Hey, Mom, Im a Rock Star
For anyone dying to know about all the drugs, booze, women, parties and general mayhem involved in being on the road with a major-label rock band, this saga is for you. Sure, there were a few perks in my brief tenure with Sugar Ray, such as playing the Shrine Auditorium, meeting a few celebrities, getting a free guitar and doing The Tonight Show.But mostly, it was just grueling roadwork—waiting around in airports, hotels, lobbies and buses; filching from deli trays; and dealing with sleazy industry people, all for a peasant's wages.
Aug. 30, 1998. The band has a 10-year anniversary party at the guitarist's new house. The singer takes me out in their video director's car to listen to one of their new songs and casually suggests that they may need me to play keyboards on their next tour. He says they'll pay me $500 per week to start, and we'll have lots of fun—what do I think? I tell him all he has to do is ask. Nov. 11. The guitarist calls and says they had a band meeting, and it was agreed they could afford to have me along. I will be filling out their sound, a role not unlike the one Ian Stewart played for the Rolling Stones. But why am I starting to feel more like Viv Savage of Spinal Tap? I let my temp job know (with some smugness) that I won't be in Monday morning. Nov. 13. The band's manager calls and says "the boys" were all real keen on having me in the band, but that money was tight and they could only afford $400 per week, which is exactly what I'm getting as a temp. I gulp—sensing the screws already being applied—and say, sure, why not? Nov. 18. The guitarist comes over to my house in Costa Mesa. We drive to LA and practice three songs for two hours. KROQ has requested a rough version of the first single from their new album so they can scoop the competition. Apparently, they liked it enough from the last monthly meeting they had with the band's major label, so they can now have something to trumpet over the holidays.
During practice, we hear the new song played on KROQ by Jed the Fish, a notorious enemy of this band, who goes on to talk about the album title, which implies that their 15 minutes of fame are almost up. "Well, maybe not just yet," Jed says. The band eats this alive, saying, "He's finally coming around!" To these ears, though, it sounds like Jed is just obeying a station directive to say positive things about the new single.
Nov. 27. We practice the same three songs. I find out that some of my keyboard parts have been cut in favor of playing with a DAT tape. I warn them of the dangers of playing to a tape, but I am ignored. Nov. 30. Add one song to the famous three. The band and the famous video director start discussing the new video (on which production must start immediately because MTV has requested that they have it by Dec. 21 and, according to the band, "you don't fuck with MTV"). It's set to be shot in a roller rink, 1970s style, but apparently this is a problem for the band, since a rap artist has already done this concept. The director says their video will be completely different, and the discussion turns into a heated argument. The whining and carrying on goes on for 20 minutes. When one of the band members says, "We're gonna look like a bunch of assholes," I don't have the heart to tell them they already do.
The band's attorney shows up in his brand-new Range Rover. I am asked to leave the rehearsal room while they discuss band business, which shouldn't take more than 15 minutes. An hour and a half later, they come out, visibly dejected, bitching about the news. If you've ever heard a song on the radio that sounds a lot like an old song and thought, "The writer of the old song should get money for that," well, guess what, kids—they usually do. You just never find out about it. It turns out that the publishing company of the 1970s song "Suavecito" (from which the band allegedly stole the opening riff for their new single) is now asking for 50 percent of their publishing. The lawyer assures them he can get the figure down to 40 percent, but he's not promising anything. The settlement could mean a loss of up to $100,000 per million CDs sold in the USA.
Dec. 2. More practice. In a conversation with the guitar player, the DJ and myself, the famous video director asks us what we plan to do about the singer's "problem." He emphasizes that everybody knows about it but nothing is being done, at which point, the guitarist asks why the director doesn't do anything, since they're best friends. The director replies that he brings it up, but the singer just goes into his defense mode and insults him, and the discussion ends badly. He wonders if the end is coming sooner than we all think and whether the singer will end up like Bradley Nowell of Sublime. Dec. 3. Tucson, the first gig. A Lincoln Town Car collects me, the guitarist and the bass player and takes us to LAX, where we discover that our direct flight has been canceled, so we must get a connecting flight through Phoenix. Unfortunately, that flight has been delayed three hours, so the band (minus the singer, who is mysteriously absent) is stuck until then.
