Backstage: The People Who Make it Fly
by CB Bassity

      Onstage in Oklahoma City's Myriad arena, Robert Plant wails the lyrics to thirty-year-old Led Zeppelin tunes, and Jimmy Page grinds out his signature guitar licks.  A few shadowy figures lurk offstage, emerging only to hand Jimmy a change of guitars or to replace a bad mic.  You've heard of roadies, guys who travel with a rock-concert tour, and maybe you imagine them as burnt-out hippies who tote guitars, shuffle some trunks around, and haunt the periphery of stardom.  But, with rare exception, these guys are dynamos, people with a knack for getting the job done.  What production company would entrust several hundred thousand bucks worth of stage gear—lighting, speakers, electronics—and tightly-scripted daily operations to anyone less?
      Whether it’s a small gig like the Page-Plant tour, or Elton John; or a massive, flashy spectacle like the 1997 Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon tour, each show tours with a supporting cast that far outnumbers the performers.  Without this behind-the-scenes battalion, Elton John, Jimmy Page, and Mick Jagger would be just men flailing around on the stage, emitting feeble squeaks and squawks in the dark.  So who are these people in the background; what do they do?
     When Page and Plant leave the stage and fans shuffle toward the exits, a horde of stagehands hustles out of the wings and swarms onto the stage.  The show goes up tomorrow in Kansas City, and guitars, speakers, lighting—the whole production—must get there overnight.
 A swirling mix of people—many of whom do look like Manson-family alumni—put hands to hardware for the "load-out."  As the stars duck into their limo around 10:48 p.m., their sweat hasn't dried on the guitar necks and microphone stands before they are whisked into cases and off the stage.  In less than three hours the six semis carrying the show will pull out toward Kansas City.  (Thirty-two trucks moved the Rolling Stones; Elton John got by with four.)
     Moving with the concert tour from one city to the next are: lighting fixtures, speakers, dimmer racks, smoke machines, sound-mixing consoles, stage set-pieces, and other stuff—everything from bicycles to cases of wine.  Everything moves on large casters, from the "meat racks," twelve-foot aluminum frames holding lights and wiring harness, to four-by-five-foot cases filled with neatly-coiled electric cables  Local stagehands directed by road managers pack delicate lighting fixtures into padded cases.  They coil and pack cables.  Clockwise, guys—put the one-inch feeder lines on the left side, and the ones marked 'downstage-left' on the right—and don't mix 'em!—I don't want a cluster-fuck like they gave me in Albuquerque!  Others push cases and carts across the concrete floor to the trucks.  For a clear sense of backstage action, it's best to start fifteen hours ago, when the Page-Plant tour began setting up.

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     It's 7:30 on Tuesday morning.  The arena floor is quiet: empty, but for a bare, elevated stage the size of two livingrooms.  Like a gym, hours before a big game, the air seems hollow; the few muted voices give no hint of what will come.  A motley couple-dozen stagehands have arrived in ones and twos.  They stand or sprawl in the backstage entryway, waiting for the 8:00 call to work.  They're dressed overwhelmingly in black, the backstage non-color.  Some teeshirts sport the logo of the stagehands' union: "I.A.T.S.E., International Alliance of Stage and Theatrical Employees, Local 112, since before statehood."  Most others are tour shirts, emblazoned with the names of stars and their concert tour titles: Bridges to Babylon, the Rolling Stones, local crew;  Reba McIntyre;  Garth Brooks;  Rod Stewart, A Spanner in the Works.  A few shirts have cannabis leaf designs, or slogans like "Rehab is for quitters."  Tattoos, ponytails, pierced flesh, and headbands predominate.  Some guys wear shorts, some jeans; some patched, mostly black.  Attached to belts in black canvas sheaths are small adjustable wrenches, pliers, penlight flashlights, knives, and other tools of the trade.  In a haze of cigarette smoke, the talk is raucous and raunchy, although subdued at this hour.
     Kevin, the union steward, goes down his list of names, checking to see that everyone’s shown up who's scheduled to work this call.  If the production company specifies twenty-six hands, they want twenty-six.  The half-hour "call" before starting work gives Kevin time to phone and roust a no-show, or call an extra hand if the company thinks they’ll need one.
     From the tour's production manager, Kevin gets a sheet specifying: truck-loaders: 4; electricians: 11; carpenters: 8; truck-loader/pushers: 4.  Kevin calls out, "Listen up, guys— Dennis, Tommy, Pete, and Brian, you're truck-loaders.  Electricians will be Billy, Rick Davis, Jeff, . . ."   Truck-loaders will be un-loading trucks this morning, and carpenters won't touch a hammer or nails, any more than a teamster works with horses.  Carpenters handle props that fit together with bolts or pins; they hang backdrops, build trusses, set up drum-risers, and more.  Since electricity flows into nearly everything in the show, “electricians” set up speakers and lights, and run cables.
