Saturday, January 3, 2009

Nights to Remember

I can't let this day pass without mentioning a time and a place and a group of people that meant a great deal to the direction of my life. Somewhere around the dawn of time (1970), when rock concert tours were starting to be a big deal, a couple of musicians from Dallas discovered that they were actually better at building sound gear than they were at making music come out of it. The demand for their equipment was high enough -- and the interest in their music low enough -- that they decided to start a sound equipment rental company. This was the beginning of SHOWCO, Inc., a sound -- and eventually lighting, staging and special effects -- company that became almost synonymous with the golden age of big rock shows in the 70's and 80's.

Besides providing sound equipment, lights, pyrotechnics, lasers, spotlights, mirror balls, projectors, bubble machines, chase lights and practically everything else you can imagine to the biggest names in the music industry, SHOWCO and its people helped create and define an important segment of the entertainment industry with constant innovation and a commitment to excellence that was second to no one. If companies had mission statements back then, theirs would have been, "Make it happen." I once saw them charter a Lear jet to fly a laser to Canada for a stadium show that was going to start in a little over eight hours.

The lighting division of SHOWCO was eventually consumed by their own invention, the Vari-lite, while the sound arm was purchased in 2000 by their major rival. The company that bought SHOWCO used both names, like FedEx Kinkos, until they decided this past year that time had run out on the SHOWCO brand and retired the name, presumably forever.

The company provided services to more top tier bands than I can list here. Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, The Bee Gees, Genesis, Three Dog Night, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, David Bowie, ZZ Top and James Taylor are a very few examples. In addition, they produced several large fashion shows, conventions and special events, including the annual convention for Mary Kay Cosmetics, whose big pink headquarters was around the corner from their own. Oh, and their lighting director programmed the big light ball on top of the Dallas Hyatt Regency. Most people don't know that the lights were supposed to flash in patterns. The first couple of nights they used it there were so many accidents on I-35E that they had to stop.

The scale of some of these tours, and the work required to put them on, was hard to conceive. The very large tours would have up to 15 semi trailers packed full of equipment that had to be unloaded in the morning, put together, tested, repaired and adjusted, used to its limits during the show, and then pulled down, taken apart and put back in the trucks. All fifteen trucks would then have to drive three or four hundred miles to do it all again the next day. Along the way they faced and solved technical and artistic challenges on a daily basis. Whether it was chroming the entire lighting system for the Bee Gees, mounting six huge, rotating mirrors above the Genesis stage that totaled more than 2500 lbs., making music sound good outdoors and still be loud enough to make your ears bleed, or simply figuring out how to put together pyrotechnics that would rattle the Superdome, SHOWCO people made it happen time and time and time again.

The workload was brutal. It wasn't Alaskan crab fishing dangerous, but there were definite similarities. Thirty-six hour days were common. Days off on tour were rare, which meant that the traveling crew were living on two or three hours of sleep (sometimes less) for weeks at a time. One becomes very familiar with the lower end of Maslow's hierarchy. Very few people lasted a year. I once fell asleep on the sidewalk at the Sacramento airport while someone went to fetch the rental car. And when Jackson Browne said that roadies were "working for that minimum wage," he was being charitable if you consider the hours worked. His was another SHOWCO crew.

So why did people do it? One thing: the music. Not "partying with the band," not the women (they were only interested in the musicians, anyway), and not the glamorous lifestyle. When you were on tour with a good -- or even better a great -- band, the two hours or so of live music made up for all of the pain and loneliness and frustration. There is nothing like being at a great concert with 25,000 of your closest friends, unless it's being onstage for it. I can't even imagine what a rush it is for the musicians. No wonder so many of them go all crazy. Oh, and tour jackets were cool, but they weren't really worth the effort without the music thing.

I was fortunate enough to work for SHOWCO for three years in their heyday. I worked with some of the biggest acts on the planet, visited 45 states and 3 foreign countries, stayed in practically every Holiday Inn in America, and became intimately acquainted with theater and arena design. To this day I don't even have to think about where to find the bathrooms in a public arena. And I made a few lifelong friends. I met some of the best and most interesting and unique people I have known, and each and every one would show up to help you move. I learned things in that three years that most people will never even suspect.

Tonight at the Arcade Bar in Dallas a bunch of nondescript, middle-aged men and women are gathering to mark the passing of the SHOWCO name and raise a glass to the days when sex and drugs and rock & roll were as much a part of the fabric of the country as consumer credit and reality shows are today, and the dinosaurs of entertainment ruled the earth. I'm sure many lies will be told, and even more true stories that are harder to believe. At least as much of it as they can remember. If you happen to be there, or if you ever run into an old roadie in a bar, buy them a drink. They will almost certainly have an interesting story to tell.

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