While in Phoenix, we see Third Eye Blind in one of the airport lounges. Seems they're on the very last leg of their two-year tour, waiting to go home. They don't look happy.
We finally get to Tucson. Upon arrival, we learn the singer cannot be found—he missed his ride to the airport. Later, we find out that he's allegedly suffering from a "hangover," coupled with the anxiety of playing live for the first time in eight months, and he has decided to blow off the gig. Instead of catching the next plane home, we decide to take advantage of the local hospitality, since the hotel is already paid for by the radio station. In the limo on the way over, we hear four announcements about the canceled gig on the radio. Somebody suggests we call the station and explain, or at least offer an apology, but nobody gets around to it.
Dec. 6. Back home in Costa Mesa. I drive to LA at 11 p.m. and stay in the Roosevelt Hotel with the guitarist, so I don't have to make the trip in rush-hour traffic the next morning to make our live performance on KROQ's Kevin & Bean. Dec. 7. KROQ. We go in the back door and set up. I will be in the hallway with the DJ, while the rest of the band are in the studio. Tami Heide knocks my headphones off while walking by. None of the on-air personalities are very friendly—namely, Kevin, Bean, Jimmy Kimmel or Tami. Lightning is fairly cool.
During one song, the worst thing imaginable happens. On the air, before 2 million listeners, the DAT machine breaks down, disastrously fulfilling my earlier predictions. Bean mercifully stops the proceedings. We try it again without the DAT, but the singer stops after five seconds when his voice cracks, sending him into what most parents would call a hissy fit. We go to commercial and regroup. With fears of becoming the Milli Vanilli of alternative rock, we do it acoustically for the first and last time on the tour.
Dec. 8. Portland. We check into a Shilo Inn. It's not a bad place, though it seems better suited to travel-weary businessmen than traveling rock shows. I'm rooming with one of the techs (it's not P.C. to call them roadies nowadays). His first question to me is, "Do you mind smoke?"
"No," I respond, figuring he'd only be smoking pot, which isn't so bad. I will later come to regret this assumption. Another thing I'm not informed of is his nickname: the DJ has dubbed him "The Cappuccino Machine," due to the combination of his aggressive marijuana habit and a recurring sinus problem, making sleeping within 50 feet of him impossible.
But none of this matters: this is the first real gig, everyone has shown up, and I'm excited. We're playing in the home of the Portland Trailblazers, and our dressing room is stocked with a tub of Budweiser, cabernet from Sonoma Valley, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, bottled water, some gift bags with radio-station paraphernalia, and a deli tray. Everybody proceeds to get hammered. Soul Coughing have the dressing room across the hall and go on before us. Between them, Cake, the Violent Femmes and us (all the bands in this wing of the building), we are by far the loudest, most partying group. I have my special Salvation Army rock-star duds on, and the rest of the band grumbles that I look more like a rock star than they do.
Finally, we get to the stage, and I discover to my dismay that my keyboard has been unceremoniously dumped behind the bass player's 6-foot-tall bass amps, regardless of the fact that the stage is easily 100 feet wide and there's about 20 feet of unused space right next to the bass player, in which I could easily fit. People will be lucky to see my head, much less me or my outfit. As far as I can remember, every time I saw the Rolling Stones, I could see Ian Stewart. In addition, I can't hear anything the band is playing because I'm behind the amps. I have monitors, but the only sound coming out of them are the notes I'm playing.
We play the gig to thousands of screaming 12-year-old girls. One of the new songs is being played on Portland radio, so they know that one and the hit from the summer before. The singer energizes the rest of the heavy-metal-type set with a lot of spitting, jumping around, taking off his clothes and insulting the audience. In the dressing room after the show (and a few more beers), he points to his crotch and proclaims, "Let's see how many of those chicks wanna get ahold of this Cosmo dick!"
But the night isn't a total loss, since I've discovered the beauty of the all-access pass. The rest of the band heads back to the hotel, while I end up drinking with Todd and Xan from Cake, who turn out to be pretty nice guys (and who also happen to be in a band with a dictatorial leader). Since Garbage is about to take the stage, I grab my pass and excuse myself. I go backstage and hang out, hoping to get a glimpse of the band before they go on. When their door opens, Shirley Manson is the first one out. She sees me and, I think because of the way I'm dressed, gives me a big smile and a wave. I smile and wave back. This makes my entire night. I go out in the crowd to watch them play, and to my surprise, the Garbage songs I've been hearing on the radio for the past three years all of a sudden sound really good to me. After they're done, I head back to the dressing room for more beer and then go exploring. There's really nowhere I can't go—the power of the pass is intoxicating, so I go out in the crowd and back about five times, just for the thrill of it.
