THE ROLLING STONES IN URUGUAY
When my son first suggested we spend my wife’s academic sabbatical in Chile, I was skeptical. I'd never been to South America, the one Chilean I knew of, former dictator Augusto Pinochet, did not inspire wanderlust, and my Spanish vocabulary consisted of the single phrase, “una mas cerveza, por favor.” Although that phase proved un-cannily sufficient for a short post-college trip to Spain a lifetime ago, I wasn't certain it would hold up for seven months in Chile. But then I heard the Rolling Stones would be touring South America at the beginning of our sabbatical. Uno mas vaso de vino tinto, por favor.
Because we couldn't be in Santiago when the Stones kicked off their Olé tour there, I scanned the tour dates for other South American venues that might work. I had my sites fixed on Rio de Janeiro but then a Brazilian friend told us we'd need to hire a bodyguard to accompany us to the show there. I thought she was being melodramatic in an ex-pat kind of way until another friend who has business interests in Brazil told me he hires protection for all his people in Rio. The trick, he said, is to make sure you hire the right bodyguard since some will turn on you. Not wanting to find myself in a Mario Puzo novel, I re-visited the tour calendar. The obvious next choice was Montevideo, Uruguay. Not only was it logistically feasible, but the city is reputedly so safe that a local jail was shut down for lack of business.
We began our travels in Santiago and could sense the excitement created by the Stones’ show still a month off. Of course there were the standard concert billboards up around the city. But what immediately caught my eye was the packaging of a ubiquitous cookie-type product that was adorned with the Stones’ iconic tongue.
The Rolling Stones AND cookies? Talk about excitement! And when we were in Chiloé, a large island in Chile’s Lakes District just north of Patagonia, I met a 20-something woman who was euphoric about enduring a 16-hour bus trip to Santiago to see “Los Rolling” (yes, in the singular, for you grammarians). To make that kind of effort, you would've thought she lived and breathed the Stones. But I didn’t get the sense she did. When we were riding in a van to a remote trailhead and the local radio station finally faded out, I offered up my iPod to the driver and cued up Exile on Main Street, the band’s magnum opus. She didn’t appear to know it. In fact, she seemed put off by my involuntary, quasi-orgasmic groan at the album’s opening notes. Doesn’t everybody react like that to “Rocks Off”? Maybe it’s a gringo thing. Whatever the case, it was apparent the Stones’ concert was more than a musical event for a lot of Chilenos.
And it was certainly more than a musical event for the Uruguayans. Without exaggeration, it was an historic event for the country. Everybody knew the Stones were coming to town. The cover of every newspaper and periodical in Montevideo noted that the Stones had never before played in Uruguay.
It was clearly a point of pride for all Uruguayans that the Rolling Stones would visit this relatively small country, the second smallest in South America, with the population of Connecticut and the land area of Oklahoma. A local bakery proudly displayed Rolling Stones-themed cakes so intricately designed it would've been a sacrilege to take a fork to them.
Stones music played in shops and taxis across the city where nearly a third of the country’s population resides. The entire country was basking in the Stones’ glow.
Before I could join in, I had to pick up our tickets. In what I assume was an effort to stymie the re-sale market, ticketholders had to go to Estadio Centenario, the historic soccer stadium where the Stones would be playing, a day or two before the concert to claim their tickets. I'm all in favor of foiling scalpers, but to have to trudge across town in 90 degree heat and sweltering humidity made me yearn for the convenience of StubHub. Worse yet, in what has become an all-too-familiar scene during our travels in South America, when I arrived at Estadio Centenario, there was a line as long as the horizon moving slower than the retreating Patagonian glaciers. Although there were easily ten ticket windows, only two were staffed. Why, I have no clue. It could've been because it was siesta, or because the crippling heat felled the other employees. Either way, we inched along under the watchful eyes of hundreds of police officers stationed at the stadium, I suppose in case a soccer game broke out. But I did eventually get my physical tickets
And despite a splitting headache brought on by heat and dehydration, it was nice to have some time to commune at Estadio Centenario. It's a beautiful old structure that was the site of the first FIFA World Cup in 1930 won, interestingly, by Uruguay. I made a joke to a local that there may have been some “home cooking” involved in that final match, but something apparently got lost in translation because the gentleman, clearly offended, informed me it's actually quite difficult to win a World Cup. [Note to self: no more use of the colloquialism “home cooking” until safely back in Los Estados Unidos.]
