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Me ’n’ the Stones: One Minnesota fan’s journey all down the line with ‘The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World’

I’m excited to hear the Rolling Stones at TCF Bank Stadium this week, but not as excited as I was when I drove two days straight to Florida with my big brother Jay to see them 40 years ago this summer.

I’m excited to hear the Rolling Stones at TCF Bank Stadium this week, but not as excited as I was when I drove two days straight to Florida with my big brother Jay to see them 40 years ago this summer. Since then, me and the Stones and the times have changed and, not to make too big of a gentrification deal out of it, but it occurs to me that two of the hallowed grounds that were instrumental in introducing impressionable young me to the rebellious power of freedom, decadence, sex, drugs and rock & roll are now a Patina and a Starbucks.

In the early ’70s for just a couple years, the corner that now houses the Patina on 50th and S. Bryant in Minneapolis belonged to Humble Sounds, one of the first independent record stores in indie-record-store-happy Minneapolis. It was a few blocks from my house, and I used most of the money I got from babysitting and working as cashier and cook at the Red Barn on 24th and Nicollet to buy records there, and I can still smell the incense that was burning when my 15-year-old virgin Catholic boy hands picked up and fingered for the first time Andy Warhol’s working zipper on the jeans-bulging cover of “Sticky Fingers.”

I liked it, and I liked rock & roll, and Humble Sounds is the place where I bought the Stones’ “Metamorphosis” and “It’s Only Rock & Roll,” and many more records before it shuttered in 1974.

At the same time, the corner that now houses the Starbucks at S. Lyndale and W. Diamond Lake Road was Salk’s Rexall Drug, and that is where I was standing, at the newsstand by the soda fountain, when I picked up the June 19, 1975, issue of Rolling Stone magazine.

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Inside beckoned a beige full-page ad for The Rolling Stones Tour Of America 1975 and its fantastically sinister metallic eagle logo, and this, at the bottom of the page: “The Rolling Stones. The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World – August 2, 1975. Gator Bowl. Jacksonville, Florida.”

I was in. I was 16 years old. I’d just gotten my driver’s license, I spent a lot of time driving around listening to cassette tapes, and the Rolling Stones were the most important thing in my safe little life. I’d had it bad since seeing the quadraphonic concert film “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones” twice at the Skyway Theater in downtown Minneapolis the previous summer, and as I started making my way through the first ravages of adolescence, Mick Jagger’s sashes and Keith Richards’ wicked cool and all those dark and dirty songs about wine, women and Satan bewitched my teenage imagination like nothing else.

Punk rock was still a couple years away from changing my life forever, and at the moment the Stones were the height of subversion for me. “Gimme danger,” like Iggy Pop sang on “Raw Power” from around the same time; I bought the mag, rushed home and showed it to Jay, and two months later we blasted down to Florida in a beat-up 1966 Impala that our grandmother gifted us with and that we’d dubbed The White Bomb.

We’d seen the Stones a few weeks earlier on that tour; my first time, June 9, 1975, at the St. Paul Civic Center, where an elaborate lotus-shaped stage with mechanized petals and a giant inflatable penis ushered in “Honky Tonk Women.” I was floored, we were hungry for more, and we were met with surprisingly little parental resistance when we hatched our pilgrimage plans. We followed the ad’s Money Orders Only instructions and bought general admission tickets at $11 each (top end for the Stones’ current Zip Code tour tix at TCF: $450), which came a few weeks later in the mail, and a couple days before the show we launched out on our 1,500-mile trek, a couple of knuckleheads on the road to find out.

Upon hitting the highway, we had an unsaid pact: Stones and Stones only on the car cassette tape deck. “Exile on Main Street” got us through most of Wisconsin. At 5 a.m. outside Chicago, we stopped to stretch our legs and play Frisbee to “Brown Sugar.” We blasted “Hot Rocks,” “Let It Bleed” and “It’s Only Rock & Roll” through Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and, in a raging thunderstorm, into Georgia.

