by Daniel Gabriel
Author’s Note: If readers sense a vague familiarity in the opening paragraphs below, it’s because “A Roadie’s Lament” continues the tale begun in “Roadwork 1973”, which appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Whistling Shade.
Back in the early seventies, touring rock ‘n’ roll shows were a simpler business. That doesn’t mean more innocent, or anything like that. Elvis was in his bloated Vegas phase, Jagger was already an aging roué, and the overdose death knell had claimed a litany of heroes—Brian Jones, Jimi, Janis, Jim Morrison. . . . But matters hadn’t yet gotten to where anybody was cleaning up their act, or hiring personal trainers, or thinking about corporate tie-ins and the like. It was still just the road and, for awhile, I got to ride it with a lot of the major acts of the day.
My buddy Randall had landed a gig with Continental Sound Company. Based out of Chicago, Continental was one of a handful of nationally operating crews providing concert audio power. As more rock acts took to playing venues the size of arenas and outdoor stadiums, it had become necessary to hire custom PA setups to augment a band’s personal gear. Sound companies, like lighting systems, could be hired for single dates or entire tour packages, working in tandem with the band’s own road crew and local on-site technicians.
After a few months crisscrossing the country doing random shows with everybody from Styx and ZZ Top to Dr. John and B.B. King, our system landed a semi-permanent touring gig with Sly and the Family Stone.
Sly was making another in a series of comeback tours—backing his latest million-seller, “If You Want Me to Stay”—and his personal manager, Hobart (a pompous, unapproachable philistine with a clever nose for the green) had settled on what he hoped would be a sustainable long-term touring arrangement. Every weekend, the Family Stone would do three gigs. Sly would follow the shows in his private Lear jet, sleeping (should he actually desire to put down the mirror and close his eyes) in one of his homes on the West Coast or New York City. Thus insulated from the rigors of the road, it was hoped that any temptations might be avoided, or at least mollified.
Of course, while Sly was jetting back and forth, and his band was flying comfortably in coach, the road crew would be driving through the night, bone weary from humping front-loaders, rear-loaders, stage boxes and horns, mic stands and mixing boards betwixt truck and stage.
And then came a night in St. Louis when it all went to shit. Randall quit and the next thing I knew, Andrea (the sharp-faced brunette who owned Continental) had put me in charge of running the system. I barely knew how to mic the stage. Randall had taught me everything I knew. Matter of fact, it had been a Janis Joplin gig we’d worked together some three years earlier that had counted as my sole credentials for getting the Continental job. It had only been a one night stand and our presence on the crew totally fortuitous (we’d been picked up hitchhiking by Janis’ roadies, who were lost), but it had been enough to get me in the door.
By the time we landed the Sly tour, I’d learned a lot, but the Family Stone mic chart and stage set-up were as complicated as any I’d seen. Eleven people in the band and almost all of them sang. We used every one of our 24 mics. The drum set needed just that certain angle on the high hat mic, and whatever I put on the tom toms always needed last minute adjustments. Each singer’s mic required its own precise direction. So on and so forth. Mess up any single bit and there’d be a barrage of threats and curses during the show.
So I’d solved that, but now I was the money bagman, and the guy who made sure the promoter paid accurately and upfront, and the primary contact with Kinsey, the dapper young dresser who was Sly’s road manager. Most of all, I was the guy who ran the mix site. Without me, there was no sound at all.
I also had to find my own replacement for stage man, and the next Family Stone gigs were only four days away. I’d called every likely prospect, but how many people can drop their lives overnight and race off on a rock ‘n’ roll tour? My buddy Walker was my only hope. His sole qualification for the job was an avid love of rock ‘n’ roll. He’d never worked a stage, had no electronics background, scarcely knew that a speaker had to be plugged in for sound to come out.
Our first week was an insane all-out dash across the eastern U.S., doing everything from a relatively cool, calm and collected auditorium show in Ann Arbor to an outdoor gig in Birmingham, Alabama with a double system and a near crowd-riot under the fireworks. After that last one, Sly demanded a week off to recuperate.
Walker and I worked a couple of local dates in Chicago to keep our hand in while Sly’s people pulled their act back together. In between teaching him the rudiments of handling the stage area, I set my sights on properly learning how to mix. It’s not the sort of thing you can just pick up on your own. Certain errors are obvious (such as mic feedback), while others are made so (inadequate sound on the band’s onstage monitors always brings whines from the performers). But the crucial issue in mixing is as much what you cannot hear as what you can. Is the bass guitar clipping in the lower registers? Does the high hat cymbal get lost in the drum set? Can you actually hear that soft-voiced singer’s high notes with clarity?
