His March 27, 2018, concert in my hometown of Montreal was my 32nd Rod concert, and was my mom Liliane’s 31st Rod concert. Mom (whom we call Diamond Lil) and I haven’t missed a Rod concert in Montreal since the 1980s, but it was his December 14, 2013, concert that made headlines around the world.
In the days leading up to that show at Montreal’s Bell Centre, I wrote an open letter to Rod in the Montreal daily The Gazette newspaper asking him if he could please sing Sailing, which he had never sung in Montreal, despite the fact he had headlined the historic Montreal Forum more than any other performer in the 20th century.
This was my third open letter to Rod. My first ran in my syndicated LGBTQ column Three Dollar Bill to preview Rod’s July 25, 1998, concert in Montreal. Except the first half of my column that week was a naughty ode to gay sex which made national headlines and got me banned in Winnipeg.
Sailing did not make his setlist that night. It didn’t 10 years later either, in 2008, when I wrote Rod a second open letter in the Montreal alt-weekly HOUR magazine where I was an editor and columnist.
So in 2013, with lager in hand, I wrote Rod one more time.
That open letter ran in The Gazette. Other journalists then also wrote about my quest, and I also appeared on local radio: One afternoon I spent an hour on CJAD talk radio answering questions about Rod, and one morning I did a segment with Montreal radio legend Terry DiMonte on CHOM-FM, the Number One rock radio station in Canada.
Meanwhile, in my Gazette open letter, I wrote that if ever a straight boy deserved to be called an Honorary Gay, it’s our boy Rod, who holds a special place in rock’n’roll queerdom: His 1977 hit song The Killing of Georgie (Pts. 1 & 2) – an elegy for a murdered gay friend – was the first-ever Billboard Top 40 song about out gay characters.
The homophobic backlash was swift: The BBC initially banned the landmark hit and rumours Rod’s stomach was pumped after an all-night fellatio session have dogged the singer ever since because – like all gentlemen secure with their sexuality – he’s never felt the need to announce he’s straight.
That, I wrote, likely had everything to do with his mentor, British blues legend Long John Baldry, the fabulous gay man who discovered a 19-year-old Rod playing harmonica in Twickenham Station in 1964.
Just days after Baldry passed away in his adopted hometown of Vancouver in July 2005, Baldry’s life partner Felix “Oz” Rexach graciously granted me an interview and told me, “Rod was, as always, very supportive and came to see John in Vancouver, which gave him a big boost. They even made plans to do things when John got better.”
“I was very moved by Rod’s loyalty to Baldry,” author Paul Myers, Berkeley-based brother of comic actor Mike Myers, told me after his rock bio It Ain’t Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues was published in 2007. “There’s speculation they had a love relationship but I believe it’s the oldest type of love, the love of a father figure who put Rod in the front of the class.”
Myers added, “I feel like when John got sick on various occasions, it was always Rod who showed up – by phone, in person and by chequebook. He was always there for him.”
In his Palm Beach mansion Rod told Myers, “I would never have any of this if it wasn’t for Long John Baldry.”
So I was tickled pink when at his Montreal concert in December 2013, Rod sang The Killing of Georgie, which he dedicated “to my friend, Richard Burnett.”
I thought perhaps that meant Rod would not sing Sailing that night, but he later projected my open letter on all three big screens above the stage before reading the headline, “Dear Rod: Open letter to Rod Stewart: Will He Sing Sailing in Montreal for the First Time?”
Then he said, “This chap has waited long enough!”
Rod and his band delivered a kickass live version of Sailing, a moment Montrealer Don Morgan caught on video, which now has more than 13 million views on YouTube, thanks in part to the hundreds of news outlets worldwide that picked up the story, including Ultimate Classic Rock.
Killing of Georgie, December 14, 2013
Sailing, December 14, 2013:
For that show, Diamond Lil and I were sitting up in the bleachers at the rear of the arena. I was screaming at the top of my lungs when this woman directly behind us tapped my shoulder and asked if I knew Rod. I replied that I did not but learned that she and her husband were attending their very first Rod concert. They were supposed to see Rod some 20-odd years earlier on their very first date in their hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, but for whatever reason that concert had been postponed or cancelled.
So, now married, their 20-year-old daughter had bought them a pair of tickets to see Rod in Montreal, as well as airline tickets and a hotel room in Montreal.
And I thought I was a having a great night!
The couple were absolutely thrilled, and we had a wonderful time together that evening.
Almost five years later, on the morning of Rod’s concert in Montreal on March 27, 2018, back in the studio with Terry DiMonte at CHOM, I shared that story on-air. I believe that story captures the essence of the enduring love affair between Rod and his fans.
Sitting between Terry and I in-studio that morning was my mom, Diamond Lil, who also talked about her love for Rod. When Terry asked my Mom if her love for opera came before her love for Rod and Tina Turner (whom she has also seen live some 30-plus times), Mom good-naturedly replied, “Unfortunately yes!”
Laughter all around.
For that night’s concert at Montreal’s Bell Centre, we had bought tickets on the ice, eighth row on the aisle. It was the closest we had ever sat to the stage at a Rod concert, and in his thumbs-up Montreal Gazette concert review my friend and colleague Bernard Perusse wrote that Rod delivered a “hit-heavy, crowd-pleasing show.”
Indeed it was. Many chestnuts were missing from the 19-song setlist, but when you have a catalogue as deep as Rod’s, you simply cannot sing everything.
Meanwhile, Diamond Lil and I were dressed up in tartan – mom in her red tartan jacket and I wearing my brand-new Canadian maple tartan scarf and modern Burnett tartan tie, purchased at The Scottish & Irish Store in Ottawa just for the occasion.
By the time Rod closed the show with Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?, the cheering audience was back on their feet, including my mom.
We had hoped to meet Rod backstage that evening, but perhaps we shall the next time he headlines Montreal. You can be sure that Diamond Lil and I will be there.
Meanwhile, thank you Rod for the great songs and great memories. It was another night for the ages.