I’m not even really a concert guy. I hate large crowds, I hate drunks, and for the cost of a ticket I could buy several CDs or even vinyl albums. This however was one of my last chances to see a band that goes beyond legendary, a band that had produced many of the songs that would comprise the soundtrack of my life. After all, I am not a person for whom it is easy to find new music. The songs I listen to have little to do with current popularity but I’m not enough of a hipster to troll Pitchfork and the like, and people who write about music usually push me to the point of homicide within a few paragraphs. As a matter of fact it struck me that on a 6 hour road trip to see a concert we listened to amazingly little music. After all, radio is garbage these days.
October 6, 2021 – It was a little after 5 o’clock at the Carnegie Art Museum in Pittsburgh when I unwrapped the little foil square and ate the piece of multicolored paper inside. Figured I should be in good form by the time the Stones took the stage after 8. Some people would think that dropping acid and going to see the Rolling Stones would be a thing to do in say, 1971 (and I’d rather have done it then, 9 years before I was born). But we work with what we have.
I first became aware of the Stones when I was about 7 years old. Music was mostly background noise to my child’s mind, other than a few standouts. My mom found it hilarious when I would sing George Strait’s “All My Exes Live In Texas.” Dad was known to crank a certain song about Saturday night being alright. And then I was also acutely aware of the evils of heavy metal, as was blatantly shown by my cousin’s posters exhibiting Ozzy Osbourne at his most demonic. (How quaint, those days).
And one night, as I sat down to watch television, a show came on that featured a strange theme song. Tour of Duty was a relatively short-lived series about the horrors and drama of the Vietnam War. From what little I knew of Vietnam at that age (relayed to me by my Marine veteran uncle), I knew the song fit. A foreign instrument I had never heard before twanged the intro as helicopters filled with soldiers rushed in to fight. A snare drum kicked in like rifle fire. Lyrics much different from the easy-to-understand love songs I knew and was used to, spoke of painting it all black in dark terms as fire consumed jungle outposts. Even to an innocent 7 year old – I knew it was badass, and it captured the ugly emotions of a particularly hellish time and space in human existence. My dad uttered a name that would come up time and again in my musical and cultural experiences: The Rolling Stones.
Growing up, especially in my teenage years, I was steeped in the sounds of what we today call Classic Rock. It may or may not have set me upon the lifelong path of becoming a stoner. But even as a goody two-shoes Pentecostal kid being groomed for the ministry, I knew that those sounds had to have great power upon those in an altered consciousness, and had a strange guilt about enjoying it. After all, being 13 in 1995 meant that the Boomers were in the first few waves of having their youth re-marketed to them as is the norm in commercialistic Western societies these days. This glossed-over narrative pushed the bellbottoms and forgot the civil rights movement. No talk of adulterated drugs, and cannabis use was downplayed as just the shenanigans of the young. Dazed and Confused had just come out, and styles from that era became popular as kids raided their parents’ old wardrobes. I stealthily indulged in the discouraged music when my dad wasn’t paying too much attention. He had made it quite clear that he wasn’t going to have his son grow up to be a “head”. In fact I decided to try cannabis for the first time after being accused of smoking it several times.
My father both idealized and cursed the 1970s. Saying he was from a rough background would never cover it. When his father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1972, he was uprooted by a grieving mother to live in reduced circumstances in a Louisville suburb called Mt. Washington, which was still very much stuck far behind those times. A small (but growing) farm town, the transition not only came with a new group of assholes to deal with but also now with an abusive drunken flat-topped conservative stepfather that would beat the longhaired rebel until he got big enough to fight back. In 1976, the US Navy gave him a way out. But after a string of minor offenses, then being caught with women and cocaine on a naval base in San Diego, he landed back in the redneck outpost to resume the life of a working man, sometimes with a good job and sometimes not. They should have seen it coming, after all he was the one that signed the boot camp graduation book as “Hippie” with a pot leaf drawn to the side. His coming of age had been fraught with great trauma, to which he had not adjusted well and never did. Music, especially of his youth, was one of the few things that set him free, and so he would tell me cautionary tales of the rock-and-roll lifestyle of his youth, but also explaining that there were other ways to have fun. Don’t be stupid. And if you’re going to be stupid, don’t get caught.
