Look Out Pretty Mama I'm On The Road Again
by Tom Davis
Bugle American, Vol. 5, No 16 (No. 157)
It ain't real difficult for anyone to see the difference between Rolling Stone and The Bugle. Rolling Stone cost five times as much for one thing.
There's another difference: they like to do a lot of stuff that's heavy on the glamor, glitter, glorification, and wealth of ego-tripping rock and roll stars. A Bugle budget keeps your toes touchin' the earth. While The Stone's in the clouds, the Bugle's backstage learnin' the untouched stories of rock's more real workin' man – the roadie.
Intercontinental Absurdities Ltd., more commonly known as Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, packed two shows at Riverside Theatre last week. Throughout the day at the downtown hall, Zappa's equipment men (roadies) found time to talk about their lives on a tour.
The stories below indicate that roadie work is demanding but necessary. Few roadies, at least with Zappa, find the stain inn to maintain the hectic pace for more than a year or two. They eventually succumb to physical or head hassles or both.
Two roadies, on tour for just three months, are already getting tired. A roadie who's made it four years finds the loneliness and insecurity to be as big a problem as a diminishing capacity for hard work. Sleeping is more lucrative than partying to most roadies on tour.
The roadies aren't the only behind the scene's laborers. There's also truck drivers, stage hands, local promotion people, and a road manager. It's a hassle to fork over 4 or 5 bucks to see a show; sure. But it's hardly easy money for some of the people who put a concert together.
Paul Hoff, who's been travelling four years with Zappa, is the unofficial head of the Mother roadies. He was selling clothes, into a heavy drug thing, and knew nothing about the technical aspects of rock and roll before starting work with Zappa. Hoff said he "was living with a woman that was Frank's secretary, went down where they were doing a gig, asked if I could have a job, and was hired."
Coy Featherston says he too was "in the right place at the right time." Coy's older brother was a Zappa roadie until the show hit Austin, Texas three months ago. Coy's brother decided to quit the tour and stay in town. Coy was working at Armadillo World Headquarters, the hip music mecca in Austin, when he found out that Zappa needed two equipment men. Coy talked "to Marty Perellis (Zappa's road manager) on a Sunday and started working on a Monday."
Another Austin product, a 23 year-old named Jim, was hired at the same time with a recommendation from Coy's brother. "I've got a little 4-track dubbing studio in my home in Austin, and I've been starving to death there," Jim said between hits on a can of Budweiser. "I'd been doing sound in clubs around town for people like B.W. Stevenson and Tracy Nelson. When this gig came along I latched onto it because of the travel, the money, and the music."
Jim's work includes setting up the mikes, PA, and working the mixing board during the show. Coy runs mike cable, sets up George Duke's keyboard equipment, Chester Thompson's and Ralph Humphrey's drums, and jumps around the stage shooting pictures of the band during performances.
Hoff remains backstage during the shows to keep an eye on the equipment. During setup, Paul said he's responsible for seeing that "all the equipment on stage, lights, sound, band, equipment, is hooked-up and running right." It takes the roadies about three hours to unload and set up the 11 tons of equipment for Zappa and the nine Mothers.
Following a 10 a.m. breakfast, Paul said he had come to the Riverside Theater and would be there until 3 a.m., taking the equipment apart and reloading it on the truck. As it was, the band played longer than expected, so the roadie's work wasn't complete until after 3:30 a.m., two hours after the band put wraps on the concert.
The tedium of the tour was evident in Paul's comments as he talked about the schedule. "After we came into Milwaukee yesterday about 3 p.m., we had the day off, but I slept because the three previous days we had worked gigs. If we get a night off, I like to go out when I have the energy, but this is a whole new band set-up and crew. I've been busy trying to teach everybody the set-up and everybody's been busy trying to learn a new job. It's been really rough."
New roadies Jim and Coy said they were tired too. But the night before they managed to make it from their room to the Holiday Inn bar where they got loaded by themselves and listened to the music of "The Infernos."
"Every Holiday Inn is alike and most halls are alike," Paul said. "You're always movin' so fast that you really don't see much of the town. I can't remember where we came in from."
