Oshawa remembers the day the Rolling Stones came to town to play the Civic

By

Published April 22, 2022 at 10:42 am

Forty-three years ago today Oshawa was centre stage in the world of rock ‘n roll.

It was the day when the Rolling Stones – the biggest band in the world – came to town to play two benefit shows at the old Civic Auditorium, with proceeds going to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).

The concerts were guitarist Keith Richards’ sentence for his conviction in 1978 on heroin charges after being arrested at the Harbour Castle Hilton in Toronto the previous year.

It was an unusual sentence for sure – Richards was facing as much as seven years in prison – but then, Keith Richard was no ordinary addict, and with a courtroom full of Rolling Stones fans, some wearing t-shirts that said “Free Keith,” it certainly was no run-of-the-mill trial either.

Judge Lloyd Graburn told the court heroin addicts should go to jail if they turn to crime to support their habit but Richards had all the money he needed, so the Judge looked for another solution. And after hearing from a blind fan of the band who praised the guitarist, Judge Graburn sentenced Richards to one year’s probation and ordered the band to play two shows to benefit the CNIB within six months of the sentencing.

The CNIB’s own auditorium only held 250 people and when they chose the date for the shows the Toronto Maple Leafs were deep into a playoff run, so Oshawa and the 5,000-seat capacity Civic was chosen for the gigs, which would include an opening set by the New Barbarians, a Ronnie Wood-fronted band that had just been formed and included former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan and jazz/fusion legend Stanley Clarke on bass.

Six days before the shows tickets went on sale to the public. And that’s when the chaos ensued. Most of the stories from people who were at the show, in fact, were about the madness obtaining tickets as much as the concert itself.

People started camping in the parking lot on Thursday – the box office wouldn’t open until Monday – and there was some order until Saturday when the Toronto and parts beyond crowd began to arrive.

If you wanted to keep your spot you literally had to fight for it, remembers James Sexsmith.

“We went there Friday night and took turns holding our spot and drinking in a local bar,” he said. “We waited all weekend but by Sunday morning people started crashing the line and we sort of got pushed out.”

Fortunately for Sexsmith, they hung around “to watch the mayhem” and eventually spotted a buddy who had made it in and had extra tickets for the first concert.

The night of the shows, dubbed ‘Blind Date,’ they ended up sitting on the floor at the back of the arena until the lights went out. “Then we started running for the front.”

Eventually he made it close enough to (almost) shake Mick Jaggar’s hand. “I ended up in some concert pics in the Toronto Sun the next day.”

 

Most of the people who were at the show and reminiscing on social media this week spoke glowingly about the experience – it’s not every day the Rolling Stones play two gigs in your little hometown – while others commented that it appeared the band’s hearts weren’t in it.

Plenty of others never got tickets but remembered the vibe around the city that day as something they wouldn’t soon forget. And they bought the t-shirt to boot.

Sexsmith said he had a blast.

“It was a great show. I was standing in front of Keith Richards when they started playing ‘Respectable” and I started pointing at him, saying ‘you’re respectable.’ He thought that was pretty cool.”

“But I couldn’t hear for two days.”

Sexsmith said a pal went to the second show and met Saturday Night Live star John Belushi, who was the emcee for the concerts and very well-inebriated by the time the show started.

“Everyone was just having a good time.”

Fans of the event will get another opportunity to remember (in far more introspective detail) the night of April 22, 1979 tonight at a Keith Richards Day Seminar at Trent University Durham GTA (55 Thornton Road South), from 7-9 p.m. in Building B, Room 112.

The seminar will discuss the enduring relevance of the event for Oshawa’s local musical heritage.

Speakers will include Trent University Durham Dean Scott Henderson (“The ‘New Barbarians’ at the Gate: Reconciling the Global and Local in Pop Music Culture”), Ontario Tech Professor Gary Genosko (“How Keith Richards Found Himself in Oshawa”) and Tanya Bailey, a doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies at Trent (“World War II Influences in Keith Richards’ Early Song Writing.”)

SET LIST

VIDEO from the first show:

indurham's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising