Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week, backstage haunts and Disney digs.
As the title of this column implies, I've prowled quite a few backstage
haunts in my time, from the dingiest clubs to elaborate dressing rooms
at the most upscale venues. They all offer some specific elements in
common, a place for the artist to lounge, a spread of backstage snacks, a
myriad of beverage choices, and an otherwise unassuming ambiance that's
functional but rarely extravagant. When I met Paul McCartney backstage
at the Miami Arena in 2005, his handlers had added a personal touch to
enhance the vibe, with beads, drapery, candles, and a hint of incense. On
the other hand, when I worked at Hard Rock Café in Bayside, we had to
do with makeshift accommodations, usually a corner of the kitchen where
we would set up tables and serve our famous fare.
I never encountered any of those instances detailed in music memoirs that described artists who insisted on renovating their digs by painting the place purple or bands like Van Halen who demanded a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown candies removed. The most remarkable thing about most of these places is the fact that there's usually a maze of corridors leading from the stage to the area of repose. The last time I was invited back to meet an artist, it transpired at the Hard Rock in Hollywood, when a mutual buddy of mine and the band America arranged for a backstage pass for me and my wife. I remember thinking that we'd need a guide to usher us out after our schmooze with the group.
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Still, I have to say that the most impressive backstage area I ever experienced was when I hooked up with Dr. Hook back in the days when I was working for Capitol Records. Dr. Hook was responsible for a steady string of big hits throughout the late '70s and early '80s, most famously the songs "Cover of the Rolling Stone," "Sylvia's Mother," and "When You're in Love With a Beautiful Woman," all of which we managed to steer to the top of the charts. So when they were booked to play Disney World, they were considered a major headliner and assigned to play the main stage in front of Cinderella's Castle. I rode to the park with the band on their bus, and all of us instantly connected. Like the persona they purveyed in their songs, they were a good-natured bunch, happy-go-lucky guys who shed their egos at the door and went out of their way to be gracious to their guests. The two head honchos were vocalists Ray Sawyer (the guy with the patch that everyone thought was actually Dr. Hook personified) and singer/guitarist Dennis Loccoriere, two excellent entertainers who proved themselves as goofy offstage as they were on.
Anyway, when we arrived at Disney, we were promptly ushered on to several golf carts and sped into the park's back lots where all the magic and illusion was revealed as flats that masked fake storefronts occupying some undeveloped environs that looked like they had just been cleared by construction crews. However, the highlight of our private tour -- if one would call it that -- was our trip into the lower regions of Cinderella's Castle. We were brought inside through a front entrance sequestered between the castle itself and the stage out front, an entryway that wasn't visible to the crowds at large. From there, we were escorted into an elevator that took us down what seemed like several stories below the surface. When the metal doors opened, I glanced out at the surroundings. Each level seemed nothing more than a massive open area where props and costumes were lined up on either side. Yet the sheer size of that fortress-like complex resembled something akin to Fort Knox or perhaps what one might imagine a top-secret bomb shelter might look like, similar perhaps to the NORAD complex carved into the mountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
It was kind of cool to be sequestered down there prior to showtime, being that we could fantasize ourselves in a secret location that few outsiders had ever seen. Even the band was impressed, given the fact that while they had attained some degree of preferential treatment at their shows, they never had occasion to experience digs like this. Naturally, the Disney folks were very attentive, and when they escorted us back up the elevator to the stage, we all felt like privileged personnel.
Still, the most treasured experiences after a concert come when the group actually comes out and mingles with the audience, either to sign autographs, take photos with fans, or merely glad-hand the crowds. It's in these instances that the exclusivity of the backstage experience suddenly becomes irrelevant and any barriers between the crowd and the performers instantly melt away. I witnessed that at the old Carefree Theatre in West Palm Beach when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band finished its set and immediately adjourned to the lobby, where fans were lined up to greet the band. Instead of waiting at a reception table, the guys actually worked the line, making it much easier for folks to share some time without being rushed through the queue. Similarly, when Poco played at Gulfstream Track, the band members also took the time to receive their fans one by one. More recently, I had the opportunity to meet my new faves, the Avett Brothers, in the auditorium prior to their show at Parker Playhouse. Meeting the group again -- I had initially spent some quality time with them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival -- reminded me how personable bands can be when that divide is broken down.