Cue Manchu

Working the door at any club, sometimes you just get a bad vibe from somebody. I think that is one of the most important resources that any bouncer must have–gut feeling. You need to trust your instincts, and trust the read that you get from someone. I can’t put my finger on it precisely, as it is not an exact science. But sometimes a red flag will go up just from the way a person carries themselves, the language they use, how they dress, or how they look at other people. Once my hackles go up, I’m going to keep my eyes on them for the rest of the night. And there’s an art to that as well. Staring directly at someone can let them know they’re being watched, which is not what you want. You can look at another person, or a television in the bar, but notice what they’re doing in your peripheral vision. Or better yet, use the mirrors and windows to watch them in the reflections. We will often mention to the other security staff or bartenders to just keep an eye on somebody, simply based on a feeling. And more often than not, eventually during that night we are proven right.

It’s not always the loud entitled frat-boy who ends up being the problem, although he indeed is capable of making the list. The malignant narcissist full of braggadocio and toxic masculinity is easy to spot, and sadly so common. You can see some men so obviously eyeballing women like potential shiny sport trophies. They are sizing up their prey, and it sickens me to see it. It sickens me further to see some women actually fall for their nonsense and leave with them. But the problem can also be the solitary quiet one that silently pounds down four drinks and then starts yelling, fighting, or groping women out of nowhere. You just never know. However, there is a high probability that men who will require some bouncer intervention will be wearing A) a visor, B) jeans with bedazzled stitching on the back pockets, C) wrap-around sunglasses inside at night, or D) camouflage pants. I don’t know why, just some things to look for coming from experience. This is just a very unscientific generalization based on the sample data set of the men I’ve had to put my hands on and kick out of places. Take from this what you will.

One more pertinent observation about the extreme troublemakers that required a physical response. In my experience they have almost always been white males. All of the really intense or violent anecdotes in this book, to a person, have involved white males. In my years working as a bouncer full time in numerous places, I have never had to put my hands on a Black or Latino person. Never. Obviously there are many factors influencing this. American institutional racism and the inequity of arrests and criminal charges. Personal history and traumatic experiences with Police and other authority figures, and disproportionate sentencing and prison terms. The disparity of affordable legal representation between white people and non-white people. Entire books and college course curriculums on race relations have been devoted to all of this. I’m not suggesting that people of color never get bounced or never get in fights. I’m just saying that the people who have acted up and necessitated a physical escort out the front door were always, 100% entitled white dudes who think that rules don’t apply to them.

The sample of society that bouncers interact with obviously can include everyone, including the worst of the undesirables. I’m certain that during my time as a door guy I have looked into the eyes of rapists, abusers, pimps, and probably even murderers. I’ll watch the news with trepidation when they air stories about armed robbery suspects, escaped convicts, pedophiles, arsonists, white supremacists, rapists, or serial killers. I don’t want to recognize the face on the screen, because potentially I’ve already had them standing across the podium from me with their ID in my hand. And I just thought they were a regular Joe Schmoe. Sociopaths don’t have a ‘tell’ that gives them away. I always remind my female friends that serial killer Ted Bundy was a handsome charming person who won his victim’s trust before murdering them. Evil exists and it is usually nearer than you think. It’s just around the corner, inside someone you’ve come into contact with, someone who you held the door open for.

The story from tonight involves just such a creepy man that gave me a bad vibe from the beginning. We were hosting a two day music festival that ran during the day and night, and people could come and go as they wanted. A white dude came in alone during the day and started drinking while watching the bands. He was wearing a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt and appeared to be in his forties. He had a clean-shaven shiny bald head and wore wrap-around sunglasses. He was pretty loud and rambunctious for it being the afternoon, and would sort of applaud inappropriately and for too long. Just little things that drew my attention to him. When I wanted to point him out to other security staff I described him in the quickest way that I could, by saying the guy who looks like a cueball. He ended up moving closer to us and I saw that he had one of those Fu Manchu mustaches with the ends of the mustache pointing down on either side of his mouth. And, of course, he had a little soul patch in the middle of his chin. So he was therefore dubbed Cue Manchu.