Each mixing board, or set of boards (we used three eight-tracks specially modified by Marko, Continental’s mad genius engineer), has its own peculiarities, capabilities, and so on. It’s not just a question of volume, but things like tone alteration, comparative emphasis within the mix and adjustment for individual singers’ peculiarities in approaching a mic. In the normal course of events, Randall would have trained me in over a period of months: first just having me watch him work; then letting me set up the system; then giving me a set here and there to do my stuff while he criticized. As it was, I found myself running the show on instinct as much as anything else.
When Sly went back on the road, we were up before dawn on Friday to load the truck and listen to Andrea deliver another don’t-forget-to-and-call-me-if-anything lecture.
When she gave me the credit cards she pulled me aside. “This Walker guy still makes me nervous,” she said. “Half the time he doesn’t even hear when I’m talking to him.”
We stood and watched Walker pull down the rear door of the truck and bolt it. I knew he never had any trouble hearing. But “deafness” was his only defense against having to admit that he had no idea what in the hell he was being asked to do. I didn’t mention this. “We’ll manage,” I said.
In L.A. we got a rare chance to settle in. We had a date in Santa Barbara, two in L.A. itself and then a final show in San Diego. Clearly, here was a chance for indulgence: no overnight hauls and Tinsel Town at our fingertips. We headed straight for the Sunset Strip and booked ourselves into the Hyatt House—or, as it was known to bands one and all, the Riot House.
From the outside, the Hyatt on Sunset looks like any one of hundreds of southern Cal hotels: a squat, square exterior, painted drab white and featuring a limousine ramp up to the front entrance. But in the rock ‘n’ roll world the Hyatt is legendary. Most major groups have stayed there at least once, and there’s always somebody famous in residence. Its popularity is basically due to the fact that, so long as you pay for the damages, the management has a hands-off policy on group celebrations, whatever form they may take.
Sly’s number one roadie (a skinny, hook-nosed Italian from Philly called Corky) had once described a Hyatt party he’d attended. “Man, there was a shitload of people in the bar,” he’d said. “Rod Stewart and a couple of the Faces, Keith Moon, most of our guys. I was so drunk, I was the one buying rounds.” He snickered at the memory. “Some waitress insulted the chick Moon was with and he went crazy. I mean off. We were sitting at this long table and Moon starts grabbing glasses and throwing them. Against the wall, at the waitress, at me! Anything. Look.” His hands felt through the curly black nest of his pony-tailed hair and exposed a thin white scar. “When I saw blood, man, I took off.”
“Did the cops come?” I asked.
“Not to the Hyatt, man. They just let him throw till he got tired and then had the Mexicans clean it up. Course he got a bill that was out of this world, but Moon don’t care.”
So it was that Walker and I arrived at the Hyatt with great expectations. To our surprise things were very, very quiet. The desk clerk explained that Led Zeppelin had just left and the entire 6th floor had had to be closed for repairs. He went on to add that management’s patience had been stretched a bit thin of late and that he expected no such activity from us.
To our further surprise the Family Stone, instead of joining us, had been booked into the Holiday Inn down the street. This was evidently part of the “new look” for the band (meant to deflect the “cokeheads” reputation some of the members had worked so hard to acquire), though Sly himself stayed, of course, at one of his studio/homes in Beverly Hills.
There were two new opening acts in Santa Barbara: Bloodstone, a Tempts’ style R&B group that had been living in London, and Atley Yeager, who fronted another in a long line of competent, unexciting country-rock bands. I was faced with the immediate problem of mixing for two bands whom I’d never seen. Ordinarily under such circumstances I’d have had a tour manager or a roadie or someone alongside me to offer advice, tip me to upcoming cues, etc. On this night I had no one. There wasn’t even a sound check. Just—all of a sudden—Atley Yeager and his band onstage and me without a clue. I didn’t have time to be nervous.
The first song was rough, but I managed to get a nice fix on the instruments and I built the vocals around Atley (guessing at his need for heavy reverb and a lot of high end). Bloodstone was trickier: four-part harmonies with lead vocals switching back and forth. I went for punch, and clarity in the upper registers.
Miraculously, the whole thing worked. Afterwards, Atley himself came out and thanked me for the crispness. Kinsey congratulated me as well. I began to feel that things were finally under control. How wrong I was.
