Thursday, April 14, 2016

What the Hell?

Note: I wrote this to read on stage at the Short Attention Span Storytelling Hour - an event organized by the Writers of Central Florida or Thereabouts. I started writing about drugs, and, somehow, it turned into my life story. This is the third installment of my unplanned memoir. 

What the hell?

When I booked my first live music event, and joined the world of rock concert promoters, I had no idea that would be among my most useful and frequently-uttered phrases for the next several years.

That simple sentence could stand by itself... What the hell? Or, when someone did something stupid, irresponsible or downright dangerous, I could make it more expressive by adding different endings to it, like... are you doing?... were you thinking?... or... is wrong with you?

For special occasions, I would use the more definitive version... What in the fucking hell? To which I could also add the previously mentioned endings.

I had always been a music lover and an avid concert-goer, but I never intended to get into concert promotion. After graduating from college in Gainesville, I had done several media and advertising-related jobs, and was kind of enjoying myself working as s sports writer.

By then, I was married, and feeling pressure to find a stable job with a solid income. I had set my sights on the best advertising sales position in the market - one of the University of Florida's commercial radio stations, ROCK 104.

Two things happened. A friend of mine who worked at ROCK 104 resigned. That was my opening. Then, shortly after I was hired, an important local advertiser called. His name was Andy Shaara. He owned the world famous Purple Porpoise, a large party complex right across from campus. He had a music venue called the Blowhole, and he wanted to work with the radio station to do more live events. Partly because I knew a few things about music, and partly because I knew Andy, the assignment fell to me.

And it changed my life.

I was introduced to Hound Dog, the house sound guy in the Blowhole. Andy urged me to hire him for my shows. Hound Dog was an old Southern rock veteran with a scraggly exterior and a heart of gold.

He had simple and direct ways of making a point, and he taught me many of the things I would need to know... about the equipment, the lingo, and the nature of the people we'd be working with.

Once, he asked me, "Do you know how you can tell when the drum riser is level?"

I had no idea.

He said, "If the drummer's drooling out of both sides of his mouth."

He became an important part of our operation.

Hound Dog being Hound Dog.

ROCK 104 couldn't really promote their own shows. The university affiliation made the paperwork process cumbersome. So it dawned on me that I could start my own company - Rock Solid Promotions - and promote shows myself. The radio station would provide cheap or free advertising in return for being able to attach their name to the show, and give away a certain amount of tickets and perks to listeners, but I would take the financial risk.

And there is some serious risk in concert promotion.

Established, national bands get a guaranteed payout, whether you sell two tickets or two thousand. I had to choose bands that people would pay to see, negotiate a reasonable guarantee, provide the necessary equipment and staff, and do a good enough job getting the word out so people would actually buy tickets and show up. And that doesn't even factor in the liability for bodily injury...

Despite the risk, it was a cool opportunity. This was my chance to treat every band with respect, provide a professional environment for them to showcase their talents, and, hopefully, have a few bucks left over for my efforts.

But I soon learned that every show was like walking through a minefield. The bigger the show, the bigger the mines. At any given moment, a thousand things could go wrong.

There were lights, smoke generators, equipment trusses and pieces of staging that could crumble without warning. And various electronic items that would simply cease to work for no discernible reason. Microphones broke, cables short-circuited, speakers blew, and buzzing mysteriously appeared in the PA.

The first time we had a national band, they drove the sound system so hard the amplifiers overheated, and the PA cut out in the middle of their set. Twice. I spent most of the show in desperation off to the side of the stage holding a fan over the amps in an effort to keep them functioning. The next day, we got new ones.

We survived that, and dozens of other incidents. We did many smaller shows with local and regional bands while we learned to work together and anticipate problems. We developed a reputation for running a tight ship. The rock music business is a relatively small fraternity, and word got out. Bands liked playing our shows. So the shows got bigger. And better. I stopped calling booking agents. They started calling me.

Me. Monster limo.

If you're a fan of nu-rock, you'll recognize some of the names... Breaking Benjamin, Hoobastank, Nickelback, Days of the New, Fuel, Filter, Chevelle, Three Doors Down, Saliva, Sevendust...

