• ABC’s Reporter on the Road…..doesn’t go on forever
• Mick and Keith to the rescue. They keep me from going on the dole, mate
• All the news that’s fit to print – or say – about the Steel Wheels tour
As the Eighties drew to a close, so did my days as ABC Radio News’ Reporter on the Road. ABC was acquired by Capital Cities Communications (and in turn would later be acquired by Disney); cost-cutting and layoffs followed. The position of Reporter on the Road was a big-ticket item and in its 6th year would have to be considered vulnerable to elimination. Indeed, I was eventually let go. I later learned, however, my tenure had been extended thanks to many of the affiliated rock radio stations to which my reporting was targeted. See, in addition to filing my voicers, wraparounds, audio cuts and natural sound, I was frequently up early in the morning, calling in to select radio stations around the country and chatting live with the morning drive hosts about the previous day’s events. Since I’d done my share in that time slot at more than one radio station I knew what these folks were looking for. The “morning zoo” -type programs wanted the wacky stuff and I would push the envelope along with the DJs. Less zany shows wanted a more measured discussion of the events I was covering. The morning host of one station in Hartford was a guy I’d worked with in Philadelphia and he developed a routine where he and his news director would bring me in by phone and whine, “Here’s that blankety-blank Mark Scheerer again, checking in from some place we all are jealous about. Scheerer, you lucky dog, you were backstage at the Grammys last night – tell us about it, you #$%&!”
Affiliates, I learned, had lobbied hard with ABC to keep my position extant, particularly for those live shots, but ultimately, they weren’t able to forestall the demise. The reporter was off the road by 1989.
But the Rolling Stones were back on the road and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards provided me with a brief coda to my ABC stint.
Throughout the eighties Mick & Keith had been famously quarreling and as a result, by 1989 the Rolling Stones had not toured in seven years. The potential windfall from resuming live concerts proved strong enough to lure them into the studio where they recorded a new album, Steel Wheels. A tour (quickly dubbed Steel Wheelchairs by rock ‘n roll trolls) was announced. ABC Radio – the programming side, not the news network – bid on and won the rights to be the official broadcast partner. Part of ABC’s offer was to do live daily radio newscasts about the tour, believe it or not. Dave Alpert, my longtime producer and friend from the days we were both Metromedia radio newsmen, was assigned to create the newscasts fed out of the network newsroom and I was hired to be the on-air talent.
Dave and I were thrilled. At first, we dared to dream this meant we would actually go on the road with the Rolling Stones. It didn’t quite come to that, but was a gas, gas, gas just the same. The nightly Stones newscasts were to be delivered whether or not the band was performing on a given evening. When they were onstage, we got local rock radio newspeople on the phone for live reports on that night’s highlights, set lists, traffic jams and gossip. But on dark tour nights, we had to fill with features. So, in order to stockpile loads of interview sound with the band, Dave and I were dispatched to various cities with our tape recorders. They sent us to Kansas City to interview Mick & Keith, to Boston for Bill Wyman, and so on. For a weekend show at North Carolina State U, we were invited to bring our wives along. When they played Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts I was able to line up tickets for my sister and brother-in-law and my friend Pete, who was into the Stones way ahead of me in high school. The Steel Wheels tour was a wonderful three and a half months for Dave and me.
The tour culminated in a live pay-per-view concert with an FM radio simulcast from the convention hall in Atlantic City in December. It was extremely cold, I recall, and we stuck to the tour hotel for the weekend. Among the guest performers scheduled were Eric Clapton and John Lee Hooker. Hooker, the blues legend who died in 2001, was 77 at the time and a bit frail. Dave and I were invited to his hotel room to tape an interview. We still chuckle when we remember how Hooker was propped up on a twin bed, fully dressed, with the covers pulled up to his chin, while we sat on the bed opposite, arms outstretched to get the mic in front of him.
