Backstage: Little River Band, Manfred Mann, Neil Young, and Other Highway Stars

Manfred Mann's Earth Band in slightly looser surroundings.
Manfred Mann's Earth Band in slightly looser surroundings.

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, Rocking on the road.

"Now we got country and western on the bus/ R and B, we got disco in 8-tracks and cassettes in stereo/ We've got rural scenes and magazines/ We've got truckers on the CB/ We've got Richard Pryor on the video/ We got time to think of the ones we love..."
 -- Jackson Browne "The Load Out"

In his 1977 ode to his road crew, Jackson Browne took time to ruminate on the romanticism of the road, and in the process, he likened touring the country in a big bus to the ultimate bonding experience, a boyhood fantasy re-imagined as the ultimate rock 'n' roll adventure. Although some of those references are indeed outdated (8-tracks anybody?), he helped create the general impression that musicians travel in style, whether in a bus, a plane or a limousine. I've never had an opportunity to travel entirely cross country with a rock 'n' roll band -- I'd refer you to the film Almost Famous for a fuller glimpse of that scenario -- but I did undertake some shorter stints that more or less gave me an idea about what life is like on the road.
When I was employed as a promotion rep for Capitol Records, bands would come through the state in their buses and I'd hop on in order to accompany them between gigs. I remember spending time with Dr. Hook, Little River Band and a group of guys from Louisiana called LeRoux (not to be confused with a current outfit of the same name). While it would be nice to confirm the usual myths about wild debauchery, suspicious substances and gregarious groupies, in the interest of honesty, I have to say that I never saw any of those occurrences any of the times I was asked onboard. And really, we're not talking about the Who or the Rolling Stones. If you know anything at all about their music, then you know that none of these bands possessed any rowdy instincts between them. Consequently, we ran down the miles bonding and conversing, exchanging small talk and corny jokes while reflecting on the gigs ahead and those we had just left behind. The accommodations were spare, the food was typical of the roadside offerings we happened upon along the way, and a cassette player and VCR provided the only concession to the then-current state of audio and video technology. The guys slept in tiny bunk beds, and generally awoke with the aches and pains that accompanied their cramped quarters. 

Nevertheless, that mode of travel was positively luxurious compared to the time I travelled to some gigs in the deep South with Manfred Mann's Earth Band. The group was riding the crest of their hit single "Blinded by the Light," a cover of a Bruce Springsteen tune that landed them at number one on the American charts. Nevertheless, the light of stardom had yet to embrace them in its glow, and the band, as down-to-earth as their name implied, didn't adapt to the mantle of pop stardom with pretense or presumption. As a matter of fact, our travel arrangements were quite Spartan. Six of us, including the band's manager, traveled in a rental car -- not even a limo -- which meant that four of us had to be squeezed into the back seat as we cruised the Alabama highways. The closeness provided an avenue to instant affinity, and though it was quite uncomfortable, it was still a grand time spent in the company with a bunch of affable musicians. Likewise, the opportunity to witness an encounter between Brits and rednecks was well worth the squeeze. They speak the same language... but only in theory. The way they sized each other up, you'd have thought one of them might be from Mars. 

On the other hand, I once shared a car with Billy Squier, the rocker best known for his hit, "The Stroke." Billy looked like he was born in the back of that limo and as he looked around and surveyed the scene, he appeared to be a man satisfied with the status he had achieved. 

"I'm going to create Billy's World," he assured me. "I'm going to have my own empire someday. Just you wait!" 

Can a limo make you loony? Hmmm... maybe so.

Neil Young had big dreams too, but at least he saw them to fruition. The man who wrote an ode to an old auto called "Long May You Run" put the pedal to the metal and took the wheel himself. He visited Hard Rock last year to tout his beloved 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible, transformed into a zero emission, electro-turbine hybrid powered by a combination of lithium iron phosphate batteries and bio-diesel fuel.

Four years ago, he drove the car to Wichita Kansas for the first in a series of conversions that would turn the classic car into the LincVolt, the world's first micro-turbine bio-electro cruiser. Outfitted with an onboard intelligence and sensor system and an electric motor, he took the auto on the road in conjunction with his tour in support of his latest album, Le Noise. Young and longtime manager Elliot Roberts drove the 2.5 ton, 19.5 foot-long auto from Tampa to Miami, which is where I interviewed him and got a glimpse of his car. Young was justifiably proud of his souped-up coup, but sadly, a couple of months later, it accidentally caused a fire in Young's rented warehouse, resulting in the destruction of a number of his personal possessions. 

And that goes back to my original premise: even rock stars can't wholly trust their transportation

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