I lost my faith when I was 16. The particular Christian cult to which I belonged had a very strict theology, and it was since early childhood that I made it my mission to save my family as every single one of them (and most of my friends) would be burning in hell if I didn’t help them get saved. Emotions ran high, but to pump them up even higher the churches would use loud uptempo music to introduce a preacher or the languid, sorrowful sounds of an altar call to confess our sins and renew our commitments to Christ. I suffered in this state until my maternal grandmother died. Would an all-loving God send the most loving person I had ever known to a lake of fire because she didn’t do a certain baptism and speak in heavenly tongues? I chewed on it until that thought and the science I had been learning at school dissolved my belief. I think that being the unpopular one telling all the schoolkids that they were to burn in hell forever may have had something to do with it too… but the strong, emotional bond with music remained and ultimately set a high bar for musicians who would wish to access my ears.
You can buy your favorite albums at a yard sale. You can watch videos of old concerts on YouTube. None of this compares with the actual experience of BEING THERE, watching magic unfold and in the case of many of my favorite rock groups that will never happen. Neither will I see many of my jazz heroes such as Max Roach, or even outlaw country like Waylon Jennings. Opposed to this day of ProTools studio perfection, in those days the true measure of a band was whether they could make a stand on the road – and the Stones eminently delivered on this front, especially in their heyday.
As far as the music of my day goes, I came of age in the era of mammoth radio conglomerates killing off creativity in the age of radio deregulation and pushing ever-shittier label-created garbage that just wasn’t for me. Although I grew to appreciate a lot of it later, the disturbing imagery of grunge turned my young sensitive stomach. Hip hop revelled in sin (and would later serve the purpose of scaring my mom.) Even among the older bands I like, the classic rock radio stations would play the same 2 or 3 songs by those bands, never with album deep cuts or cult classics like public radio would do – and those only for a couple of hours per week. (In radio voice) “107.7 WSFR! Playing the same 20 songs for the last 20 years.” Finding new music was something that would happen almost accidentally with friends or by running through blogs. Still I would return to old favorites – Let It Bleed, Led Zeppelin III, Motorhead, the like. High energy rock and roll played by human hands. As the old legends go, the Stones are the last great animal to still be moving with a mostly-original core… but this isn’t Bachman Turner Overdrive at the Iowa State Fair. This is the Greatest Rock And Roll Band Of All Time.
Yes, better than the Beatles, who even in their psychedelic phase still came off as 50% pop music. 60 year career aside, it’s like comparing a Volkswagen Beetle to a Type E Jag. A decent salad to a steak. A comfortable sweater to a Tommy Nutter suit. It may be that all the Beatles need is love, but the Rolling Stones like to fuck.
So I bought my ticket, and took the ride up to Pittsburgh. The missus came with me, as much to babysit as to enjoy the trip. Being a music fan she relished the idea of seeing the Stones and as a natural adventurer – although not by chemical means – she made the perfect companion (babysitter) for the evening. No phone or wallet would be lost, no fumbling for tickets. And, in the rare event that I did have a bad trip, somebody to speak positive things.
