Sunday, April 5, 2009

I was Johnny Rotten’s Roadie

Let’s clarify: it was 1989, and one Mr. John Lydon hadn’t gone by that Rotten moniker for over a decade, since the untimely demise of The Sex Pistols. And for one day only I became a member of the road crew for John Lydon’s second and longer lasting band, Public Image Ltd. (PIL).

I was living in Bridgeport, Connecticut at the time, a few years out of film school, working a few jobs in the fringes of the film and video business, while planning my escape to Los Angeles. My roommate, John, had a friend (we’ll call him Steve) who ran a small lighting/rigging company and he needed a couple of bodies to help him for one day at a PIL show at the Capital Theater in Port Chester, NY, just over the Connecticut border. So John enlisted my help, and early on October 4, 1989 we headed out in Steve’s van. It was rush hour, and at the time I worked a second shift job. Rush hour seemed like something from another culture, the dizzying scurry to make it to an office by 8:30 or 9:00.

When we reached the Capital Theater, the tour trucks had already arrived and there was a confusing mess of energy as tour regulars and day players like us stood around waiting for the whole operation to gel. In other words, we didn’t really know where we fit in. I wasn’t use to being up so early (before 10!) let alone physically working. I’ve never been that handy. I never made a good grip in film school, preferring to be camera operator or to sit solo in a dark editing bay. So I pushed myself to jump into the fray. First was unloading the equipment. Heavy metal cases containing the instruments and parts of the stage set. It was a bright morning, and I remember walking this stuff right off the street and onto the darkened Capital Theater stage.

After we off-loaded, there was setting up to do. We put together the stage on little risers (I think) and then had to hang a big drape as a backdrop. Then it was mostly hanging around watching the drum, the bass and guitar, and keyboard techs painstakingly assemble the instruments and running cables. All these guys were British, as were the musicians. Nobody said boo to us. We were just American scrubs off the street. After everything was set up, we had the rest of the morning and early afternoon off. We walked around the Capital Theater area, got some lunch and sat in the sun. This part I liked.

Some background. John (my roommate) worshipped John Lydon, in any incarnation he chose. He liked not just Lydon’s music, but his attitude. No matter how old Lydon got, he was still an anarchist mixed with the charms of a money-grubbing careerist. He had learned much from Malcolm McLaren back in London’s punk scene of the late seventies. Certainly no reason not to milk this image for the rest of his life. Side note: John Lydon is still going, not with Public Image, but by resurrecting the remaining Sex Pistols for reunion tours every couple of years since 1996. But my roommate John loved the allure of the Lydon mystique, and on a good day could be counted on for a Rottenesque rant, hilarious, while also often painfully cutting. Anyway, it was a dream come true, to walk the very stage of his idol. And getting paid for it. I was happy to witness this history.

Mid-afternoon and we all had to reconvene and prepare for the arrival of John Lydon for sound check. We milled about, out in the seats and backstage, until we heard the official news: John Lydon was in the building. Rumor went out that he was sick, and for an hour or two it was thought that he might cancel. Roommate John and I went backstage and there he was: Johnny Rotten. I almost walked past him before I realized who he was. He was short, shorter than me anyway, and was sporting an orange spiky flattop. He was silent and it seemed everyone was leaving him alone, giving him a wide berth. Do not upset Mr. Rotten.

Back out front for sound check and suddenly there’s Public Image Ltd., ripping through two or three of their tunes in full. And Mr. Rotten: he never seemed happy, he never appeared pleasant; he appeared like his image of a thoroughly pissed off rock star. Being sick wasn’t helping. From the moment he got on stage he wanted everyone to know how sick he was by spitting. That’s one of the most vivid memories, Lydon continuously turning his head from the mic and hocking a louey onto the ramps of the stage. It was absolutely disgusting and for the rest of the afternoon and night I had shudders imagining that I would be called upon to somehow deal with it.

PIL went away until show time, but now it was time for opening act The Ocean Blue (straight outta Pennsylvania) to set up their gear in front of PIL's stuff and do a little sound check. They had just put out their first record and had a minor alternative radio hit with the Cure-sounding Between Something and Nothing. They looked the part of newbies on the scene, but it was still an odd paring: clean cut guitar popsters and sneering punk icon.

