I am standing in a blacktop lot on the grounds of the National Orange Show Events Center in San Bernardino, California. It’s a clear, warm November day; about 95 degrees. There are agricultural halls on the wide-open property, along with some 1950s-era exhibit buildings. In the pavement, scarred seams trace a large structure that once stood right where I am, the Swing Auditorium, which was knocked down after a plane hit it in 1981. I’m just about where the stage would have been.
A hot breeze blows, inviting the mind to wander; to drift back and imagine what it might have been like on this very spot the night of June 5, 1964. The night the Rolling Stones stood here and played their very first show just days after landing in New York on their first visit to the States.
In the 50 years since they first arrived here, over more than a dozen tours, many recording sessions, photo shoots and even living here, the Stones have left many marks in the map.
So let’s get rolling to discover a few of the more interesting ones.
- Swing Auditorium 689 E. Street San Bernardino, California
The Rolling Stones gave their debut American concert on June 5, 1964 at the Swing Auditorium, in San Bernardino, California. They played a total of 11 songs to 4,400 fans. A 35 year-old local San Bernardino promoter, Bob Lewis, was trying to capitalize on the British Invasion. But when the Beatles proved too expensive, he opted for a more affordable act, The Rolling Stones. Following a taping in Hollywood for The Dean Martin Show, the band traveled to San Bernardino by bus for a 25-minute set that thrilled the capacity crowd.
On September 11, 1981, an airplane crashed into the Swing Auditorium, killing the pilot and his passenger. The building was so damaged that remaining parts of the structure had to be demolished. Today the site is part of the NOS Events Center; the exact site where the auditorium sat is an open paved lot.
- “Memory Motel” 692 Montauk Highway Montauk (Long Island), New York
The Memory Motel is a small (13 rooms) motel and bar immortalized by the Rolling Stones in the pretty ballad of the same name (which appeared on the band’s 1976 album Black and Blue). During the mid-1970s, the Rolling Stones—and in particular Mick Jagger—were regulars out on the remote reaches of Montauk, hanging out with artist Andy Warhol at his nearby compound, among other places. Jagger supposedly spent time at the motel because it had a pool table and a decent jukebox, and one night while here he supposedly was inspired to write the beautiful song about “Hannah, a honey of a girl,” and where they spent “a lonely night at the Memory Motel.” (Rumor has it he actually wrote part of the tune at the bar.)
- Scott Cantrell death site- Frog Hollow, Boway Road, South Salem
In 1979, while the Rolling Stones were in Europe, 17-year-old Scott Cantrell allegedly shot himself in the head at this house while playing Russian roulette in bed with Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richard’s infamous paramour and mother of several of his children. Richards and Pallenberg had lived here since 1977. Pallenberg was arrested, but Cantrell’s death was ruled as a suicide in 1980, despite ongoing rumors that Pallenberg and Cantrell had been playing a game of Russian roulette with the gun.
Soon after this tragic incident, the couple moved out of the house and soon separated from each other.
- Have You Seen Your Mother Baby 24th Street between Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenue, New York City, New York
In 1966 The Rolling Stones released the hit single, Have You Seen Your Mother Baby (Standing in the Shadow). To promote it they created an outrageous photo featuring the band in full drag.
It was shot by renowned photographer Jerry Schatzberg at this location, and the preparation for the photo took place at Schatzberg’s studio, located at 333 Park Avenue South.
- Their Satanic Majesties Request, Pictorial Productions, 650 S. Columbus Avenue Mt. Vernon
For the Stones stab at psychedelia, they envisioned an album cover unlike anything they (or anyone else) had done up to that point. They hired photographer Michel Cooper to create a 3-D effect using lenticular technology. The holographic-looking portrait features all five members of the band, dressed in various bizarre, fairy-tale styled costumes. As well, tiny portraits of the Beatles are hidden around the edges.
The one time-production facility famous for producing lenticular images is today a restaurant supply warehouse.
