MY LIFE OF HELL, HUMILIATION, AND GROUPIE HERDING ON THE ROAD WITH KISS
Gene Simmons' blood is on my hands.
Actually, it's not real blood, and technically, it's on my towel. But never mind. I am a roadie, at least temporarily. When Kiss announced this spring that its four founding members (Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss) would reunite for the first time since 1979 for a world tour, I realized there would be no better opportunity to answer a question almost as pressing as the exact length of Simmons' tongue: What exactly do roadies do? The tour promised to re-create the burlesque excess of Kiss' '70s stage shows, complete with Kabuki- bondage costumes and rocket-launching guitars. If there was roadie work to be done, this was my chance.
So here I kneel one July afternoon at Cleveland's Gund Arena, the 15th stop on a tour that has improbably become the summer's must-see nostalgia showcase, with a potential gross of at least $50 million. (Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the industry trade magazine Pollstar, estimates Kiss could be the top-grossing--and gross-out--tour of the year.) Every night, before he's hoisted to the rafters by steel wires in one of the show's most crowd-pleasing effects, Simmons, the band's demon-seed bass player, drools blood from his mouth. And each day after, someone on the crew has to clean it up.
Today, it's me. The wipe-up is easy; the blood, made of eggs, yogurt, red food coloring, and maple syrup, wipes away with a few strokes of a wet towel. I'm feeling cocky about my blood-swabbing skills--until stage technician Michael Garabedian alerts me to the electrical wires around me. Yikes--one wrong move and Simmons won't be the only one flying to the rafters.
Stirred but not hopelessly shaken, I press on, all the while telling myself the grunt work will pay off when my fellow roadies and I rock & roll all night--and party every day--with Kiss. So let the blood, sweat, and beers begin.
DAY 1 CLEVELAND
--8 a.m. Having flown in from New York, I hook up with the crew, whch is just pulling in from last night's gig in Dayton. I receive my roadie indoctrination, starting with a photo-ID pass. Should I lose it, it'll cost me $50, and I will be forced to wear a laminated photo of David Hasselhoff for added humiliation. I also receive a handout outlining crew policy. I will not be allowed to consume drugs or alcohol in the venue, and I am required to wear a Kiss T-shirt whenever band members are in the hall.
Inside Gund Arena, the crew has begun the backbreaking task of transforming an empty 12,500-seat venue into a theatre de Kiss. Steel cables dangle from the ceiling, which will eventually support five tons of speakers and a lighting rig that could double as a jungle gym for Godzilla. "See all the glamour?" deadpans ponytailed rigger Erik Smith between sips of chocolate milk washing down a donut. "See all these women bl--ing us?" I can't tell if he's kidding or not.
--12:45 p.m. He is kidding. At the end of each show, 500 pounds of paper confetti are dropped onto the stage. Today, it's my job to vacuum the bits that have lingered after last night's show. Under normal conditions, this would be a breeze, but confetti coagulated with Simmons spittle is not exactly normal. Next, we haul iron barricades into place. I lose part of a fingernail in the process and remind myself to buy gloves as soon as possible.
--1:30 p.m. Lunch--and my first bit of roadie lingo: "flat meat," for unsavory deli platters. The band are nowhere to be seen--perhaps they've already scarfed their ham sandwiches.
--3:30 p.m. The sign on the backstage door says it all: "Pyro Zone: No Smoking." Each night, about 500 pounds of mild explosives are detonated, creating the constellation of flash pots and fireworks that threaten to immolate the arena. "This could take out a building, easy," says head pyro Randy Bast, while calmly mixing compounds for the show's big blast.
I try to forget Bast's statement as I begin wiring the six charges that will ignite behind drummer Criss' kit. Each "comet" is the size of a roll of pennies and is connected to a detonator switch. Imagine hooking up your home stereo, but with the unsettling feeling that it could blow with the slightest misstep. Besides, if my blast doesn't ignite on schedule, the band may disinvite me to all those backstage orgies.
--8:30 p.m. The house lights click off, an announcer introduces "the hottest band in the world," the crowd unleashes a bellow, the band clomps on stage--and I can't see any of it.
Some people fantasize about winning the lottery. As a rock fan, I have dreamed of working a fog machine at a concert. To my surprise, the four fog machines--which resemble the blue recycling bins found in most offices--are situated not near the stage, but beneath it. I find myself crouching in an industrial swampland, surrounded by metal braces and wires, the ceiling inches from my head. Stagehand Scott Nordvold signals for me to flip the "on" switch, the band breaks into its opener, "Deuce," and without warning, it's life during wartime. Smoke gushes out of the bins and envelops me, and I start gagging as stage bombs explode all around.
The song ends, but the machines need to be reloaded. Nordvold and I run backstage, fill two metal tins with 70 pounds of dry ice, and race back beneath the stage. In a show so carefully choreographed that it runs almost precisely one hour and 58 minutes each night, the fog needs to appear on cue. Emerging from the pit two hours later, cramped and crumpled, I want to ask the band if they liked my fog, but they've already bolted in a private van.
DAY 2 CLEVELAND
--2 p.m. A late start, since the stage is already standing. I have been a roadie for only 36 hours, but I already wonder why anyone would do this for a living. "You go with what pays your bills," shrugs Nordvold, a 34-year-old Houstonite. "And this is steady work. I know what I'll be doing for the next 16 months."
With his ponytail and rugged features, Nordvold doesn't match the roadie stereotype of the beer-swilling biker. Likewise, the other 63 men and women who travel with the band range from fresh-faced twentysomethings to divorced dads in their 40s. They hail from San Francisco and small towns in Kansas, and many started in local theaters, where they began working their way, literally and figuratively, up the roadie ladder. "There's no manual for it," says Tim Rozner, the bearded, garrulous tour production manager. "People learn from practical application." Just as there is no handbook, there is also no union. Crew salaries range from $35,000 to more than $150,000 per tour, but a union would never sanction 16-to-18-hour days without overtime. The band does pay for the crew's meals, but not its insurance: one of many cost-cutting measures on this tour.
The crew is joined together by more than just the standard uniform of black T-shirt, shorts, and running shoes. Few are Kiss fans, each is resigned to the fact that Kiss (unlike, say, Jimmy Buffett) maintain a distance from roadies, and each has had to adjust for a tour that may stretch to late 1997. "The first time I talked to my 5-year-old, he said, 'When are you coming back?'" sighs video director Garry Odom. "The last time we talked, he said, 'Are you coming back?'"
--7:30 p.m. "Look at that ass," says hulking, stone-faced Andre Augustine, Kiss' personal security guard. We are surfing the arena's concession areas in a nightly ritual: the ticket swap. At each venue, Kiss set aside roughly 10 front-row seats, and just before show time, Augustine offers lucky ticket holders the chance to switch. There's only one catch. "Can we have backstage passes?" cajole three frat boys. Augustine smiles faintly. "Nah--your t--s aren't big enough," he says.
The swap makes for a comic sight: a six-foot-plus bruiser propositioning petite, scantily clad blonds with the line Are you alone tonight? (Another front-row requirement.) "Excuse me, ladies," intones Augustine to two leather-clad babes, who keep walking. "They don't wanna talk," he sneers. "They got dates."
Trying to assist, I point out two girls in T-shirts and Kiss makeup--not model material but clearly fans. Augustine gives them a dismissive glance and goes on scoping the crowd. I wish Simmons were around--I need more guidance on this.
--8:25 p.m. "Tonight it's me, you, and the punters," says tour security director Tony Morehead, donning his black beret. "Punters" is tour slang for women who want to get backstage, and former college football player Morehead--a teddy bear who can quickly turn into a grizzly--is the man for the job. I strap on a walkie-talkie and headset, and off we go into the belly of the beast.
Morehead positions me in front of the stage, just behind the wrought-iron barricades that keep the crowds away from the band. My job is simple. "You're looking for red dots from video cameras, and anyone with a crazy look in their eye," Morehead explains.
Since I am the only security guard here under six feet and with glasses, I feel conspicuous. Yet as soon as I begin scanning the crowd, something odd happens: I become the Man. I don't crack a smile. I ignore the Ace Frehley addicts who plead with me for leftover guitar picks. I clutch my flashlight in a proper head-bashing grip. And since tonight's crowd is not troublesome, I kill time eavesdropping on orders barked through our headsets. "We need a Q-Tip stage left!" comes one. "Paul's got something in his ear!"
--10:30 p.m. The second the show ends, the band hightails it out of the venue in its van. For the road crew, however, the work continues. We have only two or three hours to tear the set down, and it is a daunting task. Every steel cable has to be unhitched and re-coiled, every speaker hauled onto 1 of 13 convoy trucks. Load-out is a tense, mad scramble, and my respect for the crew doubles.
Exhausted, I lurch onto my wood-paneled tour bus to find a reward awaiting me: four boxes of cold, congealing pizza.
--2:30 a.m. My kingdom for a bunk, but first it's back into the arena. After each show, the merchandise team must count every unsold T-shirt, key chain, leather jacket, program--all of it dubbed "swag"--to make sure the goods match the number the venue claims it sold. So here we are in a windowless room, counting swag while merchandisers punch figures into laptops. The Kiss reunion has become a touring cash register, with the band netting around $900,000 a week in souvenirs alone. Even though daily operating expenses average $250,000, the merchandise demand and ticket prices (as much as $85 a seat) more than compensate.
Years ago, I had a pet cat whom I would torment. Tonight, I decide that God is punishing me for that by making me count stacks of "Kiss Destroys Gund Arena" T-shirts in the middle of the night. Finally, back on the bus, I fall asleep for a few restless hours before a lurching halt awakens me. We are in Pittsburgh, and load-in will begin in an hour.
DAY 3 PITTSBURGH
--8:30 a.m. After breakfast and a shower in the Civic Arena locker room, the crew begins work. I help construct the Kiss sign--four separate letters, each the size and weight of a large dining-room table. "They're such tight-asses," gripes one of the crew about Kiss. "They spend $40,000 on a sign, but to pay us $10 more a day--forget it." I make a mental note to pass this complaint along to the band.
--5 p.m. The band van arrives for sound check--finally, some hang time with the wild men! "I don't know how they do it," lead singer/stud Paul Stanley says about the crew. "By the time we go from our dressing rooms to the van, they're already taking the stage down." I sit in an empty seat to catch the band's warm-up but am quickly shooed away: Kiss don't want anybody watching them. Given their looks sans makeup--four men in their mid- to late 40s, with paunch and pockmarks to burn--I can't say I blame them.
--8:30 p.m. Tonight we ride the beast. As the crew scurries about in last-minute preparation, it is time to rev up the crowd of 12,500. Not that they need to be: The working-class, 30ish audience, mostly die-hard Kissheads, is already juiced on beer and nostalgia. If this tour has a legacy, it proves boomers aren't the only generation given to sentiment.
Still, the audience needs to be stoked. Night after night, just before the show, the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" is played on the PA. At the mixing board in the back of the arena, sound technician Mike Allison instructs me to raise the volume gradually as the song builds. The crowd picks up on the increased loudness and starts cheering. Just before Roger Daltrey unleashes his mid-song scream, Allison gives the signal, and I crank the volume two more notches. Bolstered by 160,000 watts, Daltrey's roar rattles the arena, and the crowd wails back. "It's a cheap trick," says production stage manager Rocko Reedy, "but it works."
For the first time I am able to watch the show as a spectator. The concert--rock spectacle at its most entertaining--is formatted within an inch of its codpieced life. "The fans know exactly when the pyro goes off and during what song Gene spits blood," says Reedy. "I always say the show is like Romeo and Juliet. When Juliet says, 'Romeo, oh, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?' he can't say, 'I'm over here.'"
Smoke bombs could fizzle, a lighting truss could fall--never mind guitarist Frehley, who seems perpetually spaced out. Yet the concert runs with the efficiency of a Broadway show. "At the end of load-in, I always think, 'Why am I here?'" says Bill Boyd, a wiry light tech. "But when everything works, it's the best feeling." Watching the Kiss sign flash on and off, I know how he feels.
--11:30 p.m. The crew checks into a motel near Pittsburgh. No bar, no room service. Grumbles all around--except, perhaps, from the unfamiliar blonds who pile off our buses.
"Are you getting any girls?" a crew member asked me earlier. "That's part of the job, you know." The task is made easier, he says, by "p---y passes," laminates that allow access to all backstage areas except Kiss' dressing rooms. He then asks me not to print his name; his girlfriend might get upset.
Male crew members admit that "the girls" are a big reason they subject themselves to such a grueling job, although the female staffers aren't as amused. "I find it very troubling, and so do the other women," says production assistant Julie Peterson. "You don't want to see the guys on your bus exploiting young women." I wait alone for the band to arrive and help me trash my room. I fall asleep watching Silk Stalkings.
DAY 4 PITTSBURGH
--12 noon I may never be qualified to be a full-time roadie, but the mind-set begins creeping in. I find myself complaining about the food and dreading load-out. I snack more than usual. And I listen to wonderful backstage stories: Bryan Ferry dressing down his crew because he didn't smell enough incense on stage. Prince directing his hairdresser to give each of his backstage honeys a different hairstyle. Tanya Tucker's father warning her crew not to sleep with her.
--8:20 p.m. On my last night of work, I finally spend some quality time with Simmons. Near the dressing rooms, he's waiting for me and Morehead to escort the band to the stage. In his eight-inch heels and wings, he towers over us like Batman's evil twin after a binge. "They're having a great time out there, aren't they?" he says, motioning toward the stage.
But is a "good time" in synch with the angst of '90s rock? Simmons snorts. "The only angst I have is that I'm not making more money on this tour."
--1 a.m. A return engagement of load-out hell. Tonight, I am pushing a dozen 250-pound speakers across a sticky concrete floor littered with half-empty beer cups, bras, and various flotsam. I retire to my bus and pass on the cold calzones.
Suddenly a young blond in cutoffs wanders onto the bus. After a few moments of small talk, one of the crew asks her, "So--wanna go in the back room?" She hems and haws, partly because she wants to meet the band and partly because someone else--me--is present. Eventually, she leaves. "I'm too tired anyway," the roadie grumbles. Finally, around 2:30 a.m., we crash in our bunks, and the drive to New York begins. Since the band won't spring for early check-in for the crew, we end up waiting at a Jersey truck stop for an hour in order to delay our trip into Manhattan.
Last night, as I helped escort Kiss back to its dressing rooms, Paul Stanley said to me, "This is the life, right?" I meant to ask him if he was going to write a song about me, as Jackson Browne had done for his roadies on "The Load-Out." But he was gone before I could inquire. Maybe next time.