Real Lives in Rock
This week: The Roadie
Whoever said rock’n’roll was about awards ceremonies, glamour and underpants hewn from endangered species? Not the people on the ground, that’s for sure.
For while the cosseted egomaniacs we call rock stars throw tantrums over the quality of the lark’s tongues on the rider, a crack cadre of men ( and they usually are men) can be found turning the wheels of rock. They are the humpers of gear, the sturdy shire horses of the music industry. They come armed with a huge bunch of keys and ample bum cleavage. They’re all form Birmingham. They are roadies, or, if you want to keep your kneecaps, ‘techs’.
Or so NME thought, until we tried it. Turns out, roadies these days are perfect gentlemen who have a thing about the Chronicles Of Narnia. In the spirit of sociological research, and not to have a good time in any way, we went on the road with Mercury Rev to find out what life on the road for a humble ‘crewperson’ is really like.
Getting the Hump
Saturday, 12pm Manchester. Arrive as the crew are checking out of hotel. Meet Grasshopper, Rev guitarist. As a roadie, your correspondant’s job is to do what she is told. "Wake the band," instructs Grasshopper. Am whisked upstairs to rouse the Russo brothers (Justin, keyboards, Italian good looking, and Jayson, bass, ditto) who are in bed. Naked. They take the arrival of a stranger pretending to be a roadie quite well, considering.
12.15pm On the tourbus, heading for MDH, tonight’s venue. Caron, Rev tour manager, hands over a pink tour laminate and makes introductions. There’s Paddy, the lighting engineer (dreads, also trips the light fantastic for the Mary Chain and Spiritualized); Squid, the sound engineer (American, Scooby Doo track suit bottoms) and Slouch, the roadie. Slouch is a ‘76-era punk, the saarf London veteran of countless campaigns with Iggy Pop, Generation X ("they used to store their gear in a maggot farm"), Napalm Death, Spiritualized and, er Rush. People nowadays call themselves all sorts. Tech," he sneers through his, er, unique dentistry. "I’m a roadie." Together, Caron and Slouch are Millsea Productions, a tour management company "set up to earn money to go see Millwall and Chealsea play more often". They’ve been so successful that their stated business aims are rarely met. For the duration of the tour, they are father, mother, technical support, diplomatic corps, logistical wizards and guardian angels to the Rev. Caron even sustained a black eye in Cork defending the band’s gear from marauding ne’er-do-wells. "You should see the other guy," she beams.
12.30pm Load in. MDH, like most decent-sized venues, have their own backline crew so they do most of the donkey work while Slouch supervises. Your correspondent’s shins sustain damage repeatedly smashing against flight cases.
1.30pm Tea and doughnuts.
1.40pm Hang backdrop. "You know what a theatre knot is?" asks Paddy. "You double the front bit over the bar and then tie a bow." Am told off for doing it wrong. Start again. Raise truss by pulling on chains. Worry about law of gravity.
2.27pm "Plug this into number two and then plug these into that," instructs Paddy. Ram cables into huge sockets, hoping that band don’t fry as a result.
3.05pm "Pffthrt! Roh! Sssht! Fft! One! Two!" Squid is at the mixing desk, doing his ‘sibilants.’ Attempt to ‘help’ Slouch with band’s gear, but he politely declines. This, it turns out, is not personal. Slouch is a perfectionist. "He won’t let anyone actually touch the stuff," confides Jayson. "We’re not even allowed to touch it unless we’re playing." There is even further evidence of Slouch’s, er, conscientiousness. Jason Pierce (Spiritualized) got this amazing guitar," recounts Caron, "and Slouch took it off him because he didn’t trust him with it. Jason even agreed! He’s only allowed to play it under Slouch’s supervision."
Run-up to Showtime
4pm Soundcheck. ‘Help’ Squid, who has just apparently "measured the delay between the origin of the PA and the origin of the backline" by comically wobbling heel-to-toe the width of the stage. Squid used to tour manage Mercury Rev before they could afford Millsea, and he introduced a sophisticated luggage tagging system that all Rev bags still carry. Wonder if I am really cut out for this job, as I lack required attention to detail/paranoid control freakery obviously required.
