For most baseball fans, a road trip involving visits to 14 current and former major league stadiums would be something of a dream come true. But for the Rolling Stones in the late summer and fall of 1989, such an expedition was strictly business—or, as they themselves might have put it, only rock n’ roll.
It had been eight years since the Stones last performed in North America, and the demand for tickets to their blockbuster Steel Wheels tour was so intense that the band was able to easily sell out gigantic sports facilities in most of the cities they visited. Of the 33 North American venues the band hit between Aug. 31 and Dec. 20, nearly half were (or had previously been) home to major league baseball teams: Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, Toronto’s CNE Stadium and SkyDome, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, RFK Stadium in Washington DC, Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, New York’s Shea Stadium, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the Houston Astrodome, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis and Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
The band’s four October 1989 dates at LA’s Memorial Coliseum—home to the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1958 through 1961—drew more than 360,000 fans, grossed more than $9 million and garnered the most national press, thanks to the controversial addition of the then up-and-coming Guns N’ Roses to the bill. But the Stones’ six October concerts at the home of the New York Mets really underscored just how massive the once-notorious band had become in the 27 years since its original formation. The band sold 387,737 tickets for the Shea shows, earning the Stones a reported $11,607,452 (or $22,352,021 in 2016 money), but the six-night stand was also a symbolic success: No band, not even the Beatles, had ever headlined the Flushing Meadows ballpark more than twice. Whatever you thought of their current music, or how well the musicians had aged—other than Ronnie Wood, who’d turned 42 that June, they were all in their mid-to-late 40s—the Stones’ stature on the rock n’ roll playing field was clearly unequaled.
“It was like a residency,” is how Jason Kassin remembers the Stones’ Shea concerts, “but in a stadium instead of a club.” The co-founder of FilmTrack, Inc., a Los Angeles-based software company, Kassin was a senior at Vassar College when he attended four of the band’s six Shea shows. An obsessive Stones fan who’d grown up in Brooklyn, Kassin also caught three other shows on the Steel Wheels tour—in Philadelphia, Syracuse and Atlantic City—but recalls the Shea shows as having a definite “homecoming” vibe. “The Stones were such a New York band, in a weird way,” he says. “Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were basically New Yorkers at that point; Keith was actually living above Tower Records in the Village. So even though they were English, they felt like our band.”
Indeed, Jagger and Richards had maintained residences in New York City since the 1970s, and their affection for the Big Apple and its vibrant culture had come through loud and clear in such Stones songs as “Miss You” and “Shattered” (from 1978’s Some Girls LP), while “Neighbors” (from 1981’s Tattoo You) was inspired by Richards’ difficulties in finding a Manhattan apartment where he could jam long into the night without getting the police called on him. And then there was the video clip for “Waiting On a Friend” (also from Tattoo You), which showed Jagger and Richards looking far more at home on New York’s funky St. Marks Place than they would have been in early-’80s London.
Thus, it made perfect sense that the Stones should announce the Steel Wheels tour (as well as the impending new album that gave the tour its name) with a press conference at New York’s Grand Central Station. Held on July 11, 1989, the event—attended by over 300 members of the media, with hundreds of fans thronging outside—began with Jagger, Richards, bassist Bill Wyman, drummer Charlie Watts and guitarist Ronnie Wood chugging into the station on an antique caboose. The absurd nature of their entry, along with the apparent good-humored looseness of the five musicians (who hadn’t even appeared together in public since 1982), seemed to sharply rebut the breakup rumors that had been swirling about the band for years. The Stones hadn’t toured behind their previous two albums, 1983’s Undercover and 1986’s Dirty Work, while the release of two Jagger solo albums (1985’s She’s The Boss and 1987’s Primitive Cool) and one by Richards (1988’s Talk Is Cheap) had led many to believe the band was dissolving. But at Grand Central, the Stones seemed enthusiastic about being—and touring—together again. “We don’t have fights,” Jagger told the assembled press while theatrically draping a sinewy arm around Richards. “We just have disagreements.”
“It was super-cool, but also goofy,” says Kassin, who managed to sneak into the press conference along with his girlfriend. “It was kind of the Ron Wood show, in a way; somebody asked, ‘Are you doing it for the money?’ And he said, ‘No, that’s the Who!’” Wood’s crack was at the expense of the surviving members of the Who, who had recently reunited for a 25th anniversary tour, and who had played two nights at Shea in October 1982 as part of their previous “farewell tour.” Jagger, when asked, sniffed at the suggesting that the Stones would be doing a similar sort of “historical” set on their upcoming trek. “I don’t see it as a retrospective or a farewell or anything like that,” he said. “It’s the Rolling Stones in 1989.”