- Muscle Shoals Recording Studios, 3614 Jackson Highway, Sheffield
In the 1970 film Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones are seen recording Brown Sugar and Wild Horses at the recording studio. Although the original Muscle Shoals Sound Studios relocated from here to an updated and larger facility on Alabama Avenue in Sheffield, the building still sees occasional use as a recording studio. The Black Keys album Brothers, recorded there in 2009 achieved Grammy Award success in 2011. Other songs recorded here over the years include Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, Bob Seger’s Night Moves and The Staple Singers’ I’ll Take You There.
- Big Hits (High Tide & Green Grass) 2600 Franklin Canyon Drive, Los Angeles
The popular Andy Griffith Show’s main credit opening featured Andy and his son Opie (Ron Howard) walking toward a lake, toting their fishing poles on a lazy summer day. Were they near North Carolina, in Mayberry? No, they were near Beverly Hills, in Franklin Canyon.
Nestled right off Mulholland Drive, the pine and redwood-rich park is home to Franklin Canyon Lake.
This location was used in the 1960s for such TV shows as Combat, Star Trek, and How the West Was Won, but it is also where the Stones came one day with photographer Guy Webster to shoot what became the cover of their 1966 collection Big Hits (High Tide & Green Grass) (Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water album cover was also shot here).
- Exile on Main St., 514 Main St., Los Angeles
This is former site of the Galway Theatre, an early-1900s movie house in Los Angeles. On the Rolling Stones classic 1972 album Exile on Main St., the album cover features a series of gritty black and white photographs shot by photographer/documentarian Robert Frank (who also shot the Stones unreleased ’72 documentary, C—sucker Blues). The images were shot in early 1972 after Frank coaxed the band downtown near the skid row area of the city to take some photos and shoot some film footage. Though the shots were taken all along this stretch of Main St., 514 is where Mick Jagger is prominently pictured on the album, standing in front of the Galway Theater. While no longer a theater, the original build remains.
- Altamont Raceway – 17001 Midway Road, Tracy
It was billed as a West Coast Woodstock—a huge free concert in a windswept racetrack headlined by the Rolling Stones. Instead, the gathering became one of the most violent days in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. For the final show of their 1969 American tour, the Rolling Stones “hosted” a one-day concert at the Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California. The show took place on December 6, 1969, was intended as a thank-you gesture to Stones fans. In addition to the Rolling Stones, the show’s lineup included Santana, the Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The Grateful Dead never got to play, though they were scheduled to perform. The haphazardly organized festival was “policed” by the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, a move that haunts the Stones to this day. The calamitous festival reached its climax during the Stones’ set, when 18-year old Meredith Hunter rushed the stage with a gun and was stabbed to death before the band’s eyes. The moment is the ugly centerpiece of the Maysles Brothers’ classic 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter. The track still exists today.
- Memorial Auditorium – 1515 J Street, Sacramento
Built in 1927, Memorial Auditorium was Sacramento’s top-flight venue for everything from circuses, boxing/wrestling matches and ice shows to high school graduations and many concerts. The Rolling Stones played here four times, October 26, 1964; May 22, 1965; December 3, 1965 and July 22, 1966. The 12/3/65 stands out in Stones history because this is the one when Keith Richards was electrocuted onstage. He suffered a massive electric shock when his guitar strings brushed against a live microphone, knocking him clean off his feet. “I woke up in the hospital an hour later,” Richards later recalled.
“The doctor said (electrocution victims) come around or they don’t.” Doctors later speculated that the rubber souls of Richards’ Hush Puppies shoes saved his life. Rare home movie footage of the actual moment in question was sold recently at auction.
When the nascent Rolling Stones began playing gigs around London in 1962, the notion that a rock & roll band would last five years, let alone fifty, was an absurdity. After all, what could possibly be more ephemeral than rock & roll, the latest teenage fad? Besides, other factors made it unlikely that such a momentous occasion would ever come to pass. “I didn’t expect to last until fifty myself, let alone with the Stones,” Keith Richards says with a laugh. “It’s incredible, really. In that sense we’re still living on borrowed time.”
