Reliving the Rolling Stones’ 1969 Thanksgiving Concerts
By the waning days of 1969, the Rolling Stones were well on their way to becoming the "Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World." Hits like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud” and “Paint It, Black” had already made them stars. Amazingly, the group would soar to even grander heights in the ‘70s thanks to seminal albums Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St..
With the Stones on the precipice of worldwide domination, they took the stage for three shows at New York's Madison Square Garden on Nov. 27 and 28, 1969. These landmark performances would be immortalized on the live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, as well as the documentary Gimme Shelter.
More recently, author Christopher McKittrick has chronicled the intertwining history of the Stones and the Big Apple in the book Can't Give It Away on Seventh Avenue: The Rolling Stones and New York City.
The legendary 1969 Madison Square Garden concerts deservedly received notable attention in the book. In the excerpt below, McKittrick examines the surrounding circumstances, intricate details and historical significance of those performances.
On Sept. 17, ABKCO, Allen Klein’s label, announced that the Stones would tour the United States in November and December for the first time since 1966. Their popularity hadn’t waned at all during their three-year absence. In fact, it had grown. Since then, the Stones had had two No. 1 hits (“Ruby Tuesday” and “Honky Tonk Women”) as well as a No. 3 hit (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) and two other Top 40 hits (“Dandelion” and “She’s a Rainbow”). Though the Stones had played a mix of theaters and arena-sized venues on the 1966 tour, they tackled larger venues this time around, with some locations getting both matinee and evening shows. Years later, Richards recalled, “It had gotten to the point by 1969 where to satisfy all our fans in a city, we had to play six or eight shows. We just didn’t have enough nights. So we either had to disappoint people or move up to bigger places.” The tour would include three concerts in two days in Manhattan, and those would be the band’s largest yet in New York City. For the Stones, it showed the surge of popularity the band had experienced over the previous three years. After drawing a crowd of nine thousand to the Forest Hills Stadium in 1966, the Stones were planning to play three shows — one on Thanksgiving, Nov. 27, and two on Nov. 28 — at Madison Square Garden, an arena that had broken ground just four days after the Stones’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The history of Madison Square Garden, which has branded itself “The World’s Most Famous Arena” for decades, tells the story of popular entertainment in New York over the past century and a half. The arena where the Stones played three shows in 1969 — and have played more than a dozen times since — is actually the fourth version of the Garden. Three previous arenas bearing the name — the first two located adjacent to Madison Square Park, hence the name — had been operating in Manhattan since 1879. By the time the fourth Garden opened in February 1968, the arena was an entertainment destination known as the premier sporting complex in the country. The previous Garden, which was located a block west of Times Square on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets until the new arena took its place, was Manhattan’s indoor sports hub and was home to the New York Rangers, the New York Knicks, college basketball and dozens of high-profile boxing matches.
Controversially, the site selected for the new Garden was between Seventh and Eighth Avenues from 31st to 33rd Streets, and required the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, which was moved underground and below the Garden. The demolition of the historic railroad station spurned a movement to save New York’s Grand Central Terminal from a similar fate and began a preservation movement for historical buildings, including several historic venues the Stones members would later play with their solo bands. The Stones would take advantage of the historic nature of Grand Central decades later when announcing their 1989 world tour.
It’s hard to find an athlete or a performer who doesn’t hold Madison Square Garden in awe. Countless historical moments, including several involving the Rolling Stones, have happened at the arena. The Garden is celebrated for its superior sound and atmosphere. As rock journalist Al Aronowitz wrote about the arena in his 1972 review of a Stones show, “The structure is built sort of like a trampoline hanging from cables that stretch across the ceiling and the hotter the rock show, the more it bounces.” Many musicians consider headlining the Garden the true measure of “making it.” The new Garden quickly became a popular stop for top rock acts, and since opening it had already hosted several concerts, including Cream on Nov. 2, 1968 (the first rock concert at the Garden), the Doors on Jan. 24, 1969, and Jimi Hendrix on May 18, 1969. The Stones would be the first rock band to perform multiple shows at the arena.
Though the Garden could hold more than 20,000 people for concerts, the Stones capped the capacity between 16,000 and 17,000. While planning the tour, Richards explained to Rolling Stone, “In all the future gigs, we want to keep the audiences as small as possible. We’d rather play to four shows of 5,000 people each, than one mammoth 50,000 sort of number. I think we’re playing at Madison Square Garden in New York, but it will be a reduced audience, because we’re not going to allow them to sell all the seats.”
