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Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones performs at the so-called SARSstock concert at Downsview Park in Toronto on July 30, 2003.MIKE CASSESE/Reuters

Just after 10 p.m. on July 30, 2003, the Rolling Stones began their headlining set at a park on a former military airbase in Toronto’s northern outskirts. The all-day festival, called Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto and attended by nearly half a million hot, happy people, had been rush-organized to raise public spirits and stimulate a sagging economy after an outbreak of SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – earlier in the year. The Stones opened with Start Me Up, the message of the day.

“This is the biggest party in Toronto’s history, right?” shouted front man Mick Jagger, the 60-year-old strutter in a fuchsia suit. “You’re here. We’re here. Toronto is back and it’s booming.”

SARS, like COVID-19, is a disease transmitted by air and touch. And while the outbreak of SARS was nothing near the calamity of today’s pandemic, the comparison serves. Toronto had a four-month, two-stage SARS outbreak in the spring of 2003, with almost 250 probable cases and at least 38 deaths.

The mammoth concert dubbed SARSstock took place just four weeks after the World Health Organization removed the city from the list of areas with recent local transmission. Could a festival such as this happen again after we’re cleared to congregate in huge crowds? How long will it take until our battered psyches were ready for it, and would the government even allow it?

SARSstock was pulled together in just two months – an audacious effort by business, government and the musical community to rebound after a heavy blow. Jagger called it a party. Let’s call it a force of dreams and a precedent, in the we-shall-rise-again category.

“The will of a nation was galvanized,” says Dennis Mills, the Toronto MP who spearheaded the event. “It showed that even in a short period of time we can create a positive signal that will go out there to help us revitalize, renew and get us heading where we need to go.”

When the concert was officially announced on June 24, Toronto’s tourism industry was in tatters. Along with Senator Jerry Grafstein, Molson Brewery, concert promoters House of Blues (now Live Nation) and Michael Cohl with the Rolling Stones, Mills marshalled resources and gathered logistical and financial support from the federal and Ontario governments.

“The Stones were an instrument. All the artists were instruments. But the essence of the event was to send a signal all over the world that Canada was open for business, and that we as a nation can rally.”

It’s an important message, and one worth remembering as the country struggles to deal with deep loss, extended isolation and the crushing gloom of living with a disease that refuses to leave.

SARSstock: An oral history

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Crews put the finishing touches on the main stage ahead of SARSstock on July 29, 2003.Donald Weber/The Globe and Mail

In April, 2003, Liberal MP Dennis Mills was asked by caucus colleagues to join a group of politicians and business leaders to explore ideas on how to reignite Ontario’s tourism sector. A number of promising proposals were raised, but the plans were all for 2004. Mills wanted something immediate.

Dennis Mills (Member of Parliament for Toronto-Danforth): ”They told me it was impossible to do anything in 2003. I said, ‘Guys, I’ve got 300 restaurants in the Danforth area who can’t survive a year.' I left the meeting and contacted concert promoter Michael Cohl, who I knew well. I said, “Michael, the city has been great to us all our lives. You’ve got the Rolling Stones, and I’m confident I can get the government on board.' I asked him to think about it. He said that he didn’t need to think about it, that it was a great idea.”

Cohl told Mills he would speak to “the boys.” That he would refer to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in such casual fashion is an indication of his close relationship with the band.

Michael Cohl (concert promoter and Rolling Stones associate): “Mick thought it was a great idea. Keith was surprised. I thought it was a moment of humility on his part when he said to me, ‘Do they actually think we can help?' I said, ‘Yes, Keith, they do.' And he said, ‘Wow, we have to do it.' I’ve always remembered that.”

Formerly a military base and the site of two papal visits, Parc Downsview Park was run by the federal government. The airstrip was being used by Bombardier Aerospace.

Mills: “I was the government point person for World Youth Day and the appearance of Pope John Paul II at Downsview Park in 2002. That took us two years to put together. But for the concert, we had the template established to do it. Essentially it was ringing up the old team.”

