Rock 'N' Work

The Beat Goes On Backstage, Or It Doesn't Go Onstage

By Michael Bauman, Milwaukee Journal Insight, August 6, 1981, transcribed by pwrwindows

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Backstage at a rock concert - big stars, big money, big egos, glamor, the whole bit, right?

Well, not exactly. Yes, there are big stars around. Yes, there is big money involved. Yes, there are big egos present. Yes, there is glamor. And it all adds up to a certain backstage mystique that makes a lot of fans want desperately to get a glimpse of this other world.

But, at the same time, there are also just a lot of normal human beings working hard at their jobs.

Two weekends at the Alpine Valley Music Theater with two big rock acts - the Doobie Brothers and Rush - give evidence of backstage as a place where show biz glitter meets logistics and labor to form rock.

The real tip-off comes on the afternoon of July 4, a Saturday, several hours before Rush opens a two-night stand. Rush, for those non-rockers in the audience, is a Canadian group, typically described through rock cliches as a power trio, or a heavy metal band.

Their music is a combination of a dense, textured sound, an assaultive beat, futuristic technology and lyrical content that is more intellectually pretentious than most. It is as though Bill Haley and the Comets went existential with help from Wernher von Braun.

Whatever the description, they are big, big, big. Finishing a six-month tour, they play to capacity crowds at Alpine Valley - 40,000 people in two nights.

Most bands that play the Alpine's outdoor concert facility near East Troy stay at the nearby lodge. Rush, however, stays at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva and makes plans to arrive and depart from the theater via helicopter.

This would cost more than $4,000 for a few minutes of travel, and in a burst of fiscal conservatism, the band's management scratches the copter trips. The band settles for two limosines the size of Rhode Island.


WHEN the band and the ranking members of its entourage pull up backstage in midafternoon, everything halts for a few minutes while everyone takes careful note of the band members' appearance and demeanor. The stars appearing to be fit, and in at least reasonable spirits, life goes on.

But as the band - Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart - mingle backstage, awaiting a sound check, the whole thing takes on a more workaday flavor.

There is Lee, for instance, lead singer of Rush. Here's a guy who is an idol of millions of young people.

He's walking around wearing a Moosehead Beer (a Newfoundland brew) T-shirt, glasses, shorts, tube socks and low-cut red sneakers. He looks more like somebody who was eliminated in an early round of a Frisbee tournament than a rock superstar.

Geddy Lee has a bite to eat with the crew, does a national radio interview and, when the band needs a locked, private room for a meeting with its management, politely asks the Alpine production staff if their room can be used for a while.

When the meeting runs longer than expected, he emerges to apologize. When the meeting ends, he comes out and says, "Thank you very much."

This sort of conduct is really disappointing. Why isn't the guy shouting orders, insulting bystanders and demanding women and drugs? Or is it insulting women and demanding bystanders and drugs? Isn't this what male rock stars do?

What these big rock stars spend the rest of the afternoon doing - about 90 minutes worth - is a sound check.

This is a departure from the week previous when the Doobie Brothers' 4 p.m. sound check comes and goes before it is discovered that the Doobies are out riding motorcycles in the Wisconsin countryside.

One of the Doobies has a cycle dealership, it turns out, and they just did a promotion for Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee the day before, and it is such a nice day, and what the heck, these guys are such pros, they've been playing on the road for so long, and they've played at Alpine before and, you know, man....

So no sound check. With the crew at Alpine the Doobies and their entourage have the reputation of being very laid-back, very cool, very, as some suggest, California. Rush, on the other hand, in its previous appearances was a good deal more intense. Before the group's arrival, Alpine staffers were recalling "monster arguments" with the Rush people.

There are no monster arguments this time out. In fact, there are hardly any arguments at all. This probably has something to do with the success of the Rush tour, the competence of the Alpine staff and the nature of Alpine Valley itself.


THIS "venue," in the jargon of the trade, is unique. Alpine is just 40 to 45 minutes from Downtown Milwaukee, yet it's another world, a major concert facility set down amid the Kettle Moraine countryside.

Neighbors and officials in Walworth County frequently have been less than thrilled with the place since it opened in 1977, but from the standpoint of the audience this is an ideal spot for a concert, esthetically and acoustically.

Alpine is built into a natural hillside amphitheater, the stage opening to 5,800 seats below a tri-arched canopy, with room for another 14,200 people on the hillside lawn above.

Along with the sound and good sightlines, the setting is picturesque and almost pastoral, a long way from the gray arena setting of most concerts. On an afternoon before a concert there is the lovely incongruity of the sound system being warmed up with Pink Floyd blaring out while golfers are hacking their way around the course in the valley below.

The effect, Alpine staffers say, is that bands tell them Alpine is one of their favorite places to play. Patrick Simmons of the Doobies said onstage that Alpine was the favorite place to play for his band. Bands, of course, tend to say Cleveland is their favorite place if they are in Cleveland, but in this case there is a little more evidence on the side of sincerity.

