Backstage in South Florida: Uriah Heep, Manfred Mann, Waylon Jennings and Muddy Waters On the Road

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: Reflections from the road...

During the '70s and '80s, I had ample opportunity

to experience a brief snippet of life on a tour bus, both as a music

scribe and a record company rep, but I found the most entertaining

activity was watching the scenery roll by or enjoying the stash of

video tapes available for viewing on the bus' VHS player. It was the

camaraderie with the musicians that enticed me, sharing random thoughts

about the gigs, the audiences and observations about life as viewed

from the sometimes-solitary perspective that accompanies a nomadic

existence.

If you're expecting to read about the standard touring clichés in the form of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. That's mostly a myth perpetrated by those with an idealized view of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Yes, if you're U2 or the Rolling Stones, there's a certain level of luxury, but that has nothing to do with 99.9 percent of the bands that crisscross the country and detour through the backstreets and back alleys of small town America. These groups rarely, if ever, see the inside of an arena or even a 3,000-seat theater; rather, their venues consist of local dives, the corner club and house concerts that find their hosts hoping they can entice 40 or 50 people to attend.

The most enduring memories of

my touring experiences involved the more mundane episodes that took

place by chance. I'm reminded of a tour I took with British hard rock

band Uriah Heep, a fearsome outfit on stage but the most jovial

blokes you'd want to know once they were out of the spotlight. Much of

the time was spent hanging around in a dressing room, but guitarist

Mick Box, a burly fellow who looked like he just stepped off the set of

"Spinal Tap," was a gregarious guy who kept the crew in stitches. And

oddly enough, the scene I remember most is crawling around on a hotel

room floor, helping the group's skivvy-clad keyboard player Ken Hensley

desperately search for one of his missing white platform shoes. That's

an inside view of the music biz people rarely witness.

I was also on

a short southern sojourn with Manfred Mann's Earthband, another English

outfit whose frontman, the aforementioned Mr. Mann, founded this

prog rock outfit after first making his name as a purveyor of pop hits

in the mid '60s. (Their version of Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded By the

Light" helped maintain his presence on the charts.) The band didn't

have a bus and so we were all squeezed into a cramped sedan to travel

from gig to gig. At one show in Alabama, Manfred told me they needed me

to introduce them, alerting me to that fact only moments before they

were to take the stage. So I duly shuffled up to the microphone and

without any thought of what I would say, I started speaking. It took

several moments before I realized the mike wasn't turned on, which of

course made me feel even more awkward about standing in the spotlight

in front of several thousand rowdy fans. It took a guy in the front row

to advise me that I needed to flip a switch to power the mike on. Yet,

the incident that I recall most fondly is an evening spent sitting with

the band in their hotel room after a show engrossed in a game of

Scrabble, an activity they always enjoyed when it came to passing the

time. In walked guitarist Mick Rodgers, just out of the shower with a

towel wrapped around his head like a turban. "Ah, it's Sheik Rattle and

Roll," Manfred exclaimed, spinning a play on the golden oldie, "Shake,

Rattle and Roll." I don't know why, but I got quite a kick out of that

remark. Strangely enough, I still do!

I never traveled

with the late Waylon Jennings, one of the original country outlaws, but

I did meet him on his tour bus prior to a Fort Lauderdale date that

took place just after his well-publicized drug bust in 1977. Waylon's

wife, Jessi Colter was with him and since she was signed to Capitol

Records, the company for which I worked, we were invited to board the

bus to extend our greetings. Clearly Waylon was still shaky from his

encounter with the feds, and the entire time he glanced around

nervously as if he was expecting the narcs would reprise their raid at

any moment. In fact, it seemed he even suspected the Capitol crew of

being undercover agents. Suffice it to say, it was one tense encounter.

Waylon died after a struggle with diabetes in 2002, but happily he

conquered his cocaine habit in the early '80s, quitting cold turkey.

I

realize it seems silly and perhaps a wee bit morbid, but whenever I

find myself on an airplane with a celebrity I always feel safer. For

some reason, I believe that the plane couldn't possibly go down when a

star's aboard, because I'm simply not destined to witness that kind of

calamity first hand. It's not their time, and therefore, not mine. But

then again, I don't like to fly, so I take any comfort that I can,

never minding the fact that certain musicians who took an ill-fated

plane ride to get to Rock 'n' Roll Heaven -- Buddy Holly, Lynyrd Skynyrd,

Otis Redding, John Denver and Rick Nelson, among them -- might caution

me otherwise. Nevertheless, I came close to doubting my own absurd

logic on a flight from Montrose Colorado to Denver one summer in the

early '80s. The Montrose Music Festival had just concluded, and one of

my fellow passengers on the small prop plane was none other than the

legendary bluesman Muddy Waters, who was sitting across the aisle and a

few seats ahead of me. Airplanes, especially those of the small

two-engine, propeller-driven variety, often shake and shutter violently

when flying over high mountains. This flight was no exception and I

white-knuckled it the entire time. Yet despite the non-stop turbulence,

Muddy never flinched, maintaining his cool composure the entire time. He

died in his sleep on April 30, 1983, three weeks after his 70th

birthday. It was clearly his destiny to pass peaceably. We should all

be so fortunate.


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