But it's impossible to dive deeply into that world without suffering from it somehow. Hunter Thompson is widely quoted as saying, "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

I was sure I would never become one of the people I despised. I would be honest. I would stay committed to the music, and not the money.

It wasn't musicians that sucked the life out of me, at least not at first. It was the handlers, managers, agents and lawyers. But they got sour from dealing with shady promoters and venues. Everyone trying to make a quick buck off everyone else.

Normally, band performance contracts stipulate a certain percentage split in the profits after a promoter reaches the break-even point on a show. I didn't like doing math at the end of the night, so I built in a flat bonus. Sell "x" number of tickets, get an extra five hundred or thousand bucks, or whatever it was.

One night, after a successful show, the tour manager for the headlining band approached me, and I could tell from his body language he was ready for a confrontation. He asked if they were getting their bonus. He must have assumed I would pad my expenses, misreport ticket sales or come up with some other bullshit excuse for not paying.

But I said, "Absolutely! It was a great night, great crowd, and your guys were awesome. Let me finish cashing out the openers, and I'll bring you your money and we'll have a beer."

And he almost fell down. His demeanor changed immediately. But that's how it usually was... Everyone expected the worst, right up until the moment that it didn't happen.

Tour managers were part of the problem. It's their job to advocate for their band, make sure they're fed and lubed, and that they look and sound as good as they can. Many of them thought that meant complaining about everything the minute they showed up for load-in... lights, amps, PA, monitors, mixing console, and even the brand of bottled water in the dressing room...

What the hell?

Hound Dog helped to keep people in their place. I recall a soundcheck for a band of young hotshots when the singer kept getting feedback in his monitors. I was with Hound Dog behind the front of house mixing console, watching him calmly drag from a cigarette and sip from a bottle of Budweiser while the singer continued to make a common mistake. He just wanted to be loud, so he was gripping the mic with both hands and cramming it into his face to get it as close to his mouth as he could.

After starting and stopping several times, the singer was frustrated.

Hound Dog leaned forward to flip the talk-back switch, "Want my advice?"

The kid shrugged and then nodded.

"Stop holding the microphone like you're sucking a cock."

Good old Hound Dog...

I was never a celebrity worshipper, and that worked in my favor when dealing with some pretty well-known people. I treated them like human beings. They weren't used to that. Sometimes, we'd just sit around and chat after load-in and soundcheck was done, before the crowd arrived.

One band was ecstatic when I drove them to Starbucks for coffee. They were grateful just to be someplace other than the back of their tour bus or the bowels of a venue that smelled like stale beer and dried vomit.

Usually, the guys would relax and open up a bit. Carl Bell from Fuel told me his favorite musician joke.

"What does a stripper do with her asshole before she goes to work? Drops him off at band practice."

Heavy drinking was part of the culture. We worked while we were standing around drinking, the same way bankers cut deals on the golf course, I guess. We discussed ideas, and hammered out details. That's how business got done.

I don't think my wife ever really believed that. Somewhere during this period, she became... my ex-wife.

Ric Trapp (L) in control. I'm (R) supervising. Or staring off into space, apparently.
Eventually, things got ridiculous.

After I decided to get into artist management, several record labels were interested in one of our bands, so their A&R people all wanted to talk to me.

And there was one festival where every conversation started with someone grabbing my arm, pulling me away, saying, "Let me buy you a drink."

In my backstage wanderings, I vaguely recall meeting Kyle Cook from Matchbox 20, Brent Smith from Shinedown, and studio guy Russ T Cobb, who produced Avril Lavigne's first record, among other things. But, by this time, I was having a hard time speaking. I wasn't out of control. But it wasn't good.

And then there was the time I got in a Jagermeister drinking contest with guys from Saliva and Sevendust. Frequently, when I tell people that, they want to know who won. I can assure you... nobody wins a Jagermeister drinking contest.

Because of my advertising background, I involved sponsors in all my shows, usually beers and liquors. I hung out with a guy who was a tour liaison for Jagermeister. As far as I could tell, his key function was delivering bottles of Jager to the tour buses after the show.

