One Night Only, 40 Years Later

Forty years ago, on October 26, 1981, the Rolling Stones brought their North American tour to the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Tickets went on sale—less than 5,000 of them—about two weeks earlier, at 2:30 in the morning, only at the Fox box office. Most were snatched up by sleepy Georgia Tech students. When Atlantans woke up the next day, they heard that the Stones were coming, the show was already sold out, and you had a better chance of seeing Bigfoot than scoring tickets to the show. While almost all the other shows on the tour were in stadiums or large arenas, the Stones chose the intimate Fox for the Atlanta show.

Thanks to my brother Jeff—who stayed up all weekend before winning tickets by being the 93rd caller to an Atlanta radio station on that Monday morning—I turned out to be one of the relatively few people who saw that legendary show. As long-suffering readers of this blog know, it was one of the foundational nights of my life. My first Stones concert, and coincidentally also the first for Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who has become a key component of their ongoing success.

40 years later, on Veterans Day, 2021, Jeff and I decided to re-live the magic by closing the circle and seeing the Stones together again, this time at a slightly larger arena—Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This was my 11th Stones show, the 5th in Atlanta.

This was the first show I would hear without beloved Stones drummer Charlie Watts. He’d been with the band since January 1963, and until their first show on the current tour the Stones had never played a gig without him in 59 years. How do you replace the irreplaceable? Not to mention—but I’ll mention it anyway—Mick Jagger is now 78, Keith Richards is 77, Ronnie Wood is 74. Isn’t this supposed to be a young person’s game? The Wembley Whammer was fittingly remembered just before the show with a video tribute on the gigantic screens that tower over the stage.

Not to keep you in suspense, but the Stones—and I would call them “the surviving Stones,” but with these guys that’s been true since the death of Brian Jones 52+ years ago—were as good as it gets. Better than ever. Maybe even better than that. How is that possible? From the opening and unmistakable chords of “Street Fighting Man” through the buzz-bomb bass notes of “19th Nervous Breakdown,” through “Shattered,” (shadoobie) and “Satisfaction” the Stones did what they do and that no one else can.

After nearly 60 years, they still set the gold standard. Mick ran and pranced and “wiggled his bum,” as Charlie used to say. Keith wore a beanie throughout like the Grand Old Ghoul of Rock n’ Roll that he is, playing louder than ever, smiling and loving every minute. Ronnie was Ronnie. They even threw in 1967’s “She’s a Rainbow” (from Their Satanic Majesties Request), allowing Chuck Leavell to showcase his keyboard chops. Steve Jordan on the drums brought an energy and vibe that honored Charlie Watts while putting his own unique stamp on the music. They are still playing with an energy and a love for performing that defies reason. Like every other Stones concert I’ve witnessed across four decades, I didn’t want the music to end.

Seeing the Stones 40 years ago was already, at that time, seeing history. The Beatles had been broken up for a decade and John Lennon was dead. Led Zeppelin had dissolved two years earlier. Elvis had been gone for 4 years. Other founding acts of early rock had already long since vanished or gone into hibernation.

The Stones rolled on, aging but never growing older, continuing to play, dismissing the critics, and with every passing decade they passed milestones that seemed impossible. Touring at 50 in the 1990s? Ridiculous. Having another go at 60 in the early 2000s? They’ll embarrass themselves. Are they really going out on the road at 70, in the 2010s?? What will they call it, the Walker Tour? The Roller Derby?

Now they’re approaching 80, and are at a place no band has ever reached. No one now even remembers the British invasion, but watching the Stones is to remember the shock of their early appearance with long hair, their surly attitudes and rebellious sneers, and their anti-establishment pose. They still have something to prove, and they clearly enjoy trying to prove it.

It’s bound to end sometime, isn’t it? Surely Jeff and I won’t be seeing them again in 40 years—or even 5. But as we walked out of the arena, there on the big video screen was a message from the Stones that—true to form for them—teased and tantalized, but that I fervently hope was true:

“See you soon.”

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