Friday, July 20, 2012

No Time to Gather Moss with THE Rolling Stones

Last week, July 12 to be precise, marked the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ first performance. I became a fan within a few years, but didn’t see them live until 27 years later. On August 31, 1989, in Philadelphia, I saw the first of 115 concerts.
Backstage in Atlantic City, Dec. 1989
  I had not become an obsessed fan; rather an employee — a tour press representative — of the band for four months across the U.S. and Canada and another four months the following spring and summer in Europe. It was exciting, demanding 24/7 work, but it was also a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
  I’ve been a journalist and editor for more than 20 years. I’ve also had a 12-year entertainment public relations career that included stints at Radio City Music Hall, Showtime and with marquee celebrities, but they were nothing like — or as exhausting as — my job with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman.  
  Months before the Stones kicked off their 1989 Steel Wheels concert tour  the band’s first in the U.S. in eight years  to promote their latest album of the same name, I received an offer to work as a tour public relations representative.  
  The senior publicist, assembling a team to join her for the four-month extravaganza, recommended me. I assumed my previous experience with Michael Jackson and his brothers, my first tour five years earlier, was a major factor.  
  Being a fan since the genre's birth, I wanted very much to be part of a rock and roll tour. My options were limited since I can’t play an instrument — except the air guitar — can barely carry a tune and I lack the skills to be a roadie.
  The only position for which I was qualified came in 1984 when a PR honcho offered me a position with “The Victory Tour,” the Jackson brothers’ reunion, scheduled to make stops in a dozen U.S. and a few Canadian cities. I was interviewed at JFK as he waited in line to pick up his airline ticket on the way to the first Victory Tour show.
 I wasn’t a Michael Jackson fan, but his “Thriller” album was the hottest thing in music that summer. To be part of the biggest, costliest tour ever assembled, at the time, was a remarkable opportunity that opened my door to touring experience.
 However, if the chance came again, I longed to work for a band more to my taste.
 The Stones’ offer was the fulfillment of a professional dream. I’d been listening to their music, along with The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks, since the British music invasion hit American airwaves in the mid-60s. While those groups had disbanded or play reunion tours every so often, the Stones mostly remained intact and are still capable of entertaining and exciting old and new fans.
 Soon after accepting the job, I received an invitation that read, “Your presence is requested” at the band’s rehearsals that were taking place at the Nassau Coliseum. The next day my supervisors-to-be picked me up in a limousine in midtown Manhattan and we were driven to the arena. When I walked in and saw “the world’s greatest rock and roll band,” as they are sometimes identified, playing “Start Me Up,” the song that opened every show on the tour, my first thought was “I'm working for the fucking Rolling Stones!”
 As the Stones rehearsed, the three-person PR team gathered to shape plans to accommodate the media with tickets, credentials and materials, as well as strategy for coverage by television and radio crews before and during the shows.
 Several months later, I was at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia for the final rehearsals before opening night of The Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels Tour” on August 31st.
 The Stones and their tour personnel were professionals, but, as a rookie, it amazed me how methodical and precise, everything — from security to deluxe hotel and travel arrangements — was for the 50-person entourage that included backup musicians and singers, the band and their family members.
 From Philadelphia the tour went to Toronto and then made stops across the Midwest, South and New England before playing Shea Stadium in Queens. “Steel Wheels” then rolled across the country, then back to Canada, then the East Coast, where it ended with three shows in Atlantic City a few weeks before Christmas in 1989.
 Though each concert ended by 11 p.m., after-show socializing continued into the early morning hours. Since the press team had to be available at almost any hour for advance press inquiries, it often made for long days and not much sleep.
 I may have been briefly star struck at the start, but I concealed that feeling. After all, I was there to do a job, not make friends or eyeball celebrities. Sometimes, I did get to hang with Keith or Ronnie when they relaxed and mingled with entourage or crew members.
 When I celebrated a birthday, I was taken by surprise when Keith Richards invited me into his private cabin on the tour plane where he would hold up with friends and associates. He toasted me and presented me with a guitar key chain — a small token I still treasure.
More than the other band member, Mick Jagger rarely socialized with tour personnel. However, after I suffered a minor eye injury, he approached me, out of the blue, to ask about the wound. He said if I didn’t get adequate medical attention, I should let him know and he would see that I did.
That brief exchange not only impressed me, but made me realize that here was an iconic rock star, genuinely concerned about those who worked for him.
A few months after “Steel Wheels,” the band’s business manager called to ask if I was available to reprise my role for the Stones’ “Urban Jungle” tour of dozen European countries. Without missing a beat, I asked, “When do we leave?” The date was March 15, not a good day for Caesar, but the beginning of a second gig across a continent and to places I’d never been. Six weeks later, I flew first class “across the pond” to London.
Nineteen ninety was revolutionary as Communism was rejected across Eastern Europe. The tour became a part of history when it played three concerts behind the former “Iron Curtain” — two in East Berlin and one in Prague. I was in Germany before and after the Berlin Wall came down and in Czechoslovakia eight months after its Communist regime was ousted. A poster promoting the Prague show included the fitting detail: “Tanks Roll Out, Stones Roll In.” Despite a steady rain during the outdoor concert, the Stones played to an energized audience of 107,000. The band played for free as the proceeds from the show were donated to a local charity for disabled children.
When the European leg ended in London on August 25, 1990, I was bushed and couldn’t wait to get home. Despite the tedium after hearing roughly the same set list every night for almost a year, I saw many sights in 25 cities.
  To this day, the most frequent question I’m asked is, “What are the Stones like?”
  Getting to know them wasn’t something to which I aspired. With tongue firmly in cheek, I generally respond, “A little sex, some drugs and lots of rock and roll.”
 Working for The Rolling Stones was one of the most thrilling periods of my life and, needless to say, gave me a great deal of satisfaction. It was only rock and roll — but I LIKED it.