<backstage BLUES>

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide


Backstage Blues

by Larry Stark

"What's this joker doing back here?"

The beefy, suspicious, harried road-manager wouldn't even dignify me with a direct question. His glare eyed me with suspicion and contempt. A busy lieutenant explained that I'd been sent over by the local newspaper to shoot some arty backstage photos to accompany a review. I quickly assured him I had no intention of getting in the way.

"See that you don't," he warned. Then he began spraying orders and criticisms in every direction, now and again warning me to watch out for electrical wires, or men shifting lights, microphones, and pieces of stage-set. It wasn't until I quietly explained that a few tokes of home-grown usually sharpened my picture-sense that he shared a couple of hits, and began to melt.

His crew were the second unit, he explained, the smaller unit, the one that had equipment to fit small auditoriums. "We only get the hick towns," he said, without even noticing the slur. That meant they got the rickety stage-braces and finicky control- boards, and had to re-splice the amps two or three times before they'd work. The first unit had stayed to tear-down in Milwaukee, and would truck on and set up in Minneapolis for tomorrow's concert. When this second unit tore down, they'd truck on to some suburban metropolis, and fight the fight with entropy one more time to get a decent sound out to all the eager hicks in hicktown. The second unit, to hear him tell it, were the last true heroes in this Age of Lead.

The home-grown actually Did sharpen up my picture sense. I had wandered away into crazy lighting angles and arty compositions by the time the warm-up group arrived. They began demanding rehearsal time and level-checks and extra mike-jacks and help with their set-up. They were five black guys from a neighboring city, and the road manager treated their concern about how they would sound much the way Bull Connor did Martin Luther King, Jr.

There wasn't just one warm-up act. Instead, the stars used local talent wherever they went. The local talent bowed and scraped for the chance to front a major recording group. Since it would be their one night to shine, if only in reflected glory, they were very nervous about every little detail. The road manager thought of them as so many anonymous Christians to act as hors-d'oeuvres for the roaring audience. The fact that black caviar instead of white creme-cheese topped the crackers didn't help matters.

Finally the bus pulled up, and the five stars in the group staggered in, some carrying their axes, all of them stiff and cranky from a day and a half of driving since the last gig. The warm-up guys had to make their own introductions, and tried to shoot in a little admiring small-talk, but the five featured performers had little attention left for them. They checked all the levels the poor black dudes had carefully set, and querulously bitched and demanded them reset, and right this time damn it. Three horsey groupies in punk bobs and miniskirts giggled around and got in the way, before the road manager shouted into an open mike that they had better haul their fat asses out of his way until after the performance or he'd unlimber the cattle-prod they so richly deserved.

The group looked burned and blurred, with wrinkles around knees and eyes and elbows from their long bus-ride. They called nasty personal jokes at each other, bitching about everything, and a loud argument seemed to erupt every few minutes. Finally the house manager insisted they all vacate his damn stage so their adoring and more to the point paying public could come in. The group then yelped that they hadn't even eaten yet, and the skinniest of the groupies led them off to a near-by watering hole.

I asked if I could tag along, but the road manager told me the group was going to have to make nice-nice with my paper's part-time rock critic, and they would rather not have to smile pretty while they did it.

So I ate up another roll of film on dramatically lit banks of dials and casually discarded instruments. Then I traded some of my home-grown to their sound engineer for a bit of his prime Jamaican. He was an amateur photographer. He said he had six carefully nurtured plants in the back of the bus, but three of them were dying for lack of sun. We talked cameras and horticulture for half an hour, until the warm-up started.

There had been no announcements in any of the advertising, because the black group was signed so late. The crowd had expected the main attraction and no one else. The blacks were tight, imaginative, original, and good. But they were Not what everybody had come to hear. The crowd was unruly, impatient, and very vocal in their displeasure -- which only made the black guys nervous and defensive.

Between their third and fourth numbers, while the lead vocalist was thanking them for being "such an appreciative audience," fielding jeers and catcalls while he hoped anyone who grooved on it would clap along with this next old favorite, the stars of the evening limped back into the cramped green-room backstage, burping, picking their teeth, and complaining about the awful food.

They sat around, slumped and empty, silently digesting. Then their keyboard artist downed three dexamil with a can of warm coke, and began energetically banging on a silent practice- keyboard that apparently went everywhere with him. The lead guitarist lit up a joint and passed it to the nearly inert drummer beside him. "Shouldn't you time the rush for when we get on stage?" he asked the energetic keyboardist. "We don't want you nodding out in the middle of the first set again."

"I'll pop a few more when we go out," he replied, without missing a chord. But he glared over at the guitarist and began mumbling a long litany of which the repeated phrase "green nostril-teeth" was all I could make out.

The drummer and the backup guitar nodded silently to one another and disappeared into the john, only to emerge a few moments later smiling and sniffing and wiping their eyes. "Got to do something to keep the edge honed," the drummer mumbled, as his eyes met mine.

I asked if I could take a couple of pictures, and suddenly I had four of them shoving and mugging like some high school punks. The backup insisted I get a shot of him mooning his own reflection in the wall mirror, while the others giggled and cheered each other on.

