Jagger was dressed right out of Sympathy for the Devil, but for me the costume didn’t take hold until near the end of the show, when it no longer seemed like a costume. Black tight pants with silver studs up the side; a black blouse with a beige horseshoe on it, special astrology for the warlock’s tour; an Uncle Sam hat out of Ginsberg; and a red scarf that might have been ten feet long. Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, even Mick Taylor, they all looked like Rolling Stones; but they weren’t stepping out. They put the weight on Mick, and he was carrying it. The band was nervous, and it wasn’t all that clear whether or not they were going to make it this time.
Listen to the audience on the live cuts from Out of Our Heads or December’s Children or to Got Live If You Want It! There must have been a time when the Stones played to crowds that didn’t rise up screaming the moment they hit the stage, kids possessed with that Stones’ demon that made them charge the bandstand with every new song, keeping up the clamor until the Stones had played their last encore and left for good—but if there was such a time it’s been a long, long while. Those times are here again, and both the Rolling Stones and the audience had to take this night and make a great show out of it regardless.
The screams don’t come so easy any more. The flashing excitement of simply looking at the Stones is displaced. Dylan doesn’t tour, the Beatles don’t tour, and it’s been three years since any of us have seen Mick Jagger. So we had to look at him to make sure he was really there. The giant TV screen up above the stage held images that in an odd way were more real than the show itself—somehow it made more sense to see a picture of Mick Jagger than to see Mick Jagger himself. We were all quite out of time.
“So happy to be here, and all that bullshit,” said Mick, after the opening shot, a metal-hard “Jumping Jack Flash.” He was clearly pissed that the crowd had clapped with merely uncertain enthusiasm for both his entry and for his first vocal. He’d danced stiffly on that first number, feeling out the stage, but the audience had been feeling out Mick. It was as if there were complaints that this band had been, you know, “over-hyped.”
Things had not gone smoothly during the first set, some hours before. Richards’ amp had blown, and he’d tossed his see-through plexiglass guitar into the air and walked off stage. The Stones had been forty-five minutes late—not, as Jagger told the audience, because no one came to pick them up at the airport, but because Tina Turner had put on such a dynamite show the band hadn’t wanted to follow her too quickly. Then in the middle of “Satisfaction” Bill Graham and the tour manager got into a pushing and shoving match right on stage. A hassle all around. That was what some people talked about when they left the first show—that and the bad sound.
It was 2:30, the Stones had been on for ten minutes, and while Jagger pranced with growing enthusiasm and Richards stung the hardest notes from his guitar, the sound system booming in perfect balance, the audience was still warming up. “Oh, Carol”—“Oh, groovy, Chuck Berry, hmmmmmmmmm…” “Sympathy for the Devil” somehow slipped past. We were, I think, judging the music, not responding to it, and this too must have been new to the Stones. Years ago we’d just groove with the loud hum of the band and the ranging dark cheer of the crowd into one giant instrument: THE STONES! And us. Now we heard the guitar solos.
Mick sneered at the audience. “Since you’re all so quiet tonight… Since you’re all sitting down, well then, we’ll sit down too.” He and Keith Richard squatted down for two slow southern blues: “Prodigal Son” from the last album and a new one, “Gotta Move.” They were a lot of fun. Keith played a very classy old steel guitar, and Mick found the night’s best moment up till then when he let out with a soft, low Robert Johnson moan—very moving, very intense—while he mugged at the audience and rolled his big eyeballs.
There was a queer distance between Mick and the Stones—this devastating band and their devouring leader—and the audience. It’d be easiest to think the reason was the massive Oakland Coliseum, but it was more than that. We’ve grown up with the Stones, and we are more likely closer to where they are than we were four or five years ago—we have influenced them too—but somehow this closeness of spirit increased the distance between the Stones as performers and ourselves as the audience. Or perhaps it was another incident that brought the new feel of the concert home. I walked upstairs to the men’s room between acts, and sitting on the can I noticed two cats blowing each other in the next stall. Somehow I can’t imagine that having happened at the Cow Palace in 1966. The transfiguration of wet pants has come—She blew my nose, and then she blew my mind… closer and farther away. Mick kept trying to catch it.
They did “Love In Vain,” one of the most beautiful of all the songs by the great Robert Johnson. It was a triumph. Mick Taylor handled the break with a finesse of his emotion, and Jagger used the spaces of the tragic blues to summon up all of his power: “The blue light… was mah bay-bee… and the red light… was my mind…”
And it’s hard to tell and
It’s hard to tell and
It’s hard to tell…
All my love’s in vain…
The music got better and better and the applause was just applause. Into and out of “I’m Free,” a rollicking “Under My Thumb” with Mick breaking loose on stage and still looking for his audience. Kids were moving down the aisles, sort of wandering along, as if they hoped no one would notice. They were eagerly and persistently hustled back by the floor crew. The guard near me was an old black man with a tam-o’-shanter. Would have been a respectable job for Hayakawa.
