This could be the last time: But they say that every time, don't they?: The Rolling Stones hit the States again next week, where Matthew Hoffman saw them the first time. Jim White recalls the times in between

Back in the Sixties, Mick and Keith took a loose approach to punctuality - Charlie usually wanted to get out there on schedule, but Charlie's views didn't count for much. But when the Stones open their 30th anniversary mega-tour in the RFK Stadium at Washington on 1 August, they will arrive on stage at the advertised time. To the minute, possibly to the second. It was not always the way.

For the Glimmer Twins, there were more important things to attend to than the fans: Keith's standard pre-performance pick me up during the 1969 tour of America, for instance, consisted of cocaine, LSD, opium, marijuana and Jack Daniels, not necessarily in that order but necessarily in bulk. Mick's preparation generally involved local females in similarly wholesale quantities.

For the fan, there wasn't much point turning up at a Stones show until two, three, sometimes four hours after it was scheduled to start, by which time the boys might have completed their backstage routine. It became a point of principle for the Stones: not so much leave them wanting more, as don't give them anything. Other bands copied them - Led Zeppelin sometimes never turned up to play at all - but few matched their contempt for the clock. Back then, time was on their side.

Things started to change after the Altamont shambles of 1969, when the Hell's Angels the band thought would make cool security for a concert killed a fan and beat up countless others. Mick had seen the ultimate end-effect of the anarchy he had unleashed and started to smarten up the business. Sometimes in the Seventies they were only an hour late.

But, as in most things, it was the Eighties that wrought the biggest change in their attitude. That was when pop shows, particularly stadia shows like theirs, underwent an industrial revolution. The sweet innocence of 1964, the sulky indifference of 1969, were buried beneath enough electric cabling to stretch to Mars. The Stones employed architects to build their sets. It took 18 months just to plan a tour. Their press agent started to arrange interviews for Japanese reporters with the man who designed the dazzling light show.

The whole complex machine of a Stones concert was held together by military precision, split-second timing and computers. Arrive on stage a second late and you could be playing 'Start Me Up' while the light show thinks you're playing 'Not Fade Away'.

It is the computers that have managed what a generation of stage managers failed to do: they have got the Stones to behave like grown-ups. These days, to make it out there, Mick's pre-tour preparation involves six weeks of running backwards through the French countryside, while Keith has reduced his backstage cocktail down to the Jack Daniels. And after a show these days, they get to bed early so they can make it to the bank in the morning. Particularly Mick, who admitted last week that he had lost a painfully large slice of his pounds 45m fortune when financial markets crashed after Black Monday. Somehow, it all just isn't the same.

When the Rolling Stones arrive in New York next week, it will be to play the huge Giants Stadium in nearby New Jersey, which hosted the Ireland-Italy match in the World Cup. They can't get a stadium that big in the city, at least not complete with car park. Thirty years ago, when I first saw them, the Stones' few fans were too young to drive.

In 1964, Mick Jagger led his two-year-old band to the US for their first assault on the Big Apple. They played four concerts in the New York: two at Carnegie Hall and two at a Lower East Side cinema, the Academy of Music, where I was to catch my first glimpse of the new English phenomenon.

We arrived on East 14th Street by subway and bus; or in my case shoe leather, as I lived nearby among the Puerto Ricans and the first hippies in a slum that estate agents were soon to dub the East Village (as opposed to Greenwich Village - west of Fifth Avenue). I can't recall how I knew the Stones were coming to our neighbourhood: I must have seen a small poster advertising the event on a hoarding. In those days, when the Beatles were already megastars (they had made their US TV debut on CBS's Ed Sullivan Show in February of that year), the Stones' first album had just gone on sale in the US, and it consisted only of cover versions of black R & B standards, such as Willie Dixon's 'I Just Want to Make Love to You' and Jimmy Reed's 'Honest I Do'.

In fact, I went to the concert more as an observer than a fan: I was a student at the nearby New York University film school, and I was recording scenes of local life for use in my 'film diaries'. I took along a borrowed 16mm camera loaded with a roll of very fast black and white film, and I chose a seat about half-way back from the stage. I only had 100 feet (three minutes) of film but, as it turned out, that was all that was needed.

The film I shot that day opens with shots of the audience arriving: almost entirely teenage girls. It is a Saturday afternoon and they have come in from Long Island, dressed smartly, their hair neatly trimmed, carrying handbags. They are not locals. Cut to a poster advertising the Stones; then we are inside, and on stage is a warm-up group in matching tailored suits, anonymous and stiff.

There is no sound on the film but we can see that this group must be dull. There is no reaction from the audience, which is watching quietly. Cut to a blank stage, adorned only by a drum set and microphone stands. Then, there they are, the Rolling Stones - Charlie Watts on drums, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones to his right, Keith Richard and Bill Wyman to his left. All five are dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, their long, puddin'-bowl-cut hair tossing about.

But this, their first number (I think it was 'Not Fade Away'), lasts only seconds. The crowd leaps up and fills the lower half of the screen. (I stand up, too, to keep the camera focused on the stage.) Police pop up in a line in front of the orchestra pit, but they are pressed back by the encroaching crowd, and a noticeably fat girl somehow darts past them, circles behind the still-playing Stones and pulls Charlie Watts off his chair from behind. More police come out from the wings to rescue him; the curtain falls, and the roll of film flickers to a close outside the cinema, as the afternoon sun illuminates a now dishevelled audience of teenagers making their way along 14th Street towards the subway entrance.

The girls, to my amazement, didn't seem disappointed, but I realise now that they hadn't come to hear the music. If they were interested in black rhythm and blues and soul music, they could have gone to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem any Saturday afternoon and heard the real thing. They had come, instead, for an emotional release, to shed their Long Island teenage conformity, the sense of their lives unwinding before them to a pre-written script that in a few years would see them replace their mothers as homemakers and mothers. But in a few years some of these girls would be hippies living in cold-water flats in the Lower East Side or communes in New Mexico.

As I strolled among the crowd, an artist I knew (Alfred Leslie, whose giant photorealist murals of himself still appear in New York art exhibitions) came up to me. 'Did you see the police brutality?' he asked. 'No,' I replied truthfully, thinking that the police had taken most of the punishment.

'I was in the balcony,' Leslie added, 'and I saw them really manhandle one girl.' Another side of the Sixties was shaping up: the Pigs versus Us.

I would like to examine that film now, to see if Leslie's accusation could be documented. But, at the beginning of the Eighties, my parents cleaned out the attic before selling their old house. The raw footage of my Sixties film diaries was among the detritus.

While now, three decades later, I won't be going to New York to see Mick Jagger, who is 51 today, return, I can still see them in memory. In fact, that is how I think it is best done. I'd rather not see the 1994 Rolling Stones entertaining the grandmothers those teenage fans I filmed in 1964 have now become.

(Photographs omitted)

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