Sometime shortly before I moved to Ottawa The Rolling Stones released a new album (Steel Wheels) and announced their first American tour in eight years. In other words this would be the first time I had a chance to see the Stones since I had become a fan and I was pretty determined to go. They had two concerts booked at the Skydome in Toronto and I knew I would be living relatively nearby in Ottawa by the time the shows came around so I decided to try for tickets.
This was pre-internet so the only way I could get tickets was by phoning Ticketmaster in Toronto. At the appointed hour I commenced to dialling and redialing from the landline at my mom and dad’s house (this was also pre-cellphone). Instead of getting a busy signal, every time I called a recording would answer telling me that they were getting too many calls and to please call back and try again.
After about an hour of this it hit me. Dear lord, every time I heard that recording I had just placed a long-distance call, and back in the day they charged you a minimum amount per-call, so a one-second call cost the same as one that lasted for three-minutes!
(Now, if there’s one thing that has gotten cheaper and cheaper as time marches on it’s long-distance phone calls. When I was a kid a call from a thousand miles away was made of gold; you spoke fast and hung up as quickly as you could because every minute cost a bloody fortune. To call overseas seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now you can call anywhere on the planet and just talk and talk and talk…)
My heart went cold with the realization. Instead of hitting redial again I dialled “0” and spoke with the operator. Yes, she confirmed, I was going to get charged a three-minute minimum for each of the hundred or more calls I just tried to make to Toronto and yes, it was going to cost probably well over a hundred dollars.
And I hadn’t even gotten through; I had not a single ticket to show for it.
Despondent, I called my aunt in Richmond Hill. She was a huge Stones fan and I figured she would be going to one of the shows. She had no extra tickets for me but she agreed to call around to the scalpers. She called back with several options and she sounded positively shocked when I asked her to pick up the priciest ones: seventh row floor tickets at $600 for the pair.
Yes friends, I paid an 850% premium for my first Rolling Stones concert. It was far-and-away the most money I had ever even dreamed of paying for a concert (though I would later pay that much for the Stones again – and a few other artists too – at face value) but I was making good money that summer and so was my girlfriend, who agreed to split the scalper price not to mention shelling out for the added expense of coming from Moncton to Toronto via Ottawa for the show.
When December 3rd, 1989 finally came Kristie did indeed come up for the show and we drove to Toronto for the weekend with my good friend and floor-mate from residence – a quietly raucous overachiever we called Evil – and his girlfriend. We were staying in some hotel he had booked downtown, a rare occurrence for me at the time; maybe even a first. I do know when we went for dinner together at Queen’s Quay it was my first time experiencing dim sum. When the bill came I was shocked – I hadn’t realized that we had finished eating, heck I thought we had barely started. In a stunning replay of my long-distance phone call fiasco, i had been munching every hors d’oeuvre that had come within reaching distance, thinking they were all just complimentary starters.
I was in for a shock, and I’ve been very wary of dim sum ever since.
Not so for The Rolling Stones. I could have paid a thousand dollars and it still would have felt like the deal of a lifetime. I was astounded at just how close to the stage our seats were and not at all disappointed that we were off to the left a bit. Gosh, the stage itself was a beast to behold. Having seen literally half of the tours The Stones have embarked upon since 1989 I can tell you with confidence that their stages have consistently gotten smaller and smaller ever since that first tour. Anyone seeing the band nowadays might find this hard to believe because their stages are still pretty sizeable, but for the Steel Wheels tour the stage was a full three hundred feet wide and seven storeys tall, with two built-in elevators and countless pyros, inflatables and stadium-sized tricks stuffed up a thousand sleeves.
When the show started it started with a bang : a wall of fireworks and the first two glorious chords of Start Me Up. I stood on my chair and screamed like a little girl.
When Keith took his first solo standing on the edge of the stage directly in front of me I screamed again, and when he finished I realized that I had my hands on my cheeks the whole time, my eyes wide and shrieking for all I was worth just like all the teeny-boppers did in those old black & white Beatles clips. It was completely subconscious and more than a little embarrassing.
The show was fantastic (and no, this wasn’t the Toronto show where some kid fell from the balcony) with too many highlights to mention, but one moment stands out if only for it’s rarity: The band had gone into the psychedelic outro from 2,000 Light Years From Home and were jamming it into the percussive intro to Sympathy For The Devil. Somehow Mick misread his cue and came in with the lyrics at the completely wrong time. After just one or two lines he realized he had created an unrecoverable situation and he stopped the band dead in their tracks.
He apologized for the error and counted the band back into Sympathy For The Devil, everyone picked it up and the boys rocked it out proper. But basically we had all just witnessed a Rolling Stones trainwreck, and the ultra-moody blend from 2,000 Light Years was totally blown.
It was an interesting peek behind the curtain. Neat how that crazy groove and the whole vibe that grows up around it can just be stopped and started on a dime.
By the time the epic show was finished I had heard every song I could have hoped to hear and had gotten my fill of my favourite band. I was totally sated, and never for a moment did I regret the money I had shelled out for the experience (though I’ll admit that I paid the long-distance phone bill begrudgingly). I thought that was going to be my only chance to see The Stones live, and while I’m very happy to have been very wrong about that (on numerous occasions), it was the only time I saw the band with Bill Wyman still in the lineup on bass, so there’s that.
(As an added bonus to the night, at the time the Skydome had some sort of exclusive contract with McDonald’s and as it was primarily a baseball stadium they had to offer hot dogs. I have always considered myself a bit of a McDonald’s connoisseur so I was very excited to enjoy my first [and to date, only] McDonald’s hot dog.)
Edit to add: I guess I was so enthralled to type about my first Stones experience that I didn’t make even a passing mention of the opening act, who was the very impressive Living Colour, featuring the even more impressive Vernon Reid on Coltrane-esque sheets-of-sound electric widdly-guitar. I believe we came in partway through their set. I remember quite clearly that the band looked tiny and insignificant on the massive stage even though they were only taking up a small allotment of it (the Stones, on the other hand, seemed to somehow tower over the stage). Oh, and I recall them playing Cult of Personality. The band was pretty much at their peak right around then so I was pretty impressed.