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Thursday, April 12, 2012

(15th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Wheels of Fortune"

Song: Blinded by Love
Album: Steel Wheels
Released: August, 1989

As mentioned before (Gem Music Video # 54) the year 1989 was somewhat of a watershed for me in regards to music. When adding up the quantity and quality of all the live shows, album purchases, radio play, and even conversation with friends, the music was centric and all encompassing.  I’m pretty sure the vast majority if not all of my reading that year, whether magazine articles or books, was music-related as well.

The two biggest shows I attended in 1989 were the Who (July) and the Rolling Stones (October), each at the old Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.   In many ways both of these were ‘reunion’ tours.  For the Who, it was truly a reunion, as they had formally disbanded in 1983.  As for the Stones, although they have never officially called it quits at any time in their 50 year history, the years leading up to ‘89 were for all practical purposes a disbanding.  For Stones aficionados, it was hard to witness: The band that had made it through the toughest of times in the 60s and 70s had finally fallen prey to the same factors that had split up many of their contemporaries many years earlier, including creative differences, solo efforts, and public back stabbing through the press.  

Although there were many similarities in the two tours related to the concept of reunion, there was one big difference:  The Who were relying almost entirely on a back catalog of songs for their set list (there was some new solo Townshend music sprinkled in) while the Stones had released “Steel Wheels”, an album of new material, prior to their tour (the name Steel Wheels was also given to the tour).  This singular distinction would make all the difference in the general sense of fervor, vibes and intensity leading up to and encompassing these shows.

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I got wind of concert tickets going on sale for the Stones’ Steel Wheels Foxborough appearance via WBCN’s (104.1 FM) morning show “The Big Mattress”.  The big news aired on a weekday during my commute into Boston.  In those days I was working for USGS in the Tip O’Neill Building near North Station.  Commuting from Waltham could be monotonous no matter what you tried, and so I often mixed it up: Green Line for a stretch of time; Red Line another; MBTA train from Waltham yet another.  I would also drive on occasion, finding parking in oddball locations under the overpass which connected Storrow Drive to the Expressway (if you got there early enough).  Fortunately this was my commute of choice on that sunny summer day, DJ Charles Laquidara giving me the low down on the where (Quincy Market) and when (12 noon) for tickets.

Once in the office, I filled in colleague, good friend, and fellow Stones fan, Saiping, on the new lunch plans, and the two of us made the trek over to Faneuil Hall an hour before the ticket booth opened up.  We already had made the determination that at least a portion of the day would have to cut into our then-meager annual leave time.  But when we saw the line, already distressingly long and winding its way around half a block behind the kiosk, we realized we were in for a bit longer of a day off, possibly the entire afternoon.  After adjusting our mindsets to the decision that this was simply what had to be, we planted ourselves at the tail end of the line, which before long had become a midsection.

At noon, there was an audible rumble up front.  After a bit more time the line began to move, but it was at a snail’s pace, much slower than expected.  I told Saiping I was going to see what the deal was.  She kept our place and I walked up around the bend toward the kiosk.  When I got there, standing off to the side somewhat, I discovered there was a new concept in play:  Wristbands.  Still novel at the time, wristbands were used as an intermediate step, assigning you placement in a future line (typically a day or two later) for the final ticket purchase.  The idea (gimmick?) was to make the process a bit more orderly and reduce the potential for scalping. 

Remaining off to the side, I was tipped off by someone that there were two types of wristbands being offered:  Wristbands for seating in the stands and wristbands for (supposed) “festival seating” on the field (which meant first come, best standing position).  The folks up front who had been waiting all morning wanted only one thing:  Guaranteed good seats in the stands near the side of the stage.  That rumble I had heard earlier then became obvious:  The wristbands were being handed out by several kiosk workers making their way through the crowd in the immediate area around the kiosk, and the line up front had dissolved into a logjam as those who had received wristbands were trying to get more information on what was next.

One of the kiosk workers was holding all of the festival wristbands and almost pleading with the crowd.  No takers.  He looked around and repeated something along the lines of “floor seating wristbands”.  Off to the side, I finally said “here”.  To my surprise he walked in my direction without hesitation and slapped a wristband on me:  An amazing stroke of good fortune.  But what happened next was even more amazing as he explained that the floor plan was not festival at all, but assigned seating!  This being moments after the doors opened, I was guaranteed four great seats! 

I headed back to our place in line, wrist deep in pocket so as not to insight a feeding frenzy.  When I got there I urged Saiping with silent gestures to follow me.  She responded as if I had two heads, knowing we were losing our place in line.  But resisting logic, she obliged.  Far enough from the crowd, I revealed my wristbanded hand, explained what was happening, and suggested to Saiping to give it a try.  We worked our way around the logjam, and the same thing happened:  Same location, same kiosk worker, same result.  In fact, it was so much the same that Saiping’s position for the final ticket purchase later that week would end up being right behind mine:  The kiosk worker had not given out a single wristband in the interim between my good fortune and that of Saiping.  This would virtually guarantee all of our seats being together (which they were).  Pumped at having pulled off this coup, and with the knowledge that we had fantastic tickets to see the Rolling Stones, we made our way back to work for a productive afternoon of GIS analysis.

