The Beatles want to hold your hand. The Stones want to burn your house down. The word was out, Bangalore and Mumbai would have to guard their homes, lest Tom Wolfe’s pithy observation came true. So when Venkat Vardhan of DNA Networks confided in me early in 2003 that the Rolling Stones were indeed coming to India, I couldn’t believe it.
But they did come. They did play, Bangalore on April 4 and Mumbai on April 7. And when that happened, it represented the coming together of three things that I hold dear to my heart: Calcutta, cricket and the Beatles.
Venkat, the promoter, is from Bangalore. But the man who hooked him up with Messrs Mick Jagger & Co. was Dilip Doshi, the left arm orthodox spinner who used to play in Calcutta even though he is from Gujarat. We rejoiced at his belated inclusion in the Indian Test squad – why not, he was a “Kolkata-r chheley” after all – in 1979 against Australia in Madras (Chennai) where he ended up scalping 8/167 in the match. Yet unknown to us then, his other passion was the Rolling Stones.
Writing about it in The Telegraph (London) in August 2006, Doshi recounts how at his request the enterprising owner of Calcutta Gramophone Stores on Lindsay Street would have Stones records shipped to him from Decca Records, England, in the mid-’60s. A serious pursuit of cricket led Doshi to England where, lo and behold, he got to meet Jagger in the ’70s while playing county.
Suffice to say the India leg of the Forty Licks tour would not have happened but for Dilip Doshi.
“I first met Mick (Jagger) when I was playing for Nottingham in the ’70s. Both he and Charlie Watts had come to watch England play,” he told us in Mumbai at a meet-the-Press to announce the India concerts. Soon they became friends. Good enough to practise together at the nets at Lords on several occasions.
Doshi revealed he had long been discussing with Jagger the possibility of a Stones gig in India. It all fell into place once Venkat agreed to produce and manage the shows in India.
Exactly thirteen years later, in October 2016, the Rolling Stones would be playing on two consecutive weekends at a desert in California. They did a bluesy cover of Come Together, a song Jagger nonchalantly described as being penned by an “unknown beat group”.
Reading about it first and then watching a recording of the performance on YouTube, I was transported back in time and reminded of what Keith Richards had told me during a telephone conversation barely twenty-four hours before their Bangalore concert, the first time the Rolling Stones would be performing in India.
Yet, I can’t forget how the India tour may not have happened at all. China, the Stones stopover prior to India, had imposed certain conditions. The Stones were asked not to play certain songs because of, I presume, the sentiments they seemed to encourage. As bizarre as it may sound now, the Stones agreed.
Thank you for not calling off the India tour.
Keith: Yes, the band can’t wait to get to India. That mechanical failure (the aircraft snag) just held up things. But we are here. By the way, I love your carpets.
You called off the China tour because of the South Asian health scare over SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The fans there must be disappointed?
We are very disappointed. Personally, it was okay with me, you know, but when you are talking about the lives of hundreds of people you’ve got to take a call. The idea is to enjoy the concert; when that isn’t going to happen, there’s no point to it. But we’ll go back there for sure, once things get cool.
China had banned the Stones from playing Brown Sugar, Let’s Spend the Night Together. I thought you guys would be the last to agree to censorship.
It’s kind of weird to be told what to play and what not to. It’s only a love song. But we respect the sensitivities of other countries. And since I have no political axe to grind, I say, “You don’t want us to play it, okay we won’t. I don’t give a damn.”
On to music. You have said that the only place that instils a sense of peace in you is the stage. Explain that.
That’s the only place where we don’t have to answer phones and no one is asking us questions. You are alone at peace with the music. I think the other guys in the band will share my feelings.
How do you inspire yourself to play Satisfaction a zillion times? Satisfaction is a dream. I know it in my dream.
When I play Satisfaction it’s like living a dream. And who doesn’t like to live his dreams?
Do you still feel that Scotty More’s solo on Elvis’ I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone is the best thing to happen to music and you?
