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Bands make fun of roadies. If you had one, you would make fun of him too.
Some thoughts on being a Sons roadie, added to as necessary.
"Help! There's someone on the stage!"
Roadies don't like to go out on the stage, because if they do, it's because something has gone wrong. One thing that could go wrong was an unauthorized person getting up on the stage, and when that happened, it was usually my job to get him or her off. The idea is to do it as quickly and quietly as possible, because a fight on the stage tends to distract the audience from the performance.
We developed a method that worked most of the time, and made such incidents routine and forgettable. When I went out on the stage I would grab the (usually drunk) offender's arm with one hand, digging my fingers into the brachial nerve on the upper arm. This is a very painful thing, and it always got the person's attention, but it doesn't look like much to anyone else. At that point, it would usually be possible to lead the person off the stage, and any fight that took place would be conducted elsewhere.
There were a few occasions where that strategy didn't work. One summer day we were doing an outdoor gig on a stage set up outside a "biker" bar in the hills near Santa Cruz. The stage was only elevated a couple of feet above the ground, and it was easy for anyone to hop up on it. For the most part, no one did until, well, until a guy in biker outfit strolled up there and took center stage.
I didn't think much about it, I just walked out there to him, and it wasn't until I got next to him that I realized that this guy was huge, and a biker, and drunk or stoned. The death grip didn't seem like a good idea. I really didn't have a lot of time to think about a strategy, so I took him gently by the arm, and I was very relieved to find that he was so stoned that he was docile. It was easy to lead him off, and his friends took care of him from there, keeping him away from the stage.
After the set ended, the guys complimented me at length for taking on a huge guy with no hesitation. It wasn't as difficult as it looked, but I never passed an opportunity to cement my reputation as the toughest guy in the group. If the roadie isn't the toughest guy in the group, there's something wrong.
The most extreme incident took place in El Paso, and the Sons weren't even on stage. Bo Diddly, the 50's rocker was the headliner, and we were already done. More entertaining than his stage act was Bo Diddly backstage, jamming with the Sons and singing obscene and screamingly funny lyrics to some of his songs. But now he was onstage. I was watching the show from the side of the stage when a girl got up there and approached Bo. He played it up a little, which was a mistake. He let her hug him, and at first he seemed flattered by this attention from a cute teenager. The stage manager didn't run out there, because Bo was working her into the show, and you don't interfere with the headliner.
After about thirty seconds, Bo seemed to realize that she wasn't going to let go of him and go away, and he signaled for help. The stage manager came out and tried to peel her off. It wasn't happening; she had a good grip on Bo. Another roadie came out, but they still couldn't get her loose without taking a chance on hurting Bo. And besides all this, the guy is playing his music, and you don't want to stop that for a fight on the stage. The two guys looked around for help, and I joined the effort with several more crew members who had been near the stage.
Now there were six big guys doing their best to dislodge this girl without hurting either her or Bo. Unfortunately, she didn't care who she hurt, and a wild struggle started. We got her off Bo, but she kicked and screamed and punched and scratched, and took on all these guys, and it seemed as though it took twenty minutes for us to drag her off and turn her over to the security people.
There were a few occasions when I didn't have a chance to do anything about intruders. At the Skye River Rock Festival in 1969, I was in the mix booth, a long way from the stage, when a guy joined the band for reasons known only to him. It was during Bill's scat solo in "Freedom," where most of the band laid out. Bill took matters into his own hands with a real stroke of genius.
He announced to the audience that this guy was up here with something important to say, and he handed over the mike to him.
Now the guy was on the spot. He tried to say something, but it came out completely unintelligible. I don't think he was ready to be the featured performer, and under the hostile gaze of the crowd, he abandoned the mike and melted away.
We did a gig in Tucson with John Mayall, who was a big fan of the Sons. He was watching the performance from the wings, and when the band started "Freedom," he was overcome. He skipped out on stage, bringing a cheer from the crowd. He wasn't done. Bill's guitar was on a stand while Bill sat at the keyboard, and John picked it up and joined in. John Mayall is a good singer and harp player, but he is certainly the worst guitar player that ever had a hit record, and he didn't know the key of the song or any of the arrangement.
This time the band was on their own. The crowd loved the fact that the star of the show was on the stage, and because he was John Mayall, I was not about to run out and tackle him. Bill didn't like being upstaged during his prime moment, but there wasn't much he could do except suffer through the song and play up to John being there. It's probably fortunate that we never had any more gigs with Mayall.
At the Starwood in Hollywood, Delaney Bramlett came backstage to visit. He was obviously drunk, but he joined in the informal jam that always went on around the tuning amplifier we kept in the dressing room. At that time he was a fading star, but still a star in L.A. because of his one hit album and his participation in the 1970 "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour with Joe Cocker, Leon Russell and Eric Clapton. Just before the band went out on the stage, he asked Bill if it would be all right if he came out and jammed. That was never all right, but Bill didn't come right out and tell him that. He hemmed and hawed and said sure, it would be okay. Drunk as he was, Delaney figured out which way the wind was blowing and called Bill's bluff and let him off the hook at the same time.
