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The Quality of Genius- or - Sneaking a Crew Backstage to Film the Rolling Stones

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Screenwriters need to know what questions to ask. They also need to know what questions not to ask.

- Richard Walter




Einstein told us there are two—and only two—constants in the universe: 1) the speed of light and 2) The Rolling Stones.

They showed up in downtown Los Angeles last spring celebrating their fiftieth anniversary.

The first time I saw them was October of 1965, in Syracuse, New York, when I was enrolled in a jackpot, give-away, draft-dodge of a Masters program in television and radio at the Newhouse School of Public Communications on the Syracuse University campus. I had heard a handful of their earliest hits on top-forty radio and had not been particularly impressed. From afar they sounded like rich London white kids trying too hard to sound like oppressed, impoverished American black kids.

My pal Bob Hipkens talked me into the show, which I went half heartedly to see at the Veteran’s Arena.

My life has never been the same.

Surely Mick Jagger is the King of Strut. Count him along with Elvis, James Brown, and Michael Jackson as rock ’n’ roll’s all-time champion movers. The performance was nothing less than liberation, for me a full-tilt religious experience. I was born again, washed forever clean of adolescent pretense in the rich, red blood of Mick, Keith, Charlie, Bill (Wyman), and Brian (Jones).

They returned to Syracuse only ten months later, July of ’66. Clearly their management knew they were hot, and that in the world of pop hotness lasts but briefly. It was important to exploit whatever lingering, residual profit remained. No one could have imagined that they’d pack nineteen thousand screaming fans into downtown L.A.’s Staples Arena forty-eight years later.

guitar evolution

Back then in Syracuse, on the occasion of the band’s second performance, I was determined to accomplish the impossible: rustle up a film crew to take backstage and shoot The Rolling Stones.

To this end I signed up for a TV documentary production course at Newhouse. I knew there would be a good deal of Syracuse police moonlighting at the concert as security. If I were purportedly producing a documentary focusing on the police, I figured I could get a crew to the Stones event ostensibly to film not the Stones but the security officers.

Somehow I managed to seduce the Syracuse Police Department’s chief. He welcomed the opportunity to have his force be the focus of a film. A few days before the band arrived in town, however, he phoned me. “The Stones’ advance team is here. You have my permission to go backstage and film the event, but you’ll need theirs too.”

He provided me with the phone number of their road manager.

Regarding the quality of genius, it is often said that the key is to know the right questions to ask. It has also been suggested, however, that it is every bit as important to know which questions not to ask. The aforementioned Einstein, for example, knew that energy and matter were merely different versions of the same stuff. He was wise enough, however, to know better than to ask how to convert one into the other. He would leave that to the next generation: the quantum physics dudes.

Likewise, Darwin perceived that species evolved from one to another and another. He was wise not to ask, however, what was the precise mechanism of this transformation. That would be figured out years later by the geneticists, led by the Russian monk Gregor Mendel.

By the same token, I knew not to ask the Stones advance guy's permission to go backstage with a camera crew. I already knew the answer: No.

Instead, we just showed up at the appointed hour with cameras, lights, recorders, cables, and other film production paraphernalia at the entrance to the arena. Because we were toting media equipment, we were afforded preposterous deference. Without badges, without authorization, with nothing but Arriflex 16mm cameras and Nagra recorders, crowds parted before us as had the Red Sea for Moses. Police officers escorted us through the gate.

We made our way backstage just as the Stones’ bus pulled up. The lads, scruffy and weary, stumbled in. Mick yawned, as if to say, “Ho hum, another day, another million dollars.”

Their producer, the legendary Andrew Loog Oldham, spotted me and my crew. He confronted us. “Get those bloody cameras out of here.” I explained (fraudulently) that we weren’t there to shoot the Stones but to film the police. “If I see you training one o’ them lenses on the Stones, I’m going to smash that foooking camera.”

He stormed off.

Mick, standing a few yards away, approached me. “Don’t pay that bloke no mind,” he said to me, apologetically. “He gets all hot and bothered ‘cause peoples takes our pictures and sells them here and there for fifty cents or wha’ever.”

I managed somehow to stammer, “Sure thing, Mick. Th-th-th-thanks.”

The footage, camera-original black-and-white negative, by now likely decomposed, sits in a drawer in my Westwood office, to this day unedited and unviewed.

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