It was also the first tour on which the Stones played an extended set. In previous tours, the sets had not been much longer than a half hour and ten songs or less, which was a standard length for most touring rock groups at the time. By the end of the '60s that had changed, and groups like Cream were playing an hour to 90 minutes. The Stones followed suit by playing a fourteen-song set at Hyde Park, and would generally play 13 to 15 songs per concert during the US tour.
Despite the band’s hell-raising reputation, once the tour began with a warm-up show in Fort Collins, Col., on Nov. 7, the Stones had relatively few issues through the New York dates at the end of November. There were some complaints about ticket prices — mostly ranging from $4.50 to $8 — though in the case of New York, that was cheaper than the $5 to $12.50 that was charged for the 1966 Forest Hills concert. However, Bill Graham, who promoted the California shows, was reportedly unhappy with the concerts’ grosses. Nonetheless, Graham worked with the Stones on future tours because he believed in them. In a post-tour interview with Rolling Stone, Graham compared the Rolling Stones to the 1969 “Miracle” New York Mets, a team that had been a perennial loser since its first season in 1962 but that went on to win the World Series in 1969. Graham said, “What I hope the Stones do is turn the whole country on, do what the Mets did for New York, wake ’em up. And I think the Stones can do it. Mick Jagger is the greatest fucking performer in the whole fucking world.”
The Stones also taped performances of “Gimme Shelter,” “Love in Vain” and “Honky Tonk Women” for The Ed Sullivan Show on Nov. 18, and Jagger also taped a short interview. All of these aired on Nov. 23. Unlike with their previous appearances, however, the Stones were recorded in Los Angeles at CBS Television City studios. Sullivan told the Associated Press that he traveled cross-country because “these boys are hot, especially with the younger crowd. They’re on a concert tour, so I decided to come here and tape them. They cost a lot of money, but they’re worth it.” The Ed Sullivan Show had suffered declining ratings over the past several years, and the Stones were a proven draw. Nevertheless, this was the band’s final appearance on Sullivan’s show, which ended its lengthy run in June 1971.
The Stones hosted the only official press conference of the tour at the Rainbow Grill in Rockefeller Center on Nov. 26, just hours before they were to play the Civic Center in Baltimore 200 miles away. The Washington Post set the scene as: “After being submitted to a security check unrivaled at the Pentagon, journalists were given drinks and canapés while a string quartet played Haydn.” In contrast to how the Stones had been depicted in the media for the previous five years, the AP report said that the Stones were “the most polite persons there.” There was pandemonium among the press trying to get their questions in, leading Jagger to ask, “Shall we scream at you like you’re screaming at us?” Jagger was also asked his opinion of New York City, to which he responded, “It’s great. It changes. It explodes.” He was also asked if he had yet felt satisfied, to which he responded, “Financially dissatisfied, sexually satisfied, philosophically trying.” The most notable thing to come out of the press conference was the announcement that the group would be headlining a daylong free concert in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, though the group also shot down longstanding rumors that they would do a similar free show in Central Park. (“Now is too cold,” Jagger said. “We’ve got to do it outside. And San Francisco is really into that sort of thing.”) Part of the Stones’ motivation for doing a free performance in the U.S. was to fight back against criticism that the ticket prices for the 1969 tour were too high. After 25 minutes of mostly inane questions, the Stones were off to Baltimore.
The day after the Baltimore concert was Thanksgiving, and that night was the Stones’ first-ever performance at Madison Square Garden. While New York is known for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the most anticipated event in Manhattan that day was the Stones concert. Six thousand people had stood in line at the Garden box office to buy tickets when they went on sale on November 6, and both evening performances were sold out (the matinee performance still had “a couple of hundred” empty seats, according to Rolling Stone).
All three Garden shows had the same set list, though the order differed for the first show. Each started with the same four songs: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Carol,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Stray Cat Blues.” They also ended with the same six: “Midnight Rambler,” “Live with Me,” “Little Queenie,” “Satisfaction,” “Honky Tonk Women” and “Street Fighting Man.” For the middle portion, the Stones played “Love in Vain,” “Prodigal Son,” “You Gotta Move” and a medley of “Under My Thumb” and “I’m Free.” The Garden shows were recorded for both a potential live album and by filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles for a possible documentary.