“You have to put yourself back into that time,” Mick Jagger says about those early days when he and Keith and guitarist Brian Jones roomed together and were hustling gigs wherever they could find one. “Popular music wasn’t talked about on any kind of intellectual level. There was no such term as ‘popular culture.’ None of those things existed.”
“But suddenly popular music became bigger than it had ever been before. It became an important, perhaps the most important, art form of the period, after not at all being regarded as an art form before.”
Times and attitudes quickly changed, in short, and now five decades later, the Rolling Stones are celebrating an anniversary that artists in any field would be overjoyed to attain. Indeed, the Stones will be marking the fiftieth anniversary of their first gig at the Marquee Club in London on July 12, 1962 with a celebratory appearance at that storied venue, five decades later to the day. At that first show, the group was billed as the Rollin’ Stones and, of what would become the band’s original lineup, only Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and keyboardist Ian Stewart performed. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts would formally join in January of 1963, and Stewart officially left the band in May, though he continued on as the Stones’ road manager and occasionally played with them both on stage and in the studio until his death in 1985.
To commemorate the Stones’ 50th anniversary, noted filmmaker Brett Morgen directed a no-holds-barred documentary about the band, Crossfire Hurricane, and the Stones released GRRR!, a greatest hits collection that includes two brand new songs and a stunning album cover designed by Walton Ford. The Stones then went back on the road for the 50 & Counting Tour, visiting London, New York and other cities across North America and Canada in celebration of five decades, culminating with a legendary performance at the UK’s Glastonbury Festival plus two major outdoor shows in London’s Hyde Park, chronicled in the concert film Sweet Summer Sun – Hyde Park Live. The Stones then launched another sell out tour, 14 ON FIRE, that brought them to Asia, Australia and New Zealand. In 2015 the band stunned audiences in the USA for the umpteenth time with their Zip Code tour and a re-mastered Sticky Fingers album.
In early 2016, the Stones launched their América Latina Olé tour, which consisted of thirteen electrifying dates in Central and South America. As a dramatic capstone to that trip, the Stones performed in Cuba for the first time, electrifying an audience of 1.2 million fans in Havana. In another historic live performance, the Stones will participate this October in Desert Trip, a three-day superstar festival in Indio, California that will also feature Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, the Who, Neil Young and Roger Waters. In addition, Exhibitionism, a groundbreaking, career-spanning exhibition devoted to the Stones’ legendary history, opened earlier this year at the Saatchi Gallery in London to rave reviews. It will travel to New York this November for a run at Industria.
To mark the Stones’ 50th anniversary a few years back, a book was produced, The Rolling Stones: 50, chronicling the group’s legendary journey through rare and previously unseen photographs, including images from every aspect of the Stones’ history – reportage photos, shots from recording sessions, concert highlights and outtakes from studio shoots. It was a highly appropriate focus of the anniversary since such visual images constituted an essential element of how the Stones defined themselves in those pre-Internet, pre-MTV days when photos of a band on an album cover or in newspapers and magazines determined how they would be viewed for years to come.
“It was a very new development that famous photographers would take pictures of rock bands, and it was really fantastic,” Mick Jagger recalls. “Those images were very much used and very widely seen, and they were essential to conveying who the Rolling Stones were to the public. Suddenly we were in all these magazines and one thing led to another. We became part of the whole Sixties phenomenon, breaking through the boundaries of pop music into fashion, films, television and everything else.”
“There was an amazing energy going on with people our age then,” Keith Richards adds. “It’s transformed the way the Seventies would have been or the Eighties or the Nineties or now.”
Of course, the Rolling Stones themselves are among the most important reasons for the dramatic breakthroughs and transformations that have taken place over the last five decades. Indeed, it’s essentially impossible to overestimate the importance of the Rolling Stones in rock & roll history. The group distilled so much of the music that had come before it and has exerted a decisive influence on so much that has come after. Only a handful of musicians in any genre achieve that stature, and the Stones stand proudly among them. They exist in a pantheon of the most rarefied kind.
Needless to say, having lived life in the whirlwind of the Stones’ history, the band itself doesn’t see it in exactly those terms. “It’s been surprisingly organic,” Keith Richards says.