Unlike the Who, the Stones actually had a new album to promote. Jagger treated the press to “a free sample” of the forthcoming Steel Wheels LP by holding a portable cassette player up to the microphone as “Mixed Emotions,” the album’s first single, echoed throughout the room in a distinctly lo-fi fashion. “They were up there with a boom box, playing ‘Mixed Emotions’ through the mic, and it sounded terrible,” Kassin laughs. ‘Ron Wood was like, ‘Listen to the new song—doesn’t it sound good?’ But it was completely distorted!”
A decent sound system wasn’t the only thing noticeably absent from the Grand Central press conference: There was also no mention of any New York City tour dates. Canadian promoter Michael Cohl (who had lured the Stones away from their long-standing relationship with American promoter Bill Graham by offering them a then-unheard-of guarantee of $70 million) told the press that stops in 27 North American cities had been confirmed for the MTV-sponsored tour; but it wouldn’t be until Aug 16, over a month after the Grand Central tour announcement, that NYC dates for the Steel Wheels tour were officially revealed. New York City Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern and local promoter Ron Delsener—who was working with Cohl on the NYC dates—held a joint press conference to announce that the Stones would perform two shows at Shea Stadium, on Oct. 26 and Oct. 28. Tickets, at $30 a pop, would go on sale via Ticketmaster at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 19, with a limit of eight tickets per buyer.
Though anyone born in the last quarter-century may have difficulty imagining it now, obtaining concert tickets—especially for big-name acts—in the pre-Internet age generally required more effort than just refreshing your browser. You could try repeatedly dialing various local Ticketmaster outlets from your home or work phone, praying you could get through to an operator before all the tickets sold out (or an important call came in); but if you were serious about snagging tickets, you had to stake out a store that housed an actual Ticketmaster desk, and line up hours (or even days) before the show went on sale.
Marty Walsh, now a mobile crane operator for Metro North railroad in Croton-On-Hudson, N.Y., was 25 years old and working as a dairy manager at a Croton A&P when the Stones’ first two Shea shows went on sale. He and a friend decided to buy their tickets from a Ticketmaster outlet located in a TSW toy store in nearby Yorktown Heights. He remembers showing up the Friday afternoon before the tickets went on sale in order to snag two of the 250 individually numbered wristbands that were handed out ahead of time to prevent people from camping out overnight (or cutting in line on the day of the sale). “It didn’t matter which numbered band we received, because the store would pick a random number to be the first on line,” Walsh explains. “Even if someone had wristband #001, if #120 was the number pulled, [the customer with the #120 wristband] would be first in line to purchase the tickets, with subsequent numbers 121, 122, 123, etc., being the next in line.”
When Walsh and his friend returned to the store the following morning, they were disappointed to learn that their wristband numbers were fairly low in the lineup, and they watched dejectedly as the tickets for the Oct. 26 show quickly disappeared. “We were lucky to score nosebleeds moments before the second show sold out,” Walsh remembers. “But I was really excited, as I had missed out on seeing the Stones the last time they toured, in 1981, and for all we knew this could very well be their last tour, so I was extra-determined to see them at least once.”
Walsh and his friend were walking back to his car with their tickets when a cry went up from the fans still remaining in line—a third show, for Oct. 25, had just been added. “We double-timed it back to the line, where we got better seats in the mezzanine level,” he recalls. “Again we were going to leave, but a couple were asking if anybody had wanted to trade two tickets to the first show for two to the third; being as I had just bought the maximum eight tickets for the third show, I gladly made the swap. As we were completing the exchange a fourth show [for Oct. 29] was added, and we all returned to score more mezzanine seats. We lingered to see if a fifth show would be added, but it didn’t come to pass.”
Though the Mets were still very much in contention at this point—their 4-1 win over the Dodgers on Aug. 19 pulled them within 2.5 games of the National League East-leading Cubs, and kept them a half-game ahead of the third-place Expos—there were no worries about the Stones possibly having to share Shea with the Mets during the World Series. Even with the 1985 expansion of the League Championship Series to a best-of-seven format, the baseball postseason rarely stretched past mid-October in the pre-Wild Card era. And since the ballpark was owned by the city and not the team, the Mets organization was absolved from any involvement in the promotion or logistics of the concerts. “Honestly, I have absolutely no memory of anything about those shows,” says legendary Mets PR man Jay Horwitz, who has worked for the team since 1980. “They happened after the season was over.”
“I’ve seen the Stones 15 times, but I wasn’t at the [Shea] shows,” says Ron Darling, who went 14-14 with a 3.52 ERA in 33 starts for the ‘89 Mets. “When I was with the Mets, whenever we didn’t make the playoffs, I always went away for a month to Europe. I hate when I miss them, but I have seen them all over.” Darling, who grew up in the blue-collar town of Millbury, Mass., says he always identified with the Stones’ working-class vibe. “They were my band when I was a kid. The Beatles were just too pretty for where I was from. The Rolling Stones were more like the people I knew—tough kids, tough language, tough music.”