We made it back to the Hyatt in time to catch The Midnight Special, the hottest TV music show in the country. Sly co-hosted with Wolfman Jack and the special guests included Bloodstone and Atley Yeager. Our tour was riding high.
The next night we shifted operations to the Hollywood Palladium for two shows. The Palladium is a big old-fashioned city ballroom. Crystal chandeliers hover over the oval parquet dance floor and plush carpets and balcony seating trim the perimeter. It’s altogether a great place for a “homecoming show,” which is what Sly was intending to give. He had a guest list of 52, not counting family members or the cohorts who arrived along with him. Backstage was laid out like a tour-ending party. There was a vast selection of drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the Palladium’s performers’ dining room and exotic mixed-race groupies (fine sweet things in see-through tops and hot pants) lined the hallway outside the dressing rooms.
I was stalking the far corners of the balcony trying to get a line on how to angle the speakers (over 180 degree coverage was needed) when Walker came panting up behind me.
“Daniel,” he said. “Daniel, we got trouble.”
“Well, I think if we pull out those spare radial horns and turn the—”
“Not that,” he said. “Look down there. Look at those guys.”
Onstage two serious looking freaks were slapping up mic stands and cables in an organized, rapid-fire motion.
“What the hell are they doing?” I asked.
“That’s Wally Heider.”
“They’re here to record part of Sly’s new show tonight. They want me to explain something about our setup.” Walker looked scared. “You gotta come down there. I don’t understand a word they’re saying.”
Wally Heider? Wally Heider ran the top mobile recording studio in the business. Why hadn’t someone warned us of this? I followed Walker back down to the stage while an uneven funk beat did a number on the inside of my stomach. This could be tough. I’d had no electronics background when I joined Continental. All I knew was what I’d picked up on the job. And the job had never included anything to do with recordings. What would they ask? More importantly, what would I answer?
I wish I could set down on paper the conversation that followed. The problem is, I didn’t understand most of it at the time, and I sure wouldn’t pretend to recall it now. The main point was that Sly had suddenly decided to record his new single “live.” And here, without further delay, were Heider and his boys to do just that.
The band had only been notified the night before. We, the sound company, had been told nothing at all. Ostensibly, we were only obliquely involved, but unless our gear was properly integrated with Heider’s there would be no recording. Heider’s crew managed to figure out what needed to be done onstage even without my wisdom and I tried in turn to explain it to Walker. So far, so good. Then, we got word that there would be a sound check at five o’clock and a test recording before the show! Sly never did sound checks. This meant all preparations had to be sped up.
I abandoned Walker to the confusion onstage and set about arranging the mix site at something approximating the speed of light. At a quarter to five I finished my troubleshooting, turned off the system, sat back with a long cold Coca-cola and watched Walker playing his deaf-and-dumb act while the Heider crew whistled for his attention.
When he joined me at the mix site he was grim and shaking. “I’m glad this’ll soon be over,” he said. “I feel like an idiot up there. You ready to roll?”
“Sure thing. Walk the stage, will you, and we’ll set the mics.”
I got set and Walker stepped up to mic number one. No sound. I rechecked my settings. Still no sound. I tried a third time. Nothing.
“Try number two,” I yelled.
He did. No response.
I waved him off and got down on my hands and knees to examine the boards. Everything was in order. Only half an hour before I’d gotten rough levels set with no problems and now, nothing.
The problem had to be onstage. I looked at the clock. Five minutes to five. I ran up and jumped onstage. Checked the mics. Checked the wiring. Checked the stage box, the amps, the speakers. Everything looked fine. I ran back out to the boards. We tried again, with the same results.
It was five o’clock. I could see several of the band members idling about the hall. For once, Sly’s tardiness was a blessing.
What to do? I swallowed what pride I had left and approached Heider’s crew chief. My explanations didn’t seem to make much sense. He made a suggestion, but it didn’t help. Ten past five.
I bit my lip and thought. Marko the engineer. If only Marko was working late back in Chicago. At 5:15 I was on the phone to Continental pouring out my woes to Andrea. Marko was there after all. I explained it all over again to him, but still it didn’t add up. Marko cogitated. In the background I could hear Andrea cursing (though not me, bless her heart) and gulping Valium.
“OK,” said Marko. “It don’t make sense to me, but write this down.”
I obeyed. He gave me three possibilities and promised to wait till I called back. I raced back into the hall, certain the hammer of doom was about to fall. Walker was hiding at the mix site. “Still no sign of Sly,” he said.