     The elite of this company, the riggers, are clustered inside the arena, each with a satchel of tools and gloves, and a hundred-foot coil of rigging line looped over a shoulder or draped over a seat.  Much of the concert lighting, speakers, and curtains ("drops" or "soft-goods") will hang suspended above the stage.  Riggers hang the show.
     A semi, the first of six, is parked in the backstage passageway, its rear doors swung open.  A roadie, speaking into a mike clipped to his shirt collar, guides the driver of another truck as he backs his rig in next to the first one.
     At 8:00 a.m., the local hands gather around steel ramps leading off the back of the trucks.  Four truck-loaders in each truck begin sending its contents down the ramp.  Everything comes on wheels: one at a time, twenty-four speakers roll out; then trunks full of electric cables; aluminum carts loaded with racks of stage-lights come clattering down the ramp.  Stagehands on either side of the ramp put hands on each piece, to steady it as it rolls from the truck to the floor.  A roadie guides the unloading in each truck. Hey, be real careful with that case—there's a $40,000 mixing board in there—keep it upright!  And then, out the back of the truck, Hey guys, let's get lots of hands on this console—it's narrow and top-heavy and very expensive.
      Danny, from the road company, stands just beyond the trucks, directing the "pushers," as they roll equipment past him toward the arena. Sound board—that goes to 'front-of-house'—take it to Gary. (A small sticker on the side of the case reads: Backstage, where high-tech and low-life meet.)  Reading the stenciled "DSL" on a chain-motor box, he calls, Down-stage-left chain-motor—take it to Paul, just offstage left--he'll show you the point.  Loaders pass long sections of aluminum truss out to the pushers.  That truss goes onstage.  Don will show you where.
     Another roadie appears, fresh from the tour bus, rubbing his eyes.  “Hey, dude, what day is it?” he asks a local hand.  Tuesday, man.  “Oh, and . . . and where are we?”  Oklahoma City.  “Oh, yeah . . . yeah, thanks, dude.”  He heads for the stage.
     Inside the arena, the pushers weave their way around riggers standing over chalked circles on the floor.  Arrows, crosses, and geometric symbols mark the rigging "points."  Some part of the show will hang at each point of the grid—a series of catwalks, six stories overhead.  Each point is calculated so that the lighting trusses will hang at precisely the same height and position here in Oklahoma City as they did last night in Albuquerque, and will tomorrow in Kansas City.  One-ton electric chain-motors, each about the size of two twelve-packs of beer and four times as heavy, will power their way up toward the grid, raising a bank of speakers, lights, or whatever.  If someone with a fishing rod could cast a hook to a grid-point overhead and crank the reel so as to pull himself skyward, the reel would be doing the work of chain-motors.
    To every chalked point on the floor, a rigger on the grid will feed out his rope, hand over hand—Heads up!  Rope coming in—and a rigger on the floor will clip it with a “carabiner” to the sixty or eighty feet of chain, heaped next to a chain-motor in its crate.  The overhead rigger hauls the chain skyward and fastens it to a cable at its point.  Because tons of equipment will hang suspended above workers and performers, the riggers must be accurate and attentive to every last detail of their work.  Possibly the scariest moment of stage work is when an inadvertent move by an overhead rigger sends eighty or one-hundred pounds of chain whipping floor-ward through space, heaping itself on the floor in a rattly two seconds.  Work comes to a quick and shaky halt, and all eyes turn toward the grid.
     Load-in moves slowly for the first thirty minutes, as too many hands vie for traffic coming off the trucks.  There’s plenty of time for talk.
     "Hey Eddie, is that too heavy for you?  You need a hand?"
     "Shee-it, Dennis, the other half o' this'd be too much for you.  Rest up, man—you might have to work later."
     By 8:45 a.m., electricians are laying heavy, black rubber cables ("snakes") that bring power from the house (the arena) to the control boards and dimmer racks.  They set protective, steel ramps over the cables, wherever there is wheeled traffic.  The cables will support body weight, but you never roll anything over a cable: wheeled freight would crush the leads inside.
     As equipment begins to fill the floor, crews break away from pushing.  Don, a road-man, grabs five carpenters and leads them up a ramp onto the stage.  Guys, I need you to bolt these sections of aluminum truss end to end, with the short pieces on the corners.  Four bolts at every joint.  Grab bolts and wrenches from the green crate marked 'onstage truss.'
