Photos by Charlie Auringer / CREEM Photo Archive.

The Rock'n'Roll Circus
by Dave Marsh
reprinted with permission from Dave Marsh and Creem

The last week of April 1973 the American Retreaders Association shared the Executive Inn, Louisville, Kentucky, with a collection of dwarves, freaks, dealers, high-wire acts, aerial motorcyclists, a few journalists, a mother-and-son balancing act, a Chinese woman who dangles from arena ceilings "suspended only by the hair of her head," and a couple of rock 'n' roll bands.

This is the Rock 'n' Roll Circus... side show. The Main Event takes place only once each evening, and that is what we are here for. Step right this way, friends, and have a look inside:

"In the center ring, for your enjoyment, Ladies, gentle- men, and children of all ages, we present an act beyond mortal belief This evening only, flown DIRECT from London, England. The Rock 'n' Roll Rooster and his famous friends, the nimble, amazing Briton-chimpanzees! See them walk and strut and kick out the very jams you've come to witness! Watch as they tread a path 'cross stages braver men have feared to tread.

"Please direct your attention to the center ring, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome:

"Rod Stewart and the Faces!"

In the cavernous hallways of the Inn, it is cool and dark. The Faces have not yet arrived to threaten it, add specific tension to its Duro-plush-plastic comforts. The rooms are filled with much veneer, carpets with a design, immaculate baths. No ring in the tub. 

When the band arrives, around four o'clock, the soap operas of the day aren't quite over. At five o'clock, it is time to eat dinner, in the Colonial Bar and Grill. The Colonial is a spacious room, filled with a sense of middlebrow aristocracy that fits only in the late lamented Confederacy. Chintz royalty.

At a back table sit Billy Gaff, the Faces manager, Ronnie Lane, their bass player-songwriter-singer, publicist Pat Costello, photographer Peter Hujar, and the Creem team. Costello is verbose. Hujar is reserved, the way only a New Yorker can be reserved. Gaff is hyper, the paragon of British rock management. Tonight the pressure's on for him:  Tickets for the show haven't sold well in advance, and he's worried that they'll be playing to a half-empty house. Lane is quiet, the way only a professional British rock star can be reserved.

Gaff is bubbling over. He raves about the quality of the food. Then, with a swoop of his fork, he begins to describe his plans for upping ticket sales tonight.

"I don't understand it. Tickets just aren't moving. Did you see the plane I hired? Had a streamer behind it, to advertise the show. And we did two spots."

Enter the Rock 'n' Roll Rooster. He's bedecked in a white suit which epitomizes British funque. He is sunburned, angular, looking very tall, very lean.

"I've just been to the Bahamas," Rod Stewart says, and bends, the way he sways like a sapling on stage, to speak for a moment to Gaff.

Rod leaves quickly; Gaff and Lane follow momentarily. The arena is huge. It is so large that if the show is not a big success there will be problems, severe problems. Like about 300 percent too much natural echo.

But the place begins to fill up nicely as the recently reformed Free open the show. By the end of their brief but monotonous set, the house is about half full and the crowd is still coming in.

Free don't sound poor, but they don't do anything to assert the brilliance of either Paul Rodgers, their lead vocalist or Paul Kossof, their lead guitarist. Rodgers, for instance, might have a technically "better" voice than Stewart's, but he could sure take lessons from Rod in stage presence.

During the set, the Circus Proper sets up. Behind the stage and to its side, high wires go up. The trapeze act, a crew of Chileans (who escaped Allende, the way Cubans escaped Castro?) is to go on first, but it isn't much. One of the connections is missed and the trouper falls but he is back up in a second, and one has the feeling that it is set up. 

This is the first night that the circus has been presented in its entirety. The problem, according to Faces, is that most of the arenas on tour have restrictive fire laws, or inadequate facilities, for the whole show. Louisville is the fourth night of the tour, but it is the first night for the entire circus.