Most concerts don’t happen during the daytime, so everybody was impressed with the huge rays of sunlight shooting into the venue. The shards of godlight beamed in through the windows and went all the way to the backstage area, lighting up all the dust and residual fog from the stage. It was a beautiful scene and many were taking photos of it. While working it’s frowned upon if we take out our phones for any reason during the show, especially me when I’m up at the stage. So I rarely do it. But this was a time when I did whip out my smartphone and got some shots of the light beams coming into the venue. I also got Cue Manchu in the frame a few times, with the sunlight actually shining off of his dome. Always good to have a visual reference that I can text to coworkers, and to help with the description of the person if I end up having to kick them out and write a report about it.

After a few of the bands performed, I noticed this guy leaving the venue and I was relieved. I don’t know why, I just got a bad feeling about him. And unfortunately after about a couple hours he returned. I guess he left for dinner or really didn’t care about seeing the two middle bands. Now it was dark outside and felt more like a real concert. Many more people were now in the crowd, since we were getting closer to the headliner taking the stage. He was still wearing his sunglasses and yelling a lot, and he was still by himself. He was one of those guys with no situational awareness or respect for the personal space of others. He was sort of swaying around irritating everybody around him. The women behind him couldn’t see well, and since he kept moving around they couldn’t just shift their position to see around his big cueball head. He was also bumping into people around him. Some concerts are more prone to people being crushed together like sardines in a can, and some concerts have mosh pits and crowd surfers, so people don’t get as upset about people bumping them. But this wasn’t really that kind of concert, so his moving all around and knocking into everyone around him raised some eyebrows for sure. But it is a concert and everybody enjoys it their own way, so I just kept my eyes on him and waited for somebody to complain to me about him.

I didn’t have to wait long before I saw him up his game and actively try to start shit with the group of women standing behind him. I noticed him turn all the way around and look at the women, and then put his hands up by his face and act like he was pulling the corners of his mouth up into a fake smile. He was essentially judging them and telling them that they should be smiling. Telling a woman to smile is only going to get you hated even more, you clueless jerk. I saw the women become visibly aggravated with his rude antics. He turned around again and actually started trying to talk with them, or more likely ask them something about why they aren’t enjoying the show or smiling. The women yelled at him and told them to leave them alone. He raised his hand the way some people do to dismiss what the other person is saying. But it looked dangerously close to how you raise your hand to slap somebody. At this point I discreetly called over the radio for some backup, because I could predict that this was not going to end well.

A new woman joined the group and I recognized her, realizing that I was friends with her from several years ago. We chatted a bit and I asked her what she thought about the interactions with Cue Manchu. She said that he was being an asshole but rolled her eyes like they could handle it and were sadly used to it. And then, in a snap of a finger, the situation went over the tipping point. He decided that it would be fun to get in all of the women’s personal space by acting like he was a bowling pin. He leaned back into the woman directly behind him until he connected with her, then let himself lean to the side and bump the woman next to her. He bumped into the third woman in the group and she pushed back, actually pushing him several feet back like a football player. She was probably a foot shorter than him, and they proceeded to scream at each other and cause a scene. I knew I was going in, but part of me wanted to watch this group of five or six women kick this dude’s ass. But that wouldn’t be doing my job, so I ducked under the pipe and drape to enter the crowd.

I had a feeling this jackass was going to resist or fight, so I called a more urgent radio code to get backup there quickly. I made it under the pipe at the barricade and then popped up right next to this guy, completely surprising him. It must have seemed like a magic trick, like I was a jack-in-the-box toy that just popped up out of the ground next to him. He looked stunned as I put my hand of compliance down on his shoulder. I lit him up with my flashlight as well. If I had to grapple with him I would just drop the flashlight and retrieve it later. Usually a patron grabs it for me as I haul the problem-person out of the venue. He had no idea how I got right next to him so fast, and where exactly I came from.

I said, “STOP! You’re done. Come through here with me.” I gestured over to the group of security staff waiting for us on the other side of the pipe and drape.

“What? Why?” said Cue Manchu, as I grabbed the cup of beer out of his hand.

“Because you are leaving. You’ve been pissing people off. I’m gonna walk you down these stairs. Let’s go.”