     As the carpenters work, forming an aluminum rectangle ringing the stage, electricians climb over them—watch your back, bro', I'm coming through with snake—laying out cables and wiring harness that they'll cinch down with woven nylon straps, “spansets.”
     Soon, as the onstage truss takes shape, a rigger appears in the midst of carpenters and electricians.  With a partner on the grid, he hangs four chainmotors that will hoist the truss skyward.  As he works, two electricians lift an aluminum frame with a bucket seat onto the truss, and clamp it tight.  During the show, local hands in safety harness will sit high overhead operating “follow-spots,” spotlights aimed at the perfomers as they move around on stage.  The roadie and one electrician lift a long follow-spot from a padded case, clamp it to the frame, and locate its connections in the wiring harness.
     The completed truss looks like something from a giant Erector set.  The roadmen double-check their connections, and a rigger calls down to the floor, Terry, onstage truss is ready to fly, then, to everyone onstage, stand clear—truss going out.  The chainmotors whir, chains rattle, and the truss climbs to shoulder height, trailing clusters of cables.  Immediately, electricians start hanging Parcan lamps from the truss, plugging them into the harness.  Tom, a roadie, spots a lighting case: Hey Richie, let’s turn this case on end, so we can rest the end of the truss on it.  Terry, the stage manager, comes by: guys—spin that case 180, so the wheels don’t face the house.  Tom: Oh, man—pinkies out, everyone—the art department’s here.  Richie: Hey, don’t give him too much shit, Tom—she might hit you with her purse.
     It's 10:15, and Kevin strolls across the stage sending three electricians on break.  One of them says to their roadie, We're cut for a break, boss, see you in fifteen.  The roadie doesn't look up: he's studying a wiring harness that's missing a lead to one of his Parcans—Mmm, yeah, okay.
     Each roadie manages a discrete zone of operation—truss building or speakers or lights or front-of-house sound console.  And if a local hand asks the rigger working next to him, where does this cable plug into?, he'll likely get: not a clue, man, that's lighting.  Although Paul, a rigger, and Richie, lighting-man, share virtually the same square-footage of stage in city after city, Paul, wiping sweat from his face with a towel, knows only his points, chain-motors, clevises, spansets, and their gear.  And no one who works beneath tons of hardware would want it any different.
     Offstage-right, on the arena floor, a crew of local hands pushes speakers the size of small refrigerators, and nearly as heavy, into a convex formation, six wide, facing the arena seats.  They slide steel clamps into channels on top of each speaker, and snap them into place.  Their roadie powers two chain-motors up, lifting the speakers to head height.  Crew-members pull pins to drop the wheels from the base of the speakers, and then roll six more into position.  It's a watch-your-fingers, guys operation, as they pin and clamp chains from one speaker to the next.  When the rolling, clamping, and raising is done, the bank of twenty-four speakers flies out well above the stage, trailing an array of power cables and data lines that flow back into a snake's nest at “dimmer beach,” the constellation of “dimmer racks,” which control power to sound and lighting. The crew moves to downstage left and builds another bank of speakers for that side of the stage.
     The load-in is frenetic: three dozen people or more, immersed in rigging, building truss, hanging lights, running rivers of cables in several directions; people pushing cases in, and pushing empties out to a rear hallway.  Shouts of Richie, I can't find my down-stage electrics box--Is it with your stuff? might suggest utter confusion.  Yet, despite the necessary adjustments for individual arenas, and despite having to direct a different crew of stagehands in every city, the road-men refine their routine to a controlled chaos.  Before a tour begins, engineers and roadies build a mock-up of the set at the production company’s base in Nashville, and during the early dates on a tour roadies will fine-tune the setup. What if we run my speaker cables over to your truss on the ground, and run both units up together, and get rid of that mess under the follow-spots?  The game is to get the thing up and make it work.
     By mid-afternoon the big stuff is in place.  They're focusing the lights on stage.  Kevin circulates with his list, cutting all but a handful of the local people.  Jeff, you're cut.  Be back here at 10:00.  Some of the senior hands will work the show itself. Tommy, six-thirty call for the show at seven.  “Show-calls” pay $15 an hour, as opposed to the normal $10.  It takes a union card and good history to land show calls.
     After the cut, some of the remaining local hands help focus lights.  Others arrange carpet and drapes for the backstage access, a carpeted and black-curtained alley through which roadies guide performers from dressing room to stage during the show, pointing the way with a flashlight beam.  The roadies test the sound system and make final adjustments.  Soon others with less callused hands will appear to tune guitars and set up the mikes.