As it turns out, the most interesting thing about the Circus is its announcer, a red-blazered midget, looking like a five-year-old dressed for church by his mother. He is charming, but not particularly funny, and that is an indication of what a low level this show works at.

The crowd likes it. The Louisville papers will like it the next day. But it is not what anyone came for, and like so many things connected with rock these days, the kids know and accept that it is bogus but. . . entertaining.

There's the dull-o mother and child balancing act. The most interesting thing about it is the eight-track tape which plays as reinforcement: It is soft-rock, running to CSN&Y, with "Layla" thrown in for grit. If there were a set-up to make the Faces look more powerful, it couldn't have been more perfect.

But most of all, the circus is depressing because it is the Rock 'n' Roll Circus only by proximity with the real thing. There isn't anything rock 'n' rolly about it—nothing. There are certain show biz things about it, but there is nothing that rocks. This is nuclear family entertainment for audiences used to nuclear explosion performances.

The motorcycle high-wire act over—it was just as adequate as the rest, and nothing more—out walks Princess Fong. She looks 30ish, as tall as Yoko, but more interestingly proportioned. She is awash in Kimono, or whatever her particular Oriental ethnicity terms what she is wearing.

Suddenly, yet with great dignity and ceremony, she is yanked aloft by her two-foot pigtail. As La Chinoise is suspended from the ceiling, one has time to ponder the veracity of her hair. But, on the other hand, if it isn't her hair, then what's the wig attached to?

It's that sense of inscrutability that makes La Chinoise such a wonderfully sexy, mysterious performer. There is no way to tell if she is truly as beautiful as she seems.

There is awe on the crowd as she is pulled up, up, up, while a spotlight dazzles her in its glow. Ten, twenty, thirty feet, maybe even higher.

La Chinoise does a kick up, then "skins the cat" and drops down so that she is again suspended "only by the hair on her head," and the real attraction begins. One by one, she drops a couple dozen vari-colored kimonos which plummet to the arms of a stagehand waiting below.

And, then, twenty kimonos later, she is fully revealed to us in a two piece outfit that yet leaves much to the imagination.

She is lowered back down to thunderous applause, then goes back up for a cup of tea, which is not yet in the cup. La Chinoise balances the silver tray, and pours the tea and there is never a moment's hesitation, none of the cheap near-miss/false-start theatrics of the trapeze act, or the save-the-hit-for-last jive of Free. In her own way, La Chinoise is as talented, as professional, and as engrossing as the Faces. 

And that was that.

If you had been standing in front of the stage when Rod Stewart came out that night, you'd have been best advised to move.

The Faces came out, as they always do, and simply plugged in and started to blow. Rod leaned over, touched the mike and the entire situation immediately exploded. In less than fifteen seconds, the center of the arena powered its way past the guards into the ten-foot deep shell in front of the stage, where the circus acts had been performing only a few moments earlier. The cops didn't bother to make a move.

The Faces had never played Louisville (or most of the South) before, but it didn't seem to matter. Their audience reacted as if they had been waiting for this show for years. If that isn't true, it's at least an indication.

lan McLagan: It's strange. If you get to town the day before a gig, people who would recognize you the day of a gig, or the day after a gig, don't even know who you are for some reason ... I get taken for a redneck everywhere, anyhow.

The band was full on from the beginning. No shucking and jiving, no stops to tune, no delays. This is not just great rock 'n' roll--- and it is that, for the Faces have one of the two or three best rock shows of the seventies--- it is professional rock 'n' roll, with all the concomitant drawbacks and advantages.

The sound was almost perfect: Each instrument could be heard clearly, McLagan's organ and Jones' powerful drumming coming through especially well in light of the way they have been buried in the past. The Faces work perfectly with Rod. It is not a mistake to say that they couldn't make it without him, I suppose, but it is also not a mistake to think that Rod couldn't make it without the band.

Ron Wood: At the beginning it's (husky whisper) "C'mon Rod." But by the end (he chirps), "Hey they all got it on." 

