How I Spent Six Months On The Road With Billy Idol:
And Said Five Words To The Man
Hopefully, that’s a catchy title. This is a great (and completely true and unembellished) story that highlights a part of the job description of being on the road. Many people outside of the music business want to hang out with Rock Stars (in some capacity OTHER than “Groupie”). Many of them think that by taking a position as a sound tech, lighting tech, stage carpenter, rigger, etc, they will get to “hang” with whomever they are on tour with. If this is your primary reason for getting into the tech side of the entertainment business, then you are in the wrong business. PLEASE, stay home. The entertainment business is for people with a passion for their job.
The arena sized, touring road crew business where I work is a place where pros exercise their craft. They set-up somewhere between 1 and 20 semi-loads of gear in record time EVERY day, and they love that it’s their job. Now, there are ways to hang with the band, and have it be ok, and I’ll get to that at the end. In the meantime, let me tell the story that I allude to in the title.
Back in the late ‘80s I was on the Billy Idol Whiplash Smile tour. We were playing 6,000 to 20,000 seat venues across the U.S. and Canada. I got the job in the way most people get cool jobs in the business … I got a call at home asking me if I could be on a plane the next day to replace someone they hadn’t YET told they were firing.
So, naturally the next day I was on a plane to Boston to head for the Centrum in Worcester, 60 miles from the airport. I joined the tour, learned my part of the load in, show, and load-out. The worthless guy was replaced. In the very rare moments of free time I had, I tended to find myself hanging out either with Duffy, (the guitar player for our opening act, The Cult), Ian, (the lighting designer for the Cult), or Kenny Aaronson (Billy’s bass player), and occasionally with Janet, (Billy’s wardrobe girl, who also happened to have the bunk below me on the tour bus). But I never really saw or talked to Billy.
After a couple months of this, we pulled into Philly at some venue where they have three levels of parking below the main space. Now, a confluence of events took place that led to one of the strangest encounters of my life, which I remember vividly to this day.
First … Catering (where the food is!!) was located at the lowest level of the parking garage in some large room off to the side. You had to walk down and down and down the ramps and across the parking area and then up a small set of stairs to get to catering to get lunch.
Second … A day or so before we hit town, they had a vintage muscle car show in this venue. Hundreds of old cars, perfectly restored, spotless, the pride of American manufacturing. Many of these cars weren’t scheduled to be shipped home to their owners for a few more days, and so easily 50 to 100 of them had been parked in the lowest level (the most secure) of the parking garage.
Third … The night before we arrived it had POURED down rain. I mean, POURED. Like, they got their annual rainfall in one night. Now, remember the parking garage? Guess what? It’s well below grade right? Lets add one more factor here… Poor Drainage!
To adequately paint the picture, imagine a couple of million dollars of cars with about an inch of their hoods showing above the water, and catering on the other side of an impassable lake. What do you think was going to happen … The roadies and local crew were walking across the hoods of the cars to get to food, hanging from the sprinklers to make the hop between some of the cars that were parked a little farther apart than others.
Now, I got up a hair late that day, and missed breakfast. So after we got the rig flown, I headed off to get lunch before focus – not knowing anything that I just told you. I got to the bottom of the ramp, saw a car close by that wasn’t underwater and noted that the hood was totally scratched. Then I saw a trail of dented hoods all the way across the garage to the stairs that led up to the door on the other side where food was. So, I did what everyone else had done. I hopped up on the first car, and grabbed the sprinkler and headed across the lake using the car hoods as stepping-stones.
As I got on the first car, Billy appeared out of catering, and headed towards me, both of us using the sprinklers to steady our hops towards each other from car to car. (Now, I also noted that Billy’s silver tipped boots were REALLY doing a scratch number on the cars, but with the dents and scratches that were already there, this was not really an issue.)
We met about in the middle of the lake, on the hood of a BEAUTIFUL, bright orange, must have been mid ‘50s Chevvy coupe. It must have been a monster on the road. He was grabbing a sprinkler to pass me on the windshield side of the hood, and I was holding something like an electrical conduit to pass him on the radiator side. As we passed, I said to him “Hey man, how’s it going?” (5 words), and he shot back, “Yeah … It’s going all right.” With that, he moved on to the next car towards the ramp, and I moved on towards the food.
I was out with this tour for six months, and it turns out that was my ONLY encounter with him the entire time, and so even though I worked for him for a reasonable period of time, that was the only exchange I EVER had with him. (Wait, I saw him backstage at a Van Halen show in LA two years later. I said “Hi, I was on your Whiplash Smile tour,” and he said “Cool.”) I need to tell you that I don’t lament that this was my only exchange with Billy on the tour, because the moral is that it wasn’t my JOB to sit and chat with him. It was my JOB to hang the lighting rig every day, and I did that, cause well, I didn’t want to get replaced like the guy I had replaced. The fact that I got to talk to him under fairly interesting circumstances doesn’t change that I was doing my job.
Now, the exception that I mentioned earlier.… The larger the tour you are on, the less access you will have to the band. Of course, this means that smaller tours, you DO hang out more with the band, but it means you are hanging out with “lesser” stars. So, IF you want to hang with the band, go on a one-bus, or van/club tour as stage crew or even “merch girl,” but always remember to do your job FIRST! (If anyone wants to know what happens to you when you DON’T do your job? Email me at John_Schlick@hotmail.com, and I’ll tell you the story of Glitch, who went out with Hanzel Und Gretyl on a bus based club tour.)
For more information or to contact John Schlick, click on his name at the top of this article.
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