With the Rolling Stones well into their umpteenth world trek in 2012, TONY HILLIER caught up with a man who was pivotal in the success of the band’s first fair dinkum tour.
The late Sam Cutler’s rollin’ rock ’n’ roll road show!
With characteristically ironic timing Sam Cutler, tour manager for the Rolling Stones at a critical stage of their career, passed away in July at 80 years of age — just a fortnight short of Mick Jagger’s 80th birthday.
But for an off the cuff rebuke by the tough talking Brit, who also tour managed for the Grateful Dead, the Stones might not have become the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.
It was on a late sixties’ tour of the USA that Cutler, a former Rhythms columnist who spent his retirement years in Brisbane, coined the famous catchphrase that propelled Mick Jagger & his mates towards immortality.
The irony is that the straight-talking Pom had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he introduced the Rolling Stones as “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world” on the first date of their career-turning 1969 American tour, at Fort Collins, Colorado.
“It was a piss-take because they actually were quite awful at the time,” Sam told me during a lengthy 2005 interview for Rhythms.
Sam Cutler’s famous intro — captured for posterity on the Stones’ 1970 live album Get Your Ya-Yas Out — evidently hit a raw nerve. “Mick said to me, [as Sam feigned slightly effeminate Jagger type tones] ‘Do you have to say that, man, I mean it’s really embarrassing’. I said, ‘Well you fuckin’ are, aren’t you — either you are or you ain’t. Now are ya or aren’t ya?”
Cutler’s cutting comments made an immediate impact on the Stones. As he recalls: “They went back to Los Angeles and went into rehearsals for like two weeks, 10 hours a day, to get it together.”
“The tour forced them to be a great band,” claims Sam. When the Stones had toured the US between 1964 and 1966, their sets rarely lasted longer than half an hour and hardly anyone had been able to hear the music properly anyway. “Don’t forget in the ‘sixties they used to play for three minutes and then get subsumed by thousands of screaming girls charging the stage. Basically that 1969 US tour was the first time they realised people weren’t going to scream, people wanted to sit there and they wanted to hear them. For the Stones, that was a great liberating thing because they’re into the music. They really love their music.”
There’s no doubt that the ’69 tour was a watershed in the Stones’ evolution. Following the dissolution of the Beatles and Dylan’s disappearance underground, the tour, coupled with three successive classic albums (Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers), helped put them on a pedestal that they’re still perched on nearly four decades later.
“No band has come even close to matching the Stones since,” claims Sam. As he points out, with little fear of contradiction, “they invented how to be a successful, long-running band.”
Cutler caught up with his former charges during the down under leg of their 40 Licks tour in 2003. “The show was brilliant. The one thing that has always differentiated the Rolling Stones from other bands is that the Stones when they play really care about being good. They work hard at it. They do a two and a half hour show. I mean you pay 400 bucks to see them, but everyone comes out feeling like they’ve had their money’s worth.”
A couple of weeks after the Stones’ concert, Sam went to see The Eagles show in Brisbane. “The promoter gave me two tickets — $600 each. The weird thing was it looked like The Eagles, it sounded exactly like The Eagles, but it was like looking at robots. I kept thinking, ‘what are they giving these guys; what kind of injections are they having’. With the Stones you always get this kind of frailty thing. You can feel the band working hard to make it good. The Stones are much more human.”
The Stones gave Cutler a sneak peek of their 2005 album, A Bigger Bang, a month or so prior to its release. “It’s great,” he enthused, “the best work they’ve done for years — much more like an Exile On Main Street kind of feel. They needed to do it too. The 40 Licks thing was just a greatest hits thing; everyone’s heard all that stuff. This is new, and it’s fantastic. It’s much more stripped down, back to basics. Vintage Stones in fact.”
Cutler is not entirely surprised with their longevity as a touring band. As he points out they travel in great luxury and enjoy a cosseted existence (each Stone has his own personal road trailer, he reveals). “They’re in great shape; they’ve all cleaned up now, man,” confirms Sam. During the 40 Licks tour Keith [Richards] said to me — and he looked very healthy — that they hadn’t done any ‘nasties’ for a while. You can do it when you’re 40, maybe you can do when you’re 50. But when you get to your 60’s, man, and you’ve gotta tour, in the end clean is best. I jokingly said to them, ‘you guys should start a health food chain for the over-50s!’”
The latter comment was a tad close to the bone. “They’re very sensitive about age, especially Jagger,” says Sam. “Mick got really pissed off when somebody interviewed him and they printed it in something like the Saga magazine,” he laughs, adding, “you know Saga Holidays for the over 50s. But, seriously, Mick’s got big issues about aging; he wants everyone to think he’s still 22.”