My only duty during the live broadcast was to camp out in the green room directly behind the stage with a wireless mic. Dave had gone back to New York to anchor the broadcast from there. He threw it to me when the band entered my area just as the house lights went down and the crowd roared. “Mark, can you see the Stones yet?” I remember breathlessly reporting, “There’s Mick! He’s bouncing up and down, limbering up! And here comes Keith! He’s holding a bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand!”
During the show I was free to wander around behind the gigantic set and peek out though gaps in curtains. The stage was topped with a tower, inside of which was an elevator that Mick would use to ascend and appear on a ledge at the top to perform “Sympathy for the Devil.” I was nosing around the elevator when I discovered a small room next to it with curtained walls. In it was a large recliner chair with tables on either side – one with a stack of towels, the other with plastic water bottles. Opposite the chair was a huge fan. It was Mick’s cooling-down room, for when Keith would play “Happy” and a few more songs that Jagger sat out. I was a huge fan, too, but I decided not to be caught standing around gawking when it was time for Mick’s cool-down.
I was back in the company of The Glimmer Twins once more,in the 1990’s, when I was covering entertainment news for CNN’s Showbiz Today. I was sent to Toronto, where the Stones were in rehearsal for their Bridges to Babylon tour. They had taken over an old Masonic temple with a rehearsal space the size of a large basketball court, offices, a mess hall, and interview areas. Two-camera set-ups were provided so CNN had only to send me, and I interviewed the band members one after the other as they did a whole day’s worth of media relations.
Keith, who always disarms by welcoming you with, “ ‘Allo, darling!” was in high spirits. His deep accent and his voice, fresh from gargling with sand, it seemed, were a challenge for both interviewer and – later on – videotape editor. But a few usable sound bites emerged, including his answer to the inevitable question, how long are you going to keep this up: “I think we’re just getting the hang of this thing, you know?”
And as our interview ended he said, “We’ll be rehearsing tonight after dinner; you should come back!” I made a beeline to Jane Rose, his manager, to ask her about the invitation. Also there for the same reason was a friend, Bill Flanagan, music writer and MTV newsman. Rose, seemingly somewhat reluctant, said okay, we could come back around 8:30 to watch a bit of rehearsal.
I walked back to the Four Seasons in Yorkville for a rest and a bite to eat. Back at the temple, Bill and I were led by Jane Rose to the rehearsal area which looked as large as a basketball court. Because it WAS a basketball court. We sat halfway up the bleachers, suddenly realizing that this was about to be like sneaking into a practice session of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. Rose said sternly that we could only stay for one number. Then she left and we were apparently forgotten about for much of the evening.
The band was spread out below us. Charlie’s drum kit was along the far sideline, bass player Darryl Jones under one basket, Keith and Ron Wood side by side down at the other baseline. Mick was at center court with a couple of music stands in front of him. A local gospel choir was in one corner; they were there for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
I was impressed by the way Mick ran the rehearsal. He would call a halt if he heard something that wasn’t right. He’d talk it over with the choir or with Charlie and then wait until everyone seemed ready to go back over those eight bars or so once again. He “read the room,” I thought; he wasn’t imperious or demanding or bossy. Never once had to order everybody to stop chatting and get back to work. (In our interview earlier that day, Mick was cordial but a bit buttoned-up, as opposed to opening up, and, typically, less engaging than Keith.)
Keith and Woody were fun to watch. They did a lot of chatting and laughing. They had pints of stout at hand. Behind them was an elaborate workbench for their guitar techs. At one point I noticed Keith wielding a credit card, chopping and dividing up some white powder atop of a piece of machinery on the workbench. Bill noticed, too; we elbowed each other. Keith had told me that afternoon that the rehearsals sometimes went into the wee hours of the morning. So a little bump now and then was understandable.
After at least an hour and a half, maybe more, a roadie below us shined a flashlight up in our faces and motioned to the door. Time to go. Walking back to the hotel, Bill and I looked at each other, wide-eyed. We had just spent the evening watching the Rolling Stones rehearse. Holy shit. We agreed, though, that it would have been so much better if it was 1977 instead of 1997. Still, we were like kids at Christmas.