Low life

Up close with the Rolling Stones

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

At 7 p.m., panting, I knocked on the door of room 201 of the Hotel InterContinental, Marseille, expecting it to be opened by Patrick Woodroffe, the man who has splendidly lit Rolling Stones gigs for the past 33 years, who would, I believed, hand over two tickets. With any luck, and on the strength of our slender acquaintance, I hoped these tickets would be upgraded to seats a little closer to the action than the ones we had paid quite enough for. Eventually, the door was opened instead by a timid woman wearing a hijab. She blinked at the words ‘Rolling Stones’ but they meant nothing to her. We ran back downstairs to the concierges’ desk. ‘Nope,’ they said, checking a stack of envelopes. ‘Nothing for you here under that name.’

We ran down the hill to the sunny old port and took the underground, changing lines once and emerging on to a shady street where we joined a dense multitude headed for the velodrome. At the first turnstile we saw, about 5,000 people were queuing to be searched and admitted. Among the list of personal items banned from venues on the Rolling Stones European tour are alcohol, illegal drugs, legal highs, glass (including perfume bottles), food, wallet chains, audio-recording equipment, cameras, umbrellas, selfie sticks, T-shirts bearing ‘offensive’ slogans, backpacks, bum bags, camera bags and ladies’ handbags larger than a sheet of A5, including the handles. Which might be considered strange for a Rolling Stones tour marketed as ‘No Filter’. But as lifelong Stones fans who have never seen them play live, Catriona and I would have presented ourselves in the nude if necessary. However, here we were, without the gates and ticket-less, and despair was starting to creep through our pre-concert bucket of gin.

Moving on, we noticed a temporary building that might be a ticket office, except there wasn’t a queue. I pushed at the door and it gave way. Inside was a counter manned by about a dozen people, all of whom looked up as we entered and seemed pleased to see us. We gave one of them our names and he riffled through a stacked row of packages until his eyes lit up and he handed over two packets with the greatest of pleasure.

Sagging with relief, we accepted what we presumed were our two ordinary tickets and went outside to open the envelopes and make a dash for the correct entrance. At this point we almost ran into an anxious-looking Patrick Woodroffe. The support band were already playing and here was the bloke in charge of the lighting come out to look for us.

To save time, he tore open our welcome packets, extracted VIP wristbands and dinner plate-sized VIP stickers and stuck them on us. ‘You only have to press a button to start the show, presumably,’ I said humbly. ‘Not even that,’ he said. Then he shepherded us through a body search that was more of a wink than a patting down and on through an underground lorry park into an air-conditioned, carpeted tent with flower arrangements. In here, the Rolling Stones pre-gig VIP party was in full swing. Not content with this, he led me to the bar, demanded immediate attention from a uniformed barman, placed an ice-cold bottle of Mexican lager in my hand and introduced me to the nearest circle of guests, which included Ronnie Wood’s girlfriend and Mick Jagger’s oldest Dartford school friend. Elated by this incredible turnaround in our fortunes, I chatted with maniacal conviviality to these and to anyone else who caught my eye.

Three beers later, Patrick rounded up his guests — there were about ten of us — and led us Pied Piper-like through the audience to our places in the centrally situated tent from which sound and lighting were controlled by banks of knobs and dials. Also in here was a help-yourself bar, the actress Zoë Wanamaker, a big exhausted Basque and his wife, two young US neuroscientists, a party of tall English aristocrats, and the Rolling Stones manager.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones,’ said the announcer. Out cantered Mick, a 74-year-old stallion-colt, to the opening bars of ‘Street Fighting Man’, and we danced like the dancing brooms in Fantasia for 19 successive Stones classics over two hours. Every time I looked round, the aristocrats were opening another bottle of red or passing out pints of ice-cold lager to anyone who wanted one, and during the chorus of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ Patrick pulled me over and showed me a slider knob on a lighting console. He invited me to oscillate it in time to the woo! woo! of the chorus, which caused the stage and the far end of the Marseille velodrome to pulsate with massive sunbursts. ‘We really didn’t exshpect any of thish, Patrick,’ I said, as I wiggled the knob up and down. ‘Thank you.’

‘My pleasure,’ he said.

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