The Rolling Stones, grandfathers of rock and roll, and the city of Toronto Ontario Canada: if there ever was a more unlikely pairing of band and town, one doesn’t spring to mind. Since their inception in the early sixties, the Stones have always been associated with the seamy side of rock. Overt sexuality, hard drugs, and death by misadventure have dogged their footsteps.
“Toronto the good” has a squeaky clean reputation: so clean in fact that American film crews have to strew garbage on the streets when trying to recreate American locations. Toronto seems an odd choice, then, for the epitomes of rock decadence to make their home away from home in North America. But according to The Globe and Mailnewspaper, for the fifth year since 1989 the Stones are spending the months leading up to their latest tour rehearsing in Toronto.
Last night they threw a last-minute gig appearance into the mix when a thousand lucky people got to see them perform in the Phoenix Concert Theatre for a measly $10.00. Of course, this isn’t the first time they’ve done a club appearance in Toronto. Perhaps their most famous was in 1977 when they showed up completely unannounced at The El Mocambo.
That was the gig where they showed up with Maggie Trudeau, wife of Canada’s than Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, in tow. That night they didn’t just play one set, but kicked out the jams for hours. I was listening to the radio that night, and they interrupted the show to take a phone call from one of their off-duty DJ’s.
He was just raving about Mick and the boys being up on the tiny El Mocambo stage rocking away. In the background, through the phone line, you could hear Jagger belting out “Jumping Jack Flash” as if his life depended on it.
Of course, that was also the weekend of the infamous bust. Keith Richards was arrested by Toronto police on possession of heroin charges. In a burst of enlightenment, the sentencing judge, realizing the futility of sending a foreigner to jail, ordered the defendant to play two benefit concerts for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in lieu of jail time.
Two years latter Keith and his buddies did just that, playing two sold out shows at the Oshawa civic auditorium. Although many predicted that would be the last time the Stones would ever be caught dead in Toronto, the result has been the direct opposite.
In fact, Keith has publicly credited the city for saving his life, as he gave up heroin after that arrest. To this day, he wears a silver bracelet linked by a miniature set of handcuffs commemorating the event. “I have a very strange relationship with this city,” is the way he sums it up.
Now before we all get sentimental about the Rolling Stones and Toronto, or making headlines about the bad boys of rock and roll appreciating the tough love of Toronto the good, one needs to remember something important: simple business matters probably play as much a role in this as anything.
There’s the cheap Canadian dollar that reduces their overhead significantly, but more importantly Toronto is the home to Michael Cohl, their long-time concert promoter. He was the man responsible for ensuring the Rolling Stone’s participation in the 2003 SARS benefit concert.
Of course, there are other benefits to being in Canada as opposed to England or the United States is that there is nowhere near the amount of media tabloid presence in Toronto as in other major cities. This allows them the unheard-of freedom of being able to go out for dinner without fear of harassment other than the occasional request for an autograph.
While Mick Jagger may call it “a time-honoured tradition” and claim it’s “because everyone treats us really well,” it hasn’t stopped people from trying to guess an ulterior motive. Perhaps like professional athletes they are superstitious. If something works right once don’t mess with it.
They’ve prepared for four successful tours by coming to Toronto to practice, hang out, and give the occasional performance. These guys aren’t young anymore by anybody’s clock. They appreciate their comforts: being able to relax at the end of the day, go out for a drink, not worry about the press, and everybody’s just so polite.
When you’re about to spend an extended period of time on the road, moving from city to city, you want to be in the right state of mind. I think they’ve just gotten used to Toronto, and Toronto is used to them.
When old friends come to visit, you make them feel at home, you don’t put pressure on them. When you live as much in the spotlight as the Rolling Stones do, the best way to relax is to have the light turned down just a little: not too much, because you thrive on it, but enough that it doesn’t burn you to a crisp.