Talking about age, Sam once had the onerous task of prizing his star charge from the clutches of a 70 year old granny. “We were leaving a New York hotel one day and this little old lady came up to Mick and said ‘I wanna show you something’, and she pulled this photograph out of her lying on this bed stark naked. Mick said something like ‘oh, that’s really gross’, and she grabbed his hair and got his head in a lock. Mick was screaming ‘get her off me’.” Cutler managed to get her off after inflicting a Chinese burn on the unlikely assailant, but it took Jagger a long time to recover. “He was in such a state. We got him into the limo; he was in hysterics. At Altamont, where people were getting killed in front of him, he was not half as upset.”
Altamont, captured on celluloid in the Gimme Shelter documentary, was a blight on the Stones’ otherwise overwhelmingly successful 1969 tour. The free concert that went horribly wrong was convened to assuage bad press about the price of tickets on the tour. “Looking back it seems funny — they were only eight or ten dollars each — but it led to pressure to give something back.”
Sam does not blame the Hell’s Angels, who were brought in to assist with security, for the debacle which in a way signalled the end of rock ‘n’ roll’s innocence, but he’s the first to admit that it was “a giant cock up”. “There’s nothing much left to be said about Altamont, is there?”, he asks rhetorically, “the simple reality is a man came to a show with a gun.”
It was Rock Scully, the Grateful Dead’s manager at the time, who actually suggested the idea of a free concert. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the scene of many successful Dead benefit concerts, was originally mooted but that plan, Sam alleges, was sabotaged by Bill Graham.
There was no love lost between Sam and the famous impresario, who dismissed Cutler as “an opportunist without much talent”. “I actually had a big fight with Bill Graham on stage at the Oakland Coliseum,” recounts Cutler. “The reason I fought him was that he was slapping some chick in the front during the intermission. Charlie [Watts] was saying to me ‘who’s that guy; he can’t do that.’ So I went off and said, ‘hey man don’t do that, please get off the stage’. ‘This is my stage,’ was his famous retort, to which I replied, ‘it’s not your fucking stage, it’s the Rolling Stones’ stage’ and that was the start of it. We were like a pair of kids; we rolled under the grand piano before we were separated. Then he wanted to speak to Mick. Well, Mick wouldn’t talk to him. But he was getting heavier and heavier, so finally they let him into our dressing room. Graham, who was boiling with indignation, howled, ‘The second show will not go on while that man is in the house. Mick looked at him and said politely [Sam imitates Jagger again]: ‘Excuse me who are you’. He said, ‘I’m Bill Graham, the promoter, and Mick said: ‘Ah yes, Bill Graham. I spoke to you on the telephone from England didn’t I? You were rude to me Bill, now just go along please, get it together and we’ll be on stage in five minutes.’ So Bill had to leave like a little naughty boy told off, and he never forgave me from that day on. The guy used to rip bands off something wicked and that’s what I resented. He did all the scams.”
Sam Cutler’s association with ‘Their Satanic Majesties’ started in style with a huge concert in London’s Hyde Park in early July, 1969, though he had already cultivated a friendship with Keith Richards. “Brian Jones died two days before the concert, but he’d already been phased out of the band.” While reports of the concert are conflicting, Sam is adamant that it was the Stones’ “worst gig ever”. “It was dreadful — Mick Taylor [Jones’s replacement] was under-rehearsed, completely out of tune, out of time, everything. But nobody seemed to mind. It was after that, when they went to America, that they realised they were gonna have to do some hard work.”
The Stones’ famous concert wasn’t the only free gig Sam set up in London. “A company I was working for, a little agency that used to do Pink Floyd and Marc Bolan (T-Rex), managed to persuade the people who controlled all the parks in London to give them a permit. I was called in to do the dog’s work.” Cutler recalls a Fleetwood Mac gig in Parliament Hill Fields with particular clarity. “That was at the height of the mods and rockers kind of warfare. I walked on stage and said ‘Ladies and Gentleman … Fleetwood Mac’, and about 10,000 beer bottles crashed on stage. There was one little door at the back of this stage and Mick Fleetwood got there first ‘cos he was the drummer and the rest of us ran over to the drum kit for protection.”
Cutler has fond memories of his time with the Rolling Stones and respects them greatly. “They were good people to work for. They’re just normal guys. It’s like Bob Dylan says, ‘People meet me all the time and don’t remember how to act.’ If you treat people like ordinary people that’s what you get back. Treat them like gods and you get madness. I’ve never been all that impressed by musicians anyway. As far as I’m concerned most of them are completely inadequate, sad cases. I love ‘em, I love their music, but I see them as probably even less well equipped to deal with life as anyone else.”