Suddenly the leader of the group, whose solo bass, vocals, and original songs were the reasons for their success, stood up and headed for the door. "I'd like to hear the spooks," he said when someone asked where he was going.

"He's just hoping they've got a song he can steal," the backup jeered. I wasted another half-roll on their juvenile mugging, then on impulse I followed the bassist out backstage.

I caught a magnificent silhouette shot of him listening, with the black lead singer framed in the hazy distance. I knew as the shutter snickered that it was the best shot I'd get all night. I also knew the camera was already out of film.

At the sound of the shutter he turned, and smiled. "This group's good," he said, over their blare, and shook out a filter- tip and lit it, ignoring the glare from the stage-manager over by the light board. An unruly claque up in the balcony began stomping a noisy chant of "We Want The Stars(thump)We Want The Stars!"

"I wish those dirt-balls would shut up and listen," he said. "I've got to remember to tell them to send me a demo-tape. I could maybe use some of them guys."

We listened for a moment to a guitar solo that had even the claque quiet and listening, and which drew a scatter of applause.

"This group's dead," he said suddenly, not looking at me. "We'll probably disband when we get to New York, if we don't kill each other before that. We've done twenty concerts in thirty days, starting out in Seattle, and we're facing the big one in The Apple after ten more in two weeks. We'll be lucky if we can even stand up and lip-sync by then."

I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything.

"When our second album took off, Miller said we had to have another, fast. We already had splinters under our fingernails from scraping the barrel, but there we were sitting in the studio staring at each other. Three of those numbers weren't even our own, but the credits on the jacket-back are very small." He held thumb and finger up to his squinting eye. "Tee'y ty'ie!" he squeaked. "We slapped it together and apologized to all our friends, and its making a mint right now."

"We Want The Stars(thump)Bring On The Stars(thump)."

He pointed out toward the chanting blackness, out beyon the stage. "You can live with that," he said. "What scares you isn't doing what you know is a brilliant job, and getting that from a mess of yahoo dirt-balls. No, what scares the shit out of you is your first undeserved success. After that you Know there's no relationship between how well you do and what you get for it. Just listen to our adoring public! We could send out five windup-toys mouthing our hit single in our clothes, and they'd cheer for a week. They already Know the experience they're going to have tonight -- and it sure as hell isn't listening to a hot bunch of dinges play a mess of good music at them. You can tell you're going over when the dirt-balls cheer you just for walking out on the stage. After that, you could puke in your guitar and they'd love it."

The green-room door opened and the rest of the group straggled out to find their instruments. As the lead guitarist brushed past him, the bassist pointed at the black soloist, who again had the crowd quieted down to hear him. "That black bastard's good."

"Sounds like you did in the old days, doesn't he?" the lead replied, coldly plucking the strings of his unplugged guitar.

"Okay, guys," said the sound engineer, as the warm-up group finished strong and got a relieved hand with the "We Want" chant still thumping as an overtone, "try to remember the damned sequence this time? I hate to have to re-fiddle all the settings in the middle of the first chorus all the time."

"Say, give me a hit or two off that reefer, will you pal?" the bassist asked. "I've got to look sharp for the field-hands."

He took a toke and held it. "Not that it works much any more," he said, letting it out. "I have this dream all the time -- that someone hands me the ultimate high, and I take it, and instead of getting off I'm very calmly sitting there and, very clearly, seeing everything Exactly As It Is. It's like a fist in the gut. Then, I'm on this huge high bridge, little tiny me way high up, like on Golden Gate or sometimes a flimsy wooden thing out of some Japanese print. And I'm scared. I wake up scared shitless. I'm terrified of heights. Always have been. Always."

I took a hit from the returned joint. "So am I," I admitted. "But that's natural. Fear of falling off heights is probably inborn. It's self-preservation."

"That's bullshit," he said, looking me right in the eye. "Don't bullshit yourself. I'm not afraid I'll fall off something, damn it. I'm afraid I'll jump."

"Okay, five minutes to let them all piss and out we go," the sound engineer called. "And remember, boys: Young America Likes To Dance!"

I wished everyone a broken leg and, winding fresh film into the camera, I elbowed my way out into the noisy auditorium to try a few shots of the stage.

When the group finally strolled out, the enthusiastic audience let out a roar, and then kept up a standing ovation for four minutes while they tuned, quieting and sitting down only as the lights dimmed. As each familiar hit from past albums rolled by, the audience squealed and cheered after the first few notes identified the tunes. The group looked bored and sounded mechanical, playing like the tired, drugged-out travellers they were. Then, for his final solo, the bassist suddenly lurched forward and came to the very edge of the high stage. He stood there, rock-still in a single spotlight, and played his solo staring down, down into the deep blackness of the orchestra-pit, his toes just over the edge of emptiness. He played very slightly off-key, and at his last cord the crowd went wild.

After the bows, and one quick encore, the group came straight off the stage and into their bus, and sped off to catch the first unit in Minneapolis. As I was swept out of the auditorium by the crowd, I ran into the paper's part-time rock critic. He was flushed, and breathing deeply, and brushing tears from his eyes.

"Jesus God" he shouted to me. "Weren't they magnificent?"


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THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide