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Friday, February 14, 2014

WHY YOU DON’T WANT A FREE BACKSTAGE PASS

When I was a teenager I loved going to reggae concerts.  Deep in the thick of the crowd, moving my body to the easy rhythm and heavy bass, it was easy to forget every adolescent anxiety and just be me.  Up on stage, the Rastafarians were like exotic birds with their long dreadlocked manes and fabulous accents.  I felt they were singing directly to me, as if they knew exactly what I needed to hear.  I would walk into the concert worried about a boy who didn’t care for me or a girlfriend who didn’t treat me as if I were part of the “in” crowd… and after a few songs it would all melt away.

The band would start off easy and sweet and then warm up until they reached a frenzied crescendo of spontaneous solo instrumentals — where each band member got a moment to show us his thing and we all screamed and applauded with delight, and even a bit of pride, as if that drummer or saxophone player was our own child performing in front of everyone for the first time.  They knew we felt like family.  I knew they knew because they would encourage us to wave our hands in the air in unison, even hold our neighbor’s hand and sing together some wonderful ditty like “Now that we found love what are we going to do with it?”



The band had traveled all of the way from Jamaica to give us a different kind of concert, where instead of being pissed at the tall guy in front of you or the weirdoes to the right that kept making out, you loved your neighbors.  You forgave them their imperfections.  You reached over and held their hands.  And then the band would ask us what we were going to do with all that love.  And I would hear it as a question.  And I would answer that question.  I would tell myself: I will love myself enough to not worry about that boy, I will help all of my girlfriends to feel like they are part of the “in” crowd.

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was when at the age of twenty-two I got a job being the assistant to the on-tour producer of a major reggae production.  
We were to travel around the United States in eight busses doing shows all over the country and then do a spectacular finale reggae concert on a beautiful island in the Caribbean.  The dream job!  I didn’t just have a backstage pass to meet reggae idols like Third World, Steel Pulse, and Culture— I was in charge of the backstage pass guest list!

We were in a different city every day.  Our fancy tour bus had, not one, but two TV lounges (and unlike everyone else on the bus I could choose to lounge in either— with the rest of the production team in front or with the producer himself in back).  After traveling all night in our little bunk beds, we would show up someplace like Cincinnati, Ohio (not that I was required to notice, it was the band managers that were in charge of reminding the stars what city they were in just before show time.  “Hello, Cincinnati!!”).  My job was to ready the venue.  “The venue,” by the way is what we called the place where the concert would take place, which could be anything from a club like the House of Blues, a huge outdoor arena, or a full blown reggae festival in the hills.  I would ready the venue by holding a meeting with the security staff to tell them what our laminates looked like, give the guest lists to Will Call, and explain to the back stage kitchen staff that Rastafarians don’t eat shellfish or pork, yes, just like Jews.  No, I didn’t care that they’d already ordered a dozen chicken breasts wrapped in bacon.

Each night world renown reggae stars would come to me and sing private serenades, endlessly flirting in order to jockey the favor of adding one more person to their guest list.  Or remove someone.  Because sometimes a girl that had been added became a bother and needed to be replaced with another.

And there is where the bubble burst.  As it turned out, the show’s crew, called “roadies,” and band members, and even the stars, weren’t just goodwill ambassadors spreading love throughout the land, they were also human people on a road trip.   I don’t know how many road trips you have been on but I’ve been on several so I can tell you there are a few themes: you don’t have your bed from home with you, you don’t have all of your loved ones with you, and you don’t have your favorite things from back home to eat.  This means that, despite all of the exitement, there are a lot of moments where you are lonely and uncomfortable.  What you do have are your road trip buddies who quickly become something resembling family.  Not family in the “us Olsons are always like that” sort of way — more like family in the “fucking John ate truck stop cheese again and now the whole bus is going to stink like ass for the next fifty miles” sort of way.  And you get to know a little too many details about each other’s lives, like who has the dignity to never cheat on their wives when they are back home in Jamaica and what options people have tried on the menus of popular Nevada desert brothels.

(By the way, don’t ask me for anymore details, I had my own good times and, glass houses being what they are, as far as I will recall, your husband was an angel.  He might as well have had a chastity belt with your name chiseled into the steel.  Seriously, we were all impressed by his fortitude in the face of those half naked hippy chicks that showed their tits to the security guard and then offered your roady husband a blow job because they were caught up in the love moment and he was as close as they will ever get to the star of the show.)

This, of course, was years before I became a wife myself so rampant infidelity, while regrettable, isn’t what choked the reggae vibe for me.   Frankly, on the whole, reggae stars seemed much more sedate than the stories we’ve all heard about rock stars.  (I was once tasked to divide up thousands of dollars in twenties to pay the roadies their weekly salaries while everyone around me puffed joints and nasty porn blared on the big screen, but I screwed it up so badly that my boss quickly decided to take over that job himself.)

What really burst my good vibes bubble was the money.  As it turns out: Now that you found love, what you are going to do is pay child support.