     So who are these roadies?  What kind of guys do you send out for several months to live on a bus, and sometimes in hotels, rarely sleeping more than four to six hours at a stretch, and rarely two nights in the same city?  Who'll push, lift, climb, build, rewire and repair dirty hardware from dripping, damp Mobile to snowy Montreal?  Typically they run to the brawny calf, the quick smile, the ready joke, and the empty ring finger.  You hear a lot of punchlines with my ex-wife in them.  Most range in age from mid-twenties to forty-somethings.  Harley-Davidson insignia are hot.  Pony-tailed or bald-shaven; tattooed, dangling metal, or unadorned; beer-gutted or slim as table-legs—there's no stock image that would cover all the people working a road tour.  Except for breasts and a higher voice, Tina differs little from other roadies.  She wears shorts, rimmed at the waistband with wrenches, flashlight, carabiner, and the rest.  She wears work boots, and the back of her teeshirt reads: It's okay--we'll sleep when we're dead.  (The seemingly eternal Les Miserables stage tour favors two teeshirt slogans: Help!--I'm stuck on a hit and All this over a loaf of bread.)
     So what draws people to this line of work?  It sure as hell isn't the money, says J.T. Love.  Most roadies thrive on action.  Put guys like these behind the counter of the local electrical supply house, and they’d vault the counters, filling orders before they arrive. We have fun, J.T. says, and we take care of business.  I get off on shooting from the hip, making shit happen.  J.T. is thirty-five, trim, shaved bald.  He has worked fourteen years for Tim Foster, production manager.  He says Foster is an ace in this business.  We go out as a team, J.T. says, and we have loyalty to each other.  Where troubles are a sure thing, you have to be the kind to bounce back.
     Last year in Chicago, working the outdoor HORDE-Fest tour, J.T. is starting to break down his area after the show.  A storm comes up from nowhere.  Seventy-mile winds turn large tents into kites.  I've got guys hanging on tent-poles, holding it down.  J.T. is driving tent-stakes into the asphalt with an electric jackhammer.  The union steward pulls his guys—it's too dangerous, he says.  At which time, all the HORDE guys come—J.T.’s fellow roadies.  Everybody's radios are going out, wet from four inches of rain in forty-five minutes.  The tents, nailed to the earth, are no longer kites—now they're ponds on stilts. Oh, shit!  Like a jungle creature, J.T. scales a truss, pulls his knife, and slashes a relief drain in the canvas.  Chief carpenter Cubby Sedgeworth has to climb speakers to get at his tent roof.  The thing comes down on him before he can get up there.  Cubby is a compact, hefty guy—he’s not hurt too bad.  He’s back to work in less than a week.
     The same production companies hire out to rock-concert tours, theatrical shows, and motivational- sales tours.  So backstage, you can't tell a Marilyn Manson tour from a Christian inspirational revue.  They all travel, and all need lights and sound, trucks and personnel.
     Most roadies begin as local stagehands.  Among the Oklahoma City hands, David works maintenance at a nursing home, adjusting his schedule there around concert and theatre dates.  There's Dr. Bell, a retired educator with a PhD.  Martin operates a one-man theater-tech business, renting out sound and lighting equipment and a home-built portable stage to small productions across several counties.  Stage managers, a drama professor, and a few students from several colleges in or near Oklahoma City work periodically.  But for most of the card-holding union hands, the union is their main gig; and whatever six- or eight-dollar-an-hour job they work otherwise, it merely fills the income gaps between shows.
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     Before the concert lights come up for Page and Plant, local hands dressed in black slip into body harness and climb narrow cable ladders about forty feet up to their follow-spots, pulling the ladder up behind them.  Seated in bucket seats, legs dangling in the indoor sky, they'll take the stage manager's cues from head-sets.  Most stagehands—and performers—who work the concert will stuff foam ear plugs into place.  Who wants to wind up deaf like Pete Townsend of The Who?
     A few hands come earlier than the 10 p.m. call and catch the concert from the wings, but Page and Plant aren't a big draw.  (Everybody caught the Stones, start to finish).
     When the musicians leave the stage and house lights come up, stagehands swarm the arena.  Within two minutes equipment cases start rolling away from the stage to the trucks.  Out on the floor beyond the barricades, fans clog the aisles.  Some of them gaze wistfully toward the stage, hoping for a glimpse of their idols, whose limo is nearing a hotel by this time, or roaring toward the airport.  Burly, yellow-tee-shirted, security guys sweep the crowd toward the exit doors.  Six carpenters steer through the horde, making for the front-of-house (“FOH”) island of sound console and dimmer racks, where two roadies stow their headsets, pull the leads, and ready the console for its case.