I mumbled something about small favors and set about checking out Marko’s ideas. At 5:30 I gave up. Everything was as it should be. But there was no sound.
Beside me Walker’s face was white, his eyes big behind his glasses. My hands were wet and my throat was dry. I considered finding Kinsey and throwing myself on his mercy. But I knew that there could be no such thing.
I stared at the outlets from the mixing boards. We always used the same patch system, with the third board serving as master output. Suppose I reversed the whole thing? Suppose the problem was somehow isolated in that last board in such a way that reversal would bypass it? Marko and I had discussed this, but given the state of things it had seemed impossible.
A couple of the band members, Jerry and Cynthia, were standing onstage with their horns running through a few scales. Andy the drummer strolled out to the mix site. “All set, guys?” he asked.
Walker attempted a smile. I gave a vague hand sign that he interpreted as positive.
“Let’s get the band together,” he called back to where the horn players were still warming up. “We’re late as it is.”
Twenty to six.
I didn’t dare just implement my put-it-in-reverse idea. For all I knew, it might blow the whole thing up. There was only one person to ask. I ran back up onto the stage. Heider’s crew chief looked puzzled when I explained my plan. “I can’t be sure,” he said. “Go ask Wilbert out in the truck.”
I went on the run.
Outside in the parking lot was a truck with WALLY HEIDER MOBILE RECORDING STUDIO printed on the outside. I knocked and asked for Wilbert. A balding man with a fringe of electric hair appeared from behind an imposing bank of meters and tape equipment. I felt an utter fool. But I ran through my well-worn spiel. He puzzled over it for a bit, pulling at the fluttery ends of his hair. Secretly I hoped he would come back and look at our gear himself. Surely he could work a miracle if anybody could.
He refused to commit himself. By now, all I wanted was an assurance that at least the system wouldn’t blow if I tried it, but he hedged on even that point. The entire Heider crew seemed a bit testy by this time. They’d been ready to roll since before five, and still nothing was happening.
I was on my own.
I went back into the hall on the run, said a quick, quiet prayer and set to work. I changed over everything on the boards, then scrambled up onstage and reworked the mics. Ten past six. Still no sign of Sly, praise be.
Back to the mix site. I took a deep breath and flipped on the main circuit switch, half expecting an explosion. We got a quiet hum. I let out my breath, long and slow.
“Walker, hit the stage,” I said, and then a moment later: “mic number one, Walker.”
“Test. Test. One, two, three.”
We had sound!
But it wasn’t good sound. There was a rawness to it that was quite unusual. I played with adjustments, adding bass, switching the mic padding. We tried again. Better. More adjustments. Six twenty.
Walker and I ran through the full mic check. Six twenty-five. The sound was still not up to snuff, but my goodness the world looked brighter.
Six-thirty. Kinsey appeared at my elbow in a fawn-colored three-piece suit and matching briefcase. “Everything all right, Daniel?” he asked.
I was still breathing hard but I waved my hand with a show of coolness. “Ready to go,” I said. “Where’s Sly?”
Kinsey took out his cigarette case and leisurely tapped down an English Oval. “Oh, you know Sly. He’s called it all off.” Kinsey lit the cigarette. “He’ll make the show, but no recording. I have the worst of it, of course. I have to go break the news to Wally Heider.”
Kinsey strolled up to the edge of the stage. From where I sat I could see the Heider crew’s reaction. But it didn’t register. I just sat there behind the mixing boards on my little folding chair. Dripping wet, hungry, nerves burned away like fat off frying bacon. I sat there silent. And thought about Sly lounging carelessly about in his Beverly Hills mansion.
After all that, the show was a killer. On many a night Sly was bored and lethargic, but tonight was Show Time and he let it loose like I hadn’t seen him do since our first show in St. Louis. Little Sister (the backing singers) got down and shook it through a dance routine so hot that Freddy Stone had to fan them with his hat. In the stage wings I could see Walker dancing up a storm with two middle-aged black ladies who turned out to be Sly’s aunts.
A wonderful time was had by all. But damn me if it hadn’t been one close call.
San Diego was a breeze. And from there we had a week off. We took it easy going back to Chicago. Just as well, for when we got there we discovered that things had blown up into a new mess.
Marko had quit over some involved salary dispute. The Hackman, who was in charge of our “rover” system, had been fired for failing to get paid by the promoter in some jerkwater town. And Andrews, the egocentric boss of our Sha Na Na system, had managed to sever our relations with that band by his unreasonable demands for artistic control.