"Why don't you just tell me that I'm drunk, and you don't want me to screw up your act?"
Let me try to list the various guys who have shared the truck seat with me since 1968.
Steve Tobin, AKA "Tooth" AKA Steve Tollestrup (1968-69)
Gary Jackson (1969)
Paul Stubblebine (1969)
"Hog" Steve Rhodes (1969-1970)
Tony Black (1971-1974)
Howie Hammerman (1972-1975)
Zero Nylin (1974-1977)
Mark Deadman (1975-1977)
Jeff Ocheltree (1999-2002)
I'm sure that my good friend Howie would be the first to admit that had a temper. When Howie went off, he took out his frustrations on stuff, but it was always his own stuff. On one occasion he shattered his Swiss Army knife after using it to cut up a pair of coveralls. On another he stomped his bicycle, which I rescued by telling him I would stomp it later for him. I gave it to my roommate, who rode it for years afterward. But the best was in St. Louis. The stage crew was all black, probably the only time I have seen that. There were probably a dozen or so crew in the vicinity of the stage when Howie hit his limit on something.
Howie had a military flashlight, a heavy-duty light that hooked on his belt. Mil-spec, cost him who knows how much. Howie fired his flashlight at a brick wall -hard- from ten feet away, shattering the light into many pieces. It exploded like a grenade, accompanied by a few violent expletives from Howie.
For the rest of the evening, Howie was in a bubble. Nobody said anything, but none of the stage crew got within ten feet of him all night. Everywhere he went backstage, a hole opened up.
Sharing such close quarters (the truck), Howie and I would now and then get on each other. One time we were breaking down the equipment in a place called The Bodega in San Jose. The only other people there were two bartenders, cleaning up and waiting for us to finish. They told us about a pair of roadies who had been in there a couple of months before, and having such a huge argument as they packed the gear that the bartenders thought they might have to break up a fight.
It took Howie and me a few minutes to realize they were talking about us from the previous Sons performance.
I mentioned elsewhere that the first gig I missed working for the Sons was when Bill Graham threw me out of the Fillmore West. Here is the explanation for the only other missed gigs.
Zero Nylin took the roadie job around 1974, working with me and Howie. On our first long trip together, the three of us drove east across Nevada. I took a shift at the wheel, Howie took a shift at the wheel, and we finally turned the truck over to Zero for the first time in Wells, Nevada.
Zero shifted through the gears, a four-speed with a two-speed axle, a complicated system for someone who has never used it. Evidently he did something wrong, because the engine seized before he got into the top gear. The engine was blown. Not a bad place for it to happen though, a few gear shifts from a huge truck stop where we had just eaten dinner. It was only a few dollars to tow it into a place with an enormous truck shop.
We had to split up, because two guys had to rent a truck and keep the equipment moving, while someone else had to get the truck rebuilt. In most cases the rookie would be the guy left behind, but the rookie had just blown up the truck, and it didn't seem prudent to let him drive it by himself.
So I stayed in Wells, sleeping in our truck for four days in the middle of a 24-hour a day truck shop, with impact wrenches going all day and night. I got to watch the progress of the engine rebuild, because there was nothing else going on in Wells. I read a lot of books. I ate a lot of truck stop food. I did not take advantage of the two town whorehouses, which the guys around the truck stop were polite enough to point out, across the road.
And when the engine was rebuilt, I got in the truck and had to drive about a thousand miles non-stop to catch up with the band. I picked up a couple of hitchhikers who helped keep me awake, but I lost track of the day, and I arrived in Topeka, Kansas only to find the band just leaving for the next town on the itinerary. It was only a hundred miles or so, but I was done for the day. Geoffrey offered to drive the truck, so I gave him instruction in the complicated shifting as he drove down the road. And in spite of my exhaustion, it was impossible to sleep while Geoff was driving, so I got to the gig without even a nap.
And got through it somehow. Haven't missed one since then.
Since like every other roadie in the world, I play guitar, in the many years that I have spent hanging around the Sons, someone might ask whether I had ever got on stage with them. I did, for about four performances.
The first was at The Inn of the Beginning in Cotati, on a hot night when the band had been wailing for hours and the place was packed, and everyone was dripping sweat by the buckets and the humidity in the room was about ninety percent. The band filed off the stage but the crowd wouldn't let them go and they were pounding on the stage and stomping and shouting and the band came back from the hundred degree kitchen where they had retreated for the moment.
Terry just handed me his guitar and said, "You know the tune. You can play it."
The tune was "Linda Lou," a blues that was simple enough that I could do it without practice. I walked up with Terry's guitar and told Bill what Terry had said. Bill just went with it. "what key do you want to play it in?"
I didn't know what key they played it in. I picked A, and since the real key was B-flat it was close enough, so Bill agreed, and counted off and the band hit it with me on the guitar. And Bill gave me the solo, which I attempted without too much embarrassment, and they played the song and I lived.
Over the next few nights my encore performance was repeated a few times, then the joke got stale, and that was the end of my performing career until I could get my own band. And we play Linda Lou now.