He reluctantly moved to the pipe and drape, crouched under, and moved into the waiting group of security staff. He was hopelessly outnumbered. I pointed down the stairs and we all started walking him down towards the exit. He started trying to blame the women, of course, whining that they ganged up on him. Oh, that poor, poor man; so put-upon. I told him I’d been watching him aggravate people all night so stop blaming them. He was walking in front of us and there were no windows or anything in the stairway. It was just cold unforgiving concrete going down and down. He slowed and turned around to look at us. This is exactly what somebody does when they want to size up their opponents and get a visual on everybody’s exact location so they know where to charge. As soon as he turned his head around I pointed my hand at him and yelled, “Keep walking! This would be a terrible place for somebody to fall down these stairs.” He got my not-so-veiled threat and continued walking down.

Now he got a little freaked out. He didn’t necessarily know that we were walking him to an exit. So he said to another staff person, “Are you guys taking me down to the basement to beat the shit out of me?” Much as we may have wanted to say yes, the other staff informed him that we were just walking him to the exit doors. That’s some seriously dark paranoia, friendo. Then he figured out what was happening and started bitching about how he paid for tickets to both days of the concert and we had no right to kick him out. He started the typical lines of insulting our jobs and telling us we don’t make any money. And of course he was cussing out the women upstairs, calling them all “crazy bitches.” He made some vague threat that involved coming back and kicking all of our asses. I believe my rather unprofessional reply as he walked away down the sidewalk was, “Fuck off, go home.” The rest of the night and the event went off without a hitch.

But here’s where it gets a little more interesting. The next day I was reading posts from a bouncer group on a social media page and I saw a familiar face. Sure enough, there was a photo of Cue Manchu looking angry and yelling at the photographer. He was even wearing the same Rage Against the Machine t-shirt. The bouncer said that he worked in a strip club and kicked that guy out yesterday after catching him trying to dose a dancer’s drink. He has been banned from that strip club for two years but keeps trying. He has even arrested him previously, and had to spray him in the face with mace due to his aggression. I eagerly read through the comments to see other bouncer friends of mine saying that they have kicked him out of their club too. I added a comment saying that I kicked him out of my venue last night at 10:30pm. Everybody chimed in saying that this guy likes to try to fight bouncers, but that every time he tries he fails and gets put down on the ground quickly. He will disappear for a few months and then return and act like he has no idea that he was banned from the premises.

So he was wearing the same shirt in the other photos because it was the same day. Cue Manchu came to our venue early and then left to go to a nearby strip club where he tried dosing a dancer’s drink. He got kicked out of there and banned, then comes back to us, only to be kicked out again by me later. He had a busy day of getting kicked out of places and harassing women. Just an asshole doing his asshole activities; predatory misogynist bastard. This is one time where social media networking helped immensely. Bouncers from 5 different venues/clubs got to compare notes and photos and stories about this dipshit within 12 hours. And somebody even had his full name, which they added to the photos on the post. I informed all my managers and he got permanently 86’d from our venue as well. We printed out the photos that I took of him inside our venue, which got posted on the ‘wall of shame.’ This is the wall that only staff can access that has all the photos of people we have banned from our property. Every time I walk past it I smack my hand on his face and say quietly, “Not on my watch.”

The best shows

People always ask me what was the best concert I’ve ever worked. Honestly, it would change from week to week and month to month. But I have been lucky enough to work many stellar shows, and have met some really famous musical heroes of mine. Some of the bands I grew up listening to, so nostalgia made it extra special for me. Other bands I actually disliked and initially dreaded working the concert, but that didn’t stop them from winning me over after putting on a kick-ass show. Some were bands that I had literally never heard of before. And often those were the shows that I enjoyed the most, because I had zero expectations or preconceived notions of them. This is why I stopped researching the bands and watching their videos before the concert. I would rather be pleasantly surprised by the music and the spectacle when I’m up at the stage.

Here is the alphabetical list of bands that put on a show far above and beyond the norm.
Were you at any of these concerts?

AMANDA PALMER @ Crystal Ballroom

ART ALEXAKIS @ The White Eagle, Crystal Ballroom, Lola’s Room

AS THE CROW FLIES (Chris Robinson’s Black Crowes) @ Crystal Ballroom

BEHEMOTH with AT THE GATES and WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM @ Crystal Ballroom

BILLIE EILISH @ Crystal Ballroom

BLUES TRAVELER @ Crystal Ballroom

BOWIE CELEBRATION: Alumni perform the albums Diamond Dogs and Ziggy Stardust @ Crystal Ballroom