We went on one bus, and the band guys were sitting around the table. On top of the table was a naked woman on her hands and knees. And the guys were, rather casually, taking turns using drumsticks to penetrate certain entrances to her body. Although I think you could argue that one of them was more of an exit.

Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, but I was pretty uncomfortable. They invited us to stay, but, fortunately, we had more Jager to deliver.

When we stepped off the bus, all I could say was, "Dude, what the hell?"

My friend just laughed, and said, "It's rock and roll, Brian. You should know that by now."

It wasn't ALL bad.

Rock and roll certainly has a dark side, and, for me, it kind of had a cumulative effect.

I watched the beginning of one show from the wings of the stage, and wondered why a roadie was standing behind the speaker stack with a garbage bag. And then, about two songs in, the lead singer walked back behind the stack and puked in the bag. Someone told me, when you snort heroin, vomiting is a common side effect. This was routine.

Heroin was one drug I never tried. I was afraid I would like it.

Once, before a show, I watched Travis Meeks from Days of the New wander off into the crowd to beg for tranquilizers.

"Dude, got any tranquilizers? No? Hi sweetheart, got any tranquilizers? Hey man, got any tranquilizers?"

I guess he'd run out.

I spent an afternoon driving around with Richie Patrick from Filter. They'd had the previous day off, and he spent it alone in his hotel room. I didn't see him consume anything, but, when I picked him up, he was not well. Mostly, he just seemed... sad. And lonely.

A week later he checked into rehab.

I mention those two by name because their troubles are well-documented.

ROCK 104 crew with Sevendust. I'm in the yellow hat.

For years, I'd been enamored with music, and fascinated by the people who made it, and I had finally broken into this world that seemed so glamorous and exciting, and it really... wasn't. It made you realize your childhood fantasies were... just that. It was like finding out Peter Pan died of old age.

It was bad enough watching people damage themselves in the name of music, but, as I got further up the ladder, it changed me.

I was co-managing a band with a good friend, and record labels loved them. They were kind of an updated version of Alice in Chains with a touch of Linkin Park. They were going to be huge. We had a Friday dinner with our lawyer and the VP for A&R from the label we chose, who happened to be a good friend. It was the best possible scenario for a baby band. And a half-million dollar advance upon signing, which meant a fifty thousand dollar payday for me.

And the band chose that weekend to tell me the drummer and the guitar playing weren't getting along.

What in the fucking hell?

The guitar player wrote all the melodies. The drummer just drummed. So it was very clear in my mind. The drummer's gotta go, right? Shitcan the old one, bring in a new one, and we're good.

I went to Europe for three weeks, determined not to think about it, and anxious to quell the urge to murder the little bastard drummer.

When I got back, my business partner had a whole string of messages from the band, talking about their history and their commitment to each other, and all this crap. We wouldn't have to fire one of the guys. They were breaking up.

And I realized, I had given no thought to the human side of it. I hadn't cared about witnessing the painful unraveling of long friendships. It didn't dawn on me that the stress they felt must have been as great as the stress on us. Probably more...

I wanted to manage a famous band. I wanted... the paycheck. And I realized my passion for music and musicians had been replaced by a lust for money and prestige.

I had become... one of the people I despised.

As I thought about it, I decided, there and then, I was done.

We had a little independent A&R operation during the year or so that it took me to disengage, and for the phone calls and the e-mails to stop.

Matt Adams (L) kicking back in a limo.

In retrospect, I liked the responsibility, calling the shots, and being the one everyone looked to when things started going wrong. When a show was really cranking, we would look at each other across the room... me and Hound Dog... and my production manager Matt Adams... and there was a strong sense of satisfaction.

Hound Dog liked nothing more than making bands sound good and making people happy with music.

Cancer killed him last year.

I left with lots of good memories, and many other moments I've probably forgotten. Over the years, I've turned down every offer to get back into it. It's a profession that doesn't reward ethical behavior, so it's not for me.

And I don't miss it.

If I may use the words of Grace Slick when describing her career, "It was kind of like high school. It was fun, but I wouldn't want to do it again."

Actually, there is one thing I miss... ten years of never having to pay to go to a concert. Have you seen the ticket prices these days?

What the hell?