The Tennis Courts

 

"If I had seen Ronald Reagan playing singles with the Pope, it wouldn't have caught my eye like those guys did."



    A foolish thing happened during the Stones' first week in North Brookfield, and it served to blow whatever cover of secrecy remained to us, and involved us in a squabble with the local area's largest newspaper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. 
    Up until that time, I had been successfully buying press silence with promises of better things to come for us all — the studio, radio, TV, newspapers — everybody. That's how Wasserman told me to play it, if and when things got hot enough for some media sort to threaten to go public with the exact location of the band. "Double the ante," Paul had instructed me from his hotel in New York City. "Tell 'em we're keeping a friends and enemies list, and that the friends make out in the end." 
    That proved to be an easy strategy to make work. Nobody wanted to be on the Stones' shit list, and everybody wanted to receive some special extra consideration, like being sneaked into a rehearsal later in the project, presumably once the band had relaxed, settled in, and figured out how their old hits went. (This they actually did using the record player in Studio B, and the complete set of Rolling Stones records which I had dutifully provided.) "It's not going to do any of us any good if they leave," I often said in a grim tone of voice, on the phone. "And they'll leave if someone like you says they're all here, just down the road in nearby North Brookfield. Don't be the one to make them leave. Wasserman would tell you the same thing if you could get a hold of him, which you probably can't." 
    "O.K., Gil," was invariably the reply. "But do you realize the pressure we're under to come up with something, anything? They're calling me at home, Gil. Just promise me no one else will break it first. I'll lose my job, Gil. I'll lose my job! Do you understand?" 
    I sympathized with these guys, and enjoyed talking with them on the phone. I kept their telephone numbers all in one place, retyped the list daily, and fed them all sorts of stuff "off the record" for which they were infinitely grateful. Most of the "inside" sources, "authoritative spokespersons," or "elements close to the band" who got quoted in those early news stories were actually me, dribbling out what I could in an attempt to keep these guys alive, and at the same time remain consistent with my promise to the band, which was actually a written promise incorporated in our final letter of agreement, not to make any representations, either written or oral, on behalf of the Rolling Stones. 
    However, this strategy was one which worked well only until it didn't work any more at all, and that occurred with the Telegram and Gazette, a staid and sometimes reactionary news organ which loves to report, or at least to insinuate, that otherwise law-abiding citizens sometimes use illegal drugs like marijuana. 
    Our last experience with the Telegram and Gazette had involved their sensationalized coverage of Stevie Wonder Day in September of 1976, and their claim that our Police Chief, Harvey Thomasian — who's one hell of a nice guy — had officiated as Security Chief at a "$30,000 Day of Decadence," during which illegal substances were allegedly enjoyed by certain guests of Stevie Wonder and Long View Farm. That article embarrassed Harvey, caused a lot of needless grief for me, and deepened my otherwise casual relationship with regional law enforcement officers, and the Feds, too. 
    In any case, it was the Telegram and Gazette which called that day in the person of a reporter, Kevin Wolfe, saying that the charade was at its end, and that the paper — in this case the morning Telegram — was going to go with a page one story revealing the present location of the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world. Whether I liked it or not. Anyway, Wolfe explained, they had eyewitnesses who had actually seen elements of the band at the North Brookfield tennis courts down at the bottom of Stoddard Road, and that quotes from them were in hand. The best quote turned out to be "If I had seen Ronald Reagan playing singles with the Pope, it wouldn't have caught my eye like those guys did" which went out on all the wires, and which has turned up since in very odd places. US magazine for example. 
    "All right, Kevin," I said, "the jig's up. Only, you have 'no comment' from me, and you're going with your eyewitness stuff alone." I figured that would give us an extra day or so before things got really hot. Anyway, there wasn't any choice. Kevin's editor came on the phone himself, and basically told me to go screw myself. He was in the business of gathering news, he explained. 
    "Like that some people shared a joint before listening to a new Stevie Wonder album, back in 1976?" I taunted. 
    "What?" he asked, offering no recognition of, much less apology for, the last lovely things his paper had to say about Long View Farm. 
    "Never mind, Mr. Widdison," I said. I knew the toothpaste was out of the tube, and that we'd have to let it fall wherever it wanted to. Here's where it fell: the Telegram reported that Mick Jagger had come down to the North Brookfield tennis courts to distribute drugs to local kids. He "dispensed an autographed album to one fan in the parking lot," the article went, "as well as a cigarette of questionable legality." And Keith, also present, did nothing to stop him. 
    That took the lid off things, as only allegations of drug abuse can do in a sleepy New England town. Our phones rang up, all of them, starting at 5 AM that morning: our night man quit, thinking incorrectly that he had been responsible for a "leak," WAAF-FM read the Telegram article on the air, and the State Police cars began cruising Stoddard Road. All this over a "cigarette of questionable legality." But it was the kid's cigarette, as it turned out — not Mick's — and a Marlboro to boot. Mick took a drag out of it while autographing the guy's record album jacket. (And Keith wasn't even there. He was still in New York.) Nevertheless, it all made great front page banner headlines, and the eventual retraction which came some two weeks later was well buried on an inside page, as such retractions always are. 
    Kevin Wolfe, the young reporter, was later fired, or quit, in an action perhaps totally unrelated to this silly flap over the tennis court article, although I hope not. I hope he quit out of remorse. It was a lousy way to announce to the world that the Rolling Stones were at Long View Farm.

 


 All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.