo turn, and then brought out McGuinn. Gradually, Dylan and everyone else filtered back in, until everybody (a huge line-up on stage) sang “This Land Is Your Land” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”
It was an amazing concert. Three or four concerts worth of musicians packed into one. In addition, the camaraderie and pleasure of the musicians made it that much better. These guys were obviously having a good time playing together, and we, the audience, picked up on that good time.
If there was ever a concert that deserved to be preserved on a live album, it was this one. Unfortunately, such an album did not appear. Hard Rain, the official Rolling Thunder release, was recorded later on the tour, and bore little resemblance to the show I saw (it had no sense of the camaraderie or pleasure, for example). A few bootlegs emerged, but they barely scratched the surface, and were mostly marred by miserable sound quality.
Thirty years later, Dylan finally released Live 1975, a true live album of the tour. Live 1975 is a great album, capturing some truly electric (in every sense) Dylan performances. It also managed to capture some of the atmosphere of relaxed fun I’ve mentioned.
However, I do have two complaints about the album, one minor and personal, the other major. The minor one is that Ronson’s solos, so crystal clear in the concert, are mostly lost in the mix on the album. (I’m sure being able to watch him helped me pick out his guitar in the live setting0.
My other complaint is a bit more serious. The concert, as I said, was very much a group effort. Live 1975 is all Dylan, nothing but Dylan. A true record of the show would feature some of the guest stars -- McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, or at Joan Baez solo. As it is, Live 1975 captures some great performances, but misses the spirit of the shows.
As I mentioned, I did not go into the concert a big Dylan fan. I certainly came out one, but I still ended up a fairly narrow Dylan fan. Although I quickly bought his new album, Desire, my real attention focused on the mid-60’s trio (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. For years I considered those three albums not only the best Dylan, but really the only necessary Dylan. That may or may not be true, but they are certainly one of the most mind-blowing explosions of creativity in all music. I feel those three albums are as responsible for changing the face of popular music as the Beatles output from the same time period. (Changes which produced that amazing year of 1967, which I started out this series by discussing, as well as pretty much everything we have listened to since.)
I have only recently begun exploring the rest of Dylan’s catalog. I have found some good albums, and some great songs, but nothing to dethrone those three.
Anyway, I went to the concert more out of a desire to see a rock superstar than any specific interest in Dylan. Coming just a couple of months after the Stones, it suddenly seemed possible that I could see all the top names in rock in a period of a year. It was not to be.
The Who came to Springfield a couple of weeks later. I could not score tickets. Paul McCartney came to Boston in the spring. I failed to get tickets. The McCartney experience was a lesson in the growing pains of a Ticketmaster system -- there was a ticket office on the UMass campus which would be selling McCartney tickets. But rather than today’s computer networks, they had to wait for someone to physically send them tickets. Because of the unpredictability of that, I wasn’t able to be there when the tickets actually showed up, and they sold out before I could get to them.
But still, I had seen a couple of great concerts. Two names to be ticked off the list. The Who fell a couple of years later. I still have never seen a Beatle in concert.
The final irony of these two concerts is that The Stones concert, the one I most looked forward to, the one I had looked forward to for years, was the lesser of the two. Although I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time, looking back, it was not nearly as great as I had anticipated. In my final analysis, it was almost a disappointment.
On the other hand, the Dylan concert, something that had never been high on my list of concert priorities, something I went to almost as an afterthought, turned out to be one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. In fact, I would, even now, rate it as #2 on my all time list. (Don’t worry, the story of #1 will be coming up soon enough.)