The effect backstage, the staff says, is that even the testiest of groups and crews can be mellowed out after spending time at Alpine.

This certainly is the case with Rush crew members, who are not in the best of moods after being behind schedule leaving a Minneapolis concert early Saturday morning, driving in the tour buses (the band flies) overnight and arriving at Alpine at 8 a.m. to begin forthwith a long day of setting up another show.

The backstage breakfast has to be set up and dismantled repeatedly to accommodate the road crew. "If these roadies don't quit complaining, I'm going to walk right out of here," Carol Klein, the caterer, says. "Nothing seems to please them."

She doesn't walk out. In fact, at about 2 a.m. the next day she is still working and, when asked if this isn't a very long day, smiles and says, "23 hours."

Ah, the food. The bands and their crews do not subsist on Big Macs and fries. The menu requirements are specified contractually down to the size of Coca-Cola bottles backstage (6.5 ounces for Rush.)

With an entourage of about 60 people in the case of the Doobies, the backstage feeding underneath a tent takes on the aspects of a church picnic or an Army mess, as a parade of hungry people file though to get their daily bread.

"Every weekend, I feel like I'm in the Army," Betty Kroll, the cook, comments at one point. But these are certainly not K rations. The dinner for the Doobies' crew is scrumptious: turkey and dressing, mashed potato and gravy, tossed salad, rolls, beans, corn and, to finish it off, carrot cake. Rock music and large servings - what a life.

As predicted, the Rush people do mellow out, although at dinner, by contract once again, the Rush crew has to finish eating before the Alpine staff can start.


ROCK, from the performance standpoint, is largely a nighttime thing. But the setup - "load-in" in the trade - is an all-day undertaking starting in the early morning hours, the traveling road crew working with the Alpine crew, the huge semis parked at the side of the stage.

Generally, the rigging for the suspended portions of the band's sound system goes in first, then the lights, then the sound, then the band gear goes onstage. Then each of the components are tested and checked at length.

This sounds much simpler than it is. When you gaze at the mountains of equipment or the sound board that looks like a launch panel at Cape Kennedy, you get a feeling for the complexity that has taken over this basic form of music.

The setup for both the Doobie Brothers and Rush goes smoothly. Alpine has retained a professional staff over the years. Many of the bands retain the same crews for years. The shared expectation is that the logistical problems all can be overcome.

"The business has become a lot more professional, on all levels," says Joe Balestrieri, marketing director and head of promotion for Alpine. "The security is better, the technology is better, the setting up is better. The bands bring CPAs to close out."

Yes, in the band retinue that includes road managers, production managers, hospitality managers and manager managers, the big groups bring in certified public accountants to make sure that the books and the bucks are in order.

Rush and the Doobies play for more than $200,000 each for their weekends' work at Alpine. The cost for keeping a major band on the road is estimated at $30,000 to $35,000 per day. So the bands don't just count the money, say thanks and split.

One of the accountants with the Doobies has a track record of insulting people's integrity as a way of doing business. He is kept under wraps until about 10 p.m. Saturday. The Alpine staff isn't exactly thrilled when he shows up in their offices at the top of the hill. But matters are resolved peacefully.

It is taken for granted that bands are worried about getting their share. If that concern is expressed reasonably, nobody is offended, even at a major, reputable establishment such as Alpine.

"The bands are paranoid about money," one Alpine staffer says. "They've all been stiffed before."

Generally, the tone of the road crew and the band management is set by the band itself. If band members want to be outrageous, they don't have to do it themselves; they can pay people to be outrageous for them.

"If the manager is beat up and twitching, that tells you something about the band," an Alpine staffer says, implying that some bands put a great deal of pressure on their managers.

In the case of the Doobie Brothers, there are a few backstage arguments among band members, but the overall tone is relaxed. Rush, winding up a highly successful tour of packed houses on warm summer nights, does not come off as the epitome of relaxation but apparently has even fewer problems.

Basically, visitors shouldn't have many problems, because much of the effort backstage at Alpine centers on making sure they are content.

Backstage accommodations beneath the stage are comfortable with separate rooms for the band, the road crew, the production staff, the stage crew.

A security company has guards posted at the doors. Nobody gets anywhere near the band without an appropriate pass. Throughout the day there are calls from people with a bizarre range of tales claiming that some member of the band or crew or management is absolutely insisting they be given backstage passes.

Leslie West, Alpine public relations director, fields these calls in a fair but firm manner which means that nobody gets in who's not supposed to.

The aim is comfort, stability, a homelike atmosphere. Much of this, again, is spelled out contractually, from the soap the crew will use to wash - Irish Spring or Dial for the Rush crew - to the coffee they will drink (Maxwell House "all-purpose ground," please).

More subtly, the tone is that everybody connected with the band - even loosely connected - gets treated with a certain implied deference.

