Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Start of the Stones' Historic Tour

In recent years, it has come to be regarded as one of the most successful rock 'n' roll tours of all time.

But when Sheila (one of my college buddies) and I decided to attend one of the Rolling Stones' shows in the fall of 1981, we didn't know that, of course.

We knew that we were in school in Fayetteville, Ark., and the Stones would be performing in two shows — on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 — in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Sheila's sister was living in the Dallas area at the time. Sheila said we could get her sister to get the tickets for us, and we could stay at her sister's house before and after the concert.

(In hindsight, the shows in Kansas City in mid–December would have been closer, but neither of us knew anyone in Kansas City and the timing would have been awkward, right around the time of final exams.)

Halloween was on a Saturday so we figured we could drive to Dallas on Friday, see the show on Saturday and drive back to Fayetteville on Sunday without missing any class.

Thus, everything was covered. And so the decision had been made.

Looking back on it all, I can only shake my head at the sheer naivete — not to mention the monumental leap of faith — it took for us to not only undertake such a whirlwind trip but to believe (hell, to practically take for granted) that it would all go smoothly.

And, for the most part, it did.

It was a great show. ZZ Top was the warmup band, and I had always wanted to see ZZ Top, anyway, but, in my eyes, getting to see ZZ Top and the Stones on the same occasion would have made the tickets cheap at twice the price — even though I was a struggling student at the time.

And I got a great T–shirt out of it — which I wore with as much pride as an Olympian wearing a medal or a veteran wearing a Purple Heart — at least until it fell apart after numerous trips through the laundry.

There were a few setbacks. It rained on Halloween. It was kind of a sporadic rain, kinda heavy at times, but it was particularly intense during the Stones' portion of the show. The speakers started to make what I always described as snap–crackle–and–pop sounds during the Stones' encore.

That made the show I saw unique — even special — but I'll get back to that.

That 1981 tour began on this day in Philadelphia. The news had reached my friends and me in Arkansas in the weeks before that day that there had been millions of advance requests for tickets. Perhaps it was an omen of things to come.

That tour smashed attendance records in many places, including Philadelphia's JFK Stadium, which was demolished nearly 20 years ago. A little more than a month into it, the New York Times wrote that the tour was "expected to be the most profitable in the history of rock 'n' roll."

Well, the tour drew approximately 3 million people to 50 shows in 29 cities, and I heard that the Stones' profits from the tour, which was designed to promote the just–released "Tattoo You," exceeded $20 million so I can only conclude that the Times was right about that — at least in 1981.

(I don't keep up with these things the way I once did, but, surely, at least one tour has matched or bettered it in three decades — and perhaps the answer is so obvious that I should know it, but I don't. Maybe U2, with its astonishingly popular tours, has broken many of the records the Stones set in 1981. Perhaps Paul McCartney did. Possibly someone whose name does not occur to me at the moment.

(But, in 1981, the Stones were the undisputed champs.)

After 30 years, I can't tell you every song that was played or the order in which they were played on the day I saw the Stones. It was Halloween, and many of the concert goers came dressed in costumes. Some were quite elaborate — I remember a Darth Vader and a Grim Reaper in my immediate vicinity — and they grabbed my attention at times.

Certain songs stand out in my memory, such as "Under My Thumb," "Honky Tonk Women," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Street Fighting Man" and the Stones' latest hit, "Start Me Up."

The next year, I bought the album that was made from tracks recorded during the tour, but it included several songs that I couldn't remember then from the show I saw, much less today — such as "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Time Is On My Side."

There was one song on that album that I know wasn't played at the show I saw — "Satisfaction." I've heard that it was the grand finale of every other show on the tour, and, fittingly, it was the last track on the album.

But in Dallas on Halloween, it was raining so hard that the people in charge decided it was too dangerous to go on — and so the show was stopped before the Stones could play "Satisfaction."

That made the Halloween show unique on that tour.

There was no dramatic announcement. There was no apology for shortchanging the fans who had been standing in a rather cold Texas rain for hours. I don't remember the last song the Stones played that day, but I do remember that the Stones seemed a bit surprised to be told to wrap things up. Clearly, whatever song they had played was not intended to be the last one.

Besides, we hadn't heard "Satisfaction" yet.

That was still in the future on this day in 1981. The Stones' tour was under way — and, from what I heard at the time, it got off to a rousing start in Philly.