My plan was to be first on line, but it didn’t quite pan out. When I arrived at Madison Square Garden a full day before the box office began selling tickets to the Rolling Stones concert — the band’s first New York appearance since the death of Brian Jones — I found a young couple had beat me to the punch. They were teenagers, like me, but in a hard-core rocker mode. The guy affected a jet-black shag hairstyle and a jaded attitude. He looked exactly like Keith Richards, if Keith had been Italian-American and grown up in Queens.
So I wasn’t first — it didn’t really matter. On the night of the concert, I ended up sitting with my girlfriend in the fourth row, amid VIPs. Just out of curiosity, I glanced around for the couple from the front of the line — fans as committed as I was — but didn’t see them. I did spot Jimi Hendrix two rows ahead, sharing our close-up view of the stage.
It’s hard to convey now the sense of anticipation, how momentous that night felt. In the decades since then, the Rolling Stones have toured like clockwork; if you miss one tour, there’s always another. But nobody took them for granted in November 1969. Jones, their original leader, had drowned in his swimming pool (the coroner called it a “death by misadventure”) that summer, less than a month after being kicked out of the band. The Beatles were on the verge of breaking up for less reason than that. Yet the Stones had survived and flourished, both on vinyl — they’d recently recorded “Let It Bleed” — and in concert. The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band was on that amazing run between “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Exile on Main Street.” They were at their peak.
Even so, it wasn’t all magic. Although our $8 tickets said 8 p.m., I recall the show starting closer to 9:30 with a disjointed parade of opening acts. Chants of “We want the Stones” went unanswered. The wait was excruciating. Our eyes glazed over as British bluesman Terry Reid raced through his set, which was followed by a long delay and then B.B. King, who merely went through the motions — no point in wasting his virtuoso best on this crowd. And he was right: We were there strictly for the main event.
After another delay, though, things took an unexpected turn. Suddenly the Ike & Tina Turner Revue kicked the evening into high gear. In some ways, their act seemed like a throwback: the tight choreography, the straight-hair wigs and “Hullabaloo”-style minidresses worn by the backup singers, known as the Ikettes. But Tina Turner was never hotter. She commanded the audience with raunchy vocals and raw power, the essence of rock and roll.
Before Ike & Tina finished, someone else showed up on stage: a young white woman with heavy jewelry, unruly hair and a big fur hat. She looked incongruous; as far as I remember, she had climbed up from the front row. Then I recognized her. It was Janis Joplin, joining Tina for an impromptu duet of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” which ended with strobe lights flashing and Tina, Janis and the Ikettes dancing with total abandon. For several minutes, I think the crowd actually forgot about the Stones. I know I did.
The reverse is also true: When the Rolling Stones finally appeared, I forgot about Tina Turner. It was that kind of night — we were completely in the moment. As for the Stones’ performance, no need to go on about it. If you’ve ever seen the Maysles brothers’ cinéma vérité classic “Gimme Shelter” on the big screen, you were practically there. (And if you haven’t, go to Netflix; it’s worth checking out even on a smaller screen.)
Before signing off, I have to mention another concert (bear with me if this sounds like a digression). A few years later, I caught the New York Dolls, a seminal band that fused punk with glam rock, at the Waldorf Astoria, of all places, on Halloween. As soon as they stepped out, I knew I’d seen one of the guitarists before. Born John Anthony Genzale and now going by the name Johnny Thunders, he was the guy who’d stood ahead of me on line at Madison Square Garden. The Stones’ influence was still in evidence. Although the Dolls were out to break new ground, they also paid homage to the Glimmer Twins, with Thunders playing Keith to lead singer David Johansen’s Mick. It was a good show, too. But nothing next to that night at the Garden.
There is, of course, a sad side to this story. Brian Jones’s death proved to be a harbinger. The week after I saw the Rolling Stones in New York, their infamous free concert at Altamont culminated in murder. The next year, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix ODed and died — as did Johnny Thunders much later, in 1991, at a funky hotel in New Orleans.
Still, my memory of what one critic called “history’s first mythic rock and roll tour” remains cloudless — for me, it didn’t get better than the Stones. But I don’t mean to downplay the impact of Janis Joplin’s surprise appearance. As Mick Jagger says in “Gimme Shelter,” reflecting on the competition as he’s filmed watching raw footage of Tina Turner, “It’s nice to have a chick occasionally.”