“Looking back it was a silly thing to say, but they really have become ‘the world’s great rock ‘n’ roll band’ haven’t they? I used to think that the greatest live band in the world, when they were happening, was the Grateful Dead but that was probably because I was stoned out of my head. The Band when they were really happening were unbelievable. There are so many bands that are special. But if I had to choose one band to see, it would have to be the Stones.”
As if a stint with the Stones wasn’t enough, Sam Cutler also enjoyed a fruitful association with the other highest grossing band in rock history, the Grateful Dead. He was staying with Jerry Garcia, while helping to clear up the Altamont mess, when the Dead’s frontman asked him to look into the band’s business affairs. “Their manager had just ripped them off for $350,000, and they were broke. Basically, they asked me because they knew they needed a pro from the music business to sort that shit out ‘cos they were in a mess.”
“It took time to sort it out,” says Sam: “They were a little untogether, to say the least. When I first started working for the Dead they were earning like $2000 a night. When I left them they were getting $150,000. I was their co-manager, agent and tour manager; I did everything. I mean Garcia used to brush his own teeth and wipe his own arse but everything else I did.”
It may not be entirely coincidental that the band made Workingman’s Dead andAmerican Beauty, their most accessible and arguably finest studio albums, after Cutler arrived on the scene. “They were high old times and highly creative times, but bands work really well when there’s an economic imperative. When you finally go, ‘listen guys, we know it’s groovy, we know it’s funky, we know you’ve gotta have fun, but by the way the overdraft’s $700,000, and if we don’t make this happen everyone’s gonna starve, it’s like the prospect of a hanging; it focuses the mind.”
“They had the usual West Coast hippy trip about record companies. To them, labels were synonymous with the Bank of America or the Federal Reserve, an endless source of funds, which is unrealistic, especially if you’re not selling any records. Actually Workingman’s Dead was made with no money; in effect they made it themselves. Warner Brothers were basically saying, ‘we ain’t gonna give you more money, number one, and number two we’re not gonna release yetanother live album of the Grateful Dead. It just happened that that pressure coincided with a really beautiful creative spurt on the part of Hunter [Robert Hunter, the band’s lyricist] and Garcia, when they finally cracked how to write American style songs, joining up the folk tradition with a rock ‘n’ roll band, and the combination fell into place.”
“Nowadays people tour to support record sales, but that wasn’t initially the motivating force. The Grateful Dead toured because basically they couldn’t make money any other way. They never sold records. But they were clever. They invented a system where people came to be part of a process, so if the band didn’t play too well they had a great time anyway. Garcia always used to say to the audience,
‘You’re the show, not us’. The wonderful thing about the Dead is the number of people that the band directly or indirectly supported. I call it the American path to socialism.”
Not that Cutler was over-enamoured with the extended entourage when he first joined ‘the family’. “About 80 people turned up at my first meeting with the Dead. I just said, I’m not gonna do it. I talk to the band and the equipment guys. That caused undying enmity between me and several of the band’s ‘old ladies’, but I didn’t give a fuck. In the final analysis, bands hire people like me to do a job of work. They don’t hire you because they love you, you know what I mean, although I was and remain a very close member of the Grateful Dead family and always will be.”
There were musical issues too. “Sometimes Garcia used to come off stage really pissed off if [Bob] Weir didn’t do this, or somebody else didn’t do that. But you always get that. For someone like me what constitutes a successful gig is really simple: Nobody in the band died, Nobody in the audience died and I got the money. In the end, that’s what somebody like me is hired for: to get the band there on time, to deliver the goods, get ‘em out of there safely, get ‘em back home and at the end of it go, ‘Here guys, here’s the money’.”
Cutler acknowledges the Dead’s notorious inconsistency as a live band. “Some nights they were so awesome they were unreal and other nights they couldn’t get up, kind of thing.” Sam, who left the Dead just before their legendary gig at the Pyramids in Egypt, maintains they were close to their peak when they played with the Allman Brothers in New York and Washington. The European tour of ’72 he nominates as another highlight. “They were as tight then as they’d ever been. I had to go to Europe and help create the demand.” He says there was never any good reason for them to tour Australia. “If you’re sitting in Paris and working on world domination for your band, Australia comes somewhere after Liechtenstein — it’s a very small market.” [Sam settled in Australia because he married an Aussie and she wanted to come home. “I’ve been here for five years now, and my son will end up playing cricket for Australia,” he boldly predicts. Before coming ‘down under’ he lived in Ibiza, where he gave the embryonic dance scene a nudge by building a $4 million recording studio and helping to open the first discotheque on the Balearic island. Before that he lived in Goa — long before the arrival of the trance scene).
Sam has fond memories of the Grateful Dead, particularly their leader. “Garcia was beautiful. It was very sad when he died; he was the spiritual conscience of the group. I only had one argument with him — that’s when I told him ‘goodbye’after he wanted me to work for 5% instead of 10%.”
