A backstage pass is one of the most sought-after totems in rock—but it’s also one of the more overrated. You expect tables laden with food, liquor flowing freely, and dissipated rock stars cavorting with scantily clad groupies. Maybe that happens with acts like the Stones or Van Halen, but in my experience, backstage is mostly people milling around waiting for something to happen. It’s almost as dull waiting backstage for a concert to start as it is to wait out in the audience.
The most entertaining occurrence I ever saw backstage came at an REO Speedwagon show in 1992 or thereabouts, where I watched Kevin Cronin go off on some roadie over the brand of bottled water he’d been given. He said something like, “If you don’t get this shit right man, I’m not going on.” At the same show, REO’s road manager offered to trade me an REO hat for the one I was wearing, from Harry Caray’s restaurant in Chicago. Since I was going back to Chicago the next week anyhow, I took the deal. (I’ve still got the REO hat.)
My favorite backstage experience came with Jefferson Starship, also in the early 90s. Officially, the band was called Jefferson Starship: the Next Generation, and it featured original Jefferson Airplane alumni Paul Kantner, Jack Casady, and Papa John Creach. I spent a thoroughly pleasant half-hour just hanging with Kantner, Casady, and drummer Prairie Prince, who’d been in the Tubes. All the while I’m thinking how Kantner and Casady were practically present at the creation, San Francisco, 1967, the whole bit—but how remarkably normal they seemed in spite of it. I was there to introduce the band, as local DJs have done since the dawn of time. Whenever I’d done it before, I’d go out onstage, make my speech, come off, and the band would go on within a minute or two (or five, or 10). When I got ready to go out and introduce the Starship, however, Casady grabbed me by the sleeve and said, “No, wait . . . come out with us.” And so I did, taking the stage with the Starship just like I was one of them.
Over at Barely Awake in Frog Pajamas today, Tom discusses his experience interviewing Louie Perez of Los Lobos a few years back. When he mentioned how Perez looked “worn,” it reminded me of the time my radio station co-promoted a show featuring John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. I got to interview Cafferty backstage—“backstage” being the locker room of the basketball arena at Western Illinois University. The road manager took The Mrs. and me into the locker room, where Cafferty was dozing on one of those bolted-to-the-floor benches. He sat up, rubbed his face, and shook our hands, but before I could ask him a question, he asked me one: “Where am I?” He was neither drunk nor stoned, like many rock stars who have asked that question; it was clear that he’d gotten on the bus the night before and headed for the next town without worrying about where it was.
At the time of the show (January 1986), things were as good as they ever got for Cafferty and his band. They were about a year removed from the surprise success of “On the Dark Side” and other songs from the movie Eddie and the Cruisers, and were touring in support of Tough All Over, their latest album. The songs on the album are about working-class people looking for love and adventure on the streets of the Reagan-era city, lifted wholly from Bruce Springsteen in style and subject matter, at a moment when that was the best of all possible career moves. How good a move? Four songs from the album ended up making the singles charts; the most successful, “C-I-T-Y,” was on the radio this week in 1985.