Having read Keith’s autobiography It occurred to me that in the past 50-odd years, the exact same culture war that they helped kicked off with the advent of the psychedelic age and was being waged then, was being waged now… and it was being waged on me. I drove quickly but smartly, the foil packet stuffed deep in my wallet where it looked like trash. Delta 8 gummies (a cannabinoid) meant that not only would I not be filling the car with cannabis smoke, it (temporarily) remains legal in every state that we travelled in. Headed northeast through the empty farmland of Ohio on a Sunday morning, and devoid of the redneck Trumper cops that would *love* to bust an out-of-state smartass from a city with a functioning economy, the two-lane interstate would often afford opportunities to crank it up to 90-ish in a convoy with other like-minded individuals – but I knew that Johnny Law would be back on the job before long. I did not aim to abuse the privilege. As one trooper would not be able to give us ALL tickets, I took the lead and motioned with a “come on” to a local in a compact in order to beat feet. Others would join in later, but I made a wise decision to back off as approaching state lines or anywhere in the few miles that I70 ran through West Virginia, where the local yokels viewed the interstate as an opportunity to raise revenue through tickets and to pull over a few of THOSE people, whomever the outsiders may be.
The Duquesne Incline – The red thing is a tram car, not a house
As the missus is a lady of culture, she made sure that our first arrival in Pittsburgh (even before the hotel) was to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. A beautiful steel and glass castle from 1893 welcomed us in to view exotic plants of every type and stripe. There was a desert room. Tropical rooms. Large sustainable landscapes outside, a frog and turtle pond. Fruit and spice room. I highly recommend a visit, the weaving vines and giant palms made me wish I was already tripping! Give yourself at least two hours if you visit.
Being eyeball-melting tired, we then went on to check into the dirtiest hotel room I have ever actually slept in. Red Roof Inn by the airport… if anything should make you doubt the veracity of reviews on the internet, this hotel somehow got 3.5 stars on TripAdvisor, despite being a known hotspot for prostitution and drugs. Fishier yet still… but we were too tired to complain about it. After showering, my feet became sticky and darkened from walking on the floor. I ended up “mopping” the bathroom floor with a towel and then laid the sheets from the second bed all over the floor until we had a blanket fort to walk on, then checked the sheets we were to sleep on for cleanliness before washing my feet yet again.
In the morning, I woke like a motherfucker and after my caffeine situation was sorted out, we had them refund us so we could find another hotel. The lady at the desk was nice enough about it, she knew it was a shithole and was powerless to do anything about it. The Central Diner next door has so much sympathy that there is – no shit – a 10% Red Roof discount when they feel sorry for patrons of this particular motel. Our server regaled us with tales of police, prostitutes, and other base human behavior at the hotel. A solid Reuben and fries fortified me for the day and provided enough for leftovers. The missus had a large breakfast sandwich, and more leftovers for later.
Secure with our new, clean, and vibrantly colored room at the Holiday Inn outside of some small township, we set out on concert day to see the city. I was at one time a great fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and always considered it one of those “cool places” that I would visit one day. In Pittsburgh the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers merge to make the Ohio river, which flows a few hundred miles downstream to my home in Louisville, which I considered something of a sister city. We walked around the hipster district of Lawrenceville, noting similarities and differences with our hipster areas back home. We rode around and scooped the neighborhoods, fighting a GPS that didn’t understand how so many areas can be under construction in one place. Almost every area of the city was hilly. Then came the Carnegie.
The Carnegie Museum of Art is one of Pittsburgh’s premier art collections, one of titan steelmaker Andrew Carnegie’s many forays into philanthropy to rehabilitate his image after decades of abusing the working class. You may even have a Carnegie library or 3 in your own hometown. In academic form it laid out great collections from ancient times to present. To speak of it does little, except to say you will see the names that you expect there… Van Gogh, Gaguin, all the usuals. To inhale the art, to see the microstrokes of paint that bring it to life, or to see the level of detail of the works, is what will make you appreciate it. Another highly recommended stop – what we didn’t know is that we got entry to the Museum of Natural History as well. Another day, because it was time to figure out what in the hell we were going to do about parking. This was complicated, because the roads in Pittsburgh are completely fucked up. The only thing I didn’t enjoy about the trip.
OH YEAH, THE TRIP
5 o’clock was the perfect time to ingest, as I knew this particular brand of acid and knew the peaks. I slid the small blotter square onto my tongue under the illumination of a bright blue early autumn sky surrounded by the beautiful architecture of the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie museums. I knew that this was going to be a slow come-on. My pretty redheaded guide insisted on something called the Duquesne (doo-kane) Incline before the show, it was close to a couple of the areas we had scoped out for parking.
