I noticed him roaming the parking lot at the Rolling Stones concert a couple weeks ago in Denver, a wide-smiling man about my age wearing a pink shirt that was three sizes too small. Turns out it he purchased and wore the same shirt at his first Stones concert in 1975, 44 years ago.
“I have seen the band 58 times in 11 countries,” Tim Bernardis told me. “This includes the 27 shows on the two-year “A Bigger Bang” tour, August 2005 to August 2007 in 10 countries.”
Now, I’m a rabid Stones fan myself, in full agreement that they are the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, having somehow stuck together since 1962, playing music continuously for the full lifespan of rock ‘n’ roll. I first saw them in 1981, on what I thought would be their last tour ever, and here they are in their deep 70s still packing in 50,000 people a concert.
But 1981 was the only other time I’ve seen them. I really had to find out in that parking lot why someone would devote much of his adult free time and spending money to the full-on, global pursuit of the next great Stones concert.
“In a word, rebellion,” said Bernardis.
“I grew up in Sacramento in a large Catholic family. We all went to Catholic schools. Too much smothering from Catholicism in my life and this was a great impetus to REBEL. I rebelled and went to the University of California, Berkeley, the very hotbed and national center of college activism and unrest.”
Bernardis double majored in history and Native American studies. “I felt a strong sense of injustice and believed in the Indian cause. I moved from Berkeley to the Crow Indian Reservation/Nation in Montana where I live now. I have worked at the Crow tribal college -- Little Big Horn College -- for 36 years (as a white guy). My wife is Crow, as are my children and I was culturally adopted by a Crow family in 1986.
“Thus as you can see, rebellion has been a major theme in my life. As such, I have continued to love the Stones as they, at least in my mind anyway, are the epitome of rebellion.”
The Stones started rebellious, playing black music to young whites, and stayed rebellious. They became the bad boys of rock as a counter to the Beatles, wearing longer hair and playing a more aggressive music, with urgent riffs, tribal drums, politically incorrect lyrics and crazy antics. They seduced my generation kinda permanently.
They were still in full defiant mode in Denver, but now it’s rebellion against age itself. Mick was out there prancing and pouting and preening like a 76-year-old teenager, and by god if we all didn’t love it. I’m betting most of us had seen them at least once before, and a good part of the joy was being reminded by those songs and their attendant memories of younger, freer days
Bernardis’ epic obsession reminded me that rebellion is built into our American DNA. I’m betting Thomas Jefferson would have been a Stones fan; he’s the one who said “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”
Bernardis also reminded me that rock ‘n’ roll is the sound of freedom, personal and otherwise.
In places like Buenos Aires and Cuba and China, “the Stones are still a political force like they were in the ’60s,” Bernardis said, “a bit of a symbol of freedom.”
There’s a great documentary called “Free to Rock” about rock’s power as a cultural export during the Cold War. President Jimmy Carter and others interviewed for the film believe it was a huge contributing factor in ending the Cold War.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is freedom, and every young person wanna be free,” Andrev Markaravich, a Russian rock artist, said in the movie.
Our owner, Philip Anschutz, actually took the first rock band to the Soviet Union in the late 80s, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Other bands followed, and an underground rock movement bloomed that soon instilled a crazy thirst for Western music and Western freedoms in the USSR. The musical window into the West helped undermine Soviet control over their society for good.
When Vaclav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 a month after the Berlin Wall came down, one of the first things he did was lift the ban on rock music and invite the Stones to come play.
“The tanks roll out and the Stones roll in,” the posters said.
Bernardis started going to Stones concerts back when they were still dangerous.
“My life changed forever in 1971 when my brother Paul brought home “Sticky Fingers.”
He doesn’t remember his first concert very well. It was Wednesday, July 16, 1975, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and someone gave him something to smoke that made the floor start going uphill and downhill. He had to leave the show.
“For three years after that, I had dreams that I would go to a Stones concert and they wouldn’t show up, or some other band played, recurrent nightmares of this ilk.”
It wasn’t until his second concert — in 1978 in Anaheim, Calif., when he got carried by the crowd to the very edge of the stage — that the dreams finally stopped. At that concert, Mick doused him with water from a hose, which Bernardis considered a kind of "baptism and redemption" for the first concert.
The second phase of his Stones obsession began in the 2000s when he joined IORR, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, a Stones fan club. Now he belongs to four clubs, including the largest U.S. fan club, Shidoobee, and one in Germany.
“It almost became a competition,” to see more concerts then, he said.
“We somehow inspire the other fan club members. It rubs off, drives you to more and greater heights, trying to see the Stones more and more and more.
“Every year, every decade, tour after tour, show after show, they just kick ass. They play their iconic music and the crowd loves it.”
Many serendipitous things have happened to Bernardis along the way. “I’ve met Ronnie. I’ve met Charlie. Ronnie signed a hat for me in Denver.” His obsession has crossed generations. He has pictures of his granddaughter hanging with some members of the backing band.
When Richards was busted on a drug charge once, he painted Free Keith Richards on a highway overpass.
“The greatest show I’ve ever seen them play was Paris in 2017. It was the first time I was in the pit. They were tight, they meant it. They weren’t just cashing it in. They were loving it. All the reasons I first fell in love with the Stones came back to me with a vengeance.”
His Holy Grail is to see his 60th concert in Buenos Aires next year or the year after.
“Buenos Aires is where the most rabid, fanatical, emotional Stones fans live. They just go berserk. And not just during the concert. But for the whole time the Stones are in town, from when their plane touches down until they take off again.”
It’s like the ’70s in America all over again.
“I will be there, and get to my 60th show,” Bernardis vows, adding that “Where the band goes, we follow.”
Hear hear, Tim.
I know what you normal people are thinking out there. The Stones know, too.
We know, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.
But we like it.