Off for dinner, then back for the show. John and I got crew tags to wear, and during the show we got to walk around wherever we wanted, and act as security I suppose. But, it was an old theater (much like the Orpheum in Boston) so there was no moshing or body surfing aloud. Everyone had an assigned seat. Strange way to see a punk band. Although at this point, Mr. Rotten was more new wave post-punk dinosaur than a true punk icon. Had Sid Vicious taken Rotten with him to an early grave, then history would remember Johnny Rotten’s career a little differently.

PIL had released their album “9” earlier that year, and when they finally came onstage, they played liberally from it. Overblown and danceable, “9” was yielding a bunch of alternative radio hits like Happy, Warrior, and probably my favorite late-career PIL tune, Disappointed, with the telling lines Disappointed a few people/When friendship reared its ugly head/Disappointed a few people/Well, isn't that what friends are for. Lovely. The stuff of real anger: relationship problems. Post-school angst that I could sink my teeth into.

PIL had an extensive backlog of material at that time, so they ripped through all their greatest hits, from their ‘theme’ song, Public Image, into their early-mid 80s makeover as a dance band with This is Not a Love Song, and modern rock hits Rise, Seattle, and The Body. Lydon spit throughout the entire set. In Britain, spitting is an accepted practice between punk band and audience, so I’m sure it didn’t seem a big deal to the band. The audience was into the music, but still: having to stay seated for John Lydon is like watching somebody else take drugs, it’s just no fun.

A 1983 live performance of This is Not a Love Song:

After a brief break, the band came back for an encore. John and I took that opportunity to go down front and stand in front of the stage with a few other lucky souls who either had all-access passes or defied Security. This was where the real show was, and John and I dug the last few songs in close proximity Mr. Rotten. He preened and pranced and spit and glared, bearing a fake/scary smile that should be co-opted for a horror movie villain. Whatever his music, Johnny Lydon/Rotten still put his heart into it.

Then it was over. The house lights rose, the crowd filed out in an orderly manner, and the stage crew started taking apart the equipment. It was a reverse process. Breaking down went much more quickly than setting up. I envied the band, which were quickly carted away, back to their motel or possibly into a van to head up to their next gig, in Boston at the Orpheum. Which, by a strange fluke of scheduling, I had bought tickets to a month prior, where the opening band was Flesh for Lulu?!?! I also had seen PIL play that summer at Connecticut’s Lake Compounce as part of “The Monsters of Alternative Rock” shed tour, along with New Order and the Sugarcubes.

All us day-players had to load back up the truck. It was a daisy chain of weaklings, following the lead of a road manager who didn’t seem to have a) anyone’s respect b) any real knowledge of how to pack a truck. This was the first gig in America on this tour, so obviously the kinks were getting worked out. Still, at one point I found myself underneath a huge metal crate inside this tomb of a truck, helping pass one of many cases overhead. At one point, the road manager insisted on passing one of the crates to me, even though I wouldn’t be able to lift it from my awkward position in the middle of the truck. He kept insisting, until finally it was obvious that there would be a big lawsuit on his hands if an uninsured day laborer got smooshed. We all climbed out of the truck, reconfigured the packing, and, finally around midnight, got it done.

Peter, John, and I waited around to get paid. Finally the road manager came by with our cash (about 80 bucks each) and gave us each a tour t-shirt. We drove back to Bridgeport in happy, exhausted silence, with t-shirts to prove it was real, and private memories of being Johnny Rotten’s roadies for a day.


Nachete said...

Love that picture of myself ... :)

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I laughed out loud reading this, Dell. Excellent desciptions. I felt like I was there with you and your fellow roadies! :)

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Nachete (Commercial Zone), I thought you looked familiar.
Hey Cindy, thanks for reading!

Robin said...

Hi Dell -- I loved reading this, too. Greg said he was once an impromptu roadie for the Guess Who at James Madison Univ. in Virginia. We can all relate!

Liz's Mom said...

Priceless and very amusing.

Wonderful descriptions.

Well done!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful reminder. I was there! Fresh out of SUNY Purchase and a permanent fixture at the Beat in Portchester(know it?)and a punk devotee. I'm afraid I haven't retained the details, Lol. But thanks for recalling the wicked times for me.

Anonymous said...

I too was there... another SUNY Purchase fixture at the Beat (twas home away from home, my dark cocoon) Lol.

Ah, the good old days!