BETWEEN THE LINES: This past July 12 marked the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ first performance. I became a fan within a few years, but didn’t see them live until 27 years later.
On August 31, 1989, in Philadelphia, I saw the first of 115 concerts.
I had not become an obsessed fan; rather an employee — a tour press representative — of the band for four months across the U.S. and Canada and another four months the following spring and summer in Europe. It was exciting, demanding 24/7 work, but it was also a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I’ve been a journalist and editor for more than 20 years, including almost a year at Sheepshead Bites. I’ve also had a 12-year entertainment public relations career, which included stints at Radio City Music Hall, Showtime and with marquee celebrities, but they were nothing like — or as exhausting — as my job with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman.
Months before The Stones kicked off their 1989 “Steel Wheels” concert tour — the band’s first in the U.S. in eight years — to promote their latest album of the same name, I received an offer to work as a tour public relations representative. The senior publicist was assembling a team to join her for the four-month extravaganza and she recommended me. I assumed my previous experience with Michael Jackson and his brothers, my first tour five years earlier, was a major factor.
Being a fan since the birth of rock and roll, I wanted very much to be part of a tour. My options were limited since I can’t play an instrument — except the air guitar — can barely carry a tune, and I lack the manual skills to be a roadie. The only position for which I was qualified came in 1984 when a PR honcho offered me a position with “The Victory Tour,” the Jackson brothers’ reunion tour, scheduled to make stops in a dozen U.S. and a few Canadian cities. I was interviewed at, of all places, JFK, as he waited in line to pick up his airline ticket on the way to the first Victory Tour show.
I wasn’t a Michael Jackson fan, but his “Thriller” album was the hottest thing in music that summer. To be part of the biggest, costliest tour ever assembled, at the time, was a remarkable opportunity that opened the door to touring experience. However, if the chance came again, I longed to work for a band more to my taste.
The Stones’ offer was the fulfillment of a professional dream. I’d been listening to their music — along with The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks — since the British music invasion hit American radio airwaves in the mid-60s. While those groups had disbanded, or played reunion tours every so often, the Stones had mostly remained intact and were still capable of entertaining and exciting old and new fans.
Soon after accepting the job, I received an invitation that read, “Your presence is requested” at the band’s rehearsals, which were taking place at the Nassau Coliseum. The next day, my PR supervisors-to-be picked me up in a limousine in midtown Manhattan and we were driven to the arena. When I walked in and saw “the world’s greatest rock and roll band,” as they are sometimes identified, playing “Start Me Up,” the song that opened every show on the tour, the first thought that ran through my mind was: “You’re working for the fucking Rolling Stones!”
As the Stones rehearsed, the three-person PR team gathered to shape plans to accommodate the media with tickets, credentials and materials, as well as strategy for on-site coverage by television and radio crews before and during the shows.
Several months later, I was at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia for the final rehearsals before the opening night of The Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels Tour” on August 31.
The Stones and their tour personnel were tour professionals, but, as a rookie, it amazed me how methodical and organized everything was — from security to deluxe hotel and travel arrangements — for the 50-person entourage, which included backup musicians and singers, the band and their family members.
From Philadelphia, the tour went to Toronto for two shows and then made stops across the Midwest, South, and New England before playing Shea Stadium in Queens. It then traveled across the country, back to Canada, then the East Coast, where it ended in with three shows in Atlantic City a few weeks before Christmas in 1989.
Though each concert ended before 11:00 p.m., after-show socializing went on into the early morning hours. Since the press team had to be available at almost any hour for advance press inquiries, it often made for long days and not much sleep.
I may have been star struck at first, but I concealed the feeling and it soon subsided. After all, I was there to do a job, not make friends or eyeball celebrities. Sometimes, I did get to hang with Keith or Ronnie when they relaxed and mingled with entourage or crew members.
When I celebrated a birthday, Keith Richards surprisingly invited me into his private cabin on the tour plane where he would hole up with friends and associates. He toasted me and presented me with a guitar key chain — a small token I still treasure.
Mick Jagger, more than any band member, rarely socialized with tour personnel. However, after I suffered a minor eye injury, he approached me out of the blue to ask about the wound. He said if I wasn’t getting adequate medical attention, I should let him know and he would see that I did. That brief exchange not only impressed me, but made me realize that here was an iconic rock star, genuinely concerned about those who worked for him.
A few months after “Steel Wheels,” the band’s business manager called to ask if I was available to reprise my role for the Stones’ “Urban Jungle” tour in Europe. Without missing a beat, I asked, “When do we leave?” The date was March 15. Not a good day for Caesar, but the beginning of a second gig across a continent and to places I’d never been. Six weeks later, I was flying first class “across the pond” to London.
When the European leg ended in London on August 25, 1990, I was bushed and couldn’t wait to get home. Despite the tedium after hearing roughly the same set list every night for almost a year, I had the opportunity to see the sights in 25 cities in a dozen countries.
Nineteen-ninety was revolutionary as Communism was rejected across Eastern Europe. The tour became a part of history when it played three concerts behind the former “Iron Curtain” — two in East Berlin and one in Prague. I was in Germany before and after the Berlin Wall came down and in Czechoslovakia eight months after its Communist regime was ousted. A poster promoting the Prague show included the fitting detail: “Tanks Roll Out, Stones Roll In.” Despite a steady rain during the outdoor concert, the Stones played to an energized audience of 107,000. The band played for free as the proceeds from the show were donated to a local charity for disabled children.
The most frequent question I’m asked is, “What are the Stones like?”
Getting to know them wasn’t something to which I aspired, so, with tongue firmly in cheek, I generally respond, “A little sex, some drugs and lots of rock and roll.”
Working for The Rolling Stones was one of the most thrilling periods of my life and, needless to say, gave me a great deal of satisfaction. It was only rock and roll — but I liked it.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.
Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at]sheepsheadbites [dot]com.