Back in the hotel room, the snoring cappuccino machine is in full effect, amidst a horrid stench of marijuana and tobacco. I turn on the TV to watch Conan O'Brien, waking the tech up and sending him into a hissy fit, which ends when he storms out of the room. When he gets back, he immediately starts his vomit-provoking snore-fest again, forcing me to nudge his bed every so often to get him to roll over. I hardly sleep.
Dec. 9. San Francisco. The van dumps all of us at the Phoenix Hotel, a landmark built in the '50s as sort of a Hollywood home-away-from-home for movie stars. It turned into a hooker hotel in the '70s and then a rock & roll hotel in the '90s. Its most recent claim to fame is being the place where Nowell died (Room 39, but we couldn't find it; I think they changed the number). That night, we go to a sleazy strip club at the singer's request, which, after spending $20 to get in, we leave after five minutes because the singer can't hang at a place with no alcohol. He catches a cab without telling us and hooks up with some stray later on. Meanwhile, we stand around outside the strip club and miraculously hook up with the DJ and his tech, who take us back to the hotel in their rental car. Fortunately, the hotel has a bar on the premises, where the guests get in free. I end up closing the bar at 3:30 a.m. with the bartender and the chef, who asks if I can get him on the guest list the following night. Dec. 10. There's a case of beer in the dressing room at the show, and we set in on it. After about four, I walk out and start exploring, singing as I walk down the hall. As I pass Less Than Jake's room, I hear somebody say, "Oh, that's one of those . . . guys." I use my pass to go out and watch the Cardigans, who are very good live. The techs place some towels next to my keyboard. I see these, and, being excited and drunk and since I don't do much on the first few songs, anyway, I start throwing and waving the towels from side to side in time with the music, much to the singer's chagrin.
Back at the hotel after the gig, we end up in the bass player's room (adjacent to mine, unfortunately), and the partying begins. Friends of the band from the Bay Area have brought in enough cocaine to cover the top of the dresser. A Vietnamese hooker is brought into the bathroom. Several members of another band who happen to be in town walk in and take their turns with her. One of their crew, a teenager with a baby face, walks out and says, "Cool, that was my first hooker."
As the drummer walks in to take a piss, nearly slipping on the semen-covered floor, the hooker says, "Sikty dolla."
"What?" asks the drummer.
"Sikty dolla fo blowjob, and you need condom."
"Um, I don't have a condom."
"Oh, no, I have diseases."
When he tells us this story, I'm overwhelmed with pity for this poor girl, who probably came over on a boat and will surely be dead within five years.
Dec. 11. Los Angeles. On the way to the San Francisco airport, the guest list for the KROQ Acoustic Christmas show at the Shrine Auditorium is passed around. We're all told to put down three guests only; Ihad previously been told Icould only have one. I was only going to put my wife down, but I decide to live dangerously and put my friend (and bassist in my own band) Hanson on as well. The list goes back to the tour manager, and nothing is said.
Hanson and my wife go up early together, while I wait for the bass player so we can drive up together in the carpool lane.
At the Shrine, we get word that the lead singer of Snot (Lynn Strait, a friend of the band since he toured with them two years before) and his dog have just been killed in a three-car accident. The only thing I know about Snot is that they released an extremely unlistenable CD after the singer of this band personally saw to it to have them signed by the label. This started a bidding war, which led to Snot being signed by Geffen. Hmm . . . I don't think he ever did that for my band, Peace Corp., even though we've known them for 18 years. A couple of the band members are really bummed about the dog, since he was pictured on their CD cover.
The entire band suspends their grief long enough to watch the video that has just been completed for their new single. A whole new episode of grumbling begins.
