Old Man Musings
36 years ago last week we did a thing. No show has come close to generating the excitement this gig did since. It was a different time, one in which pirates ruled the road, rules were not yet written, and we did illicit substances to overcome fatigue. It may not have been pretty, but boy, we had a lot of fun.
Old Man Musings – Live Aid
It’s another hot summer day at the lighting shop in NYC when over the PA I hear an announcement from WPLJ, the top 40 radio station in the city.
“Stand by for breaking news: It’s been reported that a concert the likes of which has never been seen before will take place next month, simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. The show is a benefit billed as ‘Live Aid’ and artists scheduled to perform include all the major stars of today from Mick Jagger and Tina Turner to the regrouping of Led Zeppelin. Drummer Phil Collins from Genesis is to appear in London with his band in the AM, then catch the Concorde shuttle to Philly where he will take the place of drummer John Bonham in the Zeppelin set.”
They then went on to list all the acts playing Philly along with the date for tickets to be released. There was not much time between the announcement on the radio and the date of the show. This intrigued me, because at this time there weren’t 20 different lighting vendors in the major metropolitan areas of NY and Philly. So I walked up the three floors of the See Factor shop to talk with Elliot Krowe, their lead account manager to see if he heard about the show.
“Elliot, you hear about this gig they’re calling Live Aid?”
“Yup, been on the phone with their design team all morning working it out. I’ll have the plot by tomorrow morning and I need you to circuit it and get a gear list going. Mikie Weiss will crew chief it, but he’s on tour at the moment. You’ll be the electrician so I need you to finish your work today and start on this tomorrow morning.”
Music to my ears.
Bob See flew in all his big league guys that weren’t touring at the moment and we had about a week to prep the system. A system that changed almost hourly it seemed as I got constant calls to come up to the third floor for more revisions. It actually got to a point where I stopped building the system, because as soon as I gelled and cabled one truss, it would be scrapped for a new truss configuration.
At this point of the tale I need to step back in time some 30 years, as it was a different era and workplace back then. One in which illicit drugs played a large and seemingly vital role to some in our industry. Unlike being frowned upon by today’s touring elite, it was the opposite back then. If you were holding a big bag of blow, you got whatever you wanted. That included changing the lighting plot hourly. And yes, the design team behind this production was no different than the rest of us. I imagine 9 out of every 10 people working that show that week were dog tired…, and looking for a pick me up.
We loaded in on a Monday, before the weekend show. As we started rigging points and bolting trusses together, the system was still changing. Trusses needed to be moved to adapt for the circular rotating stage that was built into the outdoor roof and stage. The idea was that while one act was playing, the other was setting up on the other side of the turntable. Set changes in theory, would last 5 minutes tops and each band got something like 15 minutes to play their three songs.
It turned out every inch of space on stage was needed for band gear, so my large dimmer pit was shifted upwards, to be located on some more decks stage right, eight feet above the stage. This turned out great as I was out of the way of everyone else and had the bird’s eye view for the show. After setting up and seeing everything work from my end in the dimmers, I get a call from Bob See to come see him in production. I’m off.
“How’s the set up going?”
“All is fine, I’ve seen everything fire from the dimmers and we just need to go to trim and focus.”
“Good, I have another gig I need you to do.”
My heart sinks in my chest. I was quite excited to work this gig and the idea of missing it brought my high right down.
“I need you to drive to Atlanta and back in two days.”
“We need some more spotlights and one of the LDs, Jim Chapman, has them sitting in some lighting shop called R.A. Roth. Since I don’t need you to focus – you’ve been elected to drive.”
“OK, gimme me the keys. How far is it?”
“If you leave now, you can be there by 8 PM, then turn around. I will fly someone in to spell you for the way back so you can sleep.”
“Yeah, don’t laugh when you walk in their shop. They build their own square par cans.”
12 hours later I pull into some shop in an Atlanta suburb. The lights are all off, but I drive around the back of the place and park by the loading dock. I check the back door and it’s not locked. I open it up and feel around for a light switch and illuminate the joint. There’s nobody there. So I turn on more lights and walk to the front office. I call Bob See back at the stadium. He has me hold on while Chapman gives me the number to call the shop manager, which I do.
“Hey there, this is Nook from Live Aid, I’m here to pick up some spotlights.”
“Where are you?”
“I believe I’m currently sitting at your desk. Do you have two kids and a brunette wife?”
“Who let you in?”
“Nobody. The back door was unlocked.”
Audible sigh, “I’ll be right down.”