Pittsburgh is surrounded by hills, but saying that doesn’t quite capture it. Pittsburgh is surrounded by big-ass fuckin’ steep hills to the tune of 400 feet at 30 degrees. These early electric tram cars would work like a diagonal elevator. The weight of one car balances the weight of the other car on the other track so that less work is done by the motor works. And in the 1890s, the hills surrounding the city gave birth to new suburbs as the working and middle class were pushed out of the urban core by rapid industrialization. Riding in the ancient, rickety (but totally awesome) car, my joints began to feel weird, as though there was hydrogen trying to bubble out. My smiles, although natural, felt as though they were beginning to pick up extra, high octane enthusiasm. Upward bound into the bright blue sky we went.
Coming to the top station, we emerged onto a platform that overlooked the entirety of the city. Bright temples to corporate power rose as tombstones for the American middle class and the postwar prosperity that lulled the American people into a spiritual and mental hypnosis. A large fountain sprayed in the distance, there were bridges (tons of bridges) and across the river from us our final destination, Heinz Field. It’s bright yellow seats began to beckon to me. Maybe all those years of watching Steelers football had implanted something in my subconscious, but I knew that however inconsequential the event may be to the consumerist world, my destiny to sit in that seat began a long time before that day.
Our socially-distanced seats.
At this point, a few of us standing on the platform began to figure out the other Stones fans in attendance and talk about the concert. Our seats in the top, cheap area did not impress anyone but the camaraderie of Stones fans established. No matter how you may rate them as a human being, if someone is a fan of the Stones they are almost always somebody that likes to have a good time and usually will not judge you for the ways in which *you* choose to have a good time. One of the men was from central Pennsylvania and had visited Louisville for the Forecastle festival. The conversation turned to the opening band, the Ghost Hounds. I spoke about how I had grown weary of bluegrass and banjos in Ole Kentuckee and was looking about for neo-psychedelia, someone with raunchy extended jam sessions.
“Ah, they ain’t it man. It’s fake soul music… they’re just opening because one of the guys is part owner of the Steelers.”
Well, at least there would be no pressure to see the openers, no fear of missing out.
Between several seemingly incorrect websites found with fingers that were quickly turning to jello and eyes that weren’t exactly focusing correctly anymore, and by speaking with others, we found our solution: Parking a bit away, and walking 15 minutes to Heinz Field across two bridges. Easy peasy, she drove to the parking garage as my body began to turn inside out. Were my fingers growing longer? We had now reached the point where the acid was present enough that I did not want the responsibility of driving even a quarter mile. We set up in a $10 parking lot. And not long after, so did some drunks about 20 yards away.
These people were rough around the edges, but not mean. Loud. Annoying. And that’s when I got hit with the first wave of comeup anxiety. What if I don’t enjoy the show? What if people are acting like assholes? What if one grabs my girl’s ass and then I have to beat him to death with my bare hands? Am I going to have the mental acuity to shut up and lawyer up if I’m somehow arrested for PI or some wacky shit I don’t expect? WHATIFWHATIFWHATIFWHATIF…
Anyone who has had any psychedelic experiences should be aware of this phenomenon, even if not directly experiencing it themselves. Myself, I was usually going to hit some kind of comeup anxiety in almost every trip, but after a few particularly grueling episodes of guilt and mental self-flagellation for relatively benign failings of self I began to develop the tools for dealing with the mental baggage, coming to a point of Breaking Through, and then enjoying the rest of my evening and the revelations that the universe held in store. It had been 22 years since my first trip (when I was initiated into the rites by a good friend that was active in the rave community). I was an old pro. Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. Self-care. I was going to be alright, as long as I got away from the drunks. We sat in the car and ate stomach-calming foods. We went over alternative plans if we lost each other in the crowd, if her low-battery phone died (as mine was back at the hotel) and other random stuff that can make a fun night out go sour rather quickly. Beyond that, I was in her custody. I was a dependent this evening, a starry-eyed child.