GEORGE CLINTON @ Crystal Ballroom

CYPRESS HILL @ Crystal Ballroom

DANCE GAVIN DANCE @ Crystal Ballroom

THE DANDY WARHOLS @ Crystal Ballroom

DEATH @ Crystal Ballroom

THE DESCENDENTS @ Crystal Ballroom

EDIE BRICKELL AND NEW BOHEMIANS @ Crystal Ballroom

THE EELS @ Crystal Ballroom

EVERCLEAR @ Crystal Ballroom

FRANK TURNER with BAD COP BAD COP @ Crystal Ballroom

HALSEY @ Edgefield

HATEBREED with AGNOSTIC FRONT @ Crystal Ballroom

ICON FOR HIRE @ Lola’s Room

JANELLE MONAE @ Edgefield

JERRY JOSEPH AND THE JACKMORMONS @ Doug Fir

JESSIE J. @ Crystal Ballroom

KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD @ Crystal Ballroom

LIZZO @ Doug Fir, Edgefield

MAGIC SWORD @ Doug Fir

MATT AND KIM @ Crystal Ballroom

METZ @ Doug Fir

THE STEVE MILLER BAND with PETER FRAMPTON @ Edgefield

SINEAD O’CONNOR @ Crystal Ballroom

PHANTOGRAM @ Crystal Ballroom

ROBERT PLANT @ Edgefield

PRIMUS with MASTODON @ Edgefield

THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS @ Crystal Ballroom

PUSSY RIOT @ Doug Fir

QUEENSRYCHE @ Crystal Ballroom

THE RACONTEURS @ Edgefield, Crystal Ballroom

REVEREND HORTON HEAT @ Doug Fir

THE REVOLUTION @ Crystal Ballroom

RUSSIAN CIRCLES @ Crystal Ballroom

SABERTOOTH MICROFEST w THE MELVINS @ Elks Temple and Crystal Ballroom

SILVERSUN PICKUPS @ Crystal Ballroom

THE SPECIALS @ Crystal Ballroom

SUFFOCATION, CATTLE DECAPITATION, KRISIUN, VISCERAL DISGORGE @ Lola’s Room

SWITCHFOOT @ Crystal Ballroom

TANK AND THE BANGAS @ Crystal Ballroom

TENACIOUS D @ Crystal Ballroom

THAT 1 GUY @ Doug Fir, Crystal Ballroom

TRANSVIOLET @ The Mission Theater

TRIVIUM with AVATAR and LIGHT THE TORCH @ Crystal Ballroom

311 @ Crystal Ballroom

10,000 MANIACS @ Doug Fir

UNDEROATH @ Crystal Ballroom

THE VIOLENT FEMMES @ Crystal Ballroom

ALICIA WITT @ Lola’s Room

STEVEN WILSON @ Crystal Ballroom

Name-dropping

Everybody wants to know the best concerts I’ve worked as a security staff. When you’re seeing two or three bands each and every night they can start to blur together. People want to know if their favorite singer is actually a jerk, or if their favorite guitar player is kindhearted, or if their favorite drummer uses triggers or not. And above all they want to know what they said to me. Sometimes it’s boring mundane details answering some questions before they disappear into the green room or back into the bus to wait for sound check. Other times they’re bored and have time for an actual conversation with you. I’ve written previously about some really positive interactions or conversations with Art Alexakis, Corey Glover, Edie Brickell, Page Hamilton, Steven Wilson, The Revolution, and Amanda Palmer. But this chapter is going to continue along that path, with one slight detour. Instead of talking about how great it was seeing the famous bands that I’ve loved for decades, I’m going to switch it up a bit. Here are some moments that left impressions on me from bands that I didn’t know anything about. Bands that I just had never gotten into, and never bought their records. Or bands that were so up and coming that they just weren’t on my radar at all. But every single one of these artists won me over.

CHRIS ROBINSON

Chris Robinson was the lead singer for The Black Crowes. In 2018 he came through our town touring with his new project As the Crow Flies. This is a group performing songs from the Black Crowes catalog, but with different band members. The show was sold out, it was on Mother’s Day, and there was an excessive amount of pot smoking both in the crowd and backstage in the green rooms. Sometimes we would just walk near the green rooms and would be overcome with the unmistakable aroma of the devil’s lettuce. I would laugh at how pervasive the smell was. I imagined them just dropping bricks of weed onto a bonfire, the smell was so strong, turning the green room into a hotboxing lounge. Oregon has always been famous for growing great weed. Performers often talk about it onstage or ask about it offstage. Now it’s been legalized and is sold from dispensaries seemingly located every few blocks. In fact, the most commonly asked question I get from band members during load in is where the nearest marijuana dispensary is located.

