Bridges to Babylon

Stadium rock is my idea of the inner circle of Hell. I hate crowds. I have zero interest in the rich and famous. And I've never been much of a Rolling Stones fan. Give me a choice, and I'll take Weslia Whitfield at the Plush Room 10 times out of 10: a cushy seat, some witty companions, a little Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Heavenly.

So why did I find myself within spitting distance of Mick Jagger & Crew at the Oakland Coliseum? My significant other's enthusiastic cajoling...and a music-merchandising friend's promise of easy tickets, easy parking, and a private box.

We convened at the Oakland Airport Hilton, where my music-merchandising friend (hereinafter: MMF) was entertaining a roomful of Stones fans at company expense. Unlike the fabled drug-and-drink fests of years gone by, this pre-game gathering was a sedate affair: soft drinks and mineral water for the oft-rehabilitated, who regaled each other with exaggerated recountings of concert exploits—numbers of bottles drunk, ounces smoked, grams snorted, hours endured without sleep, furnishings thrown from hotel windows. One reported having seen the Stones 14 times in twice as many years.

As designated driver, I elected to remain sober. Every entrance to the Coliseum was packed, but MMF led us around to the "back side", where our battered SUV took its place in line with the ultra-stretch limos. Ah, the privileges of power: While the plebeians did the glacial shuffle in the chilly drizzle, we cruised quickly and comfortably to reserved parking.

A short walk up the ramp and we were in. Pearl Jam was midway through the warmup: a deafening, undifferentiated roar, over which Eddie Vedder was cultivating a blue-ribbon batch of laryngeal polyps. By the aperiodic applause, I could tell that the band was playing different songs. Some people even seemed to know the lyrics, and sang along. But, honest to God, it all sounded the same to me: sustained angry sonic mush.

Earplugs. Damn, I forgot earplugs. Emergency procedure: Backtrack to the restroom, rip off a length of paper towel, manufacture two ad hoc rolled-paper-and-saliva plugs, insert partway into ear canals. Safety first! No warding off the low-bass visceral massage, though—just rolled with it. My friends declined my sincere offer of no-charge hearing protection, preferring to face the music head-on. "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose!" I shouted.

The private box never materialized. Our seats were on the field near the stage. Constructed in what would be baseball's center field, the set was a marvel of elegant design and technology, a science-fiction Babylon, so tall that the Federal Aviation Administration required that it have warning lights. Flanking the stage were two enormous golden statues whose symbolic significance was never clear. Above them were golden clusters of loudspeakers like gigantic sonic pineapples. How many gigawatts, did the newspaper say? The equivalent of 10,000 home stereo systems.

Above stage center was an elliptical video screen maybe 80' wide, surrounded by lights and gas jets and fireworks launchers and capable, I soon learned, of very good color, brightness, and resolution. A giant inflatable female figure, bronzed and voluptuous as a Hindu goddess, hovered at stage left. All of it was covered and uncovered by shimmering draperies so skillfully operated we never noticed them working.

Set designer Mark Fisher called his creation "a cyberclassical opera house," a house so big it requires a caravan of 75 trucks, 10 buses, and an expert technical crew of 250 to put it all together so seamlessly. An incredibly expensive undertaking, but the five days in Oakland raked in well over 12 million bucks—50,000 tickets per show at an average cost of $50 each, times five days. Multiply that by every stop on the tour, subtract every conceivable cost, and we're still talking big profits. Which explains why Mick Jagger long ago forgot that he "would rather die than sing 'Satisfaction' at 40."

Fourteen years beyond his self-imposed deadline, "Satisfaction" is still his opener, kicked off by a giant ball of flame just above the stage. For the next three hours the always-athletic Jagger ran like a maniac from one end to the other, wearing a different coat or jacket for every number, occasionally strapping on a guitar and strumming a few chords for effect.

By contrast, guitarists Ron Wood and Keith Richards are from the walking-dead school of performing arts, making up with subtlety what they lack in physical effusiveness. The pair resembled characters out of Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley: Wood, in a well-tailored bright red jacket, looked every bit the decadent 18th-century nobleman; Richards, in a long zebra-pattern coat and leopard-print shirt, was death warmed over for New Year's Eve. Drummer Charlie Watts—ever the stolid foundation—made a fashion understatement in a simple denim shirt and dark trousers. Shadowing the performers throughout the show, black-clad camera operators slunk about in that curious, half-crouching I-don't-really-exist posture of onstage technicians everywhere. They were careful not to linger too long on the ravaged Stone faces.

The damp cool air in the stadium was thick with the skunky aroma of a popular and potent agricultural product. "I owe my high to Humboldt County," Richards announced to wild applause. A helicopter patrolled the stadium's perimeter, playing its spotlight on the sea of automobiles outside. A full moon rose above us as the band began "Sympathy for the Devil."

"And now," said Jagger, with his odd elocution, "Falliyup the Swiyetch." Flip the switch. Although his petulant pout and androgynous posturing are considerably less appealing now than 25 years ago—not to mention no longer au courant—Jagger still gives nothing away to performers half his age. For three solid hours, he and his mates gave the audience what it wanted and expected. Even this arena-rock–hating curmudgeon was shaking his booty by evening's end.

The Stones were spectacular, but to me the true stars of the show were the unnamed technical geniuses who designed, choreographed, and operated the whole production. The timing of every effect was perfect, from the stop-motion video to the hydraulic bridge that emerged from the stage to the snowstorm of confetti that engulfed the stadium to the fireworks finale that filled the sky.

How was the sound? This brave and true audiofool did remove his earplugs for a moment or two. It sounded like God's Boombox: raspy and nasty and bigger than Texas. Anti–hi-fi: just the way the Stones and their followers like it. Should you have the chance, take at least one of the Bridges to Babylon—if not this year, then next time around. I'm glad I did.