“I mean, there was no sort of master plan. We were flying by the seat of our pants. That is what amazes me, that the whole thing was improvised. We’ve been an amazingly resilient bunch of lads, that’s all I say. We’ve been part of everything that’s happened, and we’re an important part, I suppose. If you say I’m great, thank you very much, but I know what I am. I could be better, man, you know?”
“I can understand a bit about the kind of influence the Rolling Stones have had, because we were in the same position,” Mick Jagger says. “We modeled ourselves on lots of people who came before us, and I learned to sing from various blues artists and from Chuck Berry and others. When we’d play with someone like Little Richard, I would be incredibly impressed, and I’d go on stage and try to be as good as I could be because I knew that Little Richard was watching me.”
The effort clearly paid off. Every album the Stones released through the early Seventies – from The Rolling Stones in 1964 to Exile on Main Street in 1972 — is essential not simply to an understanding of the music of that era, but to an understanding of the era itself. In their intense interest in blues and R&B, the Stones connected a young audience in the U.S. to music that was unknown to the vast majority of white Americans. Though the Stones were not overtly political in their early years, their obsession with African American music – from Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye and Don Covay – struck a chord that resonated with the goals of the civil rights movement. If the Stones had never made an album after 1965 they would still be legendary.
Soon, of course, the Stones became synonymous with the rebellious attitude of that era. Songs like ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, ‘Street Fighting Man’, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’ captured the violence, frustration and chaos of that time. For the Stones, the Sixties were not a time of peace and love; in many ways, the band found psychedelia and wide-eyed utopianism confusing and silly. The Stones always were – and continue to be – tough-minded pragmatists. Against the endless promises of Sixties idealism the Stones understood that ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. You simply want to Let It Be? It’s more likely, given the harsh world we live in, that you might have to Let It Bleed.
For those reasons, as the Sixties drained into the Seventies, the Stones went on a creative run that rivals any in popular music. Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile On Main St (1972) routinely turn up on lists of the greatest albums of all time, and deservedly so. All done with American producer Jimmy Miller – “an incredible rhythm man,” in Richards’ terse description – those records shake like the culture itself was shaking. As the Stones were working on Let It Bleed, Brian Jones died, and the band replaced him with Mick Taylor, a profoundly gifted guitarist whose lyricism and melodic flair counterbalanced Richards’ insistent, irreducible rhythmic drive, adding an element to the band’s sound that hadn’t been there before, and opening fertile new musical directions.
After that, the Stones were an indomitable force on the music scene, and they have continued to be to this day. The albums Goats Head Soup (1973), It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (1974) and Black and Blue (1976), found the Stones creating such hits as “Angie” and “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll” and exploring their way through a period of transition, with guitarist Ron Wood coming on board in 1975 to replace Mick Taylor, contributing another key element to the band’s evolving sound. Then in 1978 the album, Some Girls, rose to the challenge of punk (“When the Whip Comes Down”) – whose energy and attitude the Stones had defined a decade earlier – but also swung with the sinuous grooves of disco (“Miss You”). The album is one of the very best of that decade. Tattoo You (1981) added the classics “Start Me Up” and “Waiting on a Friend” to the Stones’ repertoire, and took its prominent place among the Stones’ most compelling – and most popular – later albums. Possibly the most underrated album of the Stones’ career, Dirty Work (1986) finds the band at its rawest and most rhythmically charged, a reflection of the tumult within the band when it was recorded. True Stones fans have long worn their appreciation of Dirty Work as a hip badge of honor.
With the release of Steel Wheels in 1989, the Stones went back on the road again for the first time in seven years and inaugurated the latest phase of the band’s illustrious career. They’ve made strong, credible new studio albums during this period – Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997), A Bigger Bang (2006) – along with the excellent live album Stripped (1995) and the fun, immensely satisfying hits collection, Forty Licks (2002).
More significantly, though, the Stones have set a standard for live performance during this time. That is an achievement completely in accord with the band’s history, something that has defined the group from the very start. Mick Jagger remembers that “As soon as we got in front of audiences, they went crazy. It started in clubs, and then it just continued to grow.”
