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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Stop & Frisk In Need Of Repair & Reform (July 13, 2012)

After a violent post-July 4th weekend and more incidents in the ensuing days, the debate over New York City Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy has figuratively become  hotter than the summer’s heat waves.
Despite the recent flurry of shootings, the last four years have been the safest in New York's history, according to a mayoral spokesman.
While the statistics are alarming — up from 47 shootings from July 6-8 in 2011 to 62   — last year’s numbers seem uncommonly high, but I don’t recall anyone being upset when nearly four dozen people were shot in 2011.
Lots of statistics have been bandied about from both sides trying to defend or attack the stop-and-frisk argument. Some have even attributed the recent violence spike to the hotter-than-normal summer we’ve been experiencing. Historically, violence typically spikes during heat waves.
While the recent escalation of violence certainly has no particular motive, the NYPD should instigate changes to stop-and-frisk before the courts force it on them. As it is, federal and state court judges have recently criticized the NYPD, citing, among other violations, the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against “unreasonable searches,” as well as “reasonable suspicion” — however those vague terms are interpreted by officers on the mean streets.
A Federal District Court judge recently blamed NYPD brass for its policy of “establishing and demanding increased levels of stop-and-frisks.”
That statement is supported by former cops who have revealed that, like traffic ticket quotas which the NYPD has never acknowledged, precinct commanders also strongly recommend stop-and-frisk quotas for officers.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has criticized the courts’ rulings and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has vowed to continue the controversial policy he views as a deterrent to potential crime.
Kelly said, “You hear all the time from people who don’t like stop-and-frisk. But you know what people really hate in New York City, and always have? Guns.”
But, the actual numbers don’t gibe with Kelly’s statement and demonstrate the ineffectiveness of stop-and-frisk. According to various media reports, of the nearly 700,000 stop-and-frisks last year, ninety percent were neither ticketed nor arrested.
Using NYPD data, the New York City Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that in 685,000 stop-and-frisk incidents last year, the police recovered a weapon in less than two percent of the cases (a total of 780) when they actually conducted a frisk and only six percent of stops led to arrests.
That’s a negligible result for violating New Yorkers’ rights.
The 4th Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable search and seizures” without “probable cause” and the lesser standard of “reasonable suspicion,” established in a 1968 Supreme Court decision, applies to the New York Police Department, but it seems New York’s Finest, more often than not, exercise the policy as a justification, regardless of cause.
Unless the NYPD can rationalize the excessive number of stop-and-frisks with the trivial results, what they are doing is illegal and any violation of the law is criminal, as well as their high standard code of conduct. When law enforcement breaches the law to enforce it, it is time to restrain that authority.
Weather notwithstanding, the debate over the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy has heated up. Perhaps it’s time for police officials to sit down with responsible leaders and members of the neighborhoods where the strategy occurs most frequently to discuss and/or defend their grievances. If not, the atmosphere of mistrust between minorities and police could reach a boiling point that could be difficult to calm.
As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote about problematic searches in the 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry vs. Ohio, “It is a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, which may inflict great indignity and arouse strong resentment, and is not to be undertaken lightly.”
The city’s dramatic drop in crime over the last 20 years reflects first-rate police strategy by a department that has lost thousands of officers. While the controversial program may have benefits, it does not give police officers sovereignty to stop, question and search anyone they consider suspicious whatever that means  since it appears to be racially motivated.
In the vigilant pursuit to contain and investigate crime, police should never overstep the bounds of their authority. Furthermore, in order to preserve a constructive relationship with the communities they serve, courtesy and respect are important ingredients of their vocation.
Stop-and-frisk abuses must be curtailed and its tactics improved. Police cannot be allowed to stop an individual whenever they don’t like the way that person looks. Though highly controversial, at best, stop-and-frisk may foil potential crimes, but, at worst, it is a clear violation of personal freedom.
First and foremost, even in the dogged pursuit of public safety, individual liberty must never be compromised out of fear.