Soon enough the drunks left, my heart rate began to even out, and I began to look at the world with my new and improved eyes. This is Technicolor, folks. The first of a few “zoomies” happened – where my focus makes it almost look as though I am getting closer to something without moving. Slight tracers began to follow brighter color. Slowly I was shifting into The Zone.
Being that the lovely woman leading me along towards the exit was never the type to be late, she bought us tickets for one of the riverboats that cross the river diagonally, southwest towards Heinz Field. We entered the dilapidated-but-fun-looking paddleboat and made our way to the top. There the last remnants of sunlight were bleeding from the sky and into my occipital lobes, searing my brain with reds, purples, oranges, and perhaps a few colors that have not been codified by humans yet. For those who have never contemplated a sunset (or sunrise) while in the firm grip of psychedelics, there is no way to explain the intensity of color. The youthful wonder of life returned as I pondered the way that the sun has been interpreted by cultures over the years. The skyscrapers gleamed with a chromelike sheen and colors, purple shades lighting up and streaking across the glass. It looked like the kind of place where a gourmet dry-aged steak awaited me around every corner…
And who would happen to be at the end of the boat but the exact same drunks as the parking garage? We ignored the noise the best we could before having a seat towards the front. Time had melted into meaninglessness, every minute that we continued to idle and seat more passengers, the more the caterwauled WHOOOO-ing from the bumpkin family, the more I wanted to just jump off and swim across the river. With no time or sanity to spare we finally shoved off sideways, then chugging down towards the confluence of rivers, and towards the illuminated stadium. The whole city buzzed with life like a high tech ant colony.
Heinz Stadium on the return trip from the boat
Upon landing we dropped ramps from the bow onto the wharf and exited like conquering Romans. I was beginning to lose my sense of direction but it didn’t matter, the giant Temple of Sportsball loomed before me like a coliseum where battle was to be held, glory gained, and blood spilled. All that was left was to hold it together until the show started… the opening band were doing their thing to warm the crowd.
Holding it together however, turned out to be a slightly more arduous task than I first expected. Security was not prepared, and long lines loomed in both directions from the gates. Losing any and all desire to talk to people that were strangers to me, we were inevitably naturally drawn into conversation by necessity. I wondered if wearing my sunglasses as it was pretty much dark aroused suspicion. Can I sneak in a water bottle by shoving it in my underwear? Did I take enough Delta-8 cannabinoid to keep me relatively calm as the LSD begins to shred my psyche in the presence of 30,000 rock and roll maniacs?
The last question was moot. Other than the occasional shifty-looking character most of the crowd looked older, more sedate, cleaner than would have been the case fifty years previous. Also a lot more boring, except for a few seasoned old men with ponytails and the accoutrements of left-leaning stoners from the prime of rock, the old sentinels who never gave it up. Even then conversation was not my forte at this point but it was handled.
“I’ve been to a lot of Steelers games, playoff games even, and it NEVER takes us this long to get in”
With our wait growing ever more excruciating, friendly advice from the locals attending the concert kept me calm – I did not want to miss even a moment of this show. Some friendly banter occurred, after all I wasn’t fully wigging yet and did not want to be rude. We were even called “yinz”, the Pittsburgh version of “y’all.” Finally we saw the security checkpoint, finally we were in, finally we were riding the escalators to our nosebleed seats… which were surprisingly good seats in the long run.
In the short run, we met our only “neighbors.” The man and woman were in their 50s. He had a half-toothless smile and remarks about “Holy shit, LL seats don’t mean lower level!” There was more drunken blathering and I knew within the first 5 seconds that my great anxiety from before was not unfounded. I spat out some general bullshit word salad, smiled, turned away, and began my great efforts to ignore the couple and their drunken bullshit for the duration of the show. Something the kids stuck with them likely would have been able to accomplish themselves.