After 20 hours on the road and a blissful rest in an Atlanta motel, we hit the Jacksonville city limits and took in its tangle of bridges and low-income projects. The sight of hot and poor African-American families lolling in the afternoon sun on porches provided a poignant reminder that we were two white middle-class Midwestern kids who had come a long way to hear “four white blokes from England playing American music,” as Charlie Watts would describe the band to “60 Minutes” ’ Ed Bradley a few decades later.

It was the first day of August 1975. Gerald Ford was president, disco was sweeping the country, and the Jacksonville Express was preparing for a World Football League game against the Memphis Southmen starring Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. It was the summer of the Stones in Jacksonville, but it was also the summer of “Jaws,” and in the seventh week of its run, the mega-blockbuster had created shark hysteria. Swimmers were staying away from the Florida beaches in droves.

We checked into a crappy little Travelodge, watched some college football and a Black Oak Arkansas concert on the tinny motel TV. The next day we woke with the sun, found the Gator Bowl, and parked about half mile away from the stadium, and about 20 feet from a fire hydrant.

Outside the stadium we bought T-shirts proclaiming, “The Rolling Stones – The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World – Aug 2, 1975; Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, Florida.” Inside, the Gator Bowl grass was already filled with flesh, so we parked ourselves 20 rows up in the stands. It was 10 o’clock in the morning, 92 degrees, no shade. All around us, hundreds of our 75,000 fellow ’70s rock freaks were passing out from the heat.

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MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

It was the freewheeling days of general admission and festival seating, and four years before 11 people would be trampled to death at a Who concert in Cincinnati and change rock concert security and safety laws forever.

The show started just after 1 p.m. After sets by the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Rufus, and the J. Geils Band, and just before the Stones hit the stage, a small thundercloud settled over the Gator Bowl, cooling the drained and delirious crowd. The taped between-band music gave way to another sound: Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which reviewers had been saying trumpeted the Stones’ entrance like they were Roman gods, sent down from above to provide real-deal ‘70s bacchanalia to the likes of 16-year-old me. Yum.

As the horns faded and the five Stones (including guest keyboardist Billy Preston) took the stage, Richards played the seductive opening riff to “Honky Tonk Women” until Jagger appeared from behind a huge speaker, clad in a two-piece silk outfit with flared pants tied at the ankles, red shoes, and a purple cape. He slowly danced his way to the edge of the stage, pressed his lips to the mike and moaned, “I met a gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis …”

From there, we got what we drove all those miles for: “Rip This Joint,” “Love in Vain,” “All Down the Line,” “Time Is on My Side,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Fool to Cry,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Brown Sugar,” “Sweet Virginia,” and more. Richards, in the midst of his decade-long heroin addiction, looked sicker than usual. His skin was pale, cheeks gaunt, eyes pretty vacant. He stumbled his way through guitar parts and back-up vocal chores, and Mick was forced to sing the whole of “Happy,” Keith’s lone lead vocal of the set.

Midway through, Jagger straddled a fire hose, doused the throng and a half hour later closed with an ornery “Midnight Rambler.” Sunburned, dehydrated, happy and exhausted, we returned to our parking spot only to find the White Bomb had been towed or stolen. We reported it to the Jacksonville cops, who put an APB out on it and while we got it back a couple days later, upon our return voyage home that news hadn’t yet reached a Wisconsin cop, who stopped us at 3 a.m., pointed his gun at my head, put me up against the hood of the White Bomb and slapped the handcuffs on.  

We were not car thieves, we ultimately convinced the cops; we were Minnesota kids on our way back from seeing our favorite band and now we were cold and tired and out of money and almost out of gas. The cops felt bad. They escorted us to a nearby La Crosse gas station, where we pumped in our last two bucks. They offered to lend us gas money, which we politely refused, and hours later as the sun was peaking over the St. Paul skyline, we were in the home stretch. We had no brakes, we were running on empty, and, because we were using a rag as an oil cap (I’d left the real one on top of the car at a Super America in St. Louis), the Bomb wouldn’t go faster than 25 miles an hour.

We limped down the shoulder of I-94 and coasted down 35W to the exit ramp into south Minneapolis. We somehow avoided stoplights, pedestrians, and other, healthier cars. Jay eased the Bomb through back streets, pulled into our parents’ driveway and crashed into the family fence, creating a dent that would stay that way for another couple of decades. In our sweaty Stones shrouds we climbed from the Bomb, to bear hugs from our parents and sister. We were home, and we were finally sick of the Stones.