The Mets inadvertently gave the Stones an assist on Sept. 25, when a 2-1 loss to the Phillies officially eliminated the team from postseason contention. The Davey Johnson-led squad would finish the season in second place with a 87-75 record, six games behind the Cubs. “It was another one of those disappointing post-’86 teams where they could have won it all, but they didn’t,” remembers music publicist Jim Merlis. A diehard Mets fan since childhood, Merlis was 23 years old and working as an assistant publicist at Columbia Records, the Stones’ label, when the band came to Shea. “There were several years in a row after 1986 where it was like, ‘This is a good team…so why aren’t we playing up to our capacity?’ They were in second the whole season and never made their move; that seemed to happen a lot in those days.”
But if the Mets couldn’t use Shea Stadium in mid-October, the Stones certainly could. Four days after the team was eliminated, the Stones announced that a fifth date—Oct. 10—would be going on sale. When tickets to that one sold out within hours, a sixth concert on Oct. 11 was added. “I really lucked out this time,” says Walsh, who managed to score tickets for both of these shows, in addition to the first four. “My kid brother’s friend had just started working as a stock boy at the [TSW] store, and he told me to just let him know how many tickets I wanted for each show. I bought the maximum eight for one show and four for the other, as it was all I could afford at that point—[$30] was a steep price at the time for a concert ticket.”
The new dates meant the Stones would have to play two nights at Shea, then transport the entire tour (including a gigantic post-modern stage set, which was designed and built by London architect Mark Fisher at an estimated cost of $18 million) to Los Angeles for four dates, then bring the whole thing back across the country for the final four shows at Shea. “Logistically, it must have been insane,” says Merlis. “It was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to move this whole operation across the country, only to come back here with it in two weeks!’” But the extra $3.7 million pulled in by the additional dates—not to mention the cachet of selling out six shows at Shea—apparently made the massive endeavor more than worthwhile.
By the time Stones finally arrived in New York for their first pair of Shea dates, the buzz surrounding the concerts was practically inescapable. “Stonesmania had completely gripped the town,” remembers attorney Michael B. Ackerman, who attended one of the shows as a guest of Living Colour, the New York funk-metal quartet who opened the concerts. “Everybody was like, ‘Are you going to see the Stones? Which night are you going? How were they last night?’ It was a big topic of conversation. I took the train from the Upper West Side down to Times Square to get the 7 train to Shea Stadium, and everybody on the 7 train was going to see the Stones.”
“One of the great things about those concerts at Shea was that I could take the subway there,” adds Kassin. “The Stones had felt so unreachable to me, so godlike—and here I was, taking the subway from my neighborhood to see them! There used to be a TV jingle for the subway train to JFK airport, which went ‘Take the train to the plane/Take the train to the plane’—and me and my friends were on the train singing, ‘Take the train to the Stones/Take the train to the Stones!’”
Ever mindful of his audience and surroundings, Jagger made sure to acknowledge the Mets during the first night of the Stones’ six-show stand. “We’re sorry the Mets didn’t make it to the World Series,” he told the audience from the stage, which had been built across the far reaches of the Shea outfield. “Too bad—but we’re going to have the World Series of Love!” The band then kicked into a fiery version of “Tumbling Dice,” from 1972’s classic Exile On Main Street. If there were any lingering bad feelings remaining in the house over the team’s disappointing performance, they pretty much dissipated at this point. “It wasn’t really bittersweet at all to be there in October without the Mets,” laughs Merlis. “It was more like, ‘Oh, cool—I’m seeing Shea Stadium in a different way!’”
Indeed, it was a World Series in which there would be no losers. Rather than offering a rote run-through of their greatest hits, the Stones—abetted by saxophonist Bobby Keyes, keyboardists Matt Clifford and Chuck Leavell, backing vocalists Bernard Fowler, Lisa Fischer and Cindy Mizelle, and the Uptown Horns, a Ray-Bans-wearing brass section featuring Arno Hecht, Crispin Cioe, Bob Funk and Paul Litteral—served up a muscular mixture of new material, classic tracks and deep cuts, including the psychedelic obscurity “2,000 Light Years From Home” from 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request. Though several wags in the rock press had jokingly dubbed it the “Steel Wheelchairs Tour,” the band was clearly still capable of going toe-to-toe with bands half their age.
“I’d seen the Stones at the Meadowlands in ’81, and to be honest I didn’t think they were very good,” says Ackerman. “But in 1989, I was pleasantly surprised—the set list was great, the pacing was great, the band sounded great. I thought they were terrific.”