The company was in a shambles. Sha Na Na had been our bread-and-butter act for almost two years. The worst of it was that the Great Gas Crisis of ‘73 had struck and the uncertainty over supply (coupled with the early onset of winter in the North) was causing curtailment of tours across the country. Not only had we just lost our steadiest job, but we were faced with severe competition for the few winter tours remaining.
When Sly’s people cancelled the next week’s worth of gigs, Andrea wasn’t seen for three days. When she came back there were dark hollows under her eyes and her voice shook when she talked. But Andrea was no quitter. She got behind her desk and started issuing orders. Two systems were pulled off the road indefinitely. Walker and two other roadies were fired. Andrews took over as both system crew chief and absentee engineer.
For almost a week the fate of Continental Sound Company hung in the balance. As the Gas Crisis worsened, austerity measures appeared. Gas stations across the country curtailed their hours. Fewer and fewer remained open at night and worst of all, the government shut them down on Sunday altogether. To the average motorist this was an inconvenience, but nothing more. But for Continental—and companies like Continental—it was disastrous. Most of our driving was done through the night and on weekends. The carrying capacity of our trucks was only thirty gallons and at five miles per, that gave us a cruising range of less than 150 miles.
A lot of bands elected to sit the season out. Andrea had no such option. She needed a steady cash flow and if there wasn’t at least one system working she’d have to pack up and go home. She kept calling. We kept waiting. And on a Tuesday morning two calls came in that set us back on our feet. The first was from Sly’s head honcho, Hobart, saying that Sly wanted to stay on the road. He’d tour three-day weekends through Christmas and then break till Spring.
The second was from Stevie Wonder’s manager. There’d been a major late winter tour scheduled for some time, but Stevie’s near fatal car accident had demolished all plans. Now with Stevie on the mend his manager was planning to carry out the tour after all. He’d heard good reports on us through the grapevine and wanted our system to back Stevie—on what would be almost the only major tour of the winter season.
Andrea looked five years younger when she told us the news.
It was decided that Andrews would run the lone active system and I’d go back to the stage work. Despite what amounted to a demotion, I felt oddly relieved. All the pressure would be on Andrews. I’d be back doing something I actually felt at home with.
We started the tour off two days later by working, of all things, The World’s Largest Singles Party at a hotel complex on the outskirts of Chicago. Revelers had been flown in by the planeload from Toronto for the event and the hype factory had been working overtime. The reality? We spent five hours sweating in a basement ballroom with ten foot ceilings and too many people. A succession of second-rate show bands strutted their stuff and the beer ran out. I backed the truck into a lamp post and someone stole a mic.
The tour was off to a great start.
The second show was unusual as well. It wasn’t with Sly at all. (His thing began in Texas.) It was a Buddy Miles show that we’d been hired for because our old friends Bloodstone were second billed. The show was held in a University gymnasium in East St. Louis. If you know East St. Louis at all, you won’t be surprised to learn that the audience was 100% black; or that the neighborhood was rougher than rough. We had to hire guards to watch the truck while we unloaded.
For some reason the gym was located on the fifth floor, which meant jamming a few bits of hardware into an elevator, riding it up, emptying the lift and then returning. It took an hour and a half just to unload the truck. There was no stage help. There wasn’t even a promoter in evidence.
Andrews looked perturbed. And when Andrews was perturbed he took off his glasses (large thick ones with black rims) and rubbed them on his shirt. Andrews was Hudson Valley patrician by descent, a product of private schools till the age of sixteen when he’d dumped it all to pursue the stage. As it transpired, Andrews had no talent for acting, but he was a marvelous hand with stage lighting. He adopted it as his new career. Eventually it involved him in sound production and a job with Continental Sound Company. He’d risen like a shot to a position of some importance in the Sha Na Na entourage. His ouster there only confirmed in his mind the poor instincts of the plebeian classes. Tall, thin and imperious (though not without humor), Andrews had a way of peering down his nose that let you know it was all of life he was sniffing at.
This he did as we stood in the gym. “Don’t fancy this at all,” he said. “Doesn’t ring true.”
He waved an arm vaguely around the gym. “No help. No promoter yet. What are the odds for no pay?”
Andrews was on to something, though it was not until some hours later that we realized just what. Make it 10 p.m. or so and fill that gym to the rafters with a wild, hooting crowd of ghetto youths. (Remember, no whites. Not one.) In the meantime, Bloodstone has played their set, removed their equipment and left the building.