The equipment was mostly in place by mid-afternoon. Zappa and the Mothers came to the hall at 3:30 p.m. for a sound check that took two hours. The roadies broke for an hour, grabbed food, and prepared for the 7 p.m. show. The other break in the roadies' day came in the hour between the two shows.
Jim and Coy say the physical labor involved in loading and unloading the truck, and the lack of sleep are the biggest drags. There are other tensions for Jim. "Just before the band starts and I've got the board in front of me, I get worried about feedback problems or one of the mikes going out. The pressure just starts really building up."
Paul questions the security involved in the job. "Who knows how long Frank Zappa or anyone else is going to be in the business? Being a roadie with a group is like being in the band. If your personality clashes with anyone in the band, you won't last very long."
Traveling with the same people for three months "you can get overexposed to somebody," Paul noted, "but all I have to do is shut the door and stay in my room. I think that's probably the hardest thing for me – just being alone. I've been living with a lady for a couple of years in LA so I have everything I need at home. I suppose getting out on the road for awhile is a healthy break as far as my relationship goes, tho."
People in the Mothers-Zappa tour said groupies still exist. "They're there looking for you," Paul said. "Usually a roadie is a pretty good stepping stone for getting to the star."
"If chicks want to see or meet anyone in the band," Coy told me, "they usually hit the roadies first. We get the left-overs, but it comes out alright." Groupie groping for rock star bods was more prevalent in the past, Jim felt. "I'm committed to somebody back home so I don't mess around."
The band's been busted a couple of times for profanity, but not for drugs. A Zappa tour, according to Paul, involves zero drugs. "It's dangerous on the road 'cause cops like to bust rock and roll bands. As far as I know Zappa's never used anything except coffee, which is a drug to me. He drinks about 30 cups a day."
Coy brashly says coffee ain't the only drug on tour. "The band likes to get high. I like to get high. Frank's only attempted grass twice and his body just had a negative reaction to it. Frank's just a real paranoid person."
Roadies with groups like Led Zeppelin are "a lot looser, more drug oriented, and partying all the time," Paul said. "With Zappa it's more businesslike. If you do your job you really don't have time for the other stuff."
"I like working for Zappa," Paul declared during one of his brief interludes from labor. "A lot of people who've tried the job don't like it 'cause it's not like rock and roll acts they've worked for before. I like it 'cause it's always changing. I don't have to do the same set-up. The personnel is always changing so I get to know new people. And Frank's a nice guy. He's real interestin' and creative."
The new truck driver for Intercontinental Absurdities, Ltd., Bill Romero, told me at his old job he "was making twice what I make now, but I was working ten times harder too. But now it's just great working for Frank. It's a beautiful atmosphere to work in because everything's so cool."
"It's really hard to keep friends when you're doin' a lot of traveling," Paul said as he picked tediously at some food on a styrofoam plate. "I don't see my old friends anymore. I was into a heavy drug thing before I got this job and most of the people I was associating with think I'm lame now because I don't get high and I don't have time to hang out and do that sort of thing. I think I've had one full week off in the last four years."
During the interview in a seedy third story dressing room overlooking Milwaukee River slime, Paul said he felt "sometimes people make a separation with me because of my job. Everybody thinks it's glamorous and great traveling around. They put you in a category and think, 'gee, I wish I was you.' But sometimes I think, 'gee, I wish I was you'."
Recent roadie recruits like Coy aren't so bothered by the routine. Coy said he was bummed-out going to college in Austin. "I'd rather roam around 'cause I'm real unsettled ' right now. I'm seein' a lot of places and doin' a lot of things that I'd never be able to do without a job. The only thing I can see interfering with my work is art, Art is the first thing in my life, 'cause as far as I'm concerned, it's the only thing I can really do."
Bill Romero trucks an inconspicuous National Car Rental vehicle around the country carrying Zappa-Mother paraphernalia. After the roadies have loaded the equipment in the truck at the end of a concert, Romero drives between 300 and 400 miles to the next gig. He watches the show sometimes, but usually ends up crashing in his motel room.
Romero has had some hassles with older truckers about his long hair at truck stops. "The Midwest has been probably the worst area I've encountered as far as the hair goes. In the South they look at you weird, but that's the South for you," Romero philosophized. "They look at everybody weird in the South."