And then the show began. Pictures of the recently lost Charlie Watts passed across sixty foot screens. Isolated drum tracks played to display his effective talents, cheers went up, and one of the most distinctive drummers of our time was honored. A “pocket” drummer, Charlie brought a knowledge of jazz and had a niche for finding strong, simple drumbeats that he played for the song, not for unnecessary flourishes and vulgar exhibitions of speed. Often bemused by the success and longevity of the Stones, he would smile as he declared himself a “failed jazz drummer.”
At last, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones!”
As the first chords of Street Fighting Man began to ring across the stadium, I became immersed in viewing the crowd that we were part of. The visual effects geeks did an amazing job, between the movement of humans and the way they were lit by undulating, rotating, melting colors. It all made for an amazing scene of scale and proportion. Waves of people bounced and rolled, and cheers erupted. Street Fighting Man holds a prescience in 2021 as much as it did in 1968. This anthem of 20th Century class struggle seems instead of a story of the would-be revolutionaries of their time, a prophecy of the large scale protests of recent times and those to come. After all, the hippies didn’t win. Most of them Sold Out and became fat cats, or silenced themselves into shameful conformity. Many others just followed pop culture with no real appreciation for the philosophy behind the times.
It is still an amazingly good time to take acid at a Stones show, even though I missed the wildest times. Maybe it’s better now in some ways.
Although the idea of a rock concert by such a band is often looked at as a soft, innocent event, this was not the case in the 1960s. The canned rebellion of a modern rock show did not exist, any gig could turn into a nightmare event due to an unruly crowd, bad brown acid, accidental deaths, police, and any other number of scenarios. Although they were initially sold as a pop act by management and began with a mostly-feminine teenybopper fanbase, the band began as a translation of Chicago blues and other Black American music. Beyond the fact that this music held a transforming, powerful emotion often absent in the sterile English popular music at that time it also reflected what was often felt by the working class of England. Radio stations tuned in by American occupation forces in Europe could also be tuned in by young English teens coming to terms with the stark reality of the limitations of their material prospects due to the class system in the UK and the prejudices that the pecking order produced. Racism may not hold you back, but that East End Cockney accent will. The working people of England in postwar times – with plenty of the country still fucked up from the Blitz – had many reasons to sing the blues or to find an opportunity to lift one’s spirits and cut a rug. Many formed bands, few expected success. An RnB fan, a blues freak was still very much an outsider in those seminal days.
Although being treated mostly well by the press in this day and age, the Stones were hounded relentlessly first by fanatics, then the media, and then later by the police until Keith finally overcame heroin in 1978. While the War on Drugs rages on the political agenda behind it remains in place. President Richard Nixon needed a way to demonize rebellious progressive youth, the ascendant black civil rights movement, and other “left-wing” causes.. Reefer could be tied both to hippies and to the Black population, as well as Hispanics (which at that time were mostly the fear of border states and California. Communists were doping our country!
I pondered this as the feminine half of the drunk old white couple proclaimed her love for Keith yet again with ear-piercing screams before falling over into the next row. A substance that turns people into jibbering fools is not just legal but advertised but my trip was illegal. Still, it was much safer regarding the cops than it would have been in the 60s and 70s. Just a bunch of old Boomers and their kids, right?
The giant screens continued to provide animation that befitted the songs, or camera work of the band as they performed live. The Maori tribal designs from Tattoo You slithered around the edges of the screen during Troubles A-Comin’, an outtake from that period. 19th Nervous Breakdown had a bass wobble at the end that mimicked the action inside my head. There were songs with drug references, songs about sex, and all the forbidden pleasures that conservative America wanted to keep under wraps in order to turn the youth of that time into productive little robots for the members of the ownership class. Let’s Spend The Night Together may not seem so salacious these days, but Ed Sullivan forced the band to change it to Spend Some Time Together for his show in 1967. You look around at the well-dressed, clean cut Boomers and wonder how many of them are just here because the Stones were popular when they were young – something of nostalgia – how many of them never seemed to learn the real lessons of freedom. As Kurt Cobain says, “they know not what it means.” You wonder how many of them came because they didn’t get to go in previous years, cockblocked by overbearing religious parents or upper-crusty Ken-and-Karen types that thought it beneath their precious princess to be seen at a rock and roll show. I also wondered how many of the music freaks were at their umpteenth Stones show as they sang along. Youths picked up new memories of a band that they would cherish forever, a band their parents and grandparents grew up on.
