Backstage in South Florida: Public and Private Personas
New Timesscribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: Even in the music biz, actions can be deceiving.
An artist's onstage persona is often dramatically different from the image they present in private. I often witnessed that disparity first
hand -- even before my employment as a record
company representative. When I was a kid, one of the first concerts I
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ever attended was a bill that featured the Beau Brummels ("Laugh,
Laugh," "Don't Talk to Strangers"), Rick Derringer and the McCoys ("Hang
On Sloopy") and the headliners, Freddie and the Dreamers. Freddie's chief
claim to fame was an odd dance craze named, appropriately, "the
Freddie," which consisted of outstretching one's arms and legs and
rocking side to side in sync with the song of the same name. Admittedly,
it wasn't real sophisticated stuff, but as an English band
during the so-called '60s British Invasion, it was enough for a hit and attracted screaming hordes already weaned
on the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five.
Consequently, Freddie's main attribute was his amiable and goofy personality, which likened him to a rock 'n' roll cheerleader, especially when he was encouraging his audiences to join him in his silly dance. The stage setup that night was extraordinarily simple -- an eight-foot-high box with no barriers to block the view from either side. In fact, there was nothing to stop me from wandering over to the area adjacent to the stage to watch Freddie make his entrance. I found it curious that while backstage and out of view of most of the audience, he didn't appear to be his usual cheery self. In fact, as he climbed the steps that led to the stage, he looked rather moody and melancholy, like he was merely going through the motions just to do his job.
Amazingly, then, as soon as I saw him alight on stage, his personality changed dramatically. "Hi, everybody," he beamed as his band launched into the first chords of his signature song. It was as if he went through an instant transformation, his showbiz bug guiding him instinctively. There was a guy who could instantly don a happy face!
In a similar circumstance, I found myself backstage for a Neil Young concert at Miami's Bayfront Park in the mid-'80s. One of the support acts for that particular gig was none other than the late John Stewart (not to be confused with Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show.) This particular Stewart was an affecting country-rock singer/songwriter whose main claim to fame was a top chart entry called "Gold," recorded with Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. He also penned the hit "Daydream Believer" for the Monkees, ventured out on the campaign trail with Sen. Robert Kennedy during his ill-fated run for president, and recorded numerous albums that relayed songs born of the American Heartland. I was so enthralled with his music that it never occurred to me that he was anything other than a superstar. I approached him and announced that I was a megafan, adding, "I'm sure people tell you that all the time." His reply shocked me. "No, actually they don't," he responded.
Despite an extraordinary musical catalog, Stewart was just an unassuming guy, and my opinion was further affirmed many years later when I had the opportunity to interview him on the phone shortly before his untimely passing in 2008. It wasn't so much what he said that I remember but rather the fact that while we were chatting, he was attempting to return some computer equipment at his neighborhood Office Depot... and he still managed to carry on the conversation with me and talk to the store clerk all at the same time.
There were a couple of other performers who really put things in perspective, especially in terms of the divide between their public personas and what they were actually like in real life. During my stint with Capitol Records in the early '80s, I had occasion to work with singer/guitarist Billy Squier, whose songs "The Stroke," "My Kinda Lover," and "Everybody Wants You" made him a radio staple throughout his solo career. Billy was a nice enough fellow, but once we in the limo riding back to his hotel after his Broward gig, it suddenly became apparent that he had outstretched ambitions. "I'm going to build a Billy Squier empire," he insisted. "I'm going to rule my world. It's going to be the biggest empire ever." It was actually kind of scary. I definitely got the sense that I was in the presence of a budding Napoleon -- or maybe a power-drunk Elvis -- as he described his plans for conquest. The fact that they never reached fruition may well have guaranteed that the world would remain safe for democracy.
Singer/actress Jaye P. Morgan took the opposite tact when I worked with her at the Coconut Grove Playhouse during her run in a production of the religious farce Nunsense. Morgan's career had brought her several hit singles, but it was her wacky appearances on television shows like The Gong Show, Match Game, and Hollywood Squares that allowed her kookier side to really shine. Morgan was nearly 60 when appeared at the playhouse, but she was as carefree and flirtatious as a woman half her age. She may have been playing a nun onstage, but offstage, she was anything but sanctimonious. During the cast parties, she would freely partake of whatever anybody offered for imbibing, and her interest in the younger members of the crew was all too obvious. Then again, this playful persona more or less affirmed the free-spirited image that she had always purveyed throughout her career. Perhaps truth does take a cue from fiction after all.
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