When The Rolling Stones landed in New York on the worldwide Licks tour, New York’s Madison Square Garden was a venue that they’d played numerous times and was hallowed ground for the live recording of Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out.
“I hope my trousers don’t fall down,” Mick Jagger teased New York in November 1969 before the band launched into Chuck Berry’s “Carol.” “You wouldn’t want my trousers to fall down now, would you?”
Flash forward to 2003 when the Stones got back to the Garden for a special live HBO broadcast. During the show that was also released as part of the DVD box set Four Flicks, you might have been surprised to see a man with a bandana dancing in the front rows and blending into the night during “Satisfaction.” It took a few seconds to register that the bearded man was actor James Gandolfini who was better known for the character he played, New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano. Gandolfini swayed in the same area where Paul and Linda McCartney once wore disguises to see George Harrison and in the building where Jagger was spotted watching Bob Marley.
The Stones were celebrating their fortieth anniversary when they hit the Garden and it has been re-released in a combo CD/DVD packaged Licked Live in NYC. It’s a show that fabulously documents how the Stones walked down a runway in the middle of the arena to a small stage that replicated their days as young apprentice blues men in the midst of a British rock explosion. On it, they delivered scorching performances of “It’s Only Rock and Roll” and “When The Whip Comes Down,” the song set in the New York sex trade, with Jagger playing rhythm guitar and adding to the Some Girls era dense sound of their three-guitar ensemble..
Sadly, Gandolfini is no longer with us. He passed away suddenly in 2013. Fortunately the Stones still are here and currently in the midst of a European tour that concludes in London this week and where it all began sixty years ago. To paraphrase their first concert recording, the Stones still got live, if you want it.
Recently when playing in the Beatles hometown of Liverpool, the Stones resurrected their first single “I Wanna Be Your Man” written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The Beatles were both friends and rivals. The song came about during a pivotal time when the Stones had no songs in sight. Keith Richards recalled it in his book Life characterizing the band’s fortunes in 1963 as dire and describing the lack of songs as “as the ever-depleting r and b barrel.” A chance encounter between manager Andrew Loog Oldham and Lennon and McCartney resulted in the Beatles offering the song they were still in the process of recording for their next album.
“They played it through with us,” Richards remembered. “Brian (Jones) put on some nice slide guitar. We turned it into an unmistakably Stones rather than Beatles song. It was clear that we had a hit almost before they’d left the studio.”
The Stones have always been cognizant of their history and have always been about acknowledging the moment. Like their recent trip to Liverpool, a few others come to mind.
When they played in Texas on the Bigger Bang tour, they rehearsed Waylon Jennings’ “Bob Wills Is Still The King” and played a loose but spirited version live that night, made memorable by Jagger’s exaggerated drawl and Ron Wood’s pedal steel.
In Washington DC on the No Filter tour in 2019, they sang “Mercy Mercy” for the first time in fifty years in tribute to DC native singer and songwriter Don Covay. The song first appeared on Out of Our Heads and hadn’t played since their tribute to the late guitarist and Stones founder Brian Jones at Hyde Park three days after he passed.
Last Fall in Tampa, where Richards famously woke up in the middle of the night and recorded the opening riff of “Satisfaction” on his tape recorder before falling back asleep, Jagger recalled the first time the band played in the area in 1965. That night they were part of a package tour and played a four-song set. After the set, the band went back to the hotel and wrote “Satisfaction.” In a perverse twist of history Jagger noted the hotel is no more and the site is now the corporate headquarters of the Church of Scientology.
With the sixtieth anniversary now in play, it’s easy to get lost track of prior milestone years. In addition to Licked Live In New York, the Stones have released a set recorded live in Toronto at the El Mocambo club in 1977. It was made when Billy Preston played keyboards for the band. Four covers of “Mannish Boy,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Crackin’ Up” and “Around and Around” originally appeared on side three of Love You Live. Now the show has been released in its entirety and it is smoking hot with covers of “Worried Life Blues” and “Route 66” and vintage performances of less played songs such as “Hand of Fate,” “Luxury” and “Worried About You.” With Live at The El Mocambo, you can hear the complete set and wonder why we had to wait all these years and suffer through the malaise of the inferior set Love You Live.
Listening to Licked Live In New York and Live At The El Mocambo reminds us why we still savor the Stones. In short, there is nothing else like them. Driving the other night and hearing “Confessin’ The Blues” on the Underground Garage channel, it’s clear that it all began with love of the blues.
Keith Richards was recently quoted about the joy of life that comes from playing with the band. Richards is still slashing guitar chords that ricochet and echo across football stadiums. If the theatricality of the world’s greatest rock and roll band still mesmerizes, Richards is still at home on smaller stages. At the Spring Love Rocks NYC benefit, Richards reunited his solo band the X-Pensive Winos for the first time in thirty years. They played an abbreviated four-song set in the middle of the show, treated less like the headliners they should have been.
In Stones parlance of going back through the past darkly, the surprise set at El Mocambo was billed as the Cockroaches. On the newly released two cd package, the Stones command all their powers snarling and slashing through their set like a garage band. Live At The El Mocambo was famously recorded during the time when Keith Richards was arrested for heroin possession. The future of the Stones was in doubt. Tabloid headlines in large print raged about the prime minister’s wife Margaret Trudeau hanging with the band. When Richards was acquitted and sentenced to perform a benefit concert for a school for the blind, John Belushi was the emcee, welcoming Richards and his new side band the New Barbarians. The bark of Belushi’s garrulous voice is immortalized on the bootleg album Blind Date In Toronto.
The Stones have experienced other inflection points. Brian Jones, the band’s founder, drowned in a swimming pool In 1969. Mick Taylor, his replacement, left in 1974 and was replaced by Ronnie Wood. Bill Wyman, the stoic bassist and band’s documentarian, said he’d had enough and left in the early Nineties. And last year Charlie Watts, the band’s kinetic drummer, passed
Now the Stones return to Hyde Park where Mick Jagger once released a sack of butterflies in a public memorial to Jones.
With Watts gone, it could have been the end of the Stones. But new drummer Steve Jordan, an alumni of the X-Pensive Winos, was a quick study and fits like a glove.
The question that has persisted over the years is always the same. “Will this be it?” The speculation has persisted since the Sixties yet the band has never uttered the words “last time.”
“I read in the papers they said this would be the last time The Rolling Stones play the Garden,” Jagger remarked at the Licked Live in New York show. “But I don’t think so.”
True to his word, the band has come back to the Garden four times since.
Since then Keith Richards fell out of a tree. Mick Jagger underwent heart surgery. And just a few weeks ago the singer contracted Covid that delayed a few shows.
The hand of fate is older now. But The Rolling Stones keep turning time on its head.