Thursday, September 23, 2010

Road Stories: Ridin' the storm out

So I've really been avoiding telling this story, but after Johnny Virgil wrote about taking his wife to see REO Speedwagon, I started having flashbacks of the tour that was largely responsible for me leaving the road. I still remember standing backstage in some arena in California, talking to the future ex on the phone, with Kevin Cronin in the background singing, "Golden country, your face is so red-uh," and hearing myself say, "I have GOT to find something different to do for a living."

REO had already been around for what seemed like forever when the 9 Lives tour kicked off. During my high school years, they rolled through town every three months or so, with Deep Purple, BTO, or Brownsville Station. One would headline a tour, and one of the others would open for them. When I heard that we had landed them as a client, and that I would be doing special effects for the tour, I discovered that I was drawing a blank on their music, so I asked one of the guys in the shop what songs they did. He said, "Oh, you know REO. They do ... uh ... umm ... let's go ask Garvey." I got exactly the same reaction from about a dozen other people over the next couple of days.* Finally, someone came up with Ridin' the Storm Out, which broke the memory block for all of us, and everyone started blurting out the names of REO songs: Golden Country, Roll With the Changes, Keep on Loving You, 157 Riverside Avenue, etc. I felt better. I knew and liked all of those songs, and midwestern rockers generally knew how to throw a tour.

The good feeling started to change as soon as we got to rehearsal. REO was nearing the height of their popularity, but they were also coming apart as a group. They suffered from the occupational hazard of terminal self-importance, facilitated by sycophants and douchebags, and intensified by impressive amounts of chemicals -- even by rock and roll standards. There were at least three gigantic egos onstage, and several more in the wings.

Gary Richrath, the lead guitarist, was undoubtedly the most talented, but he was fighting some pretty serious demons. We calculated that he was probably losing money while on the road. He tended to huff when he played (think Lamaze breathing), and by the end of the night there was a white crust encasing his microphone cover. I'm sure we could have scraped that off and gotten quite a buzz, but no one ever got that desperate. At least, not that I know of.

Kevin Cronin, the lead singer, was sure that he was the most talented, and suffered from major Napoleon syndrome. He insisted on playing guitar when he wasn't too busy prancing around in his little turquoise spandex pants, despite the fact that it sounded like someone sawing a guitar in half with a hacksaw. The sound man kept his guitar turned off in the house, so the audience couldn't really hear it, but it was loud and proud onstage, and contributed mightily to the cacophony that we endured nightly. Kevin was an amateur pharmacologist, and partially as a result, his mood swings were dramatic. One day we ran up on him sitting in the floor of a hotel lobby, pulling laundry from one bag and putting it in another, muttering to himself. We just kept walking.

The other members of the band were generally no more egotistical than your average rock star, but the environment was so toxic that they were always being pulled into one dispute or another. The road managers liked to play the band members off of each other to get whatever they wanted. The result was band members who barely spoke to each other, and a road staff that was not exactly the elite of the business. "Motor," their drum roadie was good, although he got a little weird when he went on the all-fruit diet. Most of the rest ... not so much. Oh, and the band sounded like crap most every night.

Without mentioning names, the biggest pain in my particular ass was Bob "Flash" Gordon, the lighting director. I will spare you my critique of his lighting style, which wasn't really my biggest problem with him. The real issue was that he was sure he knew everything important, and most of everything else. I've worked successfully with a lot of people like him since -- mostly Army generals -- but I was younger then, and I considered his existence and success a personal affront to all that was fair and decent.** I hated him a lot.

I forget exactly what effects I had to manage for the tour, but it wasn't a whole lot by my standards. We've already talked about the Spinal Tap quality fog curtain that opened the show. The other major effect was a series of fiery explosions during the last song, Ridin' the Storm Out. One of the reasons I was on the tour was that we had recently invented some giant flashpots built from #2 washtubs, and I was the only one at the time who knew how to load them, or that could be trusted not to blow up something important. We had developed them for use in the Superdome, and they created a flash and concussion in a regular arena that was hard to believe. Or justify. We had four of these that exploded together at the climax of the song (sort of a Star Wars Deathstar effect), and followed eight smaller explosions that built up to it.

Picture from here.

The effect was really rather cool, except for two problems. The first had to do with my control board. We had two dedicated special effects boards, but one was in the shop for repairs, and the other was out with Nazareth, or Genesis or somebody. So the biggest burnout in the electronics shop soldered together a little box specifically for the first leg of this tour, until we could get back to Dallas and pick up the other board. The box was crap, and for various, mostly boring reasons, it tended to take half a beat between the time I pushed the button and the time the explosion happened. But only sometimes. While this would probably be fine in a mining operation, it was definitely not close enough for rock and roll. Bob was constantly trying to convince me that he could fix it "in a matter of minutes."

The other problem was that Bob wanted the sound of the explosion, not the flash, to match the music. Like lightning and thunder, the boomy part tends to lag behind the flashy part, especially if you are sitting a few hundred feet away. So he would call the cue a split second before the beat. I don't think he realized that the timing would be different at different points in the hall. I don't think Bob took a lot of science in school.

You know who wasn't sitting a few hundred feet away? The band. From their point of view, the bombs were going off early. Or late. Or both. And since they were already pissed about the fog curtain, and each other, and their lives, and everything else, and since this particular effect closed the show, it was the last thing they had a chance to be pissed about. So one or another of them would come over and yell at me and call me names every couple of nights. They even threatened to replace me a couple of times. I don't think they liked it when I begged them to go through with it.

So after about a month of this, we arrived at the day that would bring the worst concert I have ever seen, and convince me once and for all that this would not be my life's work. But that will have to wait for Part 2. This post is already getting very long, and I'm starting to feel like there are spiders on me. I'm going to need a whiskey float and a couple of hours of Bob Dylan before I can continue.

Updated: Part 2 is finished.

* I swear to Baby Jesus that this part is true. I never saw anything like it. We were all really familiar with the band. It was just that no one could come up with a song. And these people knew music better than any hipster you ever met.

** I grew up watching way too many westerns and WW II movies, and reading about people like Don Quixote and Robin Hood.


  1. when i saw the title of this post - and knowing it would be a 'backstage tell all' sort of thing - i was trying like hell to remember who did 'ridin' the storm out'.

    REO, BTO, Foreigner, Foghat, Deep Purple, and for the love of god, Brownsville Station? they are a blur of one bad spandex-clad screaming pyrotechnical nightmare from my youth...

    the fact that you were WORKING this tour? baby jesus wept. as did i...

    congratulations on your escape, and i look forward to part two...

  2. i am going to go dig out my turquoise spandex pants now...