Although the people onstage seemed smallish, I could still see them, with Mick working the stage or Ronnie Wood working a sitar. Although not credited as an actual member, bassist Darryl Jones has played with them since 1994 and brings a talent on a 5-string that, for those songs, cannot be matched. Mostly playing close to the album, Jones let loose a bass solo on Miss You that would have made Bill Wyman blush. And although nobody could replace Charlie Watts, Steve Jordan had studied under him for many years (and contributed on 1986’s Dirty Work album). The beats shook the insides of my head like ballistics jelly as I wigged on the sound, the light, the color, and the sheer force of a tight band cranking out some of my favorite tunes.
Sympathy for the Devil was a treat, as is to be expected. Beginning with fireworks and smoke around the stage, the African rhythms that scared the shit out of white parents 50 years ago set into motion the guitar weaving of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. Although perhaps not as nimble as they once were, they played with energy and panache. The solos were amazing, building the tension and taking the songs to new place. Jumping Jack Flash ramped up and when it was done, Mick shouted, “Well – that’s it for PItt!” – a coy, dismissive farewell that nobody believed. A short break was had before launching into Gimme Shelter. Another badass song describing the not-so-easy spaces inhabited by those who weren’t seeing too much of the flower power but plenty of police harassment and persecution by authorities. Vocalist Sasha Allen sang the “Rape, Murder” lines first launched by the virtuoso Merry Clayton on a level that was true to the original.
And to finish it all off, their very first hit, Satisfaction. People of all ages danced. It was a rare moment when I felt connected to a large group of people for the first time in a very long time. Far from my usual cynical self, I could feel the transmission receivers in my brain reaching out for others, and connecting with goofy ass smiles and an acceptance of those around me, even if just in that moment. I even turned and smiled at the drunk Yinzers who had been screaming all night. If nothing else, they could appreciate good music.
And in this moment, far from seeing a nostalgia act or museum piece, I was getting to see the Rolling Stones in their element, working a crowd from side to side at almost 80 years old. I wish to Christ I could move like Mick Jagger, and I’m half his fucking age (and a lame ass bass player to boot). When the band launched into Midnight Rambler, he buried his face in the harmonica like it was the space between the latest supermodel’s legs and went to town on a level that would have made Little Walter proud. Keith Richards, despite a case of osteoarthritis in his fingers that would cause lesser beings to curl into a fetal position, jammed and riffed and soloed with grace and ease. After all, he always said that it was more important to play the *right* notes rather than the most notes. These are musicians doing what they love and despite their age, wealth, and accolades they wanted to BE THERE, and were having a great time doing it.
As opposed to the band being prima donnas, everyone who was playing on stage was introduced. Session players were always very important to the Rolling Stones as their creativity sprawled across genres, bringing in such greats as Chuck Leavell on piano. Mick introduced the players and background singers, grateful for having people that could really bring the sound of the albums to life while still sounding very much alive and fresh.
After the fireworks and the finale, the bright lights of Heinz Stadium assaulted my critically dilated pupils, as reality often does to those who have been on Cloud Nine for an extended period of time. Still tripping balls, my guide and I boated back over to the hotel parking garage. Smoke hung over the stadium. After landing, we decided to ride up the rival Monongehala Incline to see the city overlook at night. We looked for some kind of nightlife, hopefully karaoke, but even the hip district of Mt. Washington seemed to offer nothing, everybody was locked up tight.