As cries for “Buddy Miles!”—“Bring on Buddy!”—“Showtime!” ring through the crowd, Andrews and I confer at the mix site. Something is deeply wrong. Nobody from Buddy’s band has yet arrived. His gear and two of his roadies have been waiting onstage (there is no real “backstage” here, just a sort of tunnel under some bleachers to a private washroom) for some hours, but now as we watch from the mix site, we see to our horror that—rather than setting things up—they are quickly and quietly loading up for departure.
I work my way up through the crowd, calming questioners as I pass. By the time I reach the stage, Buddy Miles’ roadies are gone. I put on a communication headset and relay the news to Andrews at the mix site. A stream of unprintable words follows.
I envision Andrews rubbing his glasses violently on his shirt. “OK,” he says at last. “Buddy is a no-show. That’s obvious. Here’s what we do. You get as many items as possible locked up out of sight. Pull the mics—but do it slowly and casually so nothing looks suspicious. I’m going to batten things down out here and then, like it or not, we’ll have to make an announcement.”
I look out over the crowd, watching the frustration level build. The shouts have become more concerted now and many people who had been sitting have gotten to their feet. If this turns into a race riot it’s all too clear who’ll be lynched. I set about my business.
As I stand alone onstage, trying to look casual as I undo the last mic (pretending not to hear the repeated demands from the front rows for action) I am halted—then horrified—by Andrews’ disembodied voice coming out through the speakers. “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” he begins. “A moment of silence please.” He pauses. “Due to circumstances beyond our control, such as the disappearance of the promoter, Buddy Miles will not be appearing tonight. Not our fault, mind, but apologies to you all.”
That takes a moment to sink in. A long moment, as I am all too aware of my pale (and getting paler) face alone onstage behind a mic. To all the crowd it appears that I have made the announcement. And as that long moment of pre-storm stillness ends, a cry goes up: “Trash the mothers!”
The hordes press forward in a rush, grabbing at speakers, heaving bottles, kicking at the stage supports. My pleading is futile. I wrestle two guys in football jerseys for an amp. Chanting goes up and then disperses into anarchic screams. The place is in uproar. I take a punch from behind.
And then Andrews does a very brave thing. He has fought his way through to the stage and stands out on the front edge facing the gathering storm.
“Listen!” he yells. “This is a rip-off, right?” Shouts of affirmation are returned. “You think you got screwed—you lost five bucks, we lost five hundred! We drove all the way from Chicago to do this gig. Don’t trash us, trash the promoter.” And he points towards the exit.
The crowd seethes momentarily in a whirlpool. Then from the back comes a voice I shall forever bless. “I know where he lives! Come on!”
Miraculously, confusedly, the mob turns. As we fend off the last of the stage looters, the great mass heaves itself towards the exit under the rallying cry of “To the promoter’s!”
The doors give under the charge. From the hallways comes the sound of splintering glass. The tide has turned.
Afterwards, Andrews and I walked the empty hallways. Shattered trophy cases lined the walls, their contents looted, occasional smears of blood indicating an internecine battle for possession. The 4th floor, the 3rd; it was all the same. Anything moveable had been moved. Anything breakable had been broken. Garbage cans had been upended and their contents lay strewn the length of the corridors. All but one of the elevators had ceased to run.
Inside the hall the picture was the same. Except that our gear lay quietly intact on the stage.
“Andrews,” I said, “that was some performance. But man, is Andrea gonna be pissed. No check.”
Andrews sniffed down his nose. “Of course no check,” he said. “Think I’d trust a shyster like that.” He dug in his shirt pocket and extracted a thick wad of bills. “Cash only,” he said. “$500.” I stared like the village idiot confronted with a mirror. “I caught the guy as he came in to collect the money from the gate,” said Andrews. “Thought we might have trouble. He must have split immediately thereafter. Damn lucky, no?”
Neither of us could sleep for a good bit after that so we just drove till dawn and then lay shivering in some unheated room on the outskirts of Tulsa.
We worked Austin and Houston with Sly. No problems, not even gas. Texas wasn’t about to go on austerity measures. Hell, they figured, it was their gas. Why couldn’t they do what they wanted with it?
So we made it through the first week and crossed over into Louisiana. We had two days to make Lafayette and we picked out the road that ran closest to the Gulf and followed it. The shore was quiet and calm. A few gulls, lots of driftwood. A good chance to clear out some of the mental debris. We could see the rigs offshore pumping out the black gold. For the first time in my life, the sight was ominous. It conjured shortages, power plays and—who knew?—maybe someday war.
