The new book, Can’t Give It Away On Seventh Avenue by Christopher McKittrick, examines the interlocking histories of New York City and The Rolling Stones.
It’s a fascinating read that charts the path of an English rock band in America’s most cultured city. Independent Music Promotions sat down with the author for a discussion of the greatest rock and roll band and his process in writing the book.
Independent Music Promotions: What is your personal history with the Rolling Stones? When did you become aware of them and when did you start listening?
Christopher McKittrick: So, I couldn’t tell you the first moment I ever heard a Stones song. They’ve been around so long that my parents listened to them. So kind of inherited it naturally. But, the first time I was ever aware of them was shortly after their IMAX movie came out [in 1991] for the Steel Wheels tour, Stones at the MAX. I was on a school trip [at] the Museum of Natural History in New York City and saw some nature documentary. Before the movie started the trailer for the Stones movie [played] and being pre-Internet days, I’d never actually seen them in action in quite that sense. I just remember watching this trailer and being blown away thinking, I don’t wanna see anything else on this school trip. I don’t wanna go to the museum. I wanna watch this. I was hooked. I’m in LA right now.
But, I’m a native New Yorker, and it always interested me that the Stones wrote so many songs that referenced New York City.
I also found it interesting that starting from the ‘75 tour, but more so with the Steel Wheels tour, the Voodoo Lounge tour, the Bridges to Babylon tour, every time the Stones announce[d] they were going on a world tour they kicked it off with some kind of press event in New York City. For Steel Wheels they did the announcement at Grand Central Terminal. For Voodoo Lounge they showed up at Chelsea Piers in a presidential yacht. For Bridges to Babylon they drove a vintage Cadillac across the Brooklyn Bridge. That always interested me. I said, “Here’s this band from England. What is it about New York? They write about New York.” They do these big publicity events in New York. On every tour they’re hitting up venues in New York. If you count the solo stuff, the Stones have pretty much played in every marquee venue in New York City, which is saying a lot.
IMP: What jumps out right away with the book is the incredible depth of detail. I love the short quips—stories about Bob Dylan, life in the Village, the famous Cafe Wha?, Linda Eastman, later wife of Paul McCartney, Brian Jones tripping on acid. And every detail is rooted back to the band or the city in some way.
CM: What’s really interesting about writing about a band like the Stones is that there’s so many major figures that passed in and out of their lives: Brian Jones and his friendship with Bob Dylan, or on-again off-again friendship. It was kind of a weird relationship that they had. You mentioned Paul McCartney’s wife. She comes in for a little bit. All of these major figures, New York and otherwise, they kinda crossed paths with the Stones in New York City.
IMP: I noticed you used the autobiographies of Keith Richards, Bill Wyman. What other sources did you find helpful? Talk about the process of researching for the book.
CM: The biggest challenge with the research is that there’s so much written about the Stones. There’s the great line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So many stories about the Stones over the years have sort of become true just because people repeat them, and then you start digging and you realize, eh, isn’t quite what happened. My main aim was to go back to primary sources like newspapers and music magazines that were written at the time because, even as great of a book as Life is by Keith Richards, and I love that [auto]biography, there’s stuff that couldn’t possibly have happened the way he describes it. You know, based on timelines, and it’s nothing out of control. He’s not talking about, he landed on the moon or something like that. But you start lining up timelines and it doesn’t quite make sense.
Part of the fun in doing the research, and you’ll see this as you get deeper into the book, there’s things I call out. [Things that] couldn’t possibly have happened. But if you had an encounter with the Stones you probably wanted to embellish it, whether unintentionally or intentionally, over the years. So that was the challenging part, separating fact from fiction. In most cases I tried to go back to sources when they happened, which is why Bill Wyman’s books were so helpful. Bill Wyman [who played bass with the band until 1993] has a mind like a steel trap. He kept a diary of everything that happened. So I used a lot of primary sources, newspapers, magazines that were published at the time. I always liked to go to Bill Wyman’s to try to corroborate dates and times.
IMP: I read the antidote about Keith allegedly pulling a knife on Jimi Hendrix out of jealousy in some club before either were household names.
