Well, I’m hurtling through the pages with thousands of words pouring out of me every day starting at 7am when I hit the keyboard with my parrot behind me chirping away and the stereo tuned to a new act each day. This week it was Drive By Truckers one day, Joe Ely the next, a blow of Tower of Power the third and a toot of Maceo Parker the fourth. Follow that with a festival of Funkadelic, a bump of James Brown and a heavy day of Leslie West and Mountain. Pretty eclectic for the soundtrack to the writing below but here are 4000 words of concert anecdotes to make up for my not posting anything last week. And for those wondering if I’ve lost my mind or harmed my health in doing this, NO! Up at 5 am, an hour Nordic Walking to up heart rate to 120 BPM, in bed with the bird by 7pm for a solid eight hours sleep after an hour’s HBO binge. Chemically the doc says my blood test is stellar, blood pressure comfortably low, perfect sun-shiny days though I’m dressed in top to toe tracky dacks when hitting the beach, jetty and foreshores for the Dawn Patrol. Couldn’t be happier and healthier than right now though I am a bit sad that Paul Cashmere lost his wife Ros to cancer this week. But I was gladdened by my ex staffer and PA Anita Zagami coming down to Coffs with a bottle of rose champagne and a big appetite for poke, red capsicum soup, sous vide salmon and cajun cole slaw. Aside from being a crack trapeze artists, she also holds the Guinness Book of World Records claim for the most number of Bikram Hot Yoga Sessions in a year!
But here we go into a series of snatches…
Georgia Tech Coliseum was an oddity of a venue as it was a basketball court in a totally round building with only the roof sticking out of the ground like a UFO right next to I 75/85. It was a bastard of a load in, a bitch of a stage build, hard to secure right round the stage and there was always an electrical problem in the 8000 seat hall. But until The Omni was built, it was the largest room in Atlanta making it a general admission rather than reserved seat building, uncomfortable and prone to having fights start in a flash which was hard for the police to get to quickly.
Taurus had a three act bill on May 25, 1974 which I was in charge of all production logistics and due to the headliner, Earth, Wind and Fire in their early days, it was gear heavy on stage. The Chambers Brothers (Time Has Come Today was their 11-minute 1968 hit in the blues/psychedelic sound of their heyday) were to play before them but they had broken up in late 1972 and were back on the road as a black R&B act now. And to open up the show, they had some unknown (to me) guy named Richard Pryor. I’d made the fatal mistake of asking him for his band’s stage layout thinking he was a crooner rather than a comic. He laughed and gave me a hug and I could immediately see he was on something highly stimulating, which he later offered to share after we did a quick sound check on him after everyone else was done.
He was a funny guy, needless to say, but he had recently been shafted by his first record company, Laff after two nowhere albums, and moved to Stax, which closed just after his third (This Nigger’s Crazy” was released. He’d made an impact in the movie Lady Sings The Blues just before he started on this tour as the opening act and was just about to get mass exposure in Blazing Saddles. But at Tech, he was just a lonely figure on the bleachers waiting for his sound check just before the doors opened. And funny enough, even though his deeply blue humour was racial in its profanity, he had appealed more to white listeners of comedy than to his impending emergence to black crowds.
He was pinging off the walls like a pinball in the machine but when we opened the doors and the ‘festival seating’ audience rushed into the front bleachers, he assumed an air of calm and zen. Since there was no gear to move before his act, I decided to watch this quirky comic for his 30 minute set which was uproarious. I was side stage as the only noticeable white person in the venue with a couple of Atlanta’s finest black cops in case anyone decided to breach the barricades, which sure enough happened near the end. A huge, dazed gentleman managed to get onto the stage on the other side from Richard and held out his arms screaming, “I am the One!” Richard saw a line in this replying, “Yeah, you da One Man. You are the craziest drugfucked muthafucka in the house tonight!” The Hulk was loaded on PCP (an animal tranquilizer) and stumbled toward Richard who was frozen for a moment. I got between the two of them with Richard 20 feet behind me and with one fell swoop, the gentleman shoved me in the chest, knocking me back ten feet. The cops had come out from behind some amps and the Hulk was moving towards me again yelling “I am The One!”. The house fell dead silent and I knew that if I took one step towards him or hit him, a riot would probably break out. I stepped to the side as the two cops tried to restrain him and three more came up on the stage as I retrieved Richard and moved him behind some gear. The police managed to tackle him, take him off quickly and lock him away. Richard resumed the show and I nursed my sore chest as The Chambers Brothers lined up on the floor below to take the stage without a real intermission to keep the crowd distracted.