But Chris Robinson was very kind and approachable and thankful for everything. He has always been a tall and skinny dude, but now he has a grizzly man beard and really long hair. He’s taller than I am at 6 foot 2 inches. I, of course, thought of the 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson. Chris reminded me of the Robert Redford character living off the land, if the land was a marijuana crop. Mix together some Jim Morrison in his bearded Jesus stage with the hippie tie-dye masters from the Grateful Dead and you’ll have a decent picture of how Chris Robinson appeared to me. He was friendly and actually took time to have quick little chats with the staff. He seemed to be interested in talking and listening to each person he engaged, and he put on a hell of a show.

TANK AND THE BANGAS

Another band I knew nothing about going in, Tank and the Bangas were really entertaining and energetic. This group won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2017 and performed at our venue in October 2019. They are a unique blend of funk, soul, hip-hop, and spoken word. The group is fronted by female singer/slam poet Tank, and the rest of the band are the Bangas. Everyone in the band is African American, except for the one white dude who plays saxophone and flute. They are from New Orleans and really had a good time performing. If you want to get a good idea of their sound, check out “Quick” and “Nice Things.” They were touring on the release of their album called “Green Balloon.” To tie in to that theme they inflated a HUGE green balloon and kept sending it out into the crowd for people to bop it around like a beach ball. It was made of some material much stronger than regular balloons so it wouldn’t pop. A couple times it flew over at me and I had to gently punch it away back into the crowd. I remember at the end of the night I saw the green balloon just sitting on the stage unattended and looking sad.

At one point their drummer threw a drum stick out to the crowd, but the fan who tried to catch it fumbled and the stick dropped down into the moat in front of the stage. The fans looked at me with hope, expecting me to grab the drum stick off the ground and return it to them. I held up one finger and mouthed the words “Hang on.” I wanted to wait until the lights dimmed and the song ended before I left my position to rescue the errant drum stick. But Tank saw the look in the fan’s eyes and spoke to me over the mic during the song. “Excuse me, mister nice security man, would you please grab that drum stick for this wonderful person in the front row?” I couldn’t say no to that, so I jogged over to the front of the barricades, grabbed the drumstick off the floor, and presented it to the fan who dropped the drum stick. They were squealing with happiness.

ICON FOR HIRE

Icon For Hire was another one of those bands I didn’t know anything about going in. They are essentially a two person American rock band that has been around since 2007. The singer is a woman, Ariel, and the guitarist is a man, Shawn, and they’re also a married couple. She has striking dyed pink hair and he sports a mohawk, so they are easy to spot and hard to forget. They were sweet and polite to everyone involved in any part of the show. I noticed their merch booth and checked it out. Another benefit of working at a music venue is that I have access to the merchandise before any patrons enter the building. No waiting in lines, and no sold out items. My attention was drawn not to the usual vinyl records, stickers, and tee shirts, but to a stack of paperback books. The lead singer, Ariel, had written a book called TURN YOUR PAIN INTO ART. I read the back cover and thought it looked interesting, but didn’t pull the trigger on buying it. Later that night, after I heard their songs and loved their brand of loud rock, I went back to the table and bought a copy of her book. 

During the show, I noticed that a majority of the crowd was young girls; teenagers and even pre-teens. This venue can do all-ages shows, which is a huge benefit. There are so few all-ages or under-21 music venues that when we do have an all ages show they all come out. The singer was singing directly to many of the young women in the crowd, even offering her microphone to them to help her sing several verses. She was full of positivity and encouragement when she spoke to the crowd. She really was grateful that they were there and seemed legitimately thankful, even a bit protective of them. 

Parenthetically, I usually hate the banter when the lead singer talks to the crowd. There are only so many things you can say, and they’ve all been said before. It usually just comes off pat and cliched. If you’ve ever seen the same band play more than one night in a row and you hear them say the same damned line to the crowd at the same exact part, you know what I mean. It’s insincere and scripted, and you can feel it. Speaking between songs is a delicate art, and a majority of singers aren’t good at it. Honestly, I prefer less talk and more rock. Like the song says, let the music do the talking. Some of the most impactful and powerful shows I’ve ever seen were ones where the singer pretty much just said hello after the second song, then thank you at the encore. 