For instance, a crew member picks up a young woman at a previous concert and arranges to meet backstage at Alpine. Fine. Regardless of what people think privately, she is treated civilly.

In midafternoon before the Doobies' concert, four young women show up, introducing themselves as friends of the band's staff. It turns out they are, and they hang around while everybody else works. "Spiritual advisers," says an Alpine staffer, smiling.


ALPINE throws a party for Rush after the Saturday night concert, and the Rush entourage wants 25 women in attendance to "dress up the party." So Alpine staffers start recruiting. Rush specifies that no hookers are to be in attendance.

Rush's needs may be esoteric, but no problem. Oysters on the half shell, smoked salmon, an electronic game in the dressing room - they get it. For the party, the band wants sushi, a Japanese fish-and-rice dish. The Alpine caterers can do a lot, but making a Japanese fish delicacy is a little much. A limo is dispatched from Chicago with the sushi.

"Why shouldn't they be happy? It's a beautiful setting, they're making lots of money, they're playing to big houses," says Brad Wavra, Alpine Valley's stage manager.

"The performers are ... just like you and I for the most part. But when it gets close to show time, the artist's ego takes over.

"And if it takes a bottle of Dom Perignon 1949, or whatever, if that's what it takes to get them in the frame of mind to give the audience the beat show possible, then that's fine. You've got to make them feel at home. You've got to make them feel as though they can reach in the refrigerator and get whatever they want."


AS CONCERT time nears, the theater begins to fill with people running concessions, ushers and - most notably - security personnel.

Being a good security outfit at a cathartic event such as a rock concert means maintaining a certain presence without acting like Gestapo agents.

R.T.M. Heavy Security Co. appears to be able to strike this balance, although the security logistics at Alpine are not the easiest. Alpine is in the middle of the countryside, and there is a parking area atop the hill where people can party all day in preparation for partying all night.

With 20,000 people in close quarters and the wrong blend of substance abuse, you are bound to get a few bad actors, actresses and acts.

The Doobies' crowd is expected to be as mellow as the band. And it is, for the most part. A few people, however, get chucked out early, illustrating to the rest that bad behavior is, as Terry Cullen, owner and president of R.T.M., puts it, "uneconomical."

The Rush concert looks like no picnic for the 70 R.T.M. people. It is the Fourth of July, there is a large and boisterous crowd in the parking lot, and security people are confiscating fireworks and turning them over literally by the garbage bagful to authorities.

In the afternoon, a security man is jumped by three men he tried to dissuade from cutting in line. He suffers a lump and a deep cut under his eye.

And after the show starts there are a couple of incidents in which members of the audience get violent with other members of the audience. These people are forcefully removed, turned over to authorities and the evening proceeds with few problems.

The RTM people, who meet in groups before the show to discuss tactics, have what amounts to a team meeting after the show to see how it went. They are the last to leave the grounds and some work an overnight shift there.


AS EACH 8 p.m. show time nears, the atmosphere begins to make the transition from the working world of getting ready for the concert to the show biz world of putting it on.

When the upper gates open at 6, there is a mad scramble, a race literally, down the hill to the choicest of the unreserved seats on the lawn. It is sort of a rock version of the Oklahoma land rush, survival of the fittest and the fastest.

Before the Doobies' show, a few members of the crew position themselves backstage with binoculars to get a better look at the crowd, more specifically the female crowd.

A member of the band backing up Carl Wilson (one of the Beach Boys), who is opening for the Doobies on this tour, walks up the stairs, peeks around the corner to get a look at the crowd and sees a sea of humanity - 19,000 folks this night - on the hill.

"Ooh, there's one helluva lot of people out there - the old adrenaline's really flowing," he says.

The caterers are making last-minute deliveries of assorted alcoholic refreshments to the dressing rooms; the road crew is scrambling around.

Questions continue up until the final moment. The Doobies road manager, Chris Littleton, downstairs outside the dressing room, is on the walkie-talkie to Lol Halsey, the band's production manager, trying to ascertain how the group will make its grand entrance.

Momentary indecision. "Well, what is it, stage left or atage right? Make up your bleepin' English mind," Littleton says, sounding perturbed, but smiling.

Out of the walkie-talkie comes the response: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." The Doobies do make it onstage - stage left - swing into "Takin' It to the Streets," and the place goes bananas for the next couple of hours.

With the evolution of the business and the current recession, Balestrieri says putting on the show is getting to be the easy part of the business. The hard part is getting the right bands booked and then selling the tickets.

Still, with all the state-of-the-art technology and the overlay of big business, the backstage atmosphere retains the excitement, the vitality that is the essence of rock. "When 8 o'clock comes and the lights go on, there's an electricity you can't even begin to feel," Wavra says. "You stand out on the stage and you can see 50 rows back the kids are just ecstatic.

"Or you walk up in the crowd and you look down the hill. You don't see the fights, the arguments, the problems. All you see is a beautiful show. It makes all the headaches worthwhile."