Coming down the Monongahela Incline at the end of the night.
After a tense drive to find a gas station in some rough looking neighborhoods, we got lost in Pittsburgh but the relative lack of people in the downtown district assuaged our concerns. Construction was everywhere, lanes were closed, the GPS would recalculate, as we endured the only logistics clusterfuck of the entire trip. A shower ended the night with scenes from the show flashing in my mind, and a sense of meaning. I knew that I had witnessed a small bit of history that night, and made a little bit of my own history. I now have a drive to see a lot of my childhood heroes while they still exist, and a deeper motivation to create interesting music, even if all I ever have is a smallish band that plays in bars or basements for our own satisfaction. I also thought about how much had changed since the heyday of the Stones, and how much remained the same.
Not everyone views the advent of the psychedelic period with rose-colored glasses. The authorities of Scotland Yard certainly did not, and in 1967 Keith and Mick were set up for a bust at Redlands, Keith’s country home as they were coming down from one of the high-powered acid trips of that time. The infamous claims by police of Marianne Faithfull using a Mars bar as a dildo were part of the sensationalization by the press to sell tabloids, and the beginning of a movement by reactionaries in law enforcement and in government who wanted to stop the youth culture who sought to expand their mind beyond mind-numbing factory work or other grinding labor that faced them in the near future. Fabricated stories were leaked to newspapers detailing casualties of drugs that never occurred or were greatly exaggerated. Being said, nothing of that reactionary establishment movement has disappeared. Even supposedly left-leaning politicians won’t come out in favor of legalized cannabis because their donors won’t like it. We see large scale attempts to weaponize the stupidity of the American people in 2021, but this is nothing new.
Driving back through the redneck dystopia that is Ohio, I thought of how I would be treated if I stopped in some of these small towns for gas or food and looked like Keith Richards from 1975, when he was arrested in a small Arkansas town for “acting suspicious.” The officers claimed that within a few seconds there had been a large enough cloud of cannabis smoke for them to smell it in their cruisers, even though no marijuana or even roaches were found. (A small amount of cocaine WAS found, illegally, and they were set free by their lawyers’ work.) I thought further still – what if I looked like Mick Jagger in his gender-bending phase? Would they drag me behind a pickup truck? Shit, what about the pink shirt I was wearing NOW?
When Hunter S. Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, one of the prints featured a giant skull with swastikas rising in the eye holes. With every sign pushing religion, or sign of a Republican neoConfederate politician declaring his values were those of the uneducated redneck hordes, I realized how strongly the fascism of the United States has grown in the past 50 years. Drooling peasants think they are free because they can carry murder machines while banks and Wall Street purchase the remnants of America at fire-sale prices… and then the yokels vote to give the banksters tax cuts. People die from lack of health care in an inhuman system that rations care for profit. Even those who ‘did the right things’ – according to the system anyway – see their retirements vanish. And any effort to change things is labeled as “socialism” by the same people I knew that huffed gasoline and slept through history and science classes.
I thought further still about my psychonaut adventures and thought of the deeply-baked hypocrisy in any statement of freedom in this country. Sure, I was free to pick certain routes *within their system* and that’s where the hypocrisy burns brightest. I thought about how the boozers at the concert were free to consume their alcohol, a substance that rots both mind and brain, and how I would be charged with a felony were I to be found in possession of my dose of LSD. If I had a bag of grass and transported it across state lines, I would have been charged with trafficking.
Although the Rolling Stones don’t make many political statements (other than the fact that they do not endorse Donald Trump, who stole the use of You Can’t Always Get What You Want) the fact is that the words and the music of the Stones STILL DO represent a rebellion from American authoritarianism, the dictatorial boot of Corporate America, even in these days. The working class dream, to escape from the grind of daily life and to do what you love, is a goal they achieved but also laid a blueprint for so many more. They remain relevant.
“Talkin’ about freedom and bein’ it, that’s two different thangs. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”
George Hansen, Easy Rider (1969)