In the 40 summers since, I and the times and the Stones are completely different animals, perhaps best illustrated by the juxtaposition of this announcement of that 1975 tour via a performance of “Brown Sugar” on a flatbed truck rolling through Manhattan with this decidedly uninspired corporate rock video announcing the current Zip Code tour. What’s more, only a handful of photos exist from that Gator Bowl concert, but it’s a safe bet that the TCF Bank concert will be yet another one of the most photographed events in the history of the world.

“Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t own any albums by the Rolling Stones. They’re just so archetypal, so very rock and roll — and that, I find, can be a difficult thing to admire,” wrote The New Yorker’s Anwen Crawford last week in her essay “The World Needs Female Rock Critics,” and part of me appreciates the forward-pushing anti-establishmentarianism. I get it; the sea change is on and the white male is toast, but it says here that music transcends all sorts of human categorizing and any purported music lover’s collection that willfully rejects, say, “Aftermath” or “Beggar’s Banquet” is difficult to admire. I, too, once threw plenty of the dinosaur rock babies out with the bathwater when punk rock came along, and ultimately made my way back, but I never stopped listening to the Rolling Stones.

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MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

One of the more memorable bits of Walker Art Center’s current International Pop exhibit is a film that includes British news reports of Jagger being arrested on marijuana charges in the early ’60s. The newsreel captures him amidst staid British society with an omnipresent grin, and dancing in handcuffs. It’s easy to forget, but that clip is a reminder, in a world rife with 24-7 rebellion and bad boys and girls, that the Stones once stood smartly for youth, art, and personal freedoms that heroically challenged the powers that be.

It’s also worth remembering that they helped invent rock & roll, and that they were once simply a gang of scruffy British kids trying to get their little band heard, but were rejected by 283 unimpressed Minnesota kids — at the Stones’ first area appearance at Big Reggie’s Danceland in Minnetonka on June 12, 1964.

“Nobody liked them; I had never heard them or heard of them,” Butch Maness, bass player for the Stones’ opening band that night, Mike Waggoner and the Bops, told author Rick Shefchik for Shefchik’s wonderful book “Everybody’s Heard About the Bird – The True Story of 1960s Minnesota Rock ‘n’ Roll” (University of Minnesota Press), which hits stores in October.

“They hadn’t made their big boom here yet. When we played, everybody got up and danced. When they played, everybody sat down and had a Coke. When we were changing spots, I tried to get a conversation with [bassist Bill Wyman]. He mumbled a couple of words and went off stage. They wouldn’t talk to us. They realized we were a better band than them. We were. They came out with their weird stuff and the kids didn’t like it. … The last set, the kids kind of ignored them. I don’t remember if they booed them. I don’t think they played the complete last set. I think they got pissed off and quit. We did the first, they did one, we did another set, and they did the last one. The ironic part about that is a year later, they’re millionaires, and we’re starting to play their music and still getting five hundred bucks a night. Where’s the fairness? We were just as good a band or better, talent-wise.”

These days the Stones are as corporate as corporate rock gets, but at the heart of it all remains Richards, who in interviews constantly returns to the enduring romance of rock bands, and the idea that “a band isn’t a band in the proper sense of the word if it doesn’t play in front of people. A band starts to play in front of people. That’s how a band always starts. It doesn’t start to make records or money or anything else, it starts to play on a stage in front of people.”

Me, I wouldn’t drive 1,500 miles to see them again, but I’m glad I did and at the moment I’m left wondering exactly how much “The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World” means to me now. I’ve sung their songs with my bands and with friends in bars. I have friends who will be ditching their kids’ high school graduation parties and heading to Dinkytown Wednesday night to partake in the semi-debauchery. My 20-year-old son’s favorite song is “Paint It Black.” When I told my 16-year-old daughter I’d driven to Florida when I was her age to see the Rolling Stones, she wasn’t sure who they were but she asked me if I’d let her do the same thing.

Not a chance, I told her. But I did get her tickets to see Babes In Toyland.