My Hampton 1981 Story
Date: December 18, 2006 21:54
I wrote this for the Marilou Regan book a few years ago. Now's a good time to re-read and set the way-back machine for 25 years ago.
Happy Birthday to Keith: Hampton, Virginia - December 18, 1981
Just about everyone knows a married couple who followed the custom of freezing a chunk of their wedding cake to help commemorate the event at future anniversaries. I don’t know what the duration record is, but in a similar vein, I have saved a piece of Keith Richard’s 38th birthday cake in my freezer since 1981 and have no intention of tossing it or eating it any time soon. How it got there is the subject of this story, my first backstage encounter with the Rolling Stones.
All longtime Stones fans and more recent devotees are familiar with the December 18, 1981 Hampton Coliseum show that became the very first pay-per-view Stones concert in the U.S. and is the subject of oft traded videos and a superb audio soundboard that came from the FM stereo simulcast. The 1981 U.S. tour had no official name but is often referred as the Tattoo You Tour.
The ’81 tour was extra special for me. For the first time, I was no longer a starving student and had some extra cash enabling me to follow the tour throughout the East coast. I saw a total of 14 shows including Mick’s press conference and the fantastic opening dates in my home town of Philadelphia.
All through November there had been tons of rumors about the closed circuit broadcast and small club venues (Bond’s in NYC for one), but finally it was confirmed just a couple weeks before the show that it would be on Keith’s birthday in the smallish (about 13,000) Hampton Coliseum in Hampton Roads, Virginia. I had just seen three incredible shows at the Capitol Center in Landover, Maryland a week before and now had to inform my skeptical wife that I was planning to drive six hours down to Virginia for two more shows on a Friday and Saturday night one week before Christmas. I was not a popular dude on the home front, but I had to see the tour’s big finale.
Tickets were easy to come by, going for half price in the parking lot. George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers opened the show in a raucous Chuck Berry style blowout. A local favorite in the Philadelphia area, we were thrilled to see him open for the Stones and the treat was enhanced with Ian Stewart banging away on the big white grand piano he used in the Stones shows.
The Stones, coming on with a drawn out “Under My Thumb” intro, played one of the finest shows of the tour. They were ferocious on songs like “When the Whip Comes Down”; no doubt inspired by the pay-per-view cameras. Without changing the standard set list, the show was about 20 minutes longer than the recent shows in Maryland. This was due to the extended jamming they did on several songs like “Just My Imagination” and the long runs out on the ramps going all the way to the back of the arena during songs like “Let me Go” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. The floor was wide open with no seats so my brother and I were able to stake out a spot in front of Keith with a big boom camera floating above our heads all night. The non-musical highlights included Keith’s birthday toast as he was attempting to start “Little T&A” and the infamous incident during the “Satisfaction” encore when Keith took off his guitar and swung it battle axe style at a fan rushing across the stage ( This was just one year after John Lennon had been murdered, and there were still real concerns about crazed fans doing the unthinkable). I loved the way Keith nonchalantly replaced the strap around his shoulders and played on unfazed.
After the show ended, we hung around as the arena emptied, having nowhere to go except back to the local Days Inn. So my brother and I went up to an area of the stands near the rear of the stage where we could look into the backstage area and see a post-concert party crowd forming. There were several of friends from the Philly, New Jersey, NYC (remember this was pre-internet and the hardcore was pretty small group). Without going into details and naming names, we came into possession of a couple backstage passes, the sticky paper kind which people slap on their shirt or jeans. We rotated one of the passes in and out of the security check until we had all gained admittance to the backstage area.
This was my first backstage experience with Stones and I was simultaneously thrilled and nervous that I could be thrown out at any time. Most of the party was happening in a big room off the main backstage corridor which was laid out with long tables and cheesy Christmas decorations taken from some stock prop supply house. I spied Mick and Charlie sitting with a small group of friends off in the furthest corner of the room. Mick was wearing a heavy wool ski hat that stood straight up on his head as if it wear a crown. I rubbed shoulders with Bill Wyman who was wearing a rainbow striped Houston Astros jacket and I was only able to say “Hi Bill” as we exchanged nods.
By now I had surreptitiously returned my backstage pass so that another of my friends could gain admittance, and I was very wary not to appear like the gape-jawed fan that I was, for fear of being kicked out without proper credentials. Instead I tried to blend in and chat with whomever looked interesting. Some of us compared notes and wondered where Keith and Ronnie were.
One of the adjoining rooms was set up with a big buffet spread and a huge birthday cake for Keith and Bobby Keys (born on the same day). There was quite a bottleneck of people at the doorway trying to squeeze through in either direction. I went in, cased the joint and saw a few people standing around chatting. Boring. So I began to inch my way through the crowd back toward the main room when I suddenly found myself looking into the face of Keith Richards, literally. We were smashed up toe to toe as I locked eyes with the coolest person on earth. I said something like “Keith, great show tonight! Happy Birthday!” He immediately responded as if he thought maybe I was somebody he was supposed to know and went into a super-friendly greeting, ”Hey man! Good to see ya!” and cupped his hand on my shoulder, before he sidestepped on through the crowd. I reversed direction and followed him back into the food room where people were chanting that it was time to cut the cake. Keith yelled for Bobby but he was nowhere within earshot. There was a crowd of about thirty or forty people now standing around the cake table and we all broke into the “Happy Birthday” song while Keith took a gigantic knife to the cake. All of this time flashbulbs were going off and I was standing directly behind Keith looking over his shoulder. I figure there have to be dozens of photos out there somewhere in Stonesland with me standing there next to the man.
After the cake ceremony it seemed that the party started to wind down and everyone was ushered back into the now empty arena for a road crew and band photo session on the stage. During this time Ronnie appeared and joined our group of friends as we watched the photo shoot. He seemed to like hanging with the real fans as he chatted, joked and answered our questions in a relaxed and tipsy manner. He explained that this was the last time everyone would be together since they were all dispersing for the holidays immediately after the final show the next night.
By the time the photo session ended, including Keith posing with a copy of Beggars Banquet, the party was pretty much over with only a handful of people hanging around. I watched Bill Graham for a few moments as he remained on the stage and gazed about in what appeared to be a mood of wistful reflection at the end of, to that date, the most successful rock’n’roll concert tour ever,
My brother and I wandered back into the backstage area, now fully immune to security hassles. Noticing the picked over remains of the birthday cake, we decided it was souvenir time. Originally, the cake had been decorated with a guitar and saxophone made out of cardboard and frosting. The guitar was gone but the frosted sax was still there. We grabbed it and carefully wrapped it in plastic plates and napkins. I also grabbed a piece of the cake. and we walked out into the parking lot around 1:00 AM with our booty.
The next night we enjoyed the last show of the tour. I had no idea that I would not see the Stones play live again for almost eight years. When we got back to Philadelphia the frosting sax was an unrecognizable mess and had to be tossed. My piece of Keith’s 38th birthday cake with a smidgen of red tongue frosting remains to this day wrapped for posterity in three layers of plastic bags inside an old coffee can in our freezer. It’s probably completely inedible, but continues to be my most unusual and laugh-provoking piece of Stones memorabilia.