5.02pm Help Paddy focus the lights by pushing faders up and down on the lighting board. Green. Blue. Purple. Green. Time passes. It’s freezing.
5.47pm Chat to Tony, MDH house crew. Much as cabbies are ‘resting’ actors or novelists, Tony is actually a sound engineer. He nearly became Cleopatra’s sound man until he told their management the band needed singing lessons. Oops.
6.03pm We’re off ‘til gig time. Time to check out the rider. It’s usually "12 hot meals including four vegetarian" (this means eggs and cheese") and drink aplenty, So we stuff our faces and grab a beer, and ask more nosy questions. Tour managers make form about L35 per week to L1,000 per week. According to Squid, sound engineers can earn "L600 to L1,200 a week, for something on this scale". Local crew like Tony earn about L50 a day. Paddy designs and operates the lights for around L110 a day. Slouch’s services are, obviously, priceless.
7.15pm Keyboard player Adam makes eight individual set lists, one for each member of the band and crew. They are minor works of art—as are the Millsea Productions tour itineraries, designed by Slouch along a Narnia theme, and peppered with apt little quotes ("We lived for days on nothing but food and water," WC Fields).
8.51pm Slouch fiddles with amps, retunes every guitar twice. Paddy and Squid take up positions. Help Caron with towels and water onstage. Arrange candles, lamps and little red stars attractively. Feel enormously important.
9.15pm Mercury Rev onstage. Hang out next to monitor mixer, watching Slouch watch the band, in case your correspondents skills should be needed in an emergency pick-fetching capacity.
9.45pm No dice.
9.48pm Mayday! Drummer Jeff has snare trouble, but fixes it himself. Slouch slinks back to his position.
10.21pm More snare trouble. Slouch springs into action with a spare snare. Phew.
10.35pm End of encore. Dreadlocked fan leaps onstage (there are no stageside heavies tonight. Caron had declined because "Mercury Rev fans don’t do anything scary") and leads the crowd in chant of, "More!" Slouch and monitor man switch everything off…
10.38pm …and back on again, as the Rev return for an unscheduled encore. Caught up in the excitement, Jayson flings water at the crowd, dousing the mixing desk onstage accidentally. We scramble for towels, as the desk makes an ominous crackling noise. Shitshitshit.
10.45pm It stops.
10.50pm The Rev’s work is done. Ours, however, is just beginning. Gather up candles and lamps, fetch flight cases, pack effects racks, drumsticks and brushes, drop drums into cases ("The drum stool seat goes inwith the floor tom!" grumbles Slouch), coil miles of cable, fold up backdrop, wrestle into bags and generally get covered in beer, sweat and fag ends in the process. Ugh. Load everything into trailer behind tourbus. Claim remainder of rider. Swear off manual labour for life.
1am Tourbus heads for Cambridge. Band and crew chill out with surprise champagne from the promoters ("This is not normal!" Caron), vodka, and a chillum made out of an apple. The ‘no-solids’ tourbus toilet rule is explained. No-one shoots crack into their earholes or sets off fire extinguishers. Caron wouldn’t have it. An enemy of chaos and tardiness, she is the woman who, incensed at the timekeeping of two of Napalm Death after a gig, went into the post-gig disco and dragged them out by the ears. In her pyjamas.
2am, possibly Bedtime.
Pub, then outta here
Sunday, 12pm Cambridge. Wake up outside Cambridge Junction. Breakfast is served in the pub.
2pm Load in. At least, Mercury Rev’s crew do. We’ve had enough of this caper.
So, what has a weekend spent working for the Rev taught us? Chiefly, that roadying per se remains an unedifying fag, even if hanging out with cool bands is an excellent laugh. We’ve been reminded that no roadie is ever called ‘James’ or ‘Davi’ where ‘Squid’ or ‘Slouch’ will do.
But what we’ve really learned is that, in today’s fast-moving, multi-tasking world, a roadie must also be a sheepdog, a raconteur, a housewife, a soothsayer and a gent.
Oh, and any crew manager worth his salt never lets an untutored fool anywhere near expensive musical equipment.