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Friday, February 17, 2012

(7th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Showmanship and Spectacle"

Song: Sister Morphine
Album: Sticky Fingers
Released: April, 1971

A while back, longtime friend Kurt asked me, if I could choose a singular event to have been at over our lifetimes, which one would it have been?  Kurt should have said “sporting event”, which was his real intention with the question.  He had in mind big sports moments:  Bobby Orr’s OT Stanley Cup winning goal in 1970; Carleton Fisk’s foul-pole homer vs. the Big Red Machine in 1975; the Patriots “squishing the fish” in 1986; Larry Bird stealing the ball against the Detroit Pistons in 1987 (note: this question was posed before the great Boston sports moments of this past decade).

Since Kurt’s question was not specific enough, though, my thoughts went elsewhere:  More specifically, the music world.  I believe my responses included the Beatles at the Cavern Club in 1962; Woodstock in 1969; the Who “Live at Leeds” in 1970; the Watkins Glen Festival in 1973; Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975; and Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps tour in 1976.  Kurt looked at me for a moment a bit quizzically, and then finally stated something along the lines of “good answer”.

Given a great sport event and a great concert event, I’ll choose the concert every time.  I’ve gone to my fair share of tremendous shows over the years, and wrote about some of the best several years back for Gem Music Video of the Week # 83 (“Night School”).  The song for that Gem entry was Memory Motel by the Rolling Stones (one of two Gem Videos featuring songs by the Stones).  The theme was great concerts, with a focus on large stadium shows.  And when it comes to the big stage, the Stones have mastered it better than anyone. 

So, having discussed the broad brush topic already, I’ll instead zero in here and relive a great concert moment.  I define a great concert moment as a transitional stretch in a concert, when the event evolves from solid show to Spectacle. These are the moments you always hope to see but rarely do.  In sports, they usually come at the end of a game, as did Bobby’s goal, Larry’s steal and Carleton Fisk’s homerun.  Not so with a concert moment.  These are much more unpredictable as to when they will happen.  I’ve seen a few that have had a lasting impact, and I hope to write about them all at one time or another. 

Here’s the first.

In October, 1997, the Rolling Stones arrived in Foxboro, Massachusetts (the old Foxboro Stadium) on their Bridges to Babylon Tour.  This was the tour that included a smaller “B”-stage near the center of the stadium, which core members of the band (sans support musicians) would hike out to about half way through the show to perform 3-4 songs (the Stones gained access to the smaller stage via a 150 foot long cantilever bridge, which extended out over the crowd, and contracted back after the mini-set was over). 

Brother Pat, Brother-in-law, Paul, and I attended that misty fall evening.  Sheryl Crow opened with a nice set.  The Stones then emerged in typical explosive fashion:  Keith Richards leading the band out to the stage through a burst of fireworks, playing the opening rifts to Satisfaction. This was followed by 3 more songs under bright lights (reviewing the set list on line, these songs included It’s Only Rock n’ Roll, Let’s Spend the Night Together and Flip the Switch).  Often it takes a while for a band to get it’s rhythm down, but on this night the Stones were already in fine form, and most of us in attendance sensed it. 

They could have kept it at cruise control from here, but the Stones then decided to up the ante, as it was at this point where a solid show began to transition into a Spectacle.  It started with Gimme Shelter, as the lights dimmed, and the stage began to take on a more eerie glow.  Many, including myself, were brought back to 1969, violence in the streets at home, and war overseas in Vietnam:

“Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh, yeah, I’m gonna fade away

I recall being amazed at how closely Lisa Fishser’s backing vocals resembled the original Merry Clayton recording:  “It’s just a shot away.  It’s just a shot away”.  The crowd roared at the songs conclusion.  A new tone had been set for the evening.  Could they keep it up? 

The band then launched into Sister Morphine as the lights remained way low.  It was a song I had always hoped to hear live, but had never really expected.  Too deep of a cut and rarely played live, but here it was, the opening notes unmistakable.  Written in the same tumultuous period as Gimme Shelter, Sister Morphine (which is now recognized as having been co-written by Marianne Faithfull) has an ominous feel to it, the lyrics describing the protagonist on a hospital deathbed and in an altered state, ambulance sirens still ringing in the victim’s ears from the tragedy that lead to this moment:

“Here I lie in my hospital bed
Tell me, sister morphine, when are you coming round again?
Oh, I don't think I can wait that long
Oh, you see that I’m not that strong”
Then after several more verses (including the classic line “Why does the doctor have no face”), the guitar bridge kicked in:  The bottleneck guitar bridge that is.  Could Woody pull it off, since it had originally been played on the studio version by Ry Cooder?  No problem there.  It was a perfect rendition.  In fact, the entire song up to this point had been a perfect rendition of the studio album.  The atmosphere was thick.  You could hear a pin drop between notes.  But the intensity level had not peaked just yet.  At the tail end of the bottleneck guitar bridge, Charlie Watts kicked in perfectly with the drum beat that sent the song into overdrive (2:41 of the attached video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtz8qZz6s8s ). 

This is when Mick Jagger took over, while taking on the appearance of a much younger version of his self.

With all 60,000 or so pairs of eyes now fixed on him, Jagger slowly turned and glided in our direction.  He then looked directly at us in a way that a hypnotist would look when putting his patient under a spell.  But instead of saying “watch the crystal ball”, the master performer of his time uttered the next set of lines in the familiar lower octave previously heard verbatim on the studio version of the song:

Well it just goes to showwwwwwww
Things are not what they seeeeeeeeeem
Tell me, Sister Morphine
Turn my nightmares into dreams
Oh, can’t you see I’m fading fast
And that this shot…… will be my laaaaaaaaaaaaast”

It was bone chilling.  It was jaw dropping.  

The Spectacle was complete.

The rest of the show was brilliant (including a magnificent rendition of 19th Nervous Breakdown, and of course the B-stage set).  But it was all icing on a cake that had already been perfectly baked 6 songs in. 

What is it about Spectacle that has such a powerful effect throughout life?  Is it a connection to childhood fascination, be it a long-ago visit to a circus, zoo, or carnival (Jolly Chollys!); or the faded memory of what it felt like to first successfully build a complex model or puzzle; or an early exploration into the woods with your Dad?  Whatever it is, it’s amazing when it all comes sweeping back.  Hey, there’s nothing wrong with feeling like a kid again.  I think we all strive for it whether we acknowledge it or not.

“Sticky Fingers” is my favorite Rolling Stones album.  It’s loaded with Stepping Stones, including the 3 extremely diverse atmospheric songs that close the album (starting with Sister Morphine).  I hope to get to all the others at one time or another.

Epilogue:  After writing the meat of this Stepping Stone Wednesday evening (the Sister Morphine concert experience), I pulled out Keith Richards’ book “Life” one last time, since I could not keep my eyes open to finish the concluding pages the nite before.  At the very end of the story, Keith talks about the passing of his Mom, Doris, several years back and how he spent time at her bedside playing some of the earliest songs he learned on the guitar (including “Malaguena”) while still living with her.  Between songs, Keith asks his Mom how she’s doing.  One of the last things she says to him: “This morphine’s not bad”.

I’ll be talking more about “Life” next week.

Until then

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