The gear was never pulled by anyone in the shop, so we rounded up everything I needed and strapped it to the side of the Ryder truck. Apparently the busy, amped up front of house in Philly had neglected to tell the shop foreman I was arriving that evening.
I pick up my gear and stop for the guy at the Charlotte airport on the way back to JFK Stadium. Crashed hard, despite sitting upright for the rest of the ride. Once in Philly we loaded in the spots while the lighting crew was focusing a few hundred par cans. They had been focusing and refocusing again for two nights straight. The show was the next day. I was burnt to a crisp, dog tired.
During the whole week a lot of souls worked long hours. Unlike most big rock shows in the 80’s, there was a lack of cocaine anywhere. Being on the lighting crew, people approached us every hour during rehearsals with the usual line, “Got any? Who’s holding? Is there a card game anywhere I can get in on?” This may be hard to imagine for some of you, but It’s just the way things ran back then. It’s the day before the show when I decide to call up a buddy in New York to tell him what I’m doing and ask for a little help.
“Hey, you wouldn’t by chance have an ounce of blow?”
“I can go pick one up, where are you?”
“Well that’s just it, I’m in Philly.”
“Ummm, I can’t deliver to Philly.”
“Want a backstage pass to sit next to me for Live Aid?”
“What time you need me there?”
So at ten AM the next day we do the laminate shuffle and I borrow a fellow workers pass to walk my friend in.
“You got the goods?”
“Listen, everyone on the stage is looking for you. We gotta keep this on the down low.”
“OK where do we go.”
“I’m gonna park you on the second floor stage right, where we have all the dimmers set up out of the way. Best seats in the house.”
“OK, is it safe there?”
“Yup. But here’s the deal. You need to sell each bindle by the gram, standard $100 per gram, no deals. Someone will want to hoard it all. So everyone is only allowed one gram. This is strictly a public service, to help us all get thru the day.”
And with that we kept it on the downlow for a few hours. Then there was a stream of people my friend didn’t know climbing up to the second floor. And the police on stage seemed to notice and were watching us. It was all pretty safe until the rock stars themselves were climbing the scaffolding. Why would the guitar player for this highly successful rock band be climbing the scaffolding you might ask? To get a better look as there were 2000 people backstage? Surely that’s it.
Everyone that climbed was told the same thing. “Put a $100 bill in your back pocket and watch the stage as if you love the band. When nobody is looking up at us I’ll slide the bill out and replace it with a bindle. Wait til the end of the song and be gone. Don’t come back here, supplies are limited and will be gone shortly.”
The show itself lived up to all the hype. Every band from the Hooters opening up to CSNY, from Madonna to Clapton to Mick and Tina closing the show were at the top of their game. Phil Collins came thru as promised. To this day it was probably the highest profile festival after Woodstock. The only downside was we set up all these lights for about two hours of actual good use, but that’s OK.
That day was a scorcher. So hot the Philly fireman were brought in to hose down the 100k baking on the field. The sun beat down on us and we were all played out by the time the show ended…, when Bob See threw us a bone.
“We’re gonna let everyone else load out the sound and band gear tonight. Go cover the consoles and spots, we’ll come in at 9 AM and load out the rest.”
We walk in the next day and it’s a barren stage in a littered field. I walk out front to get the desks and spots off the front of house riser. As I look around, all of the video gear is gone. Coaxial cables cut and left to rot taped to the scaffold. But they’ve left something valuable behind. 17 Sony Trinitron televisions that had been used as video monitors. These beauties were top of the line back then, going for $800 each. I had recently priced one only to find I couldn’t afford one. I radio my buddy Mikie Weiss and ask him to come out to Front of House.
“Whatcha suggest we do with all these brand new TV sets they used for monitors?”
“We’re the last ones here. If we leave them here, the stagehands will just take them.”
“So what do we do Mikie?”
“We take each one back to the dimmers. We have a lot of packing blankets. We can fit two of these in each cable box.”
“Whatcha doing with all the cables.”
“Screw it, let’s throw them all in loose at the end of the truck. We each get a free TV. Bob See’s already gone.., nobody tell him.”
“What about the stagehands? They’ll want their cut I imagine?”
“Uhmmm.., See that tent over there.” Weiss points toward stage right.
“There’s gotta be 500 cases of Budweiser in there and it’s all gonna rot in this heat. I’m telling all the hands at break time to pull their cars up and take as many cases as they can fit. They’ll forget about the TVs.”
36 years ago, I probably made the grand sum of $500 total for that week of hard labor. But I did get 15 years out of that TV.