by Johnny Memphis
We’re going to see the Stones. The Rolling Stones! Mick and Keith! Charlie Watts! Holy crap. Never seen ‘em. Not once. And now I am going with my 18 year-old son Chris to see the Stones at Gillette Stadium.
The last stadium show I went to was the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers at RFK in Washington, D.C. It was 1973 and I was 18. I remember getting baked by the sun and anything else we could get our hands on. Big rock shows have not been my cup of tea for a long time, but the Rolling Stones are a special case. It’s like going to see the Great Pyramids. They’re still awesome. They’re still here. As my son Chris says, “They’re one of the Seven Wonders of the World.”
Chris is a rocker, drummer, music fan. He’s as psyched to see the Stones as I am. We’ve both been excited about this for months, but the show almost didn’t happen. They had to cancel the original date (June 8th) because Mick Jagger had heart valve replacement surgery. Thankfully they fixed Mick’s heart and the show was quickly rescheduled for July 7,2019.
We are barreling down the Massachusetts Turnpike on our way to meet Chris’s friend Gabe Brodeur and his older brother Jon, at their cousins’ place in Hopkinton, near Gillette. When we arrive all the cousins are up by their pool, in comfy outdoor seats gathered around a table where they have been playing a party jenga game where some of the wooden pieces are hollowed out with turquoise jello-shots inside them that you have to drink if you pull out that piece. I am offered a jello-shot. Whoa. I don’t think so. We haven’t even gotten to the Gillette parking lot yet. Some of the Brodeur’s cousins are British and they are a fun crew. Steven, the host, points at his sister, brother-in-law and niece and says, “What you need to know is that she’s a witch, he’s a cheat and she’s shallow.” Okay, then. Chris and I take a dip in their curvy pool and then head off with Gabe and Jon to Foxborough, thirty minutes away down 495 South.
At 5:30 we pull into one of the grassy parking fields that sit on the other side of Route 1 from the stadium. Our car is waved up to a man wearing a money apron. “Forty bucks,” he says. Whatever. We paid $200 a ticket for the show. It’s the Stones. I’ve been saving up for this since 1973. We drive up the grassy hill and park in the shade under a tree. I love this grassy parking lot. It is funky, homemade, shady. Old school. It is not macadam. We find Chris’s friend Aidan and his family grilling hamburgers and hot dogs out of the back of their SUV. The teenagers are drinking Heineken beer in bottles. It’s the Stones. What happens in Foxborough stays in Foxbororough.
The show starts at 7:30 and the tailgators are itching to get to the stadium. I say, “What would Keith do? He’d say, ‘Relax, man. There’s plenty of time.’” Eventually we join the endless line of people on the sidewalk headed to the stadium. Grizzled baby boomers and party people, sketchy dudes and suburban moms, groovy grandpa and the textin’ teenagers. Everybody’s going to see the Stones. Vendors are hawking “No Filter Tour” tee-shirts. Gillette Stadium looms like a massive spacecraft anchored in a parking lot sea. A giant water tower stands sentinel beside the stadium.
The walk is so long that all the beer-drinkers need to use the port-a-potties before we even get in the stadium. I stand in line behind an older guy with a Fort Lauderdale tee shirt. When he emerges from the port-a-potty, he says to me, “That was the best thing that happened all day.” Just outside the entrance we put our phone in a plastic tray and go through metal detectors like it’s an airport. Chris has the tickets on his phone. We’re in! Whew. As Jon Brodeur says, “It always makes me a little nervous when the tickets are on your phone.” We split off from the Brodeurs who are sitting elsewhere. Chris and I walk up the ramps that zig-zag up to our seats in the top tier, section 339, Row 18, Seats 15 and 16.
It is a beautiful night. 80 degrees, no humidity, the sun going down over the lowlands south of Boston. We are about 15 rows from the top of the stadium, way up there, deep back on the side. The stage is down on the goal line and no seats are sold down at that end. The rest of the stadium is full. Gary Clark Jr. and his band have already started their opening set. From our vantage point they are tiny ant-size creatures playing in front of four 80-foot tall video panels. I do not love the sound. The bass guitar and bass drum are rumbling around the stadium, creating sonic indigestion. I do not love the music. It is power blues, not my favorite. Gary Clark, Jr. has a nice falsetto, but the songs do nothing for me. I begin to get pessimistic about the whole show. All these fans, paying all this money, to sit so far away for such crappy sound? When the drummer on the video screen hits the snare, we hear it a half-second later. It is an audio-visual disconnect. This is not a good way to experience music.
Out at the concession stands crowds are surging to buy overpriced Bud Lite and No Filter Tour merch. At the far end I find the craft beer taps and score a Wormtown Be Hoppy. After Gary Clark, Jr. finishes his set, Chris and I try to guess what song the Stones will play first. I guess “Start Me Up.” Chris guesses “Brown Sugar.” The four 80-foot tall video panels have now lit up with bold yellow backgrounds that surround four, bright red, Rolling Stones lip ‘n’ tongue logos. Anticipation builds. Finally the video screens go crazy as a weird audio snippet of the “Star Spangled Banner” gets mangled and the announcer yells, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones!”