I can’t believe you know this. Yes, Scotty is great and believe me I still can’t play that solo (laughs).
The Rolling Stones vs the Beatles. How was it like in those days? You know, John (Lennon) and George (Harrison) were particularly fond of the Stones.
John was a very dear friend of mine. I miss him dearly. I think the Beatles learnt and took quite a lot from us just as we did from them. Often, we used to say we should have all been in the same band. Now John and George are not with us – nothing in the world is perfect. You know that don’t you?
That night Bangalore got itself another introduction – the city that kicked off the India edition of the Rolling Stones’ Forty Licks tour. “This is a good place to start our gigs in India. It’s good to be here,” screamed Jagger.
True to reputation, the Brown Sugar opening left us in a daze, the booming bass drowning all but Charlie Watt’s drums. Ron Wood seemed to be looking askance towards Richards, while Jagger couldn’t hear what was going on. And it was not until we had rolled over It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and Start Me Up, that the sound system warmed up and we all settled down to experiencing history.
Then it started to rain and we weren’t the only ones to get wet and muddy. Richards and Wood took turns out into the side extensions of the stage, and Jagger performed what seemed like a cross between Bharatnatyam and breakdance on the smaller front extension. Occasionally, we tapped our neighbours, as if to confirm that it was all real, while the giant screen at the back beamed startling close-ups of the men in action, alternating with frisky caricatures of the Stones’ trade-mark lascivious tongue.
If memories are personal, this one night would be special for many. For some, it would be the sheer size of the performance, the gadgetry and the unbelievable rockstar act of the inimitable Stones’ frontman, Mick Jagger, mouthing every lyric as if his sixty-year-old life depended on it. From the romantic Angie to the pulse-pounding Sympathy for the Devil in an illuminated jacket, and the pile-diver encore, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, he was the master showman playing us to his tune.
For others it would be about raindrops looking like snowflakes in a night sky lit up by powerful spotlights as Richards sang Slipping Away – “dripping away,” he joked. I know of at least two friends from New Delhi who admitted they did shed a tear. As for that unfussy little boy perched atop his dad’s shoulder right in front of us, it will surely also be about the rain and protection from it in the form of an empty popcorn packet later replaced by a windcheater on loan from a generous fan.
“The Rolling Stones has sunk so deep into our blood that we may even be able, by now, to pass the knowledge on genetically to our children,” wrote Salman Rushdie.1 I kind of agreed. Days after the show, we kept talking about how perhaps the only other band that could stake claim to such life-inspiring fame is the Beatles. Yet the crucial difference is existential in nature.
The Stones are still on a roll, their story having transcended their age-old tales of notoriety. During the Forty Licks tour, they were being celebrated in magazine covers as the billion dollar band, a partnership of four linked to a tax haven offering aspiring business management graduates a lesson in corporatising entertainment.
In hindsight, many of us didn’t quite agree with the way the essentially anti-establishment Stones capitulated to censorship. Otherwise, why would they even consider playing in China when the land of the Forbidden City banned them from playing two of their all-time hits. But hey, the Stones are against war – thank god. Inscribed in bold on the back of Keith’s jacket was: Make peace not war.
My own thoughts were simple. Here we were in Bangalore, in 2003, and who would have ever imagined Forty Licks live in our backyard? What was it about the Rolling Stones that did it for so many generations? Most of the twenty-odd songs they played were older than many of us, but there we were celebrating them over and over again as though they were new.
The answers, I imagine, could well lie with that little boy, the boy on his father’s shoulders, getting wet with all of us. He must be a decade and a half wiser today. Keith Richards spoke of the joys of playing Satisfaction, what if for the zillionth time, describing the process as “living a dream”. That night we all got to live ours.
Excerpted with permission from Calling Elvis – Conversations With Some of Music’s Greatest: A Personal History, Shantanu Datta, Speaking Tiger.