They can be some of the dingiest, God-forsaken spaces you’ve ever seen…and if you’re a band on the road, those backstages are your home. If you’re a superstar band, you might get the plush room with the deli platter…but if you’re a working musician, it’s more likely you’ll be crammed into a space far less than glamorous. Maybe you’ve seen the fabled dressing room at CBGB, where many of your punk heroes nodded out. Or the dressing room of Boston’s legendary Rat, which was often full of not-so-legendary rats. (It also didn’t have a working door, so if you were in eyeshot you could learn more about your favorite band than you ever wanted to.)
We hit up a few of our favorite musical pals for stories of their favorite backstages. It's no surprise that this was a topic that produced more than its share of eloquent ramblings.
Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Peter Holsapple has co-fronted two legendary bands, the dB’s and the Continental Drifters; he’s also been a touring member of R.E.M. and Hootie & the Blowfish. Currently he blogs about music for the New York Times and is earning raves for the new duo album Here & Now with fellow dB’s member Chris Stamey. He files this report on the most memorable backstages he’s known and loved over the years:
- Maxwell's (Hoboken, NJ) downstairs. Thin, short, wooden bench, and grafitti for Gun Club and Das Damen. Always very hot.
- CBGB. The little rooms behind the stage, always swarming with people. The bathrooms are of legend, and I remember when there was a urinal where there was supposed to be a urinal.
- The old kitchen at Carrollton Station (NOLA). Down a guttered concrete walk to the back of the club, filled with chairs and beer lights and cartons.
- Tipitina's (also in New Orleans), upstairs. Always hangers-out, lots of cold beer and laughs.
- Rockets in Richmond. The 'backstage' was the office which fit one uncomfortably. We shared space with a lot of files and a safe. And the dB's were really skinny guys at that point, too.
- The Greek Theater in Berkeley with Hootie. Copies of the classics were everywhere!
- On a Hootie tour day off, walking into a backstage jam at HORDE with Rich Robinson, Taj Mahal, Jeff Tweedy and others, surrounded by tapestries and burning incense. Some shed in the midwest.
- Irving Plaza after my debut with the dB's in 1978. All that wood paneling! I was in the room with Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary) and Professor Irwin Corey one night. Is that the window Gordon Spaeth from the Fleshtones jumped out of? The Only Ones spent the night in Irving Plaza, having been locked in and unwilling to do Gordon's jump.
- Objekt 5, Halle, Germany. The Drifters played there a couple of times. The dressing room was an open-sided room that overlooked the dance floor beneath. When you stood on the side of the hill into which the building receded, you could look at the dense smoke cover through the skylights.
- The next place I show up with a deli tray, a couple warm six-packs of Diet Coke and a sunken sofa...
Steve Barton was the singer/guitarist of the San Francisco band Translator, and writer of their 1982 hit "Everywhere That I’m Not." These days he writes pop gems for his own band, the Oblivion Click, and is also prepping for a Translator reunion show in SF next month, where they’ll play alongside the reunited Wire Train. He recalls one backstage that was sublime and ridiculous on the same day:
"When Translator was on the bill with David Bowie at the Oakland Stadium in California, I remember being backstage at the food area. I had my tray (much like being in elementary school at the cafeteria) and I was right behind Bowie in line. He was wearing a t-shirt and beat up jeans - looking undeniably cool. I was completely speechless. It was a bit overwhelming - I mean, having seen him play live with the Spiders From Mars during the Ziggy years (which completely blew my mind in so many ways), it was just so strange to be standing in line next to him, waiting for the poached salmon.
"Also, at that same stadium show…Translator had a show later that same night in Santa Cruz. We had time to catch a couple of Bowie's songs before we had to race out of town for our other show. The big burly backstage guard wouldn't let us backstage to get our gear. But, we were just up on the stage - 'Please, big muscle-bound hulk, please let us in!' It was like a Spinal Tap moment. Somehow they relented. We were allowed to collect our stuff and just made it to Santa Cruz."
David Jenkins is an LA-based bassist who toured the country a few times with former Kinks lead guitarist Dave Davies. The backstages, to say the least, were considerably less glossy than the ones the Kinks might have played.
"In Milwaukee we were told by the promoter that it was a tossup as to whether or not we were going to play since they had only sold 112 tickets to a 1000 plus seater. However, since he had spent so much money on our backline rider, it was a wash! Nice motivation to rock, huh? To top it off, after we finished 'working our b***s off' to quote Dave, he was accosted by a fan that said 'Ray, I love The Kinks!' Dave said thanks to him, looked at me and said it was easier to just go along than argue." [Ray is of course Dave’s slightly more famous brother, with whom he has a famously shaky relationship.]