That night our road ended at the edge of a broad band of thick-flowing black water. We had to cross the bayou on a little ferry, just big enough for us and one other car. Some good ol’ boys rode across with us, their voices slow and twangy in the southern night air. They talked about coon hunting and rifles and a few things I couldn’t catch. It seemed a long way from those rigs offshore and even longer from the last night’s gig. But I knew that if this thing stopped, so would the others.
Trouble showed its face in Lafayette. Corky, Sly’s head roadie, had elected to fly their gear to New Orleans and drive back out from there. What he hadn’t reckoned with was an absence of gas stations once he got beyond the Crescent City fringe. He and Bobo (the new black muscle man assistant hired straight out of the pen for his ability to take no shit) found themselves clean out of petrol six miles from the end of a Louisiana toll road that was nothing but a raised dyke that cut through swamp and uninhabited delta. There were no services the entire length, and virtually no shoulder. The road fell directly off into cattails and murky depths.
Their truck stalled in the right lane with two wheels resting uneasily over the roadside edge. Bobo tried to flag oncoming cars but quit when someone hit him with a beer can. Corky—with his squirrel’s nest hairdo blowing in the wind—fared no better. It was the Highway Patrol that finally rescued them, but not before an up-against-the-wall frisk and some unseemly comments regarding Bobo’s set of prison tattoos.
Lafayette is a Cajun town: jumping accordion music on the radio; strange French names on the business signs; a soft, foreign feel to the air. Ordinarily I’d have dug it, but everybody was in ill humor that night. Even the band was getting tired of Sly’s nightly jetsetting between New York, the West Coast and the gig. Half the band were relatives (Freddy on guitar, Rose on piano, part of Little Sister) and others, like Cynthia the trumpet player, had known Sly since high school, but as far as Our Man seemed to care they might have been a local pick-up band.
Offstage, Sly had his own dressing room, his own travel arrangements and (apparently) his own unshared supply of nose candy. Bobo had remarked on the absence of powder shortly after he joined up. “This s’posed to be the biggest coke band in the world,” he’d said. “And I ain’t got a whiff yet.”
He was right. Kinsey held tight reins over the entourage. No doubt people were tooting up in private, but there were strict orders out to cool it in public. Sly’s ship of state was in rough enough seas already without having some roving plainclothes cop blow it out of the water. The upshot was a somewhat furtive, divided state of affairs offstage. The ladies in the band grouped together—and separate from everybody else. Jerry and Pat, the sax players, hung out as a pair. Other than that, things were pretty lonesome. The only band member who’d ever been friendly to me was Andy the drummer.
But all this changed somewhat in Louisiana. Partly it was the lifeboat atmosphere of gas-hunting (see below) and partly it was the growing realization that Sly was going to do us all in. Whatever the reasons, in Louisiana—for the first time—we became a touring party, not just separate show components. . .
As I’ve said, everyone was in ill humor in Lafayette. Accommodations were bad and the hall was a rundown college auditorium. Southern racial attitudes probably played a part as well. The militantly bi-racial, bi-gender vibe of the Family Stone was hardly flavor of the month. In any case, this was a twilight gig and the local opening act was done by seven o’clock. But Sly had not arrived. We waited. Seven-thirty. Eight. No Sly. Kinsey made phone calls.
Eight-thirty. Nine. Nine-thirty. I kept the tapes rolling out front, but the audience was wired and restless. Backstage a half-hearted game of cards dragged on and the ladies bitched. Kinsey phoned some more.
Time dragged. I joined the bitching. Finally, at eleven o’clock (a mere four hours late) Sly swept shakily onto the scene.
The band trooped out to perform with a distinct air of disgust and we all watched Sly mumble and jive his way through the standard hits. He’d made the gig, but only just. The reason was obvious.
Hobart, his insufferable personal manager, was with him and by all accounts it was only Hobart’s prodding that had gotten him to show up at all. It would have seemed the better part of discretion for Hobart to have booked Sly into a local hotel and kept track of him overnight, but such was not to be. When the show ended, the two of them exited quickly for the airport and disappeared in the Lear jet back to New York.
The rest of us were left on the ground to make our way north to Monroe, up near the Arkansas border. This might not seem a particularly perilous undertaking, but it was by now Sunday morning and there wasn’t a gas station open in the state.
Kinsey conferred with the promoter. This man—a Mr. Jackson by name—was a sweating, balding fellow about fifty. Not a bad sort, though much given to “y’alls” and hearty backslaps. I never once saw him without a toothpick in his mouth. Mr. Jackson was a good ol’ boy right enough, but he never acted strange around the blacks. He provided fried chicken backstage and asked “How y’all be doing?” time and time again. And he paid up front. We liked him.