Although I was not hyperventilating like the Uruguayans about seeing the Stones (I'd seen them a couple of times in the 1980s), I was nonetheless excited. Not only would it would be my 10-year-old son’s first concert, but I needed to blow off steam after spending much of the day in the Spanish language class I was taking while in Montevideo. Although it was a good class, school is school, even at age 45.
So with mucho gusto we set out for the stadium. Even after a week in Montevideo, I never completely mastered the city’s bus system, with its dozens of lines all going roughly in the same direction but with subtly strategic differences. That night, I put my trust in a burned-out 40-something gentleman with a scraggly beard wearing a torn and frayed Stones tank top, figuring he'd know which bus to take. I followed him onto his bus and, not knowing how much it cost, gave the largest bill I had to the driver who then, somehow, with one hand gave me back multiple bills of various denominations, a stack of coins and a receipt while he simultaneously steered the bus through the torrent of rush-hour traffic with the other hand, all with the front door still open to allow a woman, only half inside the bus, to finish negotiating the stairs. It was one of the most spectacular feats of daring, concentration and coordination I'd ever seen.
My trust in the burned-out gentleman was well-placed. The Zen master of a bus driver eventually stopped the bus in relative proximity to the stadium where a swag encampment had sprung up, apparently sanctioned by the authorities (if not by the Stones), with every type of Rolling Stones-themed article you could imagine. There were tongue-infused boxer shorts, pajamas and maté cups, many with creative tie-ins to the Uruguayan flag. Other than outside Grateful Dead shows, I'd never seen such egregious breeches of licensing protocols. But hey, I’m on a sabbatical from being a lawyer so I turned a blind eye and picked up this fantastic bottle opener.
But the hottest selling items were t-shirts and caps emblazoned with the iconic tongue, the Uruguayan flag and the words “Yo Estuve,” or literally “I was.” People wanted to commemorate they were “there.” The Uruguayans seemed to believe they were present at a moment of transcendent historical importance, on par with when the Berlin Wall came down or when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison.
I was so distracted by all the swag that I didn't make into the stadium in time to hear the opening act, a Montevidean band called Boomerang. They sounded a little rough from the outside. I checked out their catalogue afterwards and can report that they tend more towards the heavy metal end of the rock spectrum. Although I did find a mash-up clip featuring snippets of many classic rock tunes, including “Whipping Post” and “Purple Haze,” but it seems to have been taken down. Probably for the best since it also included a cover of Kiss’ post-makeup anthem, “Lick It Up.”
When we finally entered the stadium, I was struck by how relatively young the crowd was. The band members were by far the oldest people at the show, and at 45, I was skewing towards the older end of the scale. That there were few, if any, contemporaries of the Stones in attendance seemed strange, perhaps because it contrasted so starkly with my experience seeing various incarnations of the post-Garcia Grateful Dead. One of the pleasures of those shows is looking around the audience and imagining that some of those folks were at the Fillmore East in 1971 or Veneta, Oregon in 1972. But I didn't see anyone at the Stones show who could've been at Altamont in 1969. The crowd was filled with young professional types, possibly because the ticket prices were so exorbitant only those with a current and sizeable income stream could afford to go.
Not only was the crowd relatively young, but it was well-behaved to a fault. I didn't smell any pot or see any hard alcohol. Only a few beer cans here and there. My son was braced for “a bunch of drunk people,” but there were none. I think he was disappointed. I now understood how the city could close one of its jails. The extent of the crowd’s intemperance was measured by a guy behind me taking off his soccer jersey (exposing a belly formidable in girth and thatch) and waving it above his head. After several weeks in South America, I know how difficult it is for a fútbol fan to separate jersey from body. The fútbol jersey is the sarong of South American male couture, seemingly able to be worn for any occasion — formal, casual, even bedtime. That a man would willingly take off his soccer jersey and, on top of that, risk wrinkling it by waving it wildly about his head, demonstrates the extent of the crowd’s zeal. This was fever pitch, Montevideo style.