"The all time bizarro moment may have been in Reading, PA at a place called The Silo. After a day that included an early start, a flat tire in the van on the freeway and watching our crazed roadie change the tire out while the van was running, we then hauled ass to the gig only to find it the complex with a motel and meeting hall that looked as if it were booked for a wedding. There were almost as few people as the gig described above AND when we were shown the 'backstage,' it was actually a showers/changing room like a high school with a deli spread laid on. Sadly, the smell of gym locker-ness made the meal inedible! When we all politley decided to eat elsewhere the 'boss' looked at us funny and we knew we were in a strange land."
Asked for a backstage story, Bill Janovitz of Boston’s Buffalo Tom noted only that "I once asked for salami on big bread and got small bread...oh, wait a minute; that wasn't me." This response left us scratching our heads until we brushed up our Spinal Tap lore and realized that Bill was in fact channeling Nigel Tufnel. But of course—We always have problems telling the two apart!
Edrie is part of Boston’s rock-cabaret troupe Walter Sickert & His Army of Broken Toys. The group has a new video, new songs and a summer tour schedule that includes the Steamcon mini-fest in Seattle in October.
Usually Edrie is about the most colorful person you’d see in a particular crowd…but that wasn’t the case one night at Royce Hall in UCLA, Los Angeles. "Our load in was scheduled for 4:00pm. Like good doobies, we were 100% on time only to find every single street around the building blocked with barriers, a massive number of clearly marked police cars and not so clearly marked black SUVs. I drove around the barriers to get to the door they had told us to go to. This elicited a great deal of excitement from the immediate swarm of hundreds of police and plainclothed armed men.
"Apparently, former President Bill Clinton was speaking at Royce Hall, and, as is the way with these things, he was running quite late while we were running on time. It took a great deal of fast talking to get out of being shot, arrested or worse, not allowed to load in! I gave a CD to the spokesperson (who I assumed was Secret Service) and asked him to hand it to Bill. We managed to see Bill as he was escorted from the building; the man actually gave him the CD as Bill got into one of the SUVs. Bill gave us the thumbs up before they slammed the door and sped away."
The lingering good vibes from this incident may have extended to a heartwarming incident that happened on tour last fall. "Back stage at the Melkweg in Amsterdam last fall, two nervous looking gents in fine attire (top hats and tails) were slinking around trying not to look out of place. The back stage of the Melkweg is a rabbit warren of dirty rooms and sticky corridors and boys were clearly lost and confused. I was in my Tiger Lillies T-shirt and ripped jeans, my hair was up in a cap and I had no makeup on. We had just gotten in from a late show and an exploration of the finer coffee houses of the city. I was ready for a shower, some food and to get costumed. Feeling pity for these poor creatures, I asked them if I could help them."
"One of them swallowed hard and went mute. The other bolstered himself and said in a lovely French accent, 'I’m Edrie’s best friend from school. She told me to meet her here before the show.' I laughed loudly, the glee of the moment overtaking me. 'I’m Edrie. I was homeschooled on a farm in North Dakota. Are you hungry?' The poor gent almost fainted while the other melted into the floor. I took them to catering and had the staff load them up with food, gave them free merch and back stage passes. Come to find out they had no tickets to the sold out show, had hitchhiked from France the night before, and stowed into a back door while our guys were unloading our gear a few hours before. We announced this from stage and asked if anyone was willing to put them up for the night (I could hardly let them sleep on the street) – not only did they get a nice place to stay, but another fan paid their train fare home."
Another veteran of these pages, Ted Drozdowski plays rippin’ slide guitar with the Nashville-based blues combo the Scissormen. He also I've had a frighteningly good run of experiences backstage with my own band and hanging out with various musicians. Like watching Sammy Hagar try to imitate Ray Charles backstage at the Rubber Bowl in Akron, bluesman T-Model Ford spontaneously barking at his drummer Spam - "Spam, you're so stupid you're gonna send us both straight to hell"; drinking Jaeger with Metallica straight from their Jaeger chiller machine, hanging out with a clan of vampires at Grendel's in Philly, smoking so much upstairs at the original House of Blues in Cambridge the doorman had to come up to tell us it was backing up through the vents and flowing in a cloud over the entryway, seeing rats crawling over my Telecaster in the dressing room of the Rat, being congratulated on my guitar playing by Gang of 4’s Andy Gill - a giant influence on my guitar playing - when he walked into our dressing room at Axis one night, and the beat goes on. Sometimes I think I've been a pretty damn lucky guy!