Anyway, between he and Kinsey, a plan was devised whereby the entire touring company would travel in a caravan under Mr. Jackson’s leadership. His cousin ran a gas station somewhere in the middle of the state. There we would fuel up.
We set out about noon in a long line. Mr. Jackson and the band went first in a huge Winnebago camper, followed by separate trucks for the band’s gear, the lighting and last, the sound equipment. We rode two lane blacktop north through the center of the state. The road was a twisting state highway that wound its way past worked-over cotton fields and tar paper shacks. We passed towns and crossroads hamlets; miserable places for the most part. My memories of them are less of the buildings than of the faces we saw. Worn, passive, almost invariably black, the faces sat on warping porches, trod along dusty by-roads, peered with suspicion through unpainted doorways. This was the end of November but even so, it was hot. Andrews and I ceased to talk.
In the middle of it all, Mr. Jackson somehow lost his bearings and we wound up on the wrong road. The blacks in our party stayed well out of sight while directions were asked of some local rednecks. Our gas gauge read nearly empty. I tried not to think about the caravan stalled on these roads.
Eventually we found our station. While Mr. Jackson roused his cousin, the rest of us stepped cautiously out into the dusty heat for a bit of a stretch. The change in attitude was remarkable. Band vs. Crew divisions had been replaced by a sense of common identity in the face of a hostile landscape. Even the ladies of the Family Stone (who’d scarcely deigned to look me in the eye before) traded whispered jokes and shared commiserations. There was only a single gas pump, so it took a long time to fill the line of trucks. We took turns standing under the fan inside the station office and emptied their supply of soft drinks. We began to feel like an expedition.
Our newfound communality proved valuable that night. The show was held in a cattle auction building with dirt floors and enormous pens and stables backstage. We had to pick our way through manure piles to unload the truck.
Things started badly. The local stage help turned out to be down-at-heel middle-aged rednecks who eventually insulted Bobo so badly that he decked one. Now Bobo could more than take care of himself (he was so strong that he routinely hoisted amplifiers with one hand—and those prison tattoos hadn’t been gotten by accident), but we spent some anxious moments warding off a mass attack by the rednecks. Bobo was kept out of sight thereafter.
The crowd engaged itself in heavy, concerted drinking. As the hours wore on (and again, we waited for Sly) the inebriation level rose and fist fights became the order of the day. They had cops doing security and from the stage I watched them wade into the disturbances with billy clubs flying. The audience seemed to expect this sort of rough justice, for nobody protested.
Backstage, however, the tension rose. It peaked when Kinsey appeared with a grim announcement: Sly would not be leaving New York. Nobody needed to ask why. When it snows, it pours. Or something like that.
Sly’s sisters started in bitching about him, but when one of the lighting crew joined in they rounded on the poor guy in an instant. We, the crew, slipped out for a conference. Corky was cursing slowly and steadily in his harsh Philly accent. “I knew it was too good to last,” he said. “That lazy mother. Shit.” He nodded out towards the hall. “We gonna see some ballbusting tonight.”
“How so?” asked Andrews.
“Cops and crowd,” said Corky. “I seen it before down here. Ballbusting. Best thing we can do is stay away. You hear me now? Stay away till it’s over.”
“But our gear—they’ll trash it.”
Corky shook his head. “Not down here they won’t. Not with them billy clubs going.”
The sheriff’s men formed a line in front of the stage. Mr. Jackson came out with his toothpick to make the announcement. We went out back to sit by the trucks and let Bobo tell prison stories till the shouting died away.
The next day we went home. Kinsey came around to our rooms and explained the situation: Sly was done till spring. No sense in pretending otherwise. We shook hands and wished each other “Merry Christmas.” Then Andrews and I threw our bags in the back and headed north.
“Thank goodness we still have the Stevie Wonder tour,” said Andrews. “Andrea’s going to freak when she hears this.”
Just outside Joliet we heard the news on the radio: Stevie Wonder had relapsed. His injuries from the car accident were worse than had been thought. There would be no winter tour.
After that it was all over. The few local show possibilities weren’t enough to carry the payroll till spring. Andrea fought the inevitable for as long as she dared and then just before New Year’s she put the systems up for sale, took a large stock of Valium home, and became a recluse. Andrews hustled his contacts for a lighting job. I left the country.
Continental Sound Company had ceased to exist.