“It really felt like I was seeing the Stones, compared to any of the times I’ve seen them since,” adds Kassin. “It also felt like a reaction to some of what was going on musically in the ‘80s; it was the era of Milli Vanilli, but this was just a band out there singing and playing really well. The first night at Shea, they even brought on Eric Clapton to play ‘Little Red Rooster’ with them, which was cool.”
For a Mets fan like Ackerman, getting to traverse the hallowed ground where his baseball heroes played was almost as cool as seeing his musical heroes perform. “My date and I had seats in the 18th row, and I remember walking to then, thinking, ‘Wow, I’m walking past the pitcher’s mound—this is amazing!’ I turned around to look at home plate from the pitcher’s mound, like, ‘Oh, that’s what [Tom] Seaver saw!’”
Ackerman got an unexpected treat when the skies opened up, forcing him and his date to find shelter. Concert security being significantly more lax than it would become in the ‘90s and beyond, the pair were able to briefly duck into the visitor’s dugout. “I couldn’t see the show very well from there,” he says, “but I didn’t care, because I was too busy looking at the bat rack, the water fountain, the cubbies, the tunnel to the clubhouse; I’m touching everything like a kid in an unguarded toy store! My date, who’s Swedish, was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? What are you doing?’ I explained to her that this was where the players sit during the baseball games, and she finally understood. We were there for two numbers before the cops came and made us leave. It was my one and only time in the dugout at Shea.”
The Stones’ six-show stand at Shea would ultimately represent the end of an era, and the beginning of another one. Those 1989 concerts would be the last time the band ever played New York with original bassist Bill Wyman, who opted to retire following the band’s European leg of the tour in the summer of 1990. “That was really it, as far as the Stones bringing their ‘A’ game,” says Merlis. “It was their last tour with Wyman, and after that it just became like a parody—I’ve seen them several times since Shea, and it’s almost the Rolling Stones Las Vegas Show.”
On the other hand, the Steel Wheels shows of 1989 effectively set the musical and financial template for the Stones’ next 27 years of existence, one involving lavish stage sets, a multitude of backing musicians, and wheelbarrows full of money. The band took in a record $175 million from ticket and merchandise sales in 1989 and 1990; realizing that people would pay far more than $30 for Stones tickets, Michael Cohl and the band began jacking the prices of medium- and top-end tickets on their subsequent tours, with staggeringly lucrative results. Just five years later, their Voodoo Lounge tour would see them gross $320 million, a number they would surpass on 2005-2007’s Bigger Bang tour, which set another industry record by grossing over $558 million. (A record that’s been broken only by U2’s 360 Tour of 2009-2011.)
Though several other major artists would perform at Shea Stadium before demolition of the ballpark began in October 2008—including Bruce Springsteen, who played three shows on his The Rising tour there in October 2003, and Billy Joel, who performed twice at Shea in the summer of 2008—no one would ever match the Stones’ record of six Shea concerts. Nor, for that matter, has any band ever played as many shows at one major league ballpark on a single tour.
But for the fans who were there, the Stones’ “World Series of Love” at Shea is warmly remembered as a magical event, as opposed to an impressive business feat. “Those six nights were as memorable for me as they were exciting,” says Walsh. “While I would subsequently see the Stones 13 more times in later years with each performance being fantastic, none of those matched Shea.”
“I felt personally validated by those shows,” says Kassin. “I’d spent high school and college being such a fan of a band that almost didn’t exist; people made fun of me for it, and people made fun of them. So if they’d been horrible at Shea, for me personally it would have been devastating. But they were phenomenal.”
References & Resources
- Special thanks to David Laurila for interviewing Ron Darling.
- Patricia Leigh Brown, The New York Times (reprinted by Ocala Star-Banner), “The Rolling Stones’ Touring Stage Is Transportable Architecture”
- Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone, “Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels Tour Stutters, Then Rolls”
- Murry R. Nelson, The Rolling Stones: A Musical Biography, 2010
- Sheila Rogers, Rolling Stone, “Stones Set Tour Dates”
- Peter Watrous, The New York Times, “Reviews/Music; Icons Who Rock: The Stones Play Shea”
- MaCentcon Chronicle-Herald, “People in the News: Shattered at Shea,” Aug. 18, 1989
- The New York Times, “The Rolling Stones Add Fifth Concert at Shea”
- YouTube, “Rolling Stones 1989 Steel Wheels Tour Announcement NYC”
- CenterfieldMaz.com, “History of Concerts at Shea Stadium (Part 2)”
- Richard Metzger, Dangerous Minds, “The Rolling Stones’ 1989 ‘Steel Wheels’ Tour Was Only Rock & Roll, But I Liked It”
- Jack Doyle, The Pop History Dig, “Stones Gather Dollars”
- Wikipedia, “Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle Tour”