The Uruguayans were so excited for the concert, I hoped they wouldn’t be disappointed. After all, the Stones are (presumably) in the twilight of their career. But there was no danger of their being disappointed. The crowd ate up everything the Stones offered. From the opening chords of “Start Me Up,” which kicked off the show, to “Satisfaction,” which closed it, the Uruguayans were enthralled.
For my part, I found myself more interested in the non-musical aspects of the show, in particular, the contrasts between Mick and Ronnie on the one hand and Keith and Charlie on the other: Mick and Ronnie sported unnaturally dark hair, Keith and Charlie made no effort to hide their grey; Mick and Ronnie underwent multiple wardrobe changes throughout the night, Keith and Charlie held sartorially steady; Ronnie still smoked cigarettes, Keith did not; Mick talked to the crowd in Spanish, Keith in English; Mick still played the role of the too-cool-for-school rock star while Keith seemed more like a grandfather than a rock legend, telling the crowd with obvious sincerity, his voice nearly cracking, “It is really good to be here. We could be anywhere in the world, . . . ”.
The show was filled with dramatic tension, although not over which song the band would play next. You pretty much knew you would get most of the big hits, and you did. No, I found myself fixated on whether Mick, still running all over the stage at age 72, would come up lame or be able to get up from the squat position he assumed at times. Watching him perform his geriatric calisthenics, I had the same uncomfortable feeling of imminent wipeout I get watching kids at the skateboard park near our apartment in Concepción. But there were no wipeouts. Mick made it through just fine.
Although there were musical highlights, on many tunes Keith and Ronnie got in each other’s way more than they complimented one another. But Keith’s backup vocals on “Wild Horses” were exquisite (check out the video clip, below) and the extended jam during “Midnight Rambler” put me in the zone. I closed my eyes and drifted away. At one point in the jam I opened my eyes and saw my son regarding me nervously. Although I fear that moment may have left a mark, he thoroughly enjoyed the concert, clapping and swaying to many of the tunes. During one song he tapped me on the shoulder and asked “What’s this?” “Miss You,” I told him. “It’s good!” he said, nodding with the new-found wisdom of an initiate.
The most theatrical number of the night, and a musical highlight as well, was “Sympathy for the Devil.” Mick was adorned in a faux-Devil costume while hell-fire graphics scrolled on the video screens. Watching the performance, I wondered how people in the deeply religious societies of South America would respond, even today nearly 50 years after the song was released to accusations of devil worship. I thought about the kid at the beach the day before who for no apparent reason came up to us, drew a cross in the sand, pointed skyward and exclaimed “Jesus!” (Did he know we were Jewish?) I need not have worried about Uruguayans taking offense because, notwithstanding the kid at the beach, Uruguay, interestingly, is one of the most secular countries in the world. If that doesn’t sound right, consider that since the early 1900s the Uruguayan state holiday falling on December 25 is officially referred to as “Day of the Family” thanks to the reforms of former President José Batlle. The wall he constructed between church and state makes America’s look like a cattle fence.
As evidenced by “Sympathy for the Devil,” the Stones’ live show is a spectacle as much as it is a concert. The costumes, the special effects, the acrobatics, the playing to the crowd. I experienced very few moments of connectedness with the Stones as musicians. There were too many distractions for that. In fact, the most poignant moment of connection I felt was when Mick talked to the crowd in gringo Spanish and was met with the same furrowed brows I get when trying to converse with the locals (although his modification of the classic lyric “It’s only rock ‘n roll but me gusta” did draw huge applause).
Ultimately, though, I came to agree with the Uruguayans (and the Chilenos) that the concert was about more than the music. Seeing the Rolling Stones perform is a cultural event of global proportion. To be present at one of their concerts is to have seen Michael Jordan play basketball. You are watching the absolute best there is, the ones that influence all others. Throughout the concert my mind fixated on the power of moments of creative inspiration. How they can shape other people’s lives the way glaciers shape mountains. To be present at a Stones concert is to have the privilege to witness that creative force in real time. While musically I might have preferred to listen to Exile on Main Street through high quality headphones in the solitude of my apartment, I am thrilled to be able to say “yo estuve.”