In the middle of the set, just as they are beginning to settle into the groove that could carry the show to only a middle-height, the band breaks into the crusher. Stewart steps to the mike with one of the rare grins he allows himself, and begins to sing, as Wood plays the absolutely heartrending guitar lead-in:

Wake up Maggie, I think I... Before the rest of the line is out, the stage begins to be covered with bodies. Perhaps two hundred actually make it to the apron of the stage, so that the musicians have less room, forcing Rod to diminish his Grouch walk with the mike. The uninitiated experience an intuitive fear.

"Aren't you scared?"

Wood: Naw man. They came, but they just stayed there.

McLagan: They probably would get really silly, but they don't want to hurt you, they just want to be close and be part of the party.

Wood: I did feel a few fingers on the knee last night...

Incredibly, the music is even better live. "Maggie May," at least that evening, was one of the premiere experiences of rock. It ranks with few others. Dylan, the Stones on a rare evening, the Who. Perhaps the Band when they're on, or the Beatles, if they got back together.

Stewart's singing was predictably fantastic, but it was the Faces who held you in awe. Even knowing how good "Maggie May" is, the live arrangement is textured so perfectly, arranged so beautifully, the interplay and dynamics of the situation-not just the music-are so right, that it is hard to believe.

Here is a dimension of interplay between "star" and band that is altogether rare. The music is precise and skillful, but not tight or constricted. 

Finally, what makes the show so exciting and impressive is that the Faces, and perhaps Rod most of all, really do understand what theater is. The circus is malarkey next to this.

Stewart bounds across the stage with his Groucho walk, leaning into the mike and crooning like some obscene parody of Bing Crosby; Wood has all the perfectly timed and intuitively choreographed moves of the best British guitarists; Lane tromps about like a drunken sailor. McLagan and Jones don't do much, but they provide the backbeat that's a necessity as backdrop for the theater.

The show is so finely tuned that it even works where once it was weakest: when Stewart hands the vocal mike to Ron Lane.

Lane is a good singer, but he's not Rod and always before it has seemed like he was merely giving Rod a break. No more. His songs are good, and his ideas about how to present them are fine. He mocks himself so well you're never sure how serious he is.

Lane: Are they true? Yeah! They're all true stones.

Rod: I'm not a natural songwriter . . . like Ronnie Lane. (Brief snicker.) Well, he is. Songs flow out of him. It's a struggle for me. I'm lucky to get one a month.

Wood (a little earlier): The nice thing about Rod was that Rod was there all the time. Even when Ron was doing his vocals. Rod was there.

Lane: Generally, to the laymen in the street, we're always going to be Rod's back-up band. But to anyone who takes a little more interest, the truth will be obvious.

They are into "Losin' You" now. It is thundering just as nicely as "Maggie May," powering the kids into crawling farther and farther onto the stage, pushing more and more of them up there.

The strain is on Rod's face. When he takes a break for a moment, turns his back to the audience and gets a drink, you can see it. It is not a pretty sight. It isn't surliness or anger—just weariness and tension.

Rod: There's too much work . . . It's draining on the brain all the time. Writing songs and getting them together ... I don't know, maybe I'm just lazy, but it seems like too much work.

There wasn't the pressure there before "Maggie May" or "Every Picture" that there is now. If they actually want a record by a certain day, I suppose they must have it. That's the drawback—if I could finish the album when I wanted to, it'd be all right.

"Losin' You" is the pseudo-last number, but—though it goes on for the best part of ten minutes—there is never any question about whether it ends there. The band couldn't get out of here with their necks at the moment.  

"Is it the public?"

Rod: No, they don't ask me when I'm gonna bring an album out. They just presume. But it's affecting me health. And there isn't any break, because we've got to start working on the group's album when this one's done.

The encore is "Stay with Me," and it's amazing. It is easily the best number they do: Wood is astounding on slide guitar, better than anyone currently playing it. The song rocks (as a warning for afterward, maybe) and then Rod kicks out the twenty footballs (which are actually what we call beachballs, but football's a different matter in Britain). Then it's over, and the crowd disperses about an hour later, and the band can jam past what's left into a pair of limousines and get back to the hotel.

