Yeah, you could look it up; it never happened. But I was there.
This is my third post for CA, and at first I thought I’d write them all from memory, but those other two needed some fill-in work via telephone, email, Wikipedia et al, and I really liked that. Today, however, I sit down to write entirely from memory, and it’s one of my favorites.
In September, 1997, the Rolling Stones began their Bridges to Babylon Tour in Toronto and ended in September, 1998 in Istanbul. The band played over a hundred shows before almost five million people. I know the word “million” doesn’t have the same impact it used to, but still, that’s a lot of people. And a lot of tickets, T-shirts, hats, programs, etc. They played in stadiums (stadia?) in front of up to a hundred thousand people. And the band played big to all of them. They always did. Please remember that when we get to the crux of the story.
The outdoor portion of their tour concluded, they took some time off before getting back together after the holidays to prepare for the second leg of the tour, and as it was winter, this leg was to be all indoors. The indoor arenas were all one-third the size of their stadium shows—and this being the Rolling Stones—the band charged three times the stadium prices. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But if they were going back to the same cities, they’d need a new set list. Well, that’s a bit mis-leading. The Stones prepare dozens of songs for a tour, and Mick and Keith decide shortly before show time which songs they’ll play that night. Once they decide, the set list is printed and distributed via fax to where that information is needed: the backline, the lighting and effects crews. Each song has its unique programming and its specific instruments. For instance, when the list arrives, the guitar techs would get out which guitars Keith and Ronnie will use, and prep them accordingly. Keith and Ronnie travel with dozens of guitars each, and some are never played on a tour, and some are played every night.
So, same cities, different songs, and they needed a place to rehearse for about a week. Have you heard of San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium? What a history! Bill Graham was managing San Francisco’s politico-social-confrontational Mime Troupe when he started booking bands into the Fillmore in 1966, and that was where the new open-hip-format KMPX (later KSAN) crowd met the new-experimental-psychedelic rockers like Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver and others, and it was at the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom (Chet Helms’ concert hall) that they played for the crowds that rushed to partake in what became known as “the San Francisco Sound,” which spread out therefrom. You might mention New York City’s Beacon Theater, or briefly it’s Fillmore East, and maybe some legendary clubs in New Orleans, but any right-thinking person knows that America’s only truly legendary rock venue is the Fillmore Auditorium. Now we all know that, right?
So don’t ask me how, but the Stones rented the Fillmore for a week in January, 1999, and my pal Johnny called me up and said, “Why don’t you come up and spend the week with us?”
Quick as a wink…
When I got there, Johnny told me to hang out upstairs for a while, so let’s talk about the Fillmore. It’s small. Fire laws say the capacity there is 1,100 people, and that’s with everyone standing. Its size has been an issue for the venue since Bill Graham finally got ownership of it, retrofitted it to modern earthquake standards and re-opened in April, 1994. It’s open now and you can go, but the problem is that a lot of major bands want to play the legendary Fillmore, but if they’ve had any kind of success, there’s just no way for the band to get paid the way they need to because, well, how much can you charge for a ticket? And similar reasons.
But back to the hall. From the street, you go up a flight a stairs into a hallway where there is a coat check and Men’s Room on the left, a Ladies Room and an office on the right, and on all the walls are photos of acts that have played there, and to your right and left in front of you are openings into the hall. The floor of the hall is—guessing here— 73 feet back to front and 64 feet wide. That is small. The stage meets the dance floor and is forty-five feet wide and maybe 20 feet deep. The Stones spread out and played on the floor, and the horn section played from the stage. As you face the stage, on your left is a small balcony above you that runs about half the length of the hall, with three seating areas that under ideal conditions would seat maybe 25-30 people in total. Of course, during a concert, rules of civility must fend for themselves. And that was where Johnny wanted me to hang out until the band and security sort of knew I was there.