Five men from Local 18 stage employees assisted the roadies in setting up. Stage Manager Vern Huntsinger puts in 70 hour weeks at his job. "Three of us came in at 10 a.m. The crew call was at noon, and we won't get out of here until at least 3 a.m.," he said.
"We find," Huntsinger continued, "that road people with rock groups are very cooperative." One of the stage hands who moonlights as an auctioneer got to do his rapid mouth things during the 7:00 show. Zappa turned the mike and some of his wardrobe over to the stage hand.
Bedecked in a black bowling shirt from a Southside tavern, the stage hand auctioned off some Zappa attire while the Mothers of Invention provided musical accompaniment. Basking in the fame from his short performance, the hand jovially assured me that he was now the "only auctioneer in Milwaukee who ever auctioned off Frank."
Zappa's alter ego on tour is road manager Marty Perellis, a slick who said he "was throwing college dances called 'gee, I'm glad it's Friday' parties and found I enjoyed that more than the family business." Perellis figures he'd be back in Baltimore pushing pantyhose if he hadn't caught on to the entrepreneurial game.
As he slouched in a stuffed chair and severed sections from an orange, Perellis said his responsibilities include, "getting the group to and from a gig, making sure they get paid, arranging hotel accommodations, doing the books, making wake-up calls, and hiring new personnel."
Perellis discussed the organization of the group while shoving parts of the peeled orange into his open mouth. Twenty-two people traveled on Zappa's tour; ten musicians, five roadies, two pilots and a stewardess for their 4-prop plane, two security men, a driver, and Perellis.
Perellis said the organization is both personal and businesslike, altho he talked mostly about the latter. "It's a business that puts the bread and butter on our tables at home and we treat it like that. We have a good time, yet it's serious. The show must go on, the band must get paid, and we've got to get to the next city on time."
"It's a unit that works together well on the road. It's very organized. Most of the promoters in the country think it's one of the best crews they've ever seen."
The Milwaukee concert promotion triumvirate of Charley Fain, Randy McElrath, and Allen Dulberger form Daydream productions, the city's only consistent promo organization. Dulberger, who also owns 1812 Overture, defends the business perspective of Perellis.
"Every group is into business because they need money and ' that's why they have a road manager," Dulberger argued recently during an interview in a cramped office at the back of his record shop.
"But there's two kinds of groups," Dulberger said. "There's one group that I think is like a machine. They go up there and do their tight hour and five minutes exactly and maybe do one encore that they know is going to be exactly seven minutes."
"Then there are groups like Zappa, who would like to play all night." Zappa's troupe did a two-hour energetic performance, took an hour break, and then did a 10:30 show that probably surpassed the first in output.
"That's a phenomenal thing," said Dulberger, "that shows he's really into his music. There's a difference between someone like this and someone who's just going to come out and do their machine trip and split."
Dulberger thinks the concert business is very difficult. When groups cancel a contract days before a scheduled performance, the promoters have to find a replacement group that will appease angry concert goers. If the set up gets screwed-up, the promoters face an enraged road manager.
"The promoter is the scapegoat for everyone," Dulberger declared between frequent phone calls. "The promoter's the one that everybody yells at, that people release their frustrations on, and he's the one that catches hell from the public. We're just human beings too.
About a dozen national talent agencies handle contracts for rock and roll tours. McElrath said Daydream contacts one of the five major agencies to get-up concerts. The financial contract comes with a lengthy rider, which provides such things as the band's power requirements, limousines for transportation, food for the group, numbers of dressing rooms, audio/video recording rights, cancellation clauses, and the number of complimentary tickets the promoters can distribute.
The Arena, Auditorium, PAC, and Riverside are the halls used for productions. Choosing one depends on the expected size of the audience and the hall's availability. The Arena and Auditorium rental fee is 11% of the total take. People get in with forged tickets, despite the promoters use of a special paper they claim can't be duplicated.
Four or five union stage hands work in the hall and receive between $600 and $1200 for their labor, depending on the hours involved. Daydream hires up to 12 bouncers or "security guards" to quell the crowds and keep the aisles cleared. The bouncers, who get $5 an hour for their work, are usually bartenders or members of weight-lifting clubs.