Because the Stones would be touring in Europe all summer, finding a spot in their schedule for the SARS concert was an issue. One show was postponed to allow the band to perform in Toronto. It was one of many hurdles to jump for the organizers.

Mills: “Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement and Ontario Premier Ernie Eves got onside. The city came onside in seconds. But Prime Minister [Jean] Chrétien told us that there’s no way he was going to let us do this thing unless we got Toronto’s police chief onside. I called Julian Fantino and met him at 7:30 in the morning. He said he’d just been in Rome, where he saw Paul McCartney perform in front of a half a million people. There was no problem. I wrote a letter indicating the chief of police’s support and sent it to the Prime Minister.

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Concertgoers line up outside the portable toilets at Downsview Park on July 30, 2003. The concert was the largest in Canadian history.Patti Gower/The Globe and Mail

Other contentious issues included a dispute between the Toronto Transit Commission and its union that complicated the transportation of concertgoers. Also, after complaints that limitations on what music fans could bring with them onto the concert site were too draconian, restrictions were loosened. A return flight for the Stones back to Europe was an issue as well.

Mills: “The Stones needed to be out of Toronto that night. We had to get the Minister of Transport to get a clearance to keep Pearson International Airport open until 2:30 a.m., which is when they left. Also, the Stones specifically required a four-engine plane. We were able to find one to get the job done. These were the little checklist things we had to deal with.”

With the Stones locked in, the concert organizers set about filling the concert bill with a star-studded undercard that included international acts AC/DC, Justin Timberlake, the Flaming Lips and the Isley Brothers, along with Canadian acts the Guess Who, Rush, Sam Roberts, Kathleen Edwards, Sass Jordan, Jeff Healey, La Chicane, host Dan Aykroyd and, belatedly, Blue Rodeo.

Jim Cuddy (of Blue Rodeo): “We didn’t get an invite right away. We were a little offended. Maybe we weren’t asked initially because we would be playing Stanley Park in Vancouver the night before. But we knew we could make it by taking the red eye. Turns out we got a police escort out of Stanley Park. We were in rickshaws being pulled through the crowd, with police jogging beside us.”

Alex Lifeson (Rush guitarist): “Our manager Ray Danniels was approached by the concert organizers. It was going to be a big moment for Toronto, and because Rush was from Toronto it was felt important for us to be there. Our initial response was, ‘It’s summer, we’re off, we’re hanging out with our families. Do we really want to gear up for one gig?' There was a lot of logistical stuff to get though. But the closer we got to it, when we realized the enormity of the gig and what it represented, we were totally into it.”

Tickets cost $21.50 plus service fees. A&P and Dominion grocery stores bought 240,000 tickets to sell at 150 supermarkets across Ontario. All performers were paid, but one dollar from each ticket, plus any net proceeds from the event, were to go to two funds set up to help those affected by SARS.

Cohl: “The Stones had played Toronto three times in 2002. I’m always nervous. Could we really sell any tickets for this concert? So, we had a pool on how many tickets we could sell the first morning. I guessed 175,000. I won, because we sold a record 150,000 tickets.”

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Toronto Police officers walk amongst the crowd. Emergency crews treated around 3,000 attendees for various minor ailments.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Right up until the concert itself, organizers were dealing with last-minute concerns and fears.

Mills: “A sound check needed to be done the day before the concert. The Bombardier people at Downsview weren’t co-operating with us. I called Bombardier’s president and CEO Paul Tellier. I said, ‘Paul, you can’t do this to us, man. You have to tell your guys to park those planes for two days.' To Paul’s credit, he made that happen within minutes.”

Cohl: “We were staying at the Four Seasons in Yorkville. The morning of the concert I woke up in a morbid state of mind. The dream I had had was ‘Kids die at SARSstock event.’ I sat in my bed, hoping we weren’t going to hurt anyone. Nothing specific, but it was a worry.”

The first act to perform was Montreal rocker Sam Roberts who, with his band, raced through a set that began at 1 p.m. “I think we have time for one more song,” Roberts said, right before he was rushed off the stage.