Much like these last few months of Stepping Stones, the weeks leading up to the Steel Wheels show was all Stones music all the time.  On the Friday before the weekend of the show, Paul from work (the ‘son of a preacher man’ discussed in the 2nd Stepping Stone and the recipient of one of our tickets) was walking behind the Tip O’Neill building past a helicopter pad on the Charles River (typically used for traffic reports), when he watched a helicopter land and the Stones get off and into a Limo.  He managed to get their attention and a nod or two of comradery.  The band had a few days to hang in the Hub.  I believe we speculated on what they were doing with their weekend:  Ronnie probably on his way to hosting an art show on Newbury Street; Mick, a couple pints with Peter Wolf in the Fens and then off to the Kennedy Compound for a weekend of fun and sun; Charlie, a few nights at Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge; Keith, open house in his hotel suite at the Ritz Carlton for anyone lucky enough to get the inside scoop; Bill, a quiet location to continue the writing of his 1990 autobiography “Stone Alone” (more likely a rendezvous with his lawyers and investment brokers to tally up his earning on the tour for a not-yet-announced life after the Stones).

As for the concert itself, the seats and show were over-the-top incredible.  Probably the best event I have ever seen.  The band was right on, with highlights including Tumbling Dice, Miss You, Ruby Tuesday, Honkey Tonk Women, Dead Flowers, 2000 Light Years from Home and Before They Make Me Run.  I do recall making a run-through of the set list in my head just after the show and concluding that the Stones did a masterful job of song selection; a cross section representing virtually every album they had ever made.  Not many bands can get away with that. 

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The combination of chemistry and creativity are rarely if ever recovered once lost.  Both are needed when a band makes its own music.  One is hard enough to deal with, and for more individual talents like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, creativity is the singular focus:  Lose it, and there is still realistic hope to get it back.  Both chemistry and creativity lost, though?  Now you’re shoveling shit against the tide. 

This brings me back to the contrast between the ’89 versions of the Rolling Stones and the Who.  Though the Who show was fantastic, the Stones show was closer to what you might call a Happening.   Why the difference?  Both bands had the history to grab hold of that higher calling.  I believe the difference was in the risk and effort leading up to the respective tours.  God love the Who. They are after all my favorite band, and they had every reason to cut a few corners during that period (which I do hope to discuss in detail at some time), but the Stones had more momentum going into their tour because they added a creative touch that year with their new album.  I am sure it is what transitioned their reunion into a Happening.

“Steel Wheels” the album was a big risk.  I believe the Stones knew that the old chemistry and creativity were not going to come back full boar overnight.  There would have to be a rekindling period, and that is how “Steel Wheels” comes across.  There is nothing great on the album and it’s almost naked in its honesty:  “Hey, we are trying here!” seems to scream out with every cut.  But it’s a good album.  I’ve been listening to it all over again all week, and there are no subpar songs to speak of.  A few are over produced and have the feel of Mick Jagger trying too hard (Mixed Emotions, Rock and a Hard Place) and the Keith Richards lead vocal tracks are not top draw by any means (Can’t be Seen, Slipping Away).  But again, it’s all very listenable, despite the fact that one of the best songs on the album, this week’s Stepping Stone Blinded by Love (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q98VSsahlJo) is a bit out of character:  Is this the Stones being parental?

Successful reunions with deep roots are not only great from a personal experience, they are great to witness.  There is always excitement behind the potential for the best of them.  We never did get to see a Beatles reunion, but wouldn’t it have been incredible?  Same for the original Kinks lineup, which came close to happening before Peter Quaife passed away 2 years ago.  Cream happened.  So did Simon and Garfunkel (see Gem Music Video # 36).  Then there’s all those SNL cast member reunions, and more locally, the Boston Bruins 1970 Stanley Cup Team.  Personally for me there’s been a recent reunion of old work related friends, including Saiping:  The common bond of a cutting edge past that has played out rather nicely.  And of course there was the reunion several years back of the Franklin crew, when old friend Jeff reconnected with all of us (see Gem Music Video # 86).  And finally the best of them all:  “Goldapalooza” and a week away with the entire family for Mom and Dad’s 50th (which I do hope to write about in more detail at some time).

Keith Richards knew the Stones were back on track by the time the band convened in Montserrat to write songs for “Steel Wheels” (the title was chosen as a symbol of moving forward).  There’s a story in Rolling Stone Magazine from the period that included Keith thinking back to the moment he pulled his car up to the studio, hearing Charlie Watts’ drumming inside and subsequently smiling broadly into his rearview mirror.  It’s an indelible image for me.  Keith Richards’ cathartic moment was perhaps a brief insight into what was to come: Maybe not immediately on the album, but certainly by the time the band hit Foxborough. 

At the end of that show, every musician on stage stood arm in arm in front of the crowd to take in the rousing applause.  Then most peeled themselves away to leave the five core band member alone for a moment:  Bill, Mick, Charlie, Keith, Ronnie.  The cheering reached fever pitch for a job well done.

Take a bow, boys.  Take a bow.

-          Pete

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