The last week of April 1973 the American Retreaders Association shared the Executive Inn, Louisville, Kentucky, with a collection of dwarves, freaks, dealers, high-wire acts, aerial motorcyclists, a few journalists, a mother-and-son balancing act, a Chinese woman who dangles from arena ceilings "suspended only by the hair of her head," and a couple of rock 'n' roll bands.
This is the Rock 'n' Roll Circus... side show. The Main Event takes place only once each evening, and that is what we are here for. Step right this way, friends, and have a look inside:
"In the center ring, for your enjoyment,
Ladies, gentle- men, and children of all ages, we present an act beyond
mortal belief This evening only, flown DIRECT from London, England.
The Rock 'n' Roll Rooster and his famous friends, the nimble, amazing
Briton-chimpanzees! See them walk and strut and kick out the very jams
you've come to witness! Watch as they tread a path 'cross stages braver
men have feared to tread.
At a back table sit Billy Gaff, the Faces manager, Ronnie Lane, their bass player-songwriter-singer, publicist Pat Costello, photographer Peter Hujar, and the Creem team. Costello is verbose. Hujar is reserved, the way only a New Yorker can be reserved. Gaff is hyper, the paragon of British rock management. Tonight the pressure's on for him: Tickets for the show haven't sold well in advance, and he's worried that they'll be playing to a half-empty house. Lane is quiet, the way only a professional British rock star can be reserved.
Gaff is bubbling over. He raves about the quality of the food. Then, with a swoop of his fork, he begins to describe his plans for upping ticket sales tonight.
"I don't understand it. Tickets just aren't moving. Did you see the plane I hired? Had a streamer behind it, to advertise the show. And we did two spots."
Enter the Rock 'n' Roll Rooster. He's bedecked in a white suit which epitomizes British funque. He is sunburned, angular, looking very tall, very lean.
"I've just been to the Bahamas," Rod Stewart says, and bends, the way he sways like a sapling on stage, to speak for a moment to Gaff.
Rod leaves quickly; Gaff and Lane follow momentarily. The arena is huge. It is so large that if the show is not a big success there will be problems, severe problems. Like about 300 percent too much natural echo.
But the place begins to fill up nicely as the recently reformed Free open the show. By the end of their brief but monotonous set, the house is about half full and the crowd is still coming in.
Free don't sound poor, but they don't do anything to assert the brilliance of either Paul Rodgers, their lead vocalist or Paul Kossof, their lead guitarist. Rodgers, for instance, might have a technically "better" voice than Stewart's, but he could sure take lessons from Rod in stage presence.
During the set, the Circus Proper sets up. Behind the stage and to its side, high wires go up. The trapeze act, a crew of Chileans (who escaped Allende, the way Cubans escaped Castro?) is to go on first, but it isn't much. One of the connections is missed and the trouper falls but he is back up in a second, and one has the feeling that it is set up.
This is the first night that the circus has
been presented in its entirety. The problem, according to Faces, is that
most of the arenas on tour have restrictive fire laws, or inadequate
facilities, for the whole show. Louisville is the fourth night of the
tour, but it is the first night for the entire circus.
The sound was almost perfect: Each instrument could be heard clearly, McLagan's organ and Jones' powerful drumming coming through especially well in light of the way they have been buried in the past. The Faces work perfectly with Rod. It is not a mistake to say that they couldn't make it without him, I suppose, but it is also not a mistake to think that Rod couldn't make it without the band.
Ron Wood: At the beginning it's (husky whisper) "C'mon Rod." But by the end (he chirps), "Hey they all got it on."
In the middle of the set, just as they are beginning to settle into the groove that could carry the show to only a middle-height, the band breaks into the crusher. Stewart steps to the mike with one of the rare grins he allows himself, and begins to sing, as Wood plays the absolutely heartrending guitar lead-in:
Wake up Maggie, I think I... Before the rest of the line is out, the stage begins to be covered with bodies. Perhaps two hundred actually make it to the apron of the stage, so that the musicians have less room, forcing Rod to diminish his Grouch walk with the mike. The uninitiated experience an intuitive fear.
"Aren't you scared?"
Wood: Naw man. They came, but they just stayed there.
McLagan: They probably would get really silly, but they don't want to hurt you, they just want to be close and be part of the party.
Wood: I did feel a few fingers on the knee last night...
Incredibly, the music is even better live. "Maggie May," at least that evening, was one of the premiere experiences of rock. It ranks with few others. Dylan, the Stones on a rare evening, the Who. Perhaps the Band when they're on, or the Beatles, if they got back together.
Stewart's singing was predictably fantastic, but it was the Faces who held you in awe. Even knowing how good "Maggie May" is, the live arrangement is textured so perfectly, arranged so beautifully, the interplay and dynamics of the situation-not just the music-are so right, that it is hard to believe.
Here is a dimension of interplay between "star" and band that is altogether rare. The music is precise and skillful, but not tight or constricted.
Finally, what makes the show so exciting and impressive is that the Faces, and perhaps Rod most of all, really do understand what theater is. The circus is malarkey next to this.
Stewart bounds across the stage with his Groucho walk, leaning into the mike and crooning like some obscene parody of Bing Crosby; Wood has all the perfectly timed and intuitively choreographed moves of the best British guitarists; Lane tromps about like a drunken sailor. McLagan and Jones don't do much, but they provide the backbeat that's a necessity as backdrop for the theater.
The show is so finely tuned that it even works where once it was weakest: when Stewart hands the vocal mike to Ron Lane.
Lane is a good singer, but he's not Rod and always before it has seemed like he was merely giving Rod a break. No more. His songs are good, and his ideas about how to present them are fine. He mocks himself so well you're never sure how serious he is.
Lane: Are they true? Yeah! They're all true stones.
Rod: I'm not a natural songwriter . . . like Ronnie Lane. (Brief snicker.) Well, he is. Songs flow out of him. It's a struggle for me. I'm lucky to get one a month.
Wood (a little earlier): The nice thing about Rod was that Rod was there all the time. Even when Ron was doing his vocals. Rod was there.
Lane: Generally, to the laymen in the street, we're always going to be Rod's back-up band. But to anyone who takes a little more interest, the truth will be obvious.
They are into "Losin' You" now. It is thundering just as nicely as "Maggie May," powering the kids into crawling farther and farther onto the stage, pushing more and more of them up there.
The strain is on Rod's face. When he takes
a break for a moment, turns his back to the audience and gets a drink,
you can see it. It is not a pretty sight. It isn't surliness or anger—just
weariness and tension.
"It could've been a problem," says Ron Lane, "if
it had gotten to Rod's head. It doesn't affect us ... we all work together
anyway. There are lots of people askin' us, 'What about. . .' But it
doesn't apply somehow."