On the ride over to the Shrine, the singer looks as if he has been crying. He says something about not being this emotional in a long time, but knowing his thirst for being the center of attention, it comes off as if he's just trying to elicit sympathy. He curbs his grief enough to get into an insult match/ debate with the newest temporary member of the band, Elijah Blue, the demon seed of Cher and Greg Allman. Blue had met up with the singer through his new LA friends and had added some extraneous noise and "vocals" to a song on the new album. He had apparently been begging and pestering the band for the past two weeks to allow him to appear with them at the Acoustic Christmas show. The singer finally relented just to get Blue off his back. Even the night of the session, the singer left the studio to get away from Blue's overactive personality, which was too irritating even for him. So here's Blue on the bus, pulling out his ideas for tonight's wardrobe. The singer accuses him of raiding his mom's closet, as he pulls out designer one-of-a-kinds, sleek haute couture numbers from the '80s, and freshly minted army togs. Blue has a friend in tow . . . and lucky us, he'll be joining us onstage tonight, too!
On the bus, the band members greet my wife cordially, but they begrudgingly acknowledge Hanson when they realize I've managed to slip someone else on the guest list. Mind you, Hanson has known them just as long as I have, shooting several videotapes of them in their old Sunset Strip days (at his expense and their request, for which he was never compensated, by the way) and actually went so far as to meet up with them in Germany on one of their tours years ago. Now, for some reason, he's persona non grata.
At the Shrine, I make my way backstage. All the dressing rooms branch off tiny corridors, making interaction with other performers almost nonexistent. I find the dinner room, and while I'm eating, I hear some commotion and a lot of murmuring. Lo and behold, Courtney Love staggers in, draped in a raggedy old mink coat, with a phalanx of security and hangers-on. She doesn't look too healthy.
I'm soon hurried to the revolving stage and escorted to my station. We're barely plugged in when the stage starts rotating left. Since I'm stage left, I'm the first person the audience sees. And since I have the same facial hair as the singer (and I started wearing it first, mind you), I actually feel screams of recognition hit me.
After two songs, Blue and his friend take the stage. He has shaved a 2-inch-by-1-inch rectangle on the top of his head and painted it green (not unlike a putting green) while spraying the rest of his hair blue; glued plastic bolts to the sides of his neck ( la Frankenstein); borrowed a pair of handmade, fashion-designed jodhpurs from his mother and pulled them on over fishnet tights; put on Doc Martens about four sizes too big; and topped it all off with some sort of chain-mail body stocking. His friend looks even worse. In a panic, Blue completely forgets his words. His buddy plays the notes to some song that neither I nor the rest of the band have any knowledge of. I stand there and act like I'm playing. The Dynamic Dunces flee the stage after the singer introduces them to the unimpressed crowd.
We get to the song that was a hit from the summer of '97, at which time the singer decides to play the sympathy card to full effect, dedicating it to his recently deceased Snot friend. About halfway through, he runs in front of me, gives me a sorrowful look (to which I give a sympathetic nod), and then turns around and gives a tech a very contrived Bono-like hug in front of the stage, thereby ensuring crowd pity. The tech, stunned, shakes the singer off to get to a problem he's trying to fix. After our show, the stage revolves back, and I go to get a guitar I'd left backstage. One problem, though—security won't let me because Courtney Love has put a strict ban on anyone being backstage. The ban is eventually lifted, and after wandering back to the dressing room, I turn a corner and run dead into Billy Idol, nearly knocking him over. Which wouldn't be too hard—he doesn't look so healthy, either.
Dec. 13. Las Vegas. On the plane, I feel myself getting sicker by the minute. By the time I check into the hotel and get settled, I have a 103-degree fever. I'm miserable. I wander down to sound check on time to find that the other band members aren't there and won't be for another half-hour. The singer, of course, is never bothered with sound checks.
I decide to forgo seeing opening acts Vanilla Ice and Less Than Jake to get some rest. During the show, I'm once again behind the bass amp, but I really don't care at this point. I just want to sleep. In the dressing room afterward, the singer is throwing a fit about people taking the band's beer, and he establishes a new band policy: drink our beer; get punched in the face. Apparently, there have been some people spilling over into our space from Less Than Jake and Vanilla Ice, and the singer is ready for some action—even though he has never won a fight in his life.