But Ariel had a way of interacting with the crowd that did not seem insincere or rehearsed. I could see it in the faces of the young women in the crowd watching her. They admired and respected her, and she didn’t hold the diva vibe. She even said that she was just like the young women out there, but she just got lucky and is up onstage. So when she brought a handful of young ladies up onstage to sing the final song with her, it felt like an empowering sisterhood celebration.

The next day I read her book and really enjoyed it. Instead of a book about how hard it is to be in a mid-level touring rock band, it was more relatable. She delved into her own deep insecurities and bad childhood events. She was very open and honest in sharing her story. I enjoyed her writing about experiencing the music industry as a woman and the difficulties that come with that. There are interesting anecdotes about the marketing aspect of band promotion, as well as once being aligned with religious musicians. I could relate to the ups and downs of being in a band long-term, and constantly judging if your success level is enough, or worth all the stress and expense. I was intrigued with her partnership with Shawn and how you maintain a healthy relationship when you are both a couple and a band. I hate to call this a self-help book, but I suppose that is where it falls. She did even put in some worksheets for readers to fill out if they wanted to. I certainly am not the intended demographic for this book, but I focused more on the memoir side of it. I highly recommend both her book and her band. To check out their sound, I suggest the songs “Make a Move”, “Demons”, and “Curse or Cure.”

CYPRESS HILL

This was a show that everyone was looking forward to working. Everybody knows the hip hop group Cypress Hill. I honestly never bought their albums, but their songs certainly appeared in the soundtrack of my life in the 90s. They were the first Latin-American hip hop group to have multi-platinum record sales. This was another show with a whole lot of pot smoking, obviously. We are supposed to stop people from smoking anything inside the venue, even confiscating people’s pipes and kicking people out for repeat violations. But on a show like this, where the entire fanbase is using marijuana like a sacrament, we kind of just gave up. Weed is literally part of the culture of this band and their songs. When the band members themselves are smoking huge blunts onstage for the entire show, the audience follows along and it’s a battle we can’t really win. We just turned a blind eye most of the night, or asked people that we could see and reach from our positions to not smoke. They usually laughed at us, and that made us laugh back. Several people held their pipe out to me offering me a hit. I laughed and said no thank you. Can you imagine seeing a security guy leaning into the crowd and taking a big hit at the front of the stage? One good thing about the entire crowd being stoned is that they aren’t interested in starting fights or crowd surfing. It makes for a docile crowd that just wants to groove on the music.

Some hip hop groups are just a couple guys dancing around rapping while a DJ spins records. The stage is pretty empty. But Cypress Hill had a full band onstage with them; drum kit, percussion, horns, guitars and amps. Musicians playing instruments, which is always my preference. It was really cool to hear more fleshed out instrumentation on their songs, with breakdowns and little jams built in. The guys were having such fun onstage, it was contagious. The last half hour of their set contained all their big songs, and every single person was singing along, including me and the rest of the security team. Usually the staff up at the stage are looking sternly out into the crowd, stone-faced and non-expressive. But tonight we were all smiling and mouthing along the lyrics to songs like “Hits from the Bong”, “How Could I just Kill a Man”, “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That”, and of course their showstopper song, “Insane in the Brain.” I was amazed at how many lyrics I actually knew (Cops, come and try to snatch my crops). When the air raid siren sounded for “I Wanna Get High” I’m pretty sure that every pipe in the place was lit up. Then they finished with my favorite song, the heavy and menacing anthem “(Rock) Superstar.” I fell in love with this song when I heard it in the movie Training Day. And yeah it is slightly reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s song “Kashmir”. When the introductory guitar riff started the place went apeshit. The crowd actually did start jumping around and moshing a bit to this song, and I had to hold myself back not to jump in and mosh with them.

LIZZO

I got to see Lizzo in concert several times working security. The first time was in January 2017 at a smaller venue with a 300 person capacity. I hadn’t heard about this artist so I was happily surprised when she took over the stage and performed to a sold out crowd. It was just her and a couple of backup dancers on stage. She filled the room with music and positivity. All of her comments were empowering and celebratory, and the audience loved her. She is also an amazing flautist. I remember being really impressed with her stage presence and powerful voice. I commented to a coworker that even if the PA stopped working she could just keep singing loud and the crowd would love it. The coworker told me that we will never see her perform in a venue this small again. I asked why, and he elaborated that Lizzo is about to be the next big thing. She is going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine next week, and she is going to blow up. I had no reason to disbelieve him, but I definitely took that info with a grain of salt. Those kinds of comments are so common with any music industry person. I’ve heard those very predictions dozens and dozens of times without them being proven right.