Out of the void Keith Richards hits the opening lick of “Street Fighting Man.” Two chords. An echo of the past and a promise of what’s to come. What the hell was I worrying about? Charlie Watts’s drums kick in. It’s the fucking Stones! And they sound great. I can’t believe how good they sound. Wow. We are immediately on our feet dancing in Section 339. Shake those maracas. This is not a Stonesy band. This is the Stones. The thing itself. “Everywhere, I hear the sound, of marching, charging, feet boy.”Of course the first song is “Street Fighting Man.” “ ‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right, for fighting in the street boy.” It’s the 4th of July weekend. “Well, now, what can a poor boy do, except to sing for a rock and roll band.”Mick, 75, is singing like a man with a new heart valve.
They are bringing it back. Each song is a touchstone. I remember my cousin Rick Kirkpatrick telling me when he was at Harvard in 1970 there was rioting on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge after the Cambodia Invasion and somebody put a speaker in a dorm window and blasted “Street Fighting Man.” The next song at Gillette is “(I Know) It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It).” In the ‘90s I remember singing that song late at night on Pomeroy Terrace in Northampton passing a guitar around our kitchen. Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ron Wood stroll down into the crowd on a long, narrow stage to play “Dead Flowers” acoustic. I remember performing that song for the all-ages finale this spring at the Iron Horse Music Hall, when my band was on a double bill with my son’s band.
The Stones are rolling from iconic hit to iconic hit. “Tumbling Dice,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” There are no perfunctory new songs to flog. Mick Jagger seems better than ever- energized beyond belief and in great voice. Maybe he’s got more blood pumping through his system. He is fast-walking all over the place like a man trying to catch a bus. Drummer Charlie Watts sits erectly above his kit, a grey-headed heron snatching up the beat. His feel for what not to play makes you fall into the band. Guitarist Ron Wood’s been in the Stones since 1975, but he’s still the new guy. He fits the band as perfectly as his stylish jacket fits his skinny frame.
Keith Richards, is the one person who seems a bit off his game tonight. His guitar solos are clumsy and clamsy. Chris and I look at each other with raised eyebrows. It could be that Keith’s arthritic hands are acting up. He’s always been a wonderful counter-puncher guitar-player, but now he just seems behind. Mid-set Keith comes alive when he lights up a fag and rips into “Honky Tonk Woman.” It’s like he woke up from a nap.
The Stones play “She’s So Cold”, the winner of a fan’s choice online voting poll and then bring out Gary Clark Jr., who sounds so much better playing with this band. Keith sings soulful lead on “Slipping Away” and Ronnie nails the sitar melody on “Paint it Black.” In between songs Mick is having fun talking to the audience and mocking Trump. “The Fourth of July has always been a touchy holiday for us Brits,” says Mick. “In fact the president made a very good point in his speech the other night. He said, ‘If only the British had held on to the airports, the whole thing might have gone differently for us.’”
The highlight of the evening is “Midnight Rambler,” from the Let it Bleed album. The song is loosely based on the story of Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, but you can’t hear the lyrics very well. The song’s brilliance has more to do with the spooky, insinuating sound of the band and the way they play together so fluidly, slowing down and speeding up as one. Keith described this idea in his memoir Life. “What you’re looking for is where the sounds just melt into one another and you’ve got that beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through. So it’s not two guitars, piano, bass and drums, it’s one thing, it’s not five. You’re there to create one thing.” That is the Rolling Stones. For all the famous squabbles, their genius is the way they play together.
The set ends with musical fireworks: “Start Me Up,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar.” The two-song encore starts with “Gimme Shelter” featuring backup vocalist Sasha Allen going toe-to-toe with Mick. “It’s just a shot away.” The last song of the night is an extended “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” with Mick incorporating the Otis Redding version. “I’ve got to get it! Got to! Got to! Got to get it!” When they hit the final note, actual fireworks rocket into the sky from behind the stage.
After the show, sitting in my car, trying to get out of the Gillette parking lot, I think about how we first viewed the Rolling Stones as Beatles wannabes until “Satisfaction” came barking out of the car radio and took us all prisoner. And how their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, used to promote the Rolling Stones as “the band your parents love to hate.” I think about how today is my daughter Maeve’s 17thbirthday and how gracious she was about her brother and her father going to see the Stones, or as Maeve would say, “I had no choice.” Mostly, I think about the satisfaction I will feel when we finally get out of the parking lot.
Here’s a video excerpt of “Honky Tonky Woman” featuring Chuck Leavell’s piano solo. Leavell was the Allman Brothers’ piano player when I saw them at my last stadium show in ’73 at RFK. At the end of this excerpt you will see a blonde woman in a white tee shirt standing right in front of us is. She danced like crazy the whole night. I think she was the Honky Tonk Woman.