“Something was happening in the late winter of 1962 and afterwards,” Keith Richards says, “because suddenly hundreds and then thousands of people were queuing up to see us. And it doesn’t take a nail driven through your head to realize that something’s going on and that you’re part of it. It was an amazing experience and it happened so fast, starting in London and then moving out from there. It was like hanging onto a tornado.”
When the Stones began to be introduced on their 1969 tour as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World,’ they were staking that claim on the basis of their live performances. It was almost fashionable for bands to withdraw from the road at that time – Bob Dylan and the Beatles had both done so. But the Stones set out to prove that writing brilliant songs and making powerful records did not mean that you were too lofty to get up in front of your fans and rock them until their bones rattled. The Stones’ live shows – epitomized, of course, by Jagger’s galvanizing erotic choreography – had earned the band its reputation, and that flame was being rekindled.
It was lit again twenty years later, and it’s burning still. Since 1989 the Stones have repeatedly toured to ecstatic response. Bassist Darryl Jones, who had formerly played with Miles Davis, began performing with the Stones in 1994, replacing Bill Wyman, and the Stones turned what could have been a setback into a rejuvenating rush of new energy. The Stones’ live success during this period is not a matter of dollars or box-office breakthroughs, though the band has enjoyed plenty of both. It’s about demonstrating a vital, ongoing commitment to the idea that performing is what keeps a band truly alive.
And that’s the critical misunderstanding of the question, “Is this the last time?” that has been coming up every time the Stones have toured for more than forty years now. It’s true that over the decades the Stones have been in the news for many reasons that have little to do with music – arrests, provocative statements, divorces, feuds, affairs, stints in rehab, all the usual detritus of a raucous lifetime in the public eye. And there’s no doubt that Mick Jagger is as recognizable a celebrity as the world has ever seen and attracts all the attention, positive and negative, that such a status inevitably entails.
But, for all that, the Stones are best understood as musicians, and their own acceptance of that fact is what has enabled them to carry on so well for so long. For all the tabloid headlines, Mick Jagger is ultimately an extraordinary lead singer and one of the most riveting performers – in any art form – ever to set foot on a stage. Keith Richards is the propulsive engine that drives the Stones and makes their music instantly recognizable. Their complementary styles, incomparable collaborative genius as songwriters and even their all-too-public battles have made them the very definition of the rock & roll singer/guitarist partnership, battling brothers who have often been imitated and never surpassed.
Ron Wood, meanwhile, is a guitarist who has formed a rhythmic union with Richards, but who also colors and textures the band’s songs with deft, melodic touches. And Charlie Watts, needless to say, is one of rock’s greatest, most supple drummers. He is both the rock that anchors the band, and the subtle force that swings it. At once elegant in their simplicity and soaring in their impact, none of his gestures are wasted, all are necessary. He and Darryl Jones enliven the often-monolithic notion of the rock & roll rhythm section with an irresistible, unpretentious, jazz-derived sophistication.
“It’s incredible to think about working with the same band for fifty years,” Mick Jagger says. “Of course, members have come and gone over the years, but it is still the Rolling Stones. Inevitably it makes you think about the mortality of it. But here we are making plans and attempting to get things organized for the future!”
“It’s still too early for me to talk about the Stones’ legacy,” Keith Richards says. “We haven’t finished yet. There’s one thing that we haven’t yet achieved, and that’s to really find out how long you can do this. It’s still such a joy to play with this band that you can’t really let go of it. So we’ve got to find out, you know?”
Musicians live and create in the moment, and that’s why fans still yearn to go see and hear the Stones. Certainly there’s a catalogue of songs that very few artists could rival. Surely there’s the desire on the part of fans, both young and old, to encounter a band that has played a pristine role in shaping our very idea of what rock & roll is. But seeing the Rolling Stones live is to see a working band playing as hard as they can, and there’s no last time for that. It’s not only rock n roll, it’s essential rock n roll. And the story continues…