In his review of the first show for The New York Times, Mike Jahn praised Jagger, writing that he “snarls and howls in the finest man-woman blues tradition,” and that the concert was “an enthusiastic reading of some of a fine group’s finest material.” However, he complained about the layout of the bill. The Stones did not take the stage until 11PM, three hours after the concert started. Terry Reid opened the show, followed by B.B. King and then Ike and Tina Turner (the Turners were joined by a very inebriated Janis Joplin at the first show for their set-ending “Land of a Thousand Dances”). A second report in The Times by Francis X. Clines noted that that the NYPD wasn’t overly concerned with security because it believed that “the basically middle-class audience had only holiday entertainment in mind.” The AP report was complimentary to the band in general, but seemed turned off by Jagger’s antics and remarked, “The biggest hits with the audience were those songs that put down women: ‘Under My Thumb,’ ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women.’ Teenage girls apparently wouldn’t mind being dominated by Jagger.”
The Garden shows were far more remembered for their musical quality than any onstage scandals. Nine of the 10 tracks on the band’s first live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, which was released the following September, came from these three shows. The original release included “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women” from the Nov. 27 show; “Carol,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Little Queenie ” and “Street Fighting Man” from the Nov. 28 matinee show; and “Midnight Rambler” and “Live with Me” from the evening show (the tenth track, “Love in Vain,” was recorded at the Nov. 26 Baltimore concert). Jagger and Richards re-recorded some of the vocal tracks in London in January and February 1970, though in 2009 the album was re-released with unaltered bonus tracks, featuring “Under My Thumb” and “I’m Free” from Nov. 27, “Satisfaction” from the Nov. 28 matinee show, and “Prodigal Son” and “You Gotta Move” from the evening show. An accompanying DVD also included footage of the Nov. 27 performances of “Prodigal Son,” “You Gotta Move" and “Satisfaction” and Nov. 28 matinee performances of “Under My Thumb” and “I’m Free.”
Jagger’s attire was much noted for a long red scarf that he wore, which one eager New York fan managed to grab, nearly pulling him off the stage. Jagger also had something of a wardrobe malfunction during one of the Nov. 28 shows, and teased the audience by saying, “I think I’ve busted a button on me trousers and me trousers are going to fall down. You don’t want me trousers to fall down, do you?” The third show ended with five thousand rose petals raining from the ceiling to send the Stones off.
As the NYPD predicted, the shows were without incident aside from scalpers outside charging up to $40 for a pair of tickets that cost $3.50. In fact, the biggest scandal involving the Madison Square Garden shows did not even involve the Stones at all. Gossip columnist Steven A. Brandt, who wrote for Photoplay magazine, attended the Nov. 27 show with several friends, including Ultra Violet, an actress who appeared in several of Andy Warhol’s films. Brandt left the concert early (“The concert was so lively, so opposite himself,” Violet told the Associated Press) and returned to his room at the Hotel Chelsea, the famed 23rd Street building that was a haven for artists, musicians, and writers; at one time or another, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop all called it home. Violet called Brandt after the concert, and he told her that he had taken twenty-two pills. She called the Chelsea’s night clerk, who found Brandt on the floor. Medical help was unable to get to Brandt before he died of an overdose.
Nov. 27 was also Jimi Hendrix’s 27th (and notably last) birthday. He attended the show that night and hung out with the group backstage. Interestingly enough, at an after-party for Hendrix’s birthday uptown, a moment between Jagger and Hendrix’s then-girlfriend, Devon Wilson, inspired a lyric to one of Hendrix’s final songs. Jagger had previously been involved with Wilson, and Hendrix had previously tried to steal Marianne Faithfull from Jagger while he was dating her, so there was a level of animosity between the pair. Jagger cut his finger at the party, and while a bandage was sought, Wilson grabbed Jagger’s finger and began sucking it. The moment inspired the lyric “She drinks her blood from a jagged edge,” in Hendrix’s song about Wilson, “Dolly Dagger.” The song was not released until October 1971, which was not only after Hendrix’s death but also after Wilson’s. She died on Feb. 19, 1971, after plunging to her death out of a ninth-floor window at the Hotel Chelsea under mysterious circumstances.