There was a second punch up on stage a year later when the act New Birth played a show in Virginia. It was a tight bill so timing was critical with heavy fines for going into overtime and Q hated to pay a penalty. The band was from Detroit hence the Q connection and they had a string of hits but were starting to decline despite producer Harvey Fuqua taking them on and also discovering disco star Sylvester and The Weather Girls. But behind the scenes the band was rumoured to have Mafia management and I was warned to be careful. Their manager or road manager was a tough, swaggering brother who was far too insistent for special privileges for the band in terms of dressing room, hospitality and set time. But I could see he was strapped with a pistol so I gave him a wide berth as I usually was unarmed within the venue during showtime.
I reminded him that we had to run on time due to building rules and he’d get the most stage time if his band, in the third position from headlining, had a great sound check and was fast coming on stage for their set. Needless to say, sound check was sloppy and the band kept the audience waiting 15 minutes beyond their set start time wanting to build up anticipation. I warned him that we had to end at 9:15 come hell or high water and he responded with abuse and threats. The set started with a lurch and went downhill from there. I signalled him from side stage as well as the band with two hands held up as a ten minute warning, then a one hand five minute signal to which he shot me a middle finger At the end of set time I held the power cable to the stage electrics up and signalled with one finger, not the middle one, that I’d cut them off. They’d barely rushed the song to finish when the lead singer started to call the audience for an encore. At that point, I pulled the plug, the sound went off and into a tape and the lights went up for set change since the crew was watching the incident happening.
At that point I walked on stage with four other stagehands to move the equipment off, replace the mikes to the next band’s speaker cabinets or direct inputs and do a fast changeover. I had just lifted a heavy Ampeg SVT amp head off the double speaker stack for the bass player when I saw the road manager coming towards me. Without a warning and with my hands clearly occupied with the weight of the amp, he slugged me in the side of the head and I barely remained balanced and standing. Once again, the room silenced with that sharp inhalation of breath from the crowd waiting for me to make the fatal mistake of responding with fists. He was overwrought, cursed me furiously and said he was going to kill me after the show; that I was dead. I motioned with my bleeding head to two cops on side stage to come get him and he was promptly arrested. He was taken off to jail still yelling and despite Q’s warning to the contrary I pressed charges of assault and battery.
A few days later, I got a chilling call at home by someone telling me if I didn’t drop charges against this shady character, I’d not be around to be at the trial. I told him I’d warned the guy about unplugging and it was his decision to rush across the stage and hit me while I was defenceless. That’s when I told the voice on the other end that I’d recorded the call and if anything were to happen to me, we had the venue audio tape of the incident, his yelling and death threats. And now this call which could be voiceprinted. The phone clicked off ominously. I never heard from them, a guilty plea was entered and I didn’t have to go back and testify.
Al Green was a wild performer with an exquisite voice, stellar delivery and a songbook of hits. He was always thinking up new ways of hitting the stage in a dynamic way and one night, he must have seen Screaming Jay Hawkins perform his classic “I Put A Spell on You” because he decided to ask for a funeral casket be delivered to the stage. Hawkins was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s original madmen like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and came out of a casket onstage after some encouragement and a little financial incentive from DJ Alan Freed. He often dressed as a vampire and had a skeleton suit as well as wearing a turban with a bone through his nose.
However, Al was not as bizarre and merely wanted the casket on stage, closed, with him laying in it, then tilted up vertically and him walking out. It didn’t quite go as planned though we were able to get a simple casket, probably used, on loan from a local funeral home. A hearse delivered it to the backstage loading area where we carted it empty onto centre stage and draped it with a large piece of fabric over the edges of the hinged top. When it was time for the show to begin, we brought the lights down, lifted the drape, let Al clamber into the casket and lay down horizontally and then tip the casket at a 45-degree angle onto some road cases, replacing the drape over the box. All was dark and no one saw him enter and when the sole spotlight came up it was eerily on this casket.
As two roadies tilted the casket upright to open the top, they hadn’t thought that the lip of the top might snag, which it did and it had to be tilted back slightly to open. This put Al off balance within and with casket top opening, he lurched blindly onto the spotlit stage, tripping over the drape and falling forward with arms wildly spinning only to be caught by the two roadies holding the casket which fell back with a thud. The audience gasped in unison and then applauded as Al recovered with two hands in the air starting the show.