CM: Keith pulling a knife on Jimi Hendrix does not seem like it’s something that happened. That’s an example of a story that you really only find in one place. You feel if Keith really did that he would’ve written about or talked about it before and I couldn’t find any evidence of Keith Richards ever talking about pulling a knife on Jimi Hendrix. So that’s an example of, yeah, this is probably an embellished story.
IMP: How were the Stones first received when they arrived in New York City? It was only weeks after Beatlemania had swept up the country.
CM: I think it’s impossible to talk about the Stones’ arrival in New York without talking about the Beatles because the Beatles came first. They [were] met with screaming girls at the airport. They already had hit records, hit singles. They were already popular before they even got here. They had a wealth of media coverage. The Stones, not so much. They had not yet had a hit single and when they came to the US they actually did this kind of odd tour. They arrived in New York, but their first concert was out in California. They were playing a lot of familiar blues and rock covers, but nobody knew who they were. So where the Beatles were already conquering heroes, the Stones really came off that first tour like Beatles imitators.
The only place [the Stones] really felt like home on that tour was New York City.
First of all, it was a big enough city that people had actually heard of them. Two, that’s where they ended their tour. So they already built up a little bit of buzz working their way back East. They ended that first American tour by playing two shows at Carnegie Hall, and by shows, back then, those are really like half-hour performances. That was pretty standard back then. They ended up getting banned from Carnegie Hall because it was just a riot. Even though there were two shows in one day, none of the fans wanted to leave after the first show and kept hiding in different areas of Carnegie Hall. Jumping under the snack counter, stuff like that, because they didn’t want to leave. So they actually got banned from Carnegie Hall, and rock concerts, as a whole, were banned for a year, which is pretty wild. It helped add to the Stones’ reputation of being these kind of rougher cousins of the Beatles.
IMP: What songs were they playing on that tour?
CM: A lot of them were their covers, “Not Fade Away.” While they were on that tour Murray the K, who was a really famous DJ in New York—he actually referred to himself as the Fifth Beatle because he helped break the Beatles [in the US]. He claims that the Beatles gave him that nickname, but there’s no evidence that they really did. He just gave himself that nickname.
IMP: There’s a few fifth Beatles.
CM: Yeah. One of many people to call themselves the Fifth Beatle. But on that tour, Murray the K said, “Hey, here’s a song I think you guys really would do a great job with,” and it was the Valentinos’ “It’s All Over Now,” which they later recorded and it became one of their first big hits. So even though they thought Murray the K was trying to steal some of their thunder, they really appreciated [that he] suggested that song because it was perfect for them.
IMP: Most bands with a deep discography have their New York-inspired album. What is the Stones’ definitive New York album?
CM: I think it’s hard to argue against Some Girls being the champion for that. Even though it was not recorded in New York, surprisingly, about five of the songs have references to New York City. But not even just references in the lyrics. It’s also the diversity of the music on the album. This is late-70s New York City. Punk is going on. Disco is going on. Even the seeds of New Wave are being planted. So you got songs like “Miss You,” which of course is a disco-influenced song. You put on that album, it’s the first track and you might think the Stones are going disco. But, then immediately afterwards you launch into songs like “Lies” and “Respectable” that are just really like punk tracks. As close as the Stones ever got to punk. Then you get a song like “Shattered,” which is like a New Wave song before New Wave was really on all cylinders. So you have this great diversity of music going on. You know, New York City has always had a music scene, but that was a real exciting time for New York City music and you could tell the Stones fed off of that.
IMP: Where did they record the songs on Some Girls?
IMP: So New York inspired them while writing in France?
CM: What happened is, at that time, late-70s, both Jagger and Richards were primarily living in New York City. They spent a lot of time hanging in New York. Both Richards and Jagger were kind of paling around with the original Saturday Night Live cast. Dan Akroyd had his own bar in New York City called The Blues Bar appropriately enough. It was an underground thing. It wasn’t an official bar.
The late-70s and early-80s for the Stones in New York were really exciting.