But this time the predictions came true. All of the sudden everybody was talking about Lizzo, and she was literally everywhere. My friends couldn’t believe that I saw her in concert before she was such a huge star. The next time I saw her was at an outdoor concert in July 2019 that has a 5000 person capacity. She sold out so fast that they added a second show the following night, which also sold out. I worked these shows and had a great time. In a short two year period, she went from playing small clubs to headlining sold out shows for thousands of people. Good on you, Lizzo, good on you. If you somehow don’t know her music, I suggest listening to “Worship”, “Good as Hell”, and “Cuz I Love You.”

SWITCHFOOT

Switchfoot was one of those bands that I didn’t really know much about before working their show. Apparently they began as a Christian rock band, which would also explain why I knew nothing about them. I tend to automatically discount Christian bands out of habit. But their musicianship, energy, catchy songs, and engagement with the crowd really impressed me. Some of their music hit me as anthemic arena rock. The songs “Stars” and “Mess of Me” are great examples of their sound. Melodic vocals matched with some heavy riffs had me bobbing my head from the side of the stage. I guarantee that their songs have been used on commercials and movie soundtracks. “Meant to Live” is arguably their big song, and was indeed on the UK soundtrack to Spiderman 2. And it turns out they have been performing as this band for over 20 years. More and more, I find that I am late to the party more than I am early.

But my favorite moment was when the lead singer had the audience do something different. The lead singer mentioned how beautiful our chandeliers are, and how happy they were to perform in such a lovely historic venue. There are two gorgeous glass chandeliers in our venue, and he joked about stealing one and taking it home with him. These chandeliers have many light bulbs in them and are on a dimmer switch. He asked the lighting director to turn down all of the house lights for a moment. Then he asked everybody to turn on their smartphone lights. This is the new version of everybody holding up their lighters. The entire crowd held up their bright lights and the venue was illuminated just by these smartphone lights. If you’ve never seen a crowd of over a thousand people hold up their lights like this, it’s something special. It creates a glittering glow like nothing else I’ve seen. There are dozens of pro lights in the venue, but when your only light source is the crowd’s smartphones you are reminded just how important and dramatic a change of lighting can be. The whole crowd was lit up and glowing like the surface of the ocean under a full moon. The lead singer was also soaking this in and said, “Now YOU are the chandelier!” The crowd roared and everybody kept their lights on for the duration of the next song.

JESSIE J.

Jessie J. is a pop singer from London who did an international tour in 2018. She had written songs for numerous big stars, and released four albums of her own. Actually, calling her a pop singer is selling her short. Her voice is quite powerful and incorporates R&B, soul, even hip hop. She competed in China’s Singer 18 competition and won it, making her the first non-Asian performer to ever win this contest. Some of her big songs include “Masterpiece”, “Bang Bang”, and “Domino.” If I had to cite a comparable artist that everyone knows I might say Christina Aguilera. If you watch any of her videos you’ll see that she is definitely a pop diva, singing and dancing and looking seductively at the camera.

Her stage show is much like her videos. She is basically dancing choreographed dances to every song that isn’t a ballad. There are lots of costume changes, makeup changes, and hair changes that happen during the pre-recorded soundtrack clips that play between songs. She is a talented dancer and commands the stage very confidently in front of her backup dancers. There were a whole lot of curves, slit skirts, lipstick, and high heels bouncing all over the stage just behind me. I would have guessed that Jessie was nineteen or twenty, but she was thirty when I worked her show. Go figure, I check IDs as part of my job too.

While standing at stage right watching the crowd, Jessie would sometimes move over behind me and strike her poses or do some dance moves. Like right behind me. Close enough I could feel the waft of air from her shoes kicking just over my shoulder. I was tempted to look back at her but I kept my eyes out on the crowd. I could tell from the faces of the young women in front of me that Jessie was purposely dancing dangerously close to me. I actually don’t mind when performers acknowledge or interact with the security at the stage. It must be weird to see