Sam Roberts: “We spent the time between accepting the gig and actually playing in a state of abject terror. In hindsight, I can say that whatever trepidation that comes with one of these moments evaporates as soon as you get onstage. That being said, we had 15 minutes to play and we were done in about nine and a half. We played so fast. It was over before we knew it.”

Two hours later, Roberts was back on stage, this time with Oklahoma progressive-pop outfit the Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne, the band’s leader, recruited musicians and friends backstage to wear furry animal costumes.

Roberts: “I can’t remember if I was a mouse or a rabbit. But I was onstage with the Flaming Lips with my wife, Jen, right next to me. Donning that rodent costume seemed like a really good idea at the time. Then we got up onstage and started dancing around. It was extremely hot. But once you’re on that stage, you had to ride it out.”

SARSstock was Canada’s largest-ever rock concert. The immensity of it all was something most of the musicians had never experienced before, and may never again.

Cuddy: “I remember standing onstage and thinking that we only had three songs. I told myself, ‘Just slow your breath down and take this in, because this will never happen again.' You couldn’t distinguish any land beyond the people. You couldn’t play to that, but you could at least open your eyes to it. I could do that when Greg [Keelor] was singing.”

An aircraft hangar behind the stage housed a catering area and dressing rooms for the performers. The vibe was casual and communal. A member of the Guess Who gave Justin Timberlake a CD of a song he’d written especially for the newly solo performer.

Randy Bachman: “He said ‘Thanks, man.’ Then his bodyguard said, ‘Get out of here, who are you?’”

More than 3,000 people were treated by doctors and paramedics at the concert, nothing too serious.

Roberts: “They had a triage tent. I was asked to go visit the walking wounded after we played. It was mid-summer, with 500,000 people packed together like sardines in a can, drinking in the hot sun. Being in the medical tent, it felt more like a war zone than a rock ‘n’ roll concert. It was a fully functioning hospital, full of dehydrated party-goers.”

Most if not all the performers were thrilled to share a festival with the Rolling Stones. When it came to a Canadian drummer, the appreciation was mutual.

Alex Lifeson (Rush guitarist): We were just about to to go onstage, in the wings, when a funny little old man came up to our drummer, Neil Peart, and pointed to him with his finger. Neil, as always, was so focused on the show. He wasn’t up for any conversation. But this guy kept talking, and Neil finally realized it was [Stones drummer] Charlie Watts. Neil took out his in-ear monitor and apologized to Charlie. I remember Charlie telling Neil, in his English accent, ‘I’m going to be watching you tonight. I’m going to be watching you!' There was a platform near the stage where Charlie watched Neil most of our set. It was so weird.”

A young Justin Timberlake took the stage at 5:30 p.m. He was pelted with water bottles by unruly fans. “I think you’re here for the same reason I’m here,” the singer told the crowd, referring to the Rolling Stones. Most were, but many people left after a strong penultimate set by AC/DC, the Australian riff-rockers who played a dozen songs, three with “hell” in the title.

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Justin Timberlake performs at SARSstock on July 30, 2003.The Canadian Press

Mills: Peter Mansbridge asked me to go up in a tower for an interview near the end of the event. Right after AC/DC a number of people began leaving the park. Because of that, by the time the Stones were finished it took less than an hour and a half to empty the park. We had been worried that by the end of the event there would be 500,000 people jamming the streets and jamming the subway, which would cause real chaos.”

The Rolling Stones played 16 songs, including Miss You, with a returning Timberlake. When the crowd booed the singer, guitarist Richards stepped in to wag his finger, admonishing the rudeness. The 90-minute set finished at 11:45 p.m.

Cohl:It was a marvellous day. The key moment was having Mick standing onstage in front of hundreds of thousands of people, on television, on CNN, saying, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Hey, we’re in Toronto, Toronto’s open for business, everything is great.' That was the mission statement of the whole thing. He said it, and that happened.”

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