In 1995, the year the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge Tour came to Australia, I had leukaemia, an exquisitely rare but treatable variety known inelegantly as 'hairy cell'.
It's been nearly twelve years, I'm doing fine, and I hardly ever think about it, but I came home at the end of last week, poured a glass of fine Australian semillon-sauvignon blanc, pumped up Exile On Main Street on the stereo, and there I was thinking about the Rolling Stones in concert and John the Haematologist, who always had the latest edition of a journal called Blood on his desk.
In April 1995, four months or so before I knew there was anything wrong with my blood, I sat in a bus shelter opposite our local supermarket in Toowoomba, and waited for the bus to the Stones' Brisbane concert, a couple of hours away in our state capital.
I'd missed the Stones in the 60s, and again in the 70s, who knows why, so this was like a piece of unfinished business for me. The press was full of stories about how old the Stones were, how they were surely on their last legs (little did they know!), and I had this feeling that it might be my last chance to see them. I kept thinking of Del Shannon, who'd come to our town and I'd passed, thought I couldn't afford it, and then he'd died a few months later. (Sorry, Mick, but you know what the Aussie press can be like.)
Okay, if I'd skipped school in '65 to see them, I would've also seen Brian Jones, as well as Bill Wyman, who had quit by '95, but Keef was still there, and Mick and Charlie Watts, so three out of five ain't bad and Woodie was a legend in his own right anyway...
At first, I wasn't going: the price of the ticket plus the bus fare was too much. Then the Stones were on in Sydney, and then Perth, and they were on the TV news every night.
The media were falling over themselves to point out how OLD these guys were, and why didn't they give up and grow old gracefully instead of making spectacles of themselves? Clearly, they'd never heard of Howlin' Wolf, on Shindig with the Stones in his fifties and in the studios with Clapton at sixty.
With every TV news story I was looking sadder, and in the end my wife said, "Go! Put it on a credit card! Anything!" and I rang up at the last minute and I was in.
So I got onto the bus, and the bus driver said he was sorry, but there'd been a stuff-up (probably because I'd booked late) and they didn't actually have a concert ticket for me, but when we got there he'd do his best to get me one. I sat on the bus for nearly two hours, not knowing whether or not I'd get to see the Stones after all.
The concert was at the ANZ sports stadium in Brisbane. After the bus was parked, I followed the bus driver down towards the ticket boxes. They were all shut, with signs saying SOLD OUT, and all around them were huge angry looking European guys in black suits, professional scalpers, shouting outrageous prices for tickets.
The bus driver was an old guy, with slicked back short grey hair, tailored shorts and long dress socks. "I'll see what I can do," he said, but I wasn't convinced.
“Wait here,” he said, and I waited while he wandered down the slope to the ticket boxes. I decided that if he didn’t get me a ticket there was no way I was going to sit outside in the car park and just listen to the wash-up from the Stones until midnight. I would walk back to the freeway and hitch a ride home.
The bus driver wandered up to a ticket box – I was gonna say waddled, but that would be unfair – and knocked on the window. When it finally opened, he seemed to be having a bit of a chat with the woman behind the grille: he was leaning on the little counter, just catching up, it seemed to me, probably sharing wry observations on the scene.
Around me, the scalpers were shouting louder, people were giving up and going home, and my fellow passengers had long disappeared through the turnstiles with their lovely tickets. Down the slope, the bus driver and the ticket box woman continued shooting the breeze.
I will be hitching home, I told myself.
Then the ticket box woman and the bus driver had stopped chatting, she’d shut up shop again, and he was ambling up the slope with my ticket to the Stones.
Did I embrace him in gratitude? You don’t embrace sixtysomething bus drivers in tailored shorts and long dress socks, you just thank them in a gentlemanly but heartfelt way and head for the turnstiles.
The Stones started their set with that Bo Diddley shave-and-a-haircut - two-bits rhythm, the drum beat from Not Fade Away. At first I thought it was part of the recorded music they’d been piping through the speakers in the intermission, but all of a sudden there was Charlie Watts, in motion, cruising onto the stage as if his drum kit were some kind of drummobile, a motorized drum buggy, and I realised the drumming was all Charlie’s work. That moment of realisation was pure joy: I was grinning and laughing and jumping about like a kid on Guy Fawkes night.
It turned out that my seat was pretty good, on about the same level as one of the stage’s side ramps, so that when Mick or Keef came along it they ended up only a few metres away. Mick, who was clearly fitter and more agile than most men his age, ran and leapt and danced and hardly stood still throughout the long set, making nonsense of the media’s digs at his age.
The audience was typical of the cross-section you see at oldies concerts these days: all ages from eight to eighty, from ageing baby boomers like me to curious teenagers, two of whom eventually ended up having sex in the row in front of me, just what you'd expect at a Stones concert.
The audience also included Wayne Goss, the State Premier of Queensland (think State Governor in the US). This would’ve struck as bizarre anyone who’d lived under his predecessors, ageing gents of my father’s generation who’d been in power for longer than they deserved. But there he was the next evening, our Premier, telling the TV news cameras how much he’d enjoyed Brown Sugar and Tumbling Dice.
Also in the audience, apart from the Premier and me and the rutting teenagers, was John, the haematologist I would meet four months later when I started chemotherapy.
One day in August, at the clinic in Brisbane, I mentioned the Stones concert to a nurse and she said, “Oh yeah, John went to that. He’s a big Stones fan.” There was a moment when I did a double-take, as if it didn’t add up. The guy who had my life in his hands, who was daily perusing my blood counts, and making judgments about my prognosis and medication and whether my spleen had to go or stay… this guy had also bought a ticket to Voodoo Lounge, he’d been somewhere in the audience.
In theory, John the Haematologist could have been the guy in the audience who yelled out at the top of his lungs, “KEEF, YOU LEGEND!” when the great man ventured out onto the catwalk near my hard-won seat… Or maybe that was the Premier of Queensland: nothing made sense any more…
Now, it seems like no big deal: now my GP looks a few years younger than me, and some of my colleagues are about the same age as my eldest son. At that time, though, this was a generational shift for me. Up until then, I'd thought of people like Premiers and medical specialists as being part of my parents' generation.
Maybe my double-take was an irrational moment of panic, as if I were putting my life in the hands of an ageing adolescent in a Stones audience, someone like myself. Maybe I wanted the haematologist to be somebody older. When you have an irrational illness with unpredictable outcomes you can find yourself given over to irrational thinking now and then.
It didn't last, though, and it gave us something else to chat about during the daily consultations that make up a course of chemotherapy.
Once, I brought up the subject of the Stones while I was under a light anaesthetic, a drug-induced haze that is supposed to eliminate your memory of what goes on, but it didn't stop me remembering next day that I’d asked John the Haematologist to name his favourite Stones album.
Back home, when I was over all that, I went out and bought my own copy. It was Exile On Main Street, the album I now associate with John the Haematologist and the Stones in Brisbane, not to mention blood, and Blood.
Image: Blood, Vol. 86 (4), August 15 1995.