Each hall hires an additional security force from what's known as "rent a pig" agencies. The security people make some attempt to enforce smokin'/tokin' regulations in the halls. Daydream says the security is also there to protect the audience from a drug/booze-crazed minority that sometimes gets into a violence trip. City police show up to keep traffic and crowds outside the halls "in order."
Advertising costs can run as high as $2,000, although Daydream cuts costs by getting together on mutually rewarding advertising arrangements with local media. Radio stations generally contact Daydream about co-sponsoring a concert. In return for their call letters appearing on promo posters and flyers the stations give the promoters a reduced rate for air wave ads.
The ratings battle between the three progressive FM's, WNUW, WZMF, and WQFM, works to Daydream's benefit. The promoters are presently in a position that allows them to choose a station for co-sponsor. Also, one of the station's jocks gets exposure and about $30 to MC the show.
Marty Perellis says he doesn't know anything about record companies giving money or gifts to dj's for record promotion. He claims "that was primarily popular on R&B stations in the late 50's and early 60's."
The situation for influencing dj's, however, is manufactured by the record companies. Dulberger said the companies frequently set up parties on tours where people from record stores and radio stations are able to meet record execs and the groups.
Promoter contact on concert day is generally only with a group's road manager. McElrath says there's tension at times between promoters and road managers because they sense each other as an opposing faction. More often, tho, he feels it's a friendly relationship.
McElrath and Dulberger say a Daydream vision is to make Milwaukee a major musical market. They try to schedule groups that are gaining in popularity. The promoters also check sales at record shops to determine what's a good bet for a gig. They promoted 40 shows last year and hope to do about 60 this year.
Money paid by Milwaukee promoters to rock groups ranges from $750 for an opening act to $30,000 for headliners who draw a packed house like the Grateful Dead or Deep Purple. Major groups are guaranteed $10,000 to $15,000. Main acts receive half the guaranteed sum several weeks in advance of the gig. The other half and percentages on the gate are paid during the concert.
Dulberger and McElrath claim Daydream has never made much of a profit. According to Dulberger, Daydream loses sometimes and makes 20% of the take on more successful ventures. "Every time we do a show there's a risk factor that is 200%-300% greater than what we could make," he said.
"Even though you might think I'm crazy," he continued, "I feel naturally high when I see we've sold out a show and everyone's having a good time. If somebody has to pay $5 for a ticket, I think they should enjoy it and get their money's worth."
"Sure," Dulberger said, "I make a living. I'm an ambitious person. I feel it's a high risk business and anything I make I feel I deserve. For the last four years, I've probably made 60 cents an hour. If I would have been into it just for the money, I would have been out of it a long time ago."
Roadies Coy and Jim assured me they got off on the music more than the $200 a week salary. As roadie chieftain, Paul pulls $325 a week on tour and $225 for his work in the LA recording studio. The nine Mother musicians' weekly road salary ranges from $500-$700. Perellis would only say he was "well reimbursed" for his management.
Daydream's Dulberger felt "this was probably the most enjoyable experience that I ever had working with a group. From the roadies to the manager to Frank Zappa himself,
they are the most cooperative people you'd ever want to meet. They're not dopers. They're not heavily into alcohol. They're happy people. They're not uptight or frustrated."
Several musicians, however, expressed some frustration about having their individual potential for invention stifled by Zappa. They said sometimes they felt like they were in an orchestra directed by Zappa.
There's little room for individuality in a rock and roll scene which musicians, promoters, and roadies agree is essentially a business trip.
The backdrop on the Riverside Theatre stage for the Zappa show, a stage hand mentioned, was from the play How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The part about business was right. But as some of the roadies told me, the part about "without really trying" was a poor joke.
The roadies are caught behind the backdrop when the colored lights are beaming brightly. The rainbow strobes and hysterias of music consumerism die down eventually and the house lights come on, while Zappa's roadies take the stage of a littered, deserted hall to carry-out rock and roll's proletarian chores.
The Mothers' trucker Bill Romero knows "the roadies work their asses off. They really earn their money."
"Without roadies," concludes Paul Hoff, "rock and roll simply wouldn't work."
More life on the road connections: 'Inn' Tales: The List