I was already known by the band as Johnny’s close friend, and such friendships were recognized and respected. The band, and just as importantly, the Stones’ security, knew I wasn’t a jerk or a narc or a reporter or a thief, so I was tolerated. This was a closed set and if I was new to the band I would not have been allowed in; but still, Johnny wanted to sort of… break in… my being there.
For the first day I stayed up in the balcony, but between band breaks on the second day I began to integrate into the scene on the floor, where the backline crew was, and I knew them all. From the second day on, that was the best place to be. I mean, that was really the only place to be in all of San Francisco or in all the world! My God, that was the only place to be! Now, I could waste your time with stories of what happened that week, like the time I was on my way out of the room and sort of walked into Keith, and he was in this really animated mood and he started telling me this story, and he was excited, and he had a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and he was waving them both as he spoke, and he went on and on (about some guy, I think) and to this day I have no idea what the story was about. But he had such a good time telling it! Okay, so I couldn’t follow what he was saying, but what was I going to do, keep saying “What? What?” Should I tell Keith Richards to speak clearly? Should I tell him to slow down? Hey, this was Mr. Rock and Mr. Roll! Respect, yo!
No, I won’t waste your time with such gossipy palaver, so let’s get right to the song. It was on the fourth or fifth day (blank spots around details should be excused) and the band was rehearsing “Brown Sugar.” I was downstairs behind Keith’s amps (two more stories come to mind!) and they were rockin’. I mean, it was the fucking Rolling Fucking Stones out there and I was maybe thirty feet from Mick as he was jumping around! And maybe fifteen feet from Keith as he was playing and watching Charlie, who was maybe twelve feet away! They weren’t trying out something new here, they’d been playing this one for, like, thirty years and, y’know, they knew it. This wasn’t working a new song, this was getting tight with an old one. So they knew it, they were into it and they were rockin’ hard, and I was rockin’ hard.
And I was all into it and my arms were flailing and my head was bobbing and my fingers were reaching for something and I’d lost track of what my hips were doing but my feet were keeping it all in time and in the beat, and I was grooving and moving and in a moment of distraction I looked around and there was no one and nothing in front of me but the Rolling Stones playing “Brown Sugar,” and I looked behind me and there were two of the roadies behind another set of amps, and they weren’t watching the band! They were deep in a conversation, not paying attention to anything on the floor. Then I lost my groove as I thought: this didn’t make sense…
Why weren’t they into this? Why wasn’t everyone into this? But of course I knew: these guys didn’t care about what was going on out there; they’d just spent over a year watching exactly what I was watching, and unless some guy’s amp or guitar blew up out there, they didn’t care about what was going on. In the whole auditorium, there was just me watching the band! Then I remembered that the Fillmore had some staff in their office while this was going on, but after the first day’s rehearsal, they’d seen what there was to see, and stayed in another part of the building. So it was just me! It was just me watching the Rolling Fucking Stones play “Brown Fucking Sugar,” right damn in front of me! And I thought, “My God—the Rolling Stones are playing the Fillmore! For me!
In my entire body there was only one thought: AWRRI-I-I-IGHT!”
And right then Bobby Keys drove his sax into the mix, and then the horns blasted the brass behind the sax and the room got electric, and friends, I am here to say that I snapped out of those distracting thoughts! I looked back to the band and my toe tapped and my head bobbed and I found my groove again and got right back into it! The Stones and me, man, we was rockin’!
And I did it a coupla more times that week, and then they went back out on tour.
That last leg of the tour was called the No Security Tour. Forward to 52:00 of the following video and you’ll see the Rolling Stones closing the show with “Brown Sugar.” Find your groove.
On the edge of the dance floor was this cork board where they put the songs they wanted to include on the next leg of the tour. If selected, they were put here, others didn’t make it. “Brown Sugar” was about to go up there.
After the set list is decided and the techs have prepped the called-for guitars, they are put in this rack for the show. Ronnie has a similar rack.
Here’s a backstage shot of some of the guitars Keith travels with. The cases with Ronnie’s guitars are behind me and out of the shot. Some of these guitars have amazing histories.
Gilbert Klein has too many degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.