By the early-80s [guitarist Ronnie] Wood [was] also living in New York City, and they spent a lot of time, the three of them, going to different shows. It wasn’t uncommon for Richards to jump on stage with whoever was playing and play with them or Jagger do the same. There’s an awesome picture, for example. Dolly Parton was playing one night and Mick Jagger just came and hung out with her backstage. It’s a great picture of two artists that are both fantastic in their own right, but you wouldn’t immediately put them together—Dolly Parton, Mick Jagger.
IMP: What then, would you say, is the definitive moment for the Stones in New York City?
CM: [It’s] not a Stones moment; it’s a Mick Jagger and Keith Richards moment. It was always important [for me] to start the book with the intro being the Concert for New York City [on October 20, 2001]. I picked that moment because, obviously being a native New Yorker, September 11th was such a devastating moment to the city on so many levels, but that concert marked some particular important moments in Stones history.
First of all, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were, again, feuding.
They were not getting along at the time. Jagger had just put out another solo album and Keith Richards always gets cranky when Mick Jagger does a solo album. Famously the album was Goddess in the Doorway and Keith Richards was not shy about telling people he thought it should be titled Dogshit in the Doorway. Which shows you their love-hate relationship they have at times. So originally [the Concert] was announced just as a Mick Jagger performance. Keith Richards appeared on stage totally unannounced and I felt they played two really good choice songs. They could’ve just played “Satisfaction” and “Honky Tonk Women” and left the stage. But, they played “Salt of the Earth,” which was such a good song for that moment, and they rarely play live—haven’t played it since actually. And “Miss You,” which is of course a New York song.
In terms of the band as a whole I think it’s hard to argue against them playing six shows at Shea Stadium during the Steel Wheels tour. That was a huge moment for the band. The Steel Wheels tour really reinvented how rock and roll stadium tours go. Granted there were stadium shows beforehand, but never to the caliber of what Steel Wheels accomplished. Every band that tours stadiums, and we’re talking about people like Taylor Swift, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, are following the model established for Steel Wheels. Playing six shows at Shea Stadium was a measure of pride for the Stones because Mick and Keith were actually in attendance [in 1965] when the Beatles played Shea Stadium, one of the most famous concerts in rock and roll history. I remember, Richards being Richards made a lot of snide comments of, “You know, they weren’t that good that night.” So, him thinking twenty-five years later, We filled that stadium six times, I feel that’s a measure of pride for them. I would say that would be their biggest moment on stage in New York as a band.
IMP: Steel Wheels really ushered in the grand extravagant stadium show that is now old hat for the concert industry.
CM: The Stones had played stadiums before. [Led] Zeppelin played stadiums. All these bands had played stadiums, but nobody figured out how to do the stadium show with all the fireworks and pageantry and the video screens and making the guy sitting two feet away from the top restroom all the way up there feel as engaged in the concert as somebody on the floor. They figured it out.
IMP: With the tongue logo runway built in the center of the crowd.
CM: U2 has done it. Metallica has done it. Pretty much any major band that covers stadiums, they’ve taken these ideas and it’s great. If you’re gonna steal from somebody steal from the best.
IMP: Did you discover anything new about New York or the band while writing this book?
CM: I was aware of the fact of how big of a business the Rolling Stones [were], certainly after with the Steel Wheels tour, but I didn’t quite have a full understanding of how incredibly massive their Rolling Stones Corporation is, for lack of a better term. It takes so many moving pieces for them to tour, and not just tour, but come up with new merch. Especially now. On this [current No Filter] tour they have new merchandise for every single stop. Other bands have done that, but the Stones go all out.
In terms of learning about New York: media coverage over the last sixty years. Especially when you look at a source like the New York Times, for example, which is thought of today as a very, very liberal, left-leaning, newspaper. It wasn’t quite that in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It had a very different editorial slant. I had one of my readers tell me, “I was shocked to read how the New York Times referred to drug users and the LGBT community in the ‘60s.” New York Times would have to print six weeks of apologies if they ever wrote about anybody like this [today]. It’s very different. The media landscape changed so much from the ‘60s to today and not just because of social media. Political attitudes and social attitudes have changed. You would never expect to [read] in the New York Times or a major paper today what you see in articles from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and that was pretty shocking to me.
IMP: Did you have any direction connection with anyone within the Stones’ circle while writing the book?