Fog machines were our worst enemy on the stage rider. Consisting of a 50 gallon barrel on wheels with a super heater inside, half filled with near boiling water, a metal basket inside was filled with dry ice, the drum was closed and sealed with a hoop over the top and at the signal, the basket was dumped into the water releasing a cloud of high pressure fog which was unpredictable. If we used pelleted dry ice, the surface area magnified by the heated water was often enough to blow the lid off leading to fog backstage behind the curtains but little being carried by thick hoses to the front of stage. If the water was not warm enough due to not heating enough, another fizzle was guaranteed again. And if we got a delivery of dry ice blocks rather than pelleted, we had to spend too long pounding it to break it up before the show, often having our hands get frostbitten due to exposure.
Then they introduced ‘smoke’ machines that didn’t use dry ice or water, just an oil base hitting a high temperature heating element that emitted a somewhat acrid low lying smoke mist across the stage. Problem was that if you used it often, you would eventually get an oily film across your gear which was not easy to remove and could conceivably affect the internal electronics if the coating became to thick or conductive.
But done right the effect was spectacular, especially with coloured lights or even lasers. In the case of a major Pink Floyd show for Alex Cooley that I worked early in the piece, their fog machines they brought along were 220 volts, far more powerful than a standard 100 volt stage rental unit and so filled the Municipal Auditorium with fog that you could barely see the person next to you. At its peak, lasers were searing with sharp beams through it, the stage pulsed with lights dimming up and down, the sound was quad with four towers in the audience and the fog faded as the band sang “Breathe, Breathe in The Air” and the spaceship of the mind flew off. You could barely see the person next to you due to the density and God help you if you had to take a pee and find the bathroom, much less the aisle.
Pyrotechnics or stage fireworks were always risky at best and the bane of the fire marshalls of smaller buildings or more regional center venues that hadn’t experienced them before. Simply put, a pyro device was a large thick steel can, mortars we called them, that was wired in series with others spread along the stage with an ignition sparking device, loaded with gunpowder and laced with chemical powders that would colour the explosions on ignition. Sodium salts colored the explosion yellow, cobalt made it blue, copper produced a green and strontium for red. The brilliant flash burst was followed by a mushroom cloud of smoke. There were flame columns or flame balls that could be initiated by propane and gels or pastes as well as glitter bombs, confetti shells and handheld devices shooting a ball of fire with flash paper 10 feet away from the musician holding it using a battery and mini projectile gun. Then there were airbursts, sparkler jets, flash fountains, starbursts and concussion boom devices.
Done right it was spectacular but if it went wrong it could be fatal. We always tested the effects hours before the concert showing the fire marshall or venue official that it was safe to operate and presented no danger to the audience.
Control was side stage so we could monitor that the musicians were far away from the flash pods while playing coming up to the explosion, that no road crew were inadvertently near them and that no audience member was foolishly clambering on stage before they went off. I remember one incident with a Kiss concert, which used dozens of varied flash effects strewn around the stage, risers and flown lighting bars where a roadie saw someone mounting the stage lip and running over to him to push him back out of harms way, had the pod explode between his legs, or so it appeared from my perspective. He had actually just run over it and was a few steps away when it went off, luckily saving his manhood for babymaking. I’ve seen a lot of near misses, faulty pods and overloading of explosive powder in my time and always hated when pyro was on the stage plot.
Transient sound bursts can be deadly too. My personal worst sound tragedy was when I was walking across the stage, then onto the risers next to it where the bass bins were laying in formation on their sides. These were powerful woofers and subwoofer speakers in reflex boxes fed by massive output amps and in this case, a transient signal popped through the system due to an electrical fault, immediately powering the speakers down and then instantly on again but with a force that nearly drove the cones out of the drivers. This happened as I was walking between W Boxes and the front scaffolding so the acoustic force of the sound pressure BANG knocked me sideways where the crossbars saved me from a fall onto the concrete in front of and ten feet below the risers. But the worst part was what it did to my hearing. The sheer audio force of the Pop made me think my eardrums had burst. They hadn’t but it took days to recover and I have a permanent tinnitus or ringing in my ears as a result.
I also attribute part of this 40% loss to too much AC/DC, an Australian rock band that I encountered playing supersonic volume for Cooley in his Buckhead theatre club in the mid 70s. I’ve seen them many times since with predictable results. Those concerts, plus an addiction to Bose headphones made me a candidate for hearing aids that were fortunately fully paid for by the excellent Australian social medicine system.
