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A Rolling Stones Memory That's Lasted 50 Years

At the first Stones concert I saw, at Madison Square Garden in 1972, I discovered you CAN always get what you want

By Jon Friedman

The Rolling Stones' 1972 tour was bigger than even the youth of America. After ten years of playing together, the Stones had somehow become the number one attraction in the world ...

Completely. They were royalty. No, even better, they were kings. Undeniably. And it was to America they came to receive their crowns. (From "A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones" by Robert Greenfield.)

And I was there to see it!

A black and white photo of the Rolling Stones during a concert. Next Avenue, the rolling stones 1972 tour
The Rolling Stones performing in Helsinki, 1970  |  Credit: Photo by Kari Pulkkinen/Museoviraston Kuvakokoelmat

I'll never forget the first time I saw the Rolling Stones on stage: Tuesday afternoon, July 25, 1972, at Madison Square Garden.

Inside the hall, I remember sitting impatiently through the warm-up act, though the kid who opened the show was pretty darned good. His name was Stevie Wonder.

The memory remains burned in my brain as the most exciting rock and roll concert that I have ever seen.

Yes, it has been 50 years. Still, I can remember every detail: feeling the tingles at the prospect of seeing the so-hyped show and shaking my head at the phalanx of security guards for a rock concert — the kind of protection that the President of the United States gets.

Inside the hall, I remember sitting impatiently through the warm-up act, though the 21-year-old kid who opened the show was pretty darned good. His name was Stevie Wonder.

Seriously, can you imagine? Stevie Wonder was the opening act! That tells you, right there, how big the Stones were in 1972.

The Stones would be wrapping up their six-week North American jaunt in New York the following day — on Mick Jagger's 29th birthday, no less. I had been following the tour on rock and roll radio, marveling at the rioting fans, and at the Stones' drug bust in Rhode Island.

Start Me Up

I sat in the second row — albeit behind the stage. Still, I saw and heard everything.

Yes, Mick Jagger, the consummate pro, was locked in and superb. But Keith Richards was the Stone I couldn't take my eyes off of. As Robert Greenfield wrote in his excellent book:

"Some nights it was though they brought Keith to the hall in a cage and his hour-and-a-half on stage was the only freedom he was going to get ... He was dangerous and unpredictable, which made him exciting to watch ... Unlike Jagger, who had a never-ending bag of stage tricks ... Keith was right there, all the time, playing for his life. He possessed none of Jagger's aesthetic distance. It was never a performance for him. Keith was always putting out all he was worth, doing the best he knew how at the moment."

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The Stones were electrifying. They  opened with a scorching version of "Brown Sugar," followed by "Bitch," "Rocks Off," "Gimme Shelter," "Happy" and "Tumbling Dice."

Talk about high energy! Charlie Watts' drums and Bill Wyman's bass boomed around the big hall. Mick Jagger sang and danced and pranced brilliantly. Guitarists Richards and Mick Taylor were on fire. The two horn players punched holes in the air. 

Why the Stones Meant So Much

At the time of the concert at Madison Square Garden, the Stones were at a creative peak that few bands can ever hope to match.

They had released, in succession, the remarkable albums "Beggars Banquet," "Let It Bleed," "Get Yer Ya-Yas Out," "Sticky Fingers" and, in the spring of 1972, "Exile on Main Street," a blistering double album that reached No. 1 on the charts.

The Stones had a lot on the line, too. They were staging their first U.S. tour in three years, since the tragic event at Altamont in northern California in December 1969, when an 18-year-old man was killed right in front of the stage.

Four members of the Rolling Stones smiling and wearing all black. Next Avenue, the rolling stones 1972 tour
From left to right, the late Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood   |  Credit: Mark Seliger

Altamont was the flip side of the peace-and-love Woodstock festival. Of course, this happened at a Stones concert. The band, basking in its outlaw public image, personified the allure and danger of sex, drugs and rock and roll more acutely than any other.

The Stones had always been the bad boys of rock. Back in the summer of 1965, when parents and grandmothers choked up to the Beatles' song "Yesterday," the Stones were proclaiming, "I can't get no satisfaction."

I can vividly remember blasting the Stones' song "Get Off My Cloud," on my parents' stereo and hearing my mother shouting, "Turn off that screaming!" That scene must've played out in living rooms around the world.

By embracing "Satisfaction," "Paint It Black," Let's Spend the Night Together," "19th Nervous Breakdown," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Honky Tonk Woman" and other Stones' swaggering, rebellious and raunchy classics, we knew that WE lived on the right side of the generation gap.

No Expectations

The concert meant so much to me, too, because it occurred when I was crossing the Rubicon, advancing rather unsteadily from carefree kid to young adult.

It was the summer before my senior year of high school — time to apply to colleges and prepare to flee the nest. Where would I decide to go? (Crucially: What university would admit me, my B-plus average and unremarkable SAT score?)

The Stones gave me an identity. Full disclosure: I was a nerd. I played records, not a musical instrument in a rock and roll band. I played intramurals because I wasn't good enough to make a sports team at school. The classic, insecure adolescent, I was anything but a heartthrob to boot. But when I listened to my Stones records, I felt cool.

A Perfect Storm

In looking back, you might say that that Stones concert represented a perfect storm for me.

The Stones gave me an identity. Full disclosure: I was a nerd.

I was seeing "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World," as the Stones were called in those halcyon days. I was attending a concert in "The World's Most Famous Arena," as Madison Square Garden is now known. I felt privileged. I felt lucky. I felt special.

I've gone on to see plenty of rock and roll's heroes on stage: Bob Dylan and the Band, Paul McCartney, the Who, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, the Kinks, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and many others. And yes, I've even seen the Rolling Stones twice more, in 1994 and 2012.

But I've never experienced the same level of sheer excitement as I did that day in 1972 when I saw the Stones.

As I write this, I can picture many members of the Next Avenue audience sharing my enthusiasm. Indeed, I suspect that many of you must also have an indelible concert memory from your youth.

Let's face it. We rock and roll kids can only feel those kinds of tingles once, right?

Jon Friedman 


Jon Friedman, the author of the ebook "Goo Goo Ga Joob: Why I Am the Walrus is the Beatles’ Greatest Song" (2014, Miniver Press), will be teaching The Beatles: Music and Legacy in the 2022 spring semester at Stony Brook University
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