“Slowly rocking on,” as Mick put it, frowning, they went into their new numbers. “Midnight Rambler” was the first. It’ll rank with “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Salt of the Earth” and “Goin’ Home” as a Stones classic. What an amazing song! On and on it went, Mick now looking the part his clothes had created, falling to his knees, the notes from the two guitars surround him and finally us—a dark, evil song, dripping with the spirit of the Rolling Stones. There was movement in the band, and the audience was on the edge of real excitement. Jesus! On the edge! It was that hard, even in the midst of such brilliance. “Live With Me” was next, beginning with the line, “I got nasty habits, baby…” Chuck Berry riffs flew in and out of the choruses, Mick spinning, clapping his hands, one-two-three-four over his shoulder, dipping his scarf low, forcing a memory of how fabulous he’d been in “Sympathy for the Devil” forty minutes before. “Yesss, pleased to meet you, baby”—whooshing into a mannered bow—“Hope you… guess my name… ” And the concert was finally catching up with us. Then a dramatic, shouting “Gimme Shelter,” Mick dancing faster, Keith Richard beginning to move out, and the place was getting itchy. A girl was bopping in her seat and the guard told her to stop. She didn’t.
“I can’t see anyone,” yelled Mick. “We wanna see who we came to play for. Turn on the lights!” All the light went up and the aisles began to fill with real urgency. Mick played to the crowd, pushing them on. If he couldn’t make them rush the stage, pushing to get to him, waving their arms and forcing everyone else to stand on their seats and wave their arms, then he’d have had it as MICK JAGGER OF THE ROLLING STONES. He’d be Mick Jagger, Movie Star, or Mick Jagger the Recording Artist, but that was not what it was about and that was not what mattered. And now, with the lights on, perhaps it was embarrassing to be calm and restrained, or perhaps the Stones were more real, out of the spotlight and just part of the celebration. But Mick had brought it off; he’d really had to do it himself.
“He could play a guitar just like ringing a bell,” and Keith Richards can do that, but by this time he was playing as if a bomb had just gone off in Chuck Berry’s bell-tower. Huge notes and titanic bursts of sound commanded the crowd up to the stage and pushed more people up against the vanguard as the Rolling Stones powered in to “Satisfaction.” It was like a blur. Devils dancing on stage. No more feeling it out. The stage was showered with joints. The Stones flashed grins at each other and now that the big TV screen had faded the music seemed louder and you realized that some of the audience was really that close to grabbing Mick’s scarf.
This wasn’t any ritual that the Stones and the audience were acting out in respect for something that had happened years before. Mick and the band had reached for it and won. It was real… Bump-Bump-Da-Dump-Da-Dump-Da-Da-Da-Da-Da I met a gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis… The blur moved faster, Mick mincing beautifully, finally shooting his arm out in one motion and twirling it above his head in another: I met her on the boulevards of Paris… Keith bent down almost to his knees, shaking notes out while Mick Taylor carried the solo, Mick flying from one side of the stage to the other, whirling to a dead stop, grabbing the mike and blurting out more lines: The lady, she covered me with roses…
They ended it past three-thirty in the morning with “Street Fighting Man.” Jagger seemed to draw himself up over his own height as he gestured for the words—the hall was fully lit, as if we were stealing a thrill from someone’s closed-door idea of what the concert was supposed to be. It got away. Mick waved his arms until the crowd waved back and then stepped to the edge of the stage and blew astonishing kisses—with both hands—to everyone. Mick Jagger singing with his rock and roll band—a glorious moment.
I knew it had really happened that way when I got home around five A.M. Pinned to the icebox was a note: “Just came by after the concert. Wasn’t it great!!! We got within five feet of Mick!” And not without his help. In a way, that was the best part.
Rolling Stone, December 13, 1969
12/13/69 was the date of the piece, not the date of the concert, right? Because Altamont was December 6.
Yes, the date of the issue, not the show (I think ‘Rolling Stone’ front-dated their issues by a week or two). It’s a good point to make, and I was struck as well by the close proximity of the Oakland show, the overall tone of Greil’s piece (which in no way feels like a downer), and especially by his second sentence: “The sixties are over,” which over time mutated negatively into the ultimate Altamont cliché. (What’s also a little bewildering is to note that ‘Let it Bleed’ was released on December 5, which I assume is between the Oakland concert and Altamont–that’s a pretty intense short stretch of end-of-sixties Stones activity.)
I believe this is a complete recording of the show GM wrote about:
The date was November 9, 1969; the tour began in Fort Collins, Colorado, on November 7 and played Los Angeles before going to Oakland.