It was while working for the Dead in California that Sam became friends with another ‘sixties icon, Janis Joplin. “I used to live next door to her in Corte Madeira when Big Brother broke up — well, she left them basically — and she had to form her own band. She was terribly insecure so I helped her with that process, for almost a year actually. I helped her with the Pearl album. She was a sweet kid, but she had big issues. She wanted me to work for her, but I didn’t want to work for Albert Grossman. I’ve never worked with a band’s manager, always with the band.”
Sam Cutler helped set up the musical ride of Janis Joplin’s and the Grateful Dead’s lives. Festival Express was a mobile trans-Canadian festival with musicians travelling by private train — which belatedly became a documentary (recently shown in Australia). The other participants included The Band, Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buddy Guy.
Thor Eaton hatched the idea, but when the young Canadian initially approached him Sam was dubious about the venture, to say the least. “Eaton came to my office in California and said he wanted to do this thing with a train going across Canada etc, and I said ‘great, man, it sounds fabulous but it’s gonna take some money’. He said ‘well I’ve got money’. I said ‘this might cost a million dollars’, and he said ‘no problem’. My secretary passed me a note saying ‘he’s worth 300 million’. So I said, ‘I think we can do this thing!’. That’s how it all started, but the guy who was the actual promoter, who Eaton got into bed with, was just a sleazeball. He was the guy who used the cops like gestapo to prevent people without tickets from getting in, so we organised a free concert in Calgary.”
THE VIEW FROM THE BUS
Little, large and laughable.
From Rhythms, October 2013
By Sam Cutler
Former Tour Manager for The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead, Sam Cutler ruminates on things of consequence as he tours around Australia in his bus.
IN MONASTIC MOOD
At times of stress I drive the bus to Billinudgel, park on the nondescript piece of land that serves as the car park for the Billinudgel Hotel, and wait for my friend Bruce to show up. He is a former tour manager for some of Australia’s most famous bands and always has the most interesting take on developments in the business and upon life in general.
Bruce is the eternal optimist, the living embodiment of the old blues line, “I been down so long it seems like up to me.” He’s good for my soul, as the Prime Minister elect might say. I sat nursing a beer and was considering with monastic gloom the events of the previous few days. The country had been delivered to an Abbott and a Bishop and they were promising “grown up leadership” to us all (whatever that meant) and as an old Labour man I was decidedly despondent.
Bruce stumbled onto the deck of the hotel in his thongs, sucking on a durrie and mumbling deprecations about La Bishop unfit for a family newspaper. A jug of beer soon got him into the flow and remarkably I began to cheer up. By the end of his rave I was positively positive (as it were) and things were decidedly not all doom and gloom. Here’s what Bruce reckoned. Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott (below) were the best thing that could have possibly happened for the music business. He warmed to his theme in a series of expressions that had last seen the light of day back in the ‘70s – it was not pretty and decidedly not politically correct. The “shirt-lifters” and “rugmunchers” could finally stop feeling good and positive about things and now (once again) had something and someone to genuinely hate. No more Julia and Kevin and “the politics of inclusion” (whatever that had ever meant) now the gloves were off – the homeless, the gay, the disadvantaged, the disabled, the disabused, the excluded, could ALL get together in one “happy band of misery” as he memorably described it, and finally write some decent protest songs! By the time we got to our fifth jug of beer apiece I could see the merit in his thesis.
At times of “progressive government” in Australia (think Keating and Hawke), the standard of protest songs got progressively worse. It took really conservative governments to bring out the best in Aussie songwriters – think John Howard and The Oils’ ‘Beds Are Burning’. Bruce reckoned that within a year of Abbott and Bishop the songs would be flowing again, the “alternative mob’”would be marching in the streets, and all would be right with the music business world. What a pity, we mused, that it wasn’t Abbott & Costello, now we could have REALLY had some fun with that!
We gloomily considered Julie Bishop addressing the United Nations and being Australia’s face to the world. Bruce told a scurrilous tale about her once meeting Bill Clinton at a dinner in New York and how Bill was flummoxed by her steely stare – she had turned down his request for a private meeting. Apparently, according to Bruce, she had ended the evening “well on top of her brief” (whatever that means) though I found it hard to imagine.
We ended our evening writing possible lyrics for bands on the napkins thoughtfully provided by the hotel, some great protest songs which would inflame the passions of the nation’s youth. Finally, we reckoned, with Abbott and Bishop in charge, the bogan masses would have something to get concerned about other than The X Factor and Australia’s Got Talent. I was so drunk by closing time the world definitely seemed a happier place. Bruce was asleep and I stumbled away to the bus. I could swear I saw Penny Wong chatting up the bar maid but who’d believe me? Billinudgel’s like that on the day after an election – you end up seeing things.