CM: Unfortunately I wasn’t able to speak to any of the Stones themselves. I have spoken to people close to the band to corroborate things, but we’re talking about a band that’s been in the public eye for nearly sixty years and so there’s sixty years’ worth of interviews, media appearances that you can dig through. It’s interesting to see how much of the stories fit together and then don’t fit together when you start looking at the media. You said you were on the Let’s Spend Some Time Together moment, [when Jagger was told to change his lyrics for their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show]. Jagger, for instance, [has said], “Oh, I never really said, ‘let’s spend some time together,’ I just mumbled.” Well, you know, we have the internet nowadays. You go back, you watch the clip; he definitely said it. But it makes for a better story. What are you gonna do? Tell Mick Jagger he’s wrong?
IMP: Jim Morrison of the Doors also famously defied the show’s censors.
CM: It’s hard to think about it nowadays because we have a thousand television channels and streaming services and all that, but of course, back in the day, The Ed Sullivan Show was the best way to reach American audiences. It was a show that almost everybody watched. So a lot of artists were willing to play ball with the censors on the show because it meant what you were trading in, I guess integrity, you got in exposure. The Stones understood this. There were other artists that didn’t wanna play ball with Sullivan. The most famous example, of course, is Jim Morrison being told, “You can’t say, ‘girl we couldn’t get much higher.'” Well, he went and said it anyway because his logic was, Hey we’re on the Sullivan show. We already did it. Bob Dylan walked out of his appearance because he wanted to play a song [they] wouldn’t let him play. Buddy Holly almost walked out. Elvis, of course, was cut off from the waist down. The Stones were willing to play ball.
IMP: Today’s version of that would be selling your song to a commercial.
CM: Well, Jagger even made a joke about that. They do the vote song for their setlist at every tour stop. The first New Jersey show on this tour, the vote song was, “She’s A Rainbow,” Jagger joked, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m guessing you know that one because it’s been in so many commercials.” And he’s probably not wrong.
IMP: It’s 2019 and a Stones song in a commercial is still a debate. What is it about this band that has made them such a special entity? It feels like their relevancy has no expiration.
CM: There’s so many factors, but ultimately what it comes down to is the songs are great. Jagger and Richards have written some of the greatest rock and roll songs. I give them a lot of credit for changing up three or four songs in the setlist per show, but they’re gonna play “Satisfaction” and “Honky Tonk Women,” “Paint It Black.” They’re gonna play all these because they’re just some of the greatest songs ever written by a rock and roll band. That’s what people keep connecting to and now you have three generations of Stones fans going to concerts. I’ve connected with so many fans since the book has come out, which is something I love, and they’re, like, “Oh yeah, I went with my parents and my kids to the Stones concert.” We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of Altamont, [one of the group’s infamous concerts]. That would’ve been unheard of to bring three generations to the Altamont festival.
Top of that, people have always asked the question, Why do they keep touring? They’ve been making jokes about the Stones being old since the 1972 tour. The Steel Wheels tour was nicknamed the Steel Wheelchairs tour and that was thirty years ago. Think about that: Thirty years ago they were already making wheelchair jokes. There’s two reasons they keep doing it: number one, the lesser reason, is there’s just so much money in it for them when they tour. It’s hard to say no to that. But, more important, it’s what they love to do. Keith Richards in particular has talked about this and he jokes and says, “Why would I ever retire? What would I do? I’ve been playing rock and roll since I was fifteen years old. This is what I love to do. This is our passion.”
[It’s] a beautiful sentiment because there are so many bands that I’ve seen, classic rock artists, that you could tell they’ve been playing the same setlist for the last ten years. To me, it’s exciting to see a band like the Stones, which could do that. They could get away with playing fourteen songs of “Satisfaction,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Paint It Black,” “Sympathy [For the Devil],” get it all done, get off the stage. And they don’t do that. They always think of new ways to market their music, get themselves out there [and] connect with their fans.
McKittrick will be signing copies of Can’t Give It Away On Seventh Avenue: The Rolling Stones and New York City tonight, August 22, at Barney’s Beanery in Pasadena, CA before the Stones concert at the Rose Bowl. Seventh Avenue was published by Post Hill Press. Find out more at .