It's only eleven o'clock and the evening has just begun.

Back at the hotel, everyone comes downstairs for food. It's not so much a meal as a drama.

In the corner, crunched in but removed from everyone, sits Rod Stewart. He is looking even more dour than usual. The rest of the band haven't arrived yet.

As they come in, the coffee shop of the Executive grows more and more boisterous. Orders are taken with the usual confusion of a forty-year-old waitress trying to cope with the desires of a pack of twenty-five-year-old hippies. Dozens of cups of coffee are ordered, bunches of sandwiches, and a pair of fruit salads because they have whole strawberries. Rod settles for bacon and eggs.

The rest of the Faces are acting like the chipped monkies they are, bounding in one and two at a time, surrounded by "fans and groupies" if there is a distinction. Each of them bounds to a seat, in two back to back booths, and the siege of the Executive Inn is on.

Someone (maybe Jeff Franklin, the group's booking agent, and the guy whose idea the Rock 'n' Roll Circus originally was) begins to toss certain items of their meal they aren't particularly interested in eating, at the other members of the Faces' entourage.

The adjoining booth is—obviously—constrained to respond. On and on it goes, with much shouting and gleeful bellows of outrage from either side when a particularly excellent hit is scored. It's beginning to get a bit messy, when the proprietress steps in:

If you boys don't stop throwing food RIGHT NOW, I'm going to make all of you clean it up yourselves.

As this is said in the most matronly Southern middleclass manner imaginable, it is doubly hilarious. But the laughter is restrained—if not a few smirks—in order to see what goes down next.

"Oh, we'll stop, right away, mum," assures Stewart, sticking one of those bony fingered, enormous hands in front of his face and tossing a bit of food straight into the back of McLagan's head.

The next day, we all get together to talk, while the Faces prepare to get on a plane to go even farther south.

The band is jovial, even the abnormally reticent Ken Jones climbing up to the ledge near the ceiling to shoot some photos. ("Ken," the rest of the band claim, "doesn't know what city he's in until the day after we get there. He doesn't like to travel.")

Everyone shows up but Rod. We go through all the motions, coming out with most of the material in here and a little more.

Wood and Lane are working on a film score for a movie being shot in Canada, Mahoney's Estate. It is the first time the two of them have collaborated, and they are working with not just Jones and McLagan on the project but also with Ric Grech. "Yeah, he's playing violin. And even drums!" 

Central to the discussion is Stewart, who is conspicuously absent. 

"It could've been a problem," says Ron Lane, "if it had gotten to Rod's head. It doesn't affect us ... we all work together anyway. There are lots of people askin' us, 'What about. . .' But it doesn't apply somehow."

Still, it was Rod and the group's management who had made such a big deal of the group being included in all the Stewart stories.

Maybe because of his involvement with Jeff Beck, maybe just instinctively, Stewart knows he needs this group.

He is not equipped for stardom. We talked for a while a little later, but he seemed more depressed and moody than any other time I've ever seen him.

As an afterthought, I asked about his marriage. "I'm not."

How'd the rumors get started? "Probably because I got engaged . . . Don't know why I did that."

The rest of the band are sympathetic. Lane offers, "He probably feels more responsibility if the show's going wrong than, say, I would."

Rod Stewart isn't really capable of doing that. It's that sort of drive that has made him the biggest rock star of the moment, but it's also the kind of thing that is nipping him out.

He's doing the vocals for the next album in Paris as I write this. He's probably not enjoying it much, at least not when he stops to think about it. But he's not thinking about it while he's doing it. Rod Stewart is one of the most completely professional entertainers I've ever met, and everything good and bad about that phrase applies.

He stared out the window of the limousine.

"Well, would you prefer that it just were . . . over?"

A long pause. He sucked in his breath, and then almost exploded. "My God no."

I couldn't bring myself to believe it.

—Dave Marsh


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