I’ve sometimes wanted to meet myself as a joke. I think some of us would like to be at our own funeral to catch up on the latest goss and hear what our friends REALLY think. The closest I came was a Parliament Funkadelic bill on the infamous Mothership tour that took place at the Atlanta Omni. In order to get through the backstage door before the show you would have had to force your way through what seemed like a pimp’s convention with a few dozen sharply dressed, bejewelled, hatted and often furred gentlemen of the night with their ravenously outfitted female escorts presenting themselves to the somewhat beleaguered house security guys. It was like if you combined the actors from the Blaxploitation films Superfly with Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song and lined them up casually in a throng at the door, jiving every imaginable story line to get in. Quentin and his partner Jimmy Veal could never go back out there from backstage as there were too many of the players who knew them and would be forcing in favours or overwhelming them. Same with their staff in a hometown connection, they’d be besieged by the liggers trying to get the exalted All Areas Access backstage laminate or crack ‘n’ peel self adhesive stage pass sticker.
So it was left for the token white boy to hang at the backstage door with AAA plastic tags on lanyards in one pocket for the true VIPs and a card deck box full of stick-ons in the other for the favoured few to cram side stage and look cool. Their problem was that they didn’t want to adhere the gummy passes to their fine threads and most especially to leather pants or jackets for fashion reasons. It would mess with their look. Also, in the heat backstage, the permanent adhesive satin cloth self adhesive passes would virtually weld themselves to leather or plastic making their removal at the end of the night virtually impossible.
With a walkie-talkie channel between me and the promoter’s office on site, I could check the veracity of pleas voiced to me by wannabe VIPs and either grant their pass or reject them. Pimps, dealers, even cops, politicians, service providers from car wash to laundry… we’d get them all, even guitar sellers looking to score a big sale on a musician. And the musicians, producers, engineers, backup singers, ex roadies… we’d get all every convoluted connection to score their way behind the Velvet Rope. But one stands out to me to this day. Unforgettable!
Even though we had to fly the Mothership to land on stage from rigging up above and have a huge Pimpmobile roll onto stage for the P-Funk show, with pyro, fog and a couple dozen musicians, their crew was so organised and precise that it was a breeze of a load in and by 6pm, the backstage area was a ghost town with the crew being fed in one area in a separate room and the band members just chilling in their dressing rooms consuming the food and booze in the contract rider spread out for them. That’s when the ‘guests’ started to arrive and the guards had to separate the wheat from the chaff.
One of my security detail stepped in from the outside door backstage and said, he had someone I just had to meet. A real VIP so he claimed with a name that sounded familiar to the guard. Out I went with my broadest smile with the guard and listened to the sharkskin suit clad, bespoke shoe shod, behatted and bejewelled gent marinated in cologne beseeching me with the explanation that he was here to see George Clinton, P-Funk’s Maggot Overlord, The Main Man. He pointed to his left wrist which was handcuffed to a briefcase and a mighty fine sleek aluminium Halliburton at that, without a scratch on it. He was at first friendly but quickly evolved into his impatient, accusative ‘white-boy’ dig at holding him up. I asked his name and if he was on the guest list and who had placed him on it. He responded that George had and leaned over to me conspiratorially and whispered, “I got The Shit!” and knocked on the case twice for effect with his silver-tipped cane. “You know, I’m the Connect.” I assumed an apologetic stance and lightly told him I’d be happy to let him in. I just needed his name to check off the list and dangled a lanyard in front of him. “Mannnn! Do you know who you’re talking to? I work with Quentin Perry and I have to get in and see George before the show can even start. I got the shit here! I’m Phil Tripp!”
At this point the guard behind him who had pulled me outside stifled a laugh, nodded his head up and down looking at me and managed to barely say, “I came in to get you since this man is such a VIP and knew you’d like to meet him.” Emboldened by this recognition of his social superiority and exalted identity, the gent upped the ante. “What’s your name white boy? I’m going to tell Q and George how you treated me here, holding me up in the cold with my lady. Lemme see your ID under your jacket!” To which I responded as I reached for the lanyard with my name and photo. “I am so sorry Mr Tripp. I just didn’t know who you were and didn’t mean to be rude. Please forgive me for any perceived lack of respect.” He inflated his already puffed chest and was starting to mutter some other affirmation of his importance when his eyes fell onto my name and photo on the badge. It was like watching a punctured tire deflate and the car roll slowly back down the hill as he meekly slumped from the door. We were laughing our asses off as his girl asked, “What’s the problem darling. Who was that?”