Back in the hotel room, an ex-No Doubt tech (with whom I'm bunking) is getting ready for a night in Vegas and asks if I want to go out. I tell him there's no way in hell I'm getting out of bed until I absolutely have to. "Don't you wanna rage with rock stars?" he asks (half of No Doubt are also in town). I tell him I'm not all that impressed by rock stars anymore and go to sleep.
Dec. 17. Another attempt at Tucson. We start the first song, a hard-rock no-brainer, and halfway in, the barricade that was set up five feet from the stage collapses with a forward thrust from the crowd. I see little girls tumbling over, getting caught like rats in a trap. They have to be pried out when the barricade is lifted off the ground. There are hurt ankles, legs and heads. When the barricade is removed, we continue as if nothing happened.
After the show, I walk out back and run into eight girls who had to go to the hospital with their injured friend. They ask if I know anyone in the band, and could they possibly get an autograph? I tell them I'm in the band. They don't believe me and say they don't recognize me. I tell them I'm the new guy, but I'll go in and see if anyone can come out. I go in and tell the singer the situation and ask if he'll go out there. "Fuck that," he replies. The drummer and the guitarist end up going out, talking to the girls and signing autographs.
Jan. 11. The radio-station Christmas gigs are over. Now comes more promo work on various TV and radio shows. The band's new album comes out tomorrow. A Town Car picks me up and takes me to Hollywood's Le Parc Hotel (El Crap spelled sort of backwards) and dumps me at the front gate. I walk up to Sunset Boulevard and check out Tower Records. They have a huge display for the new album. Meanwhile, the singer, bass player and guitarist are out partying after the American Music Awards. It turns out to be a celeb fest backstage, and the singer gets drunk and attempts to pick up Paula Abdul, who rebuffs him. Later, they attend a label party for Ahmet Ertegun, with Brandy, Matchbox 20 and Kid Rock in attendance. After the party, the singer bolts from the car in a drunken rage and declares, "Fuck this; I'm going." The tour manager, being somewhat large, grabs him and throws him back in the car to take him home. Jan. 12. We have a lobby call at 7:30 a.m. for a live remote KROQ broadcast at Mel's Drive-In. When we get there, we're told that KROQ has requested we postpone it until 8:30, since they expect the crowds to disperse after we leave and the DJs don't want to look like idiots, broadcasting to nobody at a remote location. Someone in the band says crankily, "They look like idiots anyway; what does it matter?"
There are about 400 people, mostly teenage girls, waiting for the singer. I'm the first one onstage. KROQ's Bean greets me warmly, saying, "What? No cigar this time?" He has obviously mistaken me for someone else in the band, so I play off it and say, "No, not this time." We play four songs, interspersed with the singer's dominating, take-the-first-strike-at-the-band interview tactics. What was scheduled to be a band interview turns into a one-man show, featuring the singer employing his modus operandi of beating the critics to the punch in undercutting the band. It works, much to the amusement of the swooning little girls.
Later, we head to NBC in Burbank for a Tonight Show taping. At the camera check, I notice that everybody has a spotlight shining on them except me. I'm not behind any amps this time. I do notice that a spotlight is shining down about two feet behind and to my right. If I step back slightly, I can stick my face in it and have some illumination for the folks back home.
At the taping, as the curtain goes up, I pull out a Peace Corp. sticker and place it on my chest.
Although I manage to move out toward the front during the end of the song, I'm still barely visible in the camera's eye. I shake Jay Leno's hand, we go to commercial, and the band goes over to the Tonight Show couch. Since no one stops me, I go over as well, tearing the sticker off my shirt and hiding it in my coat.
The band has taken up the whole couch, so I'm invited to sit on a bench behind the couch and chairs. This actually works out perfectly, since my chest is in clear view when the singer is on camera. When the lights go up, I replace the sticker on my chest, giving my band national-TV exposure. Afterward, I tear it off again, and no one is the wiser. Back in the green room, we're given a video of the show, but the tape malfunctions before the interview segment, so no one is yet aware.
Jan. 20. New York and The Rosie O'Donnell Show. I fly nonstop to Newark and check in at the Paramount, the "rock & roll hotel." My room is smaller than my teenage bedroom, with the door hitting the bed upon opening. But it is somewhat chic, and hell, I'm in NYC for free. Jan. 21. I awaken at 11 a.m. and head off to NBC studios. When I get there, I find the rest of the band and also what I've been expecting—I'm stuck behind not only a 6-foot amp, but the DJ as well. To make matters worse, they've rented a keyboard, and although it's similar to the one I've been using, it's completely without the presets for the songs we're playing, so I'm forced to dial up some cheesy-sounding preset from the '80s.
