Thursday, February 23, 2012

Backstage in Another Century

My friend Marty recently shared this twelve minute clip from The World’s Greatest Rock ’n Roll Party, a closed-circuit and pay-per-view-special broadcast live in the United States on December 18, 1981. Allegedly the first pay-per-view music event, the program featured the Rolling Stones' full show in Hampton, Virginia as well as the above footage taken backstage prior to the performance. The show was trumpeted in the New York Times in an October 31 article, "Rolling Stones Plan A Special":
The Rolling Stones have announced plans to close their United States tour with a closed-circuit television special, to be broadcast via satellite from a New York nightclub on Dec. 18. The name of the club has not been disclosed.

The special, to be called ''The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Party,'' will include guest stars from rock, rhythm-and-blues and country-and-western music, and will be shown on large screens and broadcast through concert sound systems in 200 theaters and halls around the country. The sites will be decorated with balloons and other party paraphernalia.

Everything about the Stones' 1981 tour was big, from the size of the stages to the largess of the commercial sponsorships to the hundreds of balloons released each night during "Satisfaction" to the distant satellite beaming the songs back to a grateful earth.  The footage above is uncanny. A week and a half earlier I'd seen the Stones at Capital Center in Largo, Maryland. For weeks we'd heard rumors on the radio and among those in the know that the Stones had themed backstages during this tour: one city recreated a circus; another a desert oasis. I remember hearing about a pay-per-view special at the time, but those were for the rich kids, the ones whose parents splurged on those kinds of things, looking the other way; kids who got to watch pay-per-view events felt older to me even if they were my age. So whatever imagery I possessed of those backstages was wholly, and luridly, imagined. I wondered, I wondered, I guessed, I fantasized....

Three decades later it's amusing to see Keith and Ronny goof around with George Thorogood, who opened the show, and various kids (Keith's) and women (Ronny's, I think). Mick drinks from a large bottle of Gatorade and and stretches and looks like he's wearing his daddy's purple suit. Charlie, on form, lurks in the background politely. Wyman slithers about in a polyester jacket, mentally tabulating last night's hotel room conquests. It's all very...tame, certainly lacking the wealthy decadence and "party paraphernalia" that I'd imagined, and yet similar to a laidback, rarefied, entitled vibe that I'd guessed at. Directors Tom Trbovich and Hal Ashby (the latter helmed the feature-length tour film Let's Spend The Night Together) attempt, somewhat lamely, to create a "special access" mood—note the corny first-person POV shot at the opening—and to call back to Stones Road Myths in the form of, gasp! women in the men's room! farm animals! grotto-like steam! a snake coiling around a urinal! It looks quite staged, and a bit dated, an attempt to supply myth before it's been earned, or after it's gone stale. But once the camera turns on the band hanging out on chairs and milling around, they play it loose and casual, a tad self-conscious. Cocksucker Blues it is not.

What's interesting to me is how long it took me to see this footage, which has not been released commercially, having wound up predictably on YouTube. Today, every other person in that backstage—from family members to road crew members to hangers-on (to Bill Graham)—would have phone cameras, clicking away and documenting everything, evidence of Backstage With The Stones leaking on to Twitter and Facebook within seconds. No one will have to wait three decades anymore to see if his fantasies match up with reality. What will be the New Fantasizing in this century?


Oh yeah, and this happened at the end of the night. Mythology after all:

Keith: "I saw nobody between him and Mick: Oh God, here we go, I'm not gonna get any more money for this (laughs)... I have no idea what this guy's gonna do. I don't know if he's gonna stab Mick, hug him, kiss him, roll over and screw him. I don't know! All I know is that he's trying to get his hands on Mick and this I have to prevent. And I do have a weapon in my hands (laughs).... I was playing 'Satisfaction' at the time. This is gonna sound terrible but the damn thing stayed in tune. And this is the greatest advert for Fender! (laughs)."

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