Johnny Angel is a Boston rock hero who played in the Thrills and the Blackjacks, and now broadcasts nationally under his talk-radio name of Johnny Wendell.
"Thrills' heroes were the Ramones. And when we got to open for them in June, 1979, we were, well, thrilled.
"They had inspired and encouraged us. They were our godfathers and pals. But when we asked naively if they were going to move their gear back at all for us at the Paradise, well, forget it.So, we set up in front of them and at set time, out we came to much fanfare. We had a song on the radio then, we were hot and we were psyched. "
"At the beginning of the set's fourth song 'When Ya Gonna Quit?,' I played my little intro and then made my customary jump when the beat slammed in. Thing was, I didn't really have as much room as I needed and so the heel of my shoe caught the edge of the carpeting onstage when I landed and I twisted my right knee so badly that all of the cartilege in it tore on that very spot, a sports injury."
"But I was a trooper and kept going. And kept falling too. The knee was the size of a softball by the end of the set and I limped up into the dressing room. My mother (a nurse) and DeeDee Ramone (not a nurse) checked out the knee and were arguing over what was wrong with it (DeeDee had hurt his own knee slamming a car door on it). I couldn't believe the two of them and their banter, but did go to the ER - nothing broken. As I write this, 30 years later, the knee still aches from time to time and reminds me that for however much fun I had playing rock and roll, I had a lot of agonies, too."
Johnny’s other story is more an onstage than a backstage story, but it definitely bears repeating. It has to do with his other band, the Swinging Erudites, whose mission in life was everyone in the audience.
"WBCN used to have these 'Lunchtime Special Concerts' at various venues in the greater Boston area and I think I did them with every band I was in, but none were quite as memorable or as special as when the Swinging Erudites did one on Landsdowne St, one Wednesday in 1984. The station was playing our lounge version of 'I Wanna Be Sedated' and Oedipus, the PD, was a huge fan of the 'band.' What he didn't seem to grasp was the lengths we would go to, to promote our peculiar philosophy of 'stage craft.' Namely, we would go to any lengths to enrage an audience, or more accurately, outrage them with our deliberately awful sets. If the idea is to 'always leave them wanting more,' ours was 'always have them wanting to leave.'
"Succinctly, if every other band wanted to be the greatest, we strove to be the worst, I reasoned that would make it a more memorable, if completely intolerable experience. Also, the permaeating miasma of mindless success striving in the Reagan era had made the idea that if you really just wanted to f*** around and amuse yourself was a major no no. Therefore, it was even more enjoyable to be a professional douchebag - you were sticking it to the man, man!"
"The night before this major show, 'practice' was 15 minutes long and ended without a single tune completed. So, 1,000 rock fans filled the Metro (which is called something else now, maybe Avalon?), to get their free hot dog and cheap beer and to be ROCKED. Out onto the stage sashay the Swinging E's in unmatching polyester suits, long before 'lounge core' was fashionable or even recognizable. And launched with pseudo earnestness into 'The Girl From Ipanema' and 'Misty,' totally unrehearsed and in the case of the latter song, in three different keys, because I wouldn't tell the other guys what key it was in. I mean, why spoil it, y'know?"
"Utter horror. Which only worsened as we massacred 'jazz' versions of 'Anarchy In The UK,' 'Walk On The Wild Side' and rendered the tender '70s ballad 'Little Green Apples' unlistenable in its 'Sonic Youth Version.'"
"We brought out a few of our friends to dance in tuxes and ballgowns for 'Sedated,' which only made the dwindling crowd that much more irate. And then, the piece d'resistance, 15 minutes of The Beatles' 'Yesterday,' replete with hardcore/reggae/free jazz/polka/bluegrass/mariachi/march sections. That was the closer. The owner of the place guesstimated we had about 1,200 people in the door at the beginning of the set, 60 at the end. He laid this grim statistic on me as he was ruefully and angrily paying us. When I relayed this to the E's singer, Jim Ryan, both of us were grinning ear to ear - mission accomplished."
"3 years later, the only hit song I ever had [namely "Walk With an Erection," a parody of a certain Bangles hit] came from that joke act and subsequently, the joy was drained right out of doing it--we'd succeeded against everything we'd ever believed in. Being popular wasn't nearly as much fun as being loathed."