At the tender age of twenty-two, I had never faced mortgages, child support or any other kind of serious domestic bill, but I quickly learned this important fact of reggae-nomics:  if you have ten different baby mammas, all ten of them want some kind of monthly stipend.  This itchy reality causes a cascade of not-very lovable issues like having to go on tour, again, when you’re tired of going on tour and you don’t have any new music; going on tour and playing the exact same set with the exact same “spontaneous” break-out solo moments every. single. night; and, since you are mostly there for the money, having to make sure that you are paid exactly what you were promised to be paid.  This last one is where it can get really sticky.

See, here is a dirty little secret of the reggae industry: the people who go to reggae shows (while a completely lovable bunch) aren’t…how can I put it…very organized.  They tend to buy tickets at the last minute.  Many of them don’t buy tickets in advance at all but simply show up at the door hoping that a ticket will materialize (by some miracle).  On the tour I was on this unpredictability often resulted in the venue wanting to renegotiate the deal on the day of the show.  We would arrive and want to be paid before the show started.  The venue manager would argue that there weren’t enough tickets sold so he didn’t have the money to pay the band.  He would imply that the band just wasn’t as popular as they used to be.  They should be paid less.  The producer would counter that it is the venue’s job to fill the place— the venue is in charge of advertising so if nobody shows it’s the venue’s fault.  A deal was a deal and he wouldn’t let his artist go on stage if they didn’t pay up.  If there was an opening act, we’d assess the audience and say to the manager that it looked pretty full to us, but the manager would wipe away a crocodile tear and explain that he had had to do a ton of free ticket promotions on the radio just to stir up interest.

Sometimes, because our producer was very good at this sort of negotiation and even better at disappearing into the night, we would promise to return a little of the upfront money after the show if nobody bought tickets.  Other times, because the venue manager was also great at this sort of negotiation and even better at disappearing into the night, he would promise to pay us in cash right from the ticket booth proceeds— after the show.

On several occasions the argument would be strung out until right before the band was supposed to go on and then the venue manager would go out onto the stage himself and get the audience chanting the band’s name.  Ever chanted the band’s name after you waited a seemingly long time for them to come on stage?  “You don’t want to disappoint your fans, do you?” he’d tell the artists, who faced the dilemma of needing to pay this month’s mortgage payment(s) but not alienate their fans to the point that they don’t come to the next show.  There will be mortgage payment(s) to pay next year too.

You’re too stressed, some of the band members teased me on that tour.  You need to relax.  Go watch the sets.  And I would go out there for a song or two if I wasn’t busy wrestling some issue with the kitchen or figuring out where I was going to hide from the venue manager after the show.  But I found I didn’t disappear into the music like I had at sixteen.  The curtain had been pulled.  The Wizard of Oz had been exposed as just a talented human man.  I couldn’t help but notice the small gestures the artist would make mid-song, imperceptible to the audience, but loud and clear to the sound guy that was fucking up the quality of the bass tones.  I couldn’t help but wonder which of the screaming girls in the audience next to me would be hand picked to go back stage and provide some cheer to a lonely man who wants to be distracted from the fact that he’d rather be back home with his kids eating his beautiful wife’s special jerk chicken.   I couldn’t help but notice that, for me, the magic was gone.

After my tour to the back side of the stage, it took me years before I could really melt into the music of a reggae concert again.  I decided that music production wasn’t the place for a nice girl like me and I went to law school (I can hear you smirking!).  Max Elliot, who goes by the stage name Maxi Priest, told me back then that I should try my hand at entertainment law and now I advise the Reggae on the River music festival.  (Tickets are on sale now, by the way, so get them while they last!)  I love working with Reggae on the River, all of the fabulous volunteers that make that show happen, and the entire Mateel Community Center crew that produces it.  And I love the music.

When people find out I’m associated with Reggae on the River the first thing they ask me is whether I can get them a free backstage pass.  As if a backstage pass is a little bit of paper love to be handed out like a valentine.  I always, always say no.  (Always.  Just in case you were wondering.)

You see, now that I have a mortgage and children to feed, I know something that I didn’t understand at twenty-two.  The fact that the money was such an issue wasn’t because of a lack of love up on stage.  Going up on stage night after night, traveling from town to town, being away from home even if you don’t feel like it because you have to pay your family’s bills is love.  The bond between the artist and the audience that endures year after year even if the songs never change, or maybe because they don’t, is love.  And the fact that the artist and the production team and the venue all need to be paid to do what they do doesn’t diminish the magic.   It, also, is part of the love.  If you don’t have the cash you can always offer to add value through volunteering at the show.   That’s what I tell someone who asks me for a free ticket.

But there is another reason to say no.  Because what the person is really asking for when they want a backstage pass is more of that moment, that moment when they were holding hands with a stranger and singing about finding love, that moment where the trials and tribulations of real life disappeared and they’re not worried about money or relationships or anything else, that moment when they feel like the artist is singing directly to their soul, and that moment, that blissful moment, only happens in the audience.

So, pay your fare and dig deep into the crowd.  If I’m not working, I’ll be there too, waving my hands in the air, soaking up the love and enjoying the show.






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