A Garden of Sports and Musical Delights
The period of the mid- to late- 1960s and early 1970s in America was the greatest window in history to experience childhood and adolescence. The whole world had the opportunity to enjoy the fantastic and exciting revolutionary developments in the arts at that time. A new creative sensibility and awakening was flowing out like fine wine as we took in the music of The Beatles and other pop and rock-and-roll groups; heard sounds in jazz from Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Freddie Hubbard; and listened to Leonard Bernstein as an international conductor demanding that his audiences give twentieth century atonal classical pieces the respect he passionately believed they deserved. Film directors such as Truffaut, Kubrick, Hitchcock, and many others churned out thoughtful masterworks, and television expanded its comedic and dramatic programing for the better.
Stateside, if one adds the element of sports, those of us growing up in the Tri-State area were doubly blessed with a Golden Age of baseball, football, and basketball championships. In addition, several legendary players graced the roster of the New York Rangers hockey team. It was my great fortune that from late childhood to my teen years, I was able to enjoy the best of sports and music because of my frequent visits with family and friends to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. I also saw games at Shea Stadium, where I witnessed the New York Mets rise to a World Series victory, and I watched the Jets from field level seats win a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, which brought them to the Super Bowl. I visited Yankee Stadium where I enjoyed seeing Whitey Ford pitch and attended a game where Tom Tresh hit three homeruns, one landing smack into the baseball glove of a lucky fan just rows away from my seat. When Nassau Coliseum opened in 1972, my father got tickets for us to see the Islander hockey team and my brother bought us tickets there for my first concert in the mid-1970s featuring Bob Dylan and The Band.
These places all had their appeal, but there was nothing like the magic of being inside Madison Square Garden when the New York Knicks were locked in battle against their rivals or as the Rangers furiously skated around the ice. In music, nothing could compare to when the Rolling Stones and other mega-groups bounced around onstage in passionate performances at the venue.
My earliest Garden memories are of attending afternoon Rangers games with my father, brother, and sister. Since the games were replayed in the evenings on television in the 1960s, we would stroll by the announcers interviewing players between periods of action and later see ourselves on our fuzzy, black-and-white television at home. We went as a family to the final hockey game at the “old” Madison Square Garden in 1968, and I recall that the friend I brought returned from the restroom with a wooden sign in his hands reading “Men’s Room” and rationalized his vandalism as his chance to procure a vital piece of sports history. Seeing players such as Rod Gilbert and the talented goalie Eddie Giacomin are still among the happiest of my early memories. In addition, as a teenager I went to a Rangers’ game and sat with my father and his friend, the well-known retired NHL referee who made a name for himself as a TV hockey announcer, Bill Chadwick, known as “The Big Whistle.” I beamed in joy as Rangers fans casually greeted him with smiles and handshakes all evening.
We were fortunate at that time to witness the greatest basketball team that the New York Knicks ever assembled, featuring talented stars such as Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, and Earl Monroe. These gentlemen played as a unit and brought intelligence, grace and sportsmanship to the court. I went with a friend in the early 1970s to a game where future Los Angeles Lakers’ coaching genius Phil Jackson went to the free throw line for the Knicks towards the final moments of the game, a shot which would determine the outcome of the contest. The ball hit the front of the basket’s rim, bounced backwards to the backboard, and we collectively gasped as it fell through the hoop. The crowd erupted in a wave of sound so loud it was as if we were standing next to the engine of a jet plane. It was a unique moment of euphoria that only the sharing of a live sports contest can elicit.
The first concert I attended at the Garden was by the rock band, The Who, in 1974. My friends and I were huge fans, but being in high school out in the suburbs prevented us from going to the New York box office at the Garden the day tickets were on sale. A friend called his father in Manhattan where he was working at his business in the Garment District near the Garden on 7th Avenue. His dad waited a couple of hours outside in a line for the tickets with hundreds of young people, and he got us the coveted seats. The Who gave a great show in 1974 at the Garden, playing hits from their 1960s and early 1970s repertoire. A few months later, we again enlisted this wonderful man to do the same for The Rolling Stones. That afternoon, a teenager in queue marveled to his friend that the line for tickets was huge and around the block. My friend’s dad turned to them and to their surprise said, “This is nothing! You should have seen how long the line was for The Who!”
When we trekked a few months later to the Garden to see The Stones, the stage was custom-designed for the band’s New York dates. As we heard the opening guitar chords of Honky Tonk Women, a huge, tightly-shut, silver “flower” opened to reveal the band that had been hidden inside of it, with lead singer Mick Jagger riding atop one leaf as it descended. Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards often tell interviewers that they truly love playing the Garden and how special the energy is in the arena.
I understand how lucky I was to have had many opportunities for such pure and positive experiences in the late 1960s and early 1970s at live sporting and music events. It makes me think of Mick Jagger crying out onstage between songs: “Madison Square Garden – Top of the World!”