     On stage, roadies are casing up drums, guitars, and mikes at triathlon pace.  The first local guys on the stage meet cases rolling toward them—this goes outthese go outgrab this, please sir, and help me lid this case.
    I need four guys here, please--are you a carpenter?--here, guys, let's set this keyboard--GENTLY, please--into this case.  Now the lid—thank you, sir.  Are your latches fastened all the way around?--Okay, lift your end to me, stand it on its wheels--Good, it's outta here.
     Twenty or more people put lids on cases and push them away.  One local hand looks bewildered, until a roadie rolls a case his way—this goes out.  The stage-to-floor ramp is a raceway, with cases steered by one or two hands rolling down, and empty Parcan cases and motor-boxes coming up.  Some hands side-step the ramp and hop onstage from a speaker platform alongside.  Cases, with hinged lids gaping open, line a back wall, and hands coil cable into some, and pile loose hardware into others. Drop coming in!—and several hands fold the descending "leg," a heavy, black curtain, into a hamper.  An electrician stands over a crate, coiling a cable that comes in on the same rig.
     Onstage, carpenters lift sections of floor-surface off the drummer and keyboard risers; they fold up the stands, set them edgewise onto a dolly, run a strap around all, and ratchet it down tight.  It’s out of here—guys.  Two hands steer, and two push, the clattering dolly down the ramp. Let gravity be your friend, guys—it's not heavy, just awkward.  Pushing the dolly toward the truck, Dr. Bell turns to the guy next to him, Good to see you, Bernie.
    Yeah, Dr. Bell, same here--I made bail just in time to work the show.
     Tommy, steering the dolly, looks at the cases and dollies lined up in the hallway like so much rush-hour traffic.  He asks a roadie, where-to with this, boss?
    Ahh, riser dolly, let's see. . .  He pivots toward the two trucks.  Truck three.
    Which?
    Truck three—-that'd be the far one, there, with the bushy-looking gentleman looking this way.
     At 11:40, the onstage truss is descending, ratcheting toward the floor.  Electricians feed the cables that come with it into wooden cases as it comes.  Terry, a roadie, hollers, Heads up onstage—truss coming in, truss coming in—watch your heads, guys.  The truss snaps to a stop just above four electricians unbolting Vari-lites from a ladder truss.  Terry gives his buddy a hard time: Aw, shit, Richie, must we always wait on your sorry ass?
    Hell no, Terry, you could take your thumb out of your butt and help, and then to one side, watch it, guys, the truss may want to tilt when you take the weight off it.  Paul, the rigger, jumps in: Trust me, Richie, you don't want Terry's help.  Get you some drunk passed out on the floor--he'll make a better hand.  Terry: Does this mean you guys don't love me anymore?  When the main truss lands on the stage, carpenters and electricians swarm it like hyenas on a carcass.
     Out on the floor, banks of speakers come in.  It’s an orgy of un-clamping—watch your fingers---and rolling away speakers, one tier at a time.  And so it goes, the floor emptying as pushers clear each area.  House maintenance guys with push-brooms sweep away the last of the empty beer and Coke cups, half-eaten pretzels, popcorn, paper plates, and cigarette butts.
     By 12:40, the stage is nearly cleared.  Terry calls from the back of a truck, pointing toward some cases, I need those four motor boxes, the green, fuzzy trunk marked DSL, and then two short truss sections.  Each truck is one roadie's responsibility, and in each city they pack it exactly the same, according to a map of sorts.  Where's my downstage-left lighting box?  Phil— hold the speakers, not another damn thing until that box is up here. The pace has slowed to what four truck-loaders can pack, and eight to ten hands push cases up the ramp to them.
     Scrawled on the plywood wall inside the back of the truck is: St. Louis—2 hrs, 10 min and a month-old date.  There's a competition between cities for the quickest load-out time.  Behind the truck several local guys narrow it down—what time, exactly, did we start?  I know damn well we beat 'em—but by how much?
     Terry, swings the latch shut on the truck door, and hops to the floor. Thanks guys, you did good.  See you next time.  He shakes hands with Kevin, grabs his duffle-bag, and heads for the bus.  The truck eases out the truck-bay to where the other five sit idling with running lights ablaze.  It's five minutes to the interstate.
     And eight-and-a-half hours to load-in at Kansas City.

CB Bassity ©1999 All Rights Reserved

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