On the way backstage after changing, I ask the tour manager for my per diem (about $90), but he says he doesn't have it because the singer borrowed all of "the float" (what they call the cash they take on tour to cover band expenses) to blow on a titty bar the night before.
While that's going on, the manager asks me to walk down the hall with him. I'm expecting him to ask me to play some more gigs. I'm completely broadsided. He launches into a tirade about how the band was very disappointed about the "sticker incident." I respond that it was only a joke, and what did they expect, that the label would sign my band and drop them because of a sticker? I could feel him about to launch into another tirade when I realize that, in my boots, I have a good 8 inches and 40 pounds on him, and this normally fierce negotiator is starting to back into the wall. He eventually retreats, but my adrenalin is pumping, and now I'm amped and a little flustered that these turds didn't have the courtesy to tell me this themselves, and have sent this little scumbag to do their dirty work for them.
While waiting for the stage call, I hole up in Saturday Night Live regular Tim Meadows' dressing room. We finally get the call and play the song, and I walk dejectedly offstage. Rosie leaves directly after the show for a dental appointment, so I don't get to meet her, but it's no big deal. I put a Peace Corp. CD into the dressing-room refrigerator of another SNL regular, Chris Kattan. Around midnight, I catch a taxi back to the Paramount. The next day, I'm back home in Costa Mesa.
Jan. 24. What turns out to be my last show, an MTV-sponsored gig up at Big Bear. A Town Car picks me up at 6 a.m. The ride goes fine until we get to the mountain road—the driver feels he has to stomp on either the brake or the accelerator at full pressure, causing rumbling in both my and my wife's stomachs.
MTV is there in full force and has been the entire week, filming mostly teen rip-off groups. That puts us in suitable company. Being a free and somewhat accessible gig, many old friends of the band show up, most of whom have been loyal to the band for more than 10 years but who would nowadays not even rate a guest-list connection, since the band's list is now usually filled up with their new Hollywood friends.
In the van, the drummer doesn't acknowledge my presence. When we get to the stage, I find out why—not only is the keyboard not behind the amps, but it's also barely onstage. They've put bleachers on the stage right behind the band, and I'm behind the bleachers. It's safe to say that my wife gets more camera time than I do, since she's sitting in front of me in the bleachers. Now, I don't mind not getting camera time; I really don't care. What bothers me is the look of pity I get from all the old buddies who are standing backstage with me, also behind the bleachers. They're as incredulous as I am.
This is the final straw. It's freezing cold, the people in the bleachers are jumping up and down, causing my keyboard to sway wildly on the unreinforced stage, and I'm pissed. I start thinking of sabotage. As the songs start, I immediately detune my guitar. As we finish each number, I delete all the song programs that I had meticulously fed into the keyboard—one by one. I figure if they want them back, they can hire somebody to do it.
At the lodge, I manage a sandwich out of yet another deli tray. I ask someone where the bathroom is, and a friend says, "Follow that girl down the stairs." That girl turns out to be Jennifer Love Hewitt, who is accompanied by a large bodyguard. Hewitt sees me trailing her and asks, "Are you going to the bathroom? Well, just follow me." She rolls this around in her skinny little head and adds (with a Rupert Murdoch network-approved giggle) "But only to a point—ha, ha."
We stand around and wait for what seems like hours, while the band engages in some mindless MTV-taped banter with Carson Daly about the artistic merits of an upcoming Backstreet Boys video. When they finish, the singer sheepishly walks over, shakes my hand and, looking down, gives me his patented faux-emotion send-off: "Thanks very much for all you've . . ." as he gets called away by some MTV type. I realize I've just been given the rock & roll equivalent of the Mafia Kiss of Death —thanks but no thanks; you have outlived your usefulness.
On the ride out of Big Bear, the bassist, in the midst of a binge, blares the CD player, stops traffic looking for a beer, throws beers out the window (narrowly missing a CHP officer), and generally acts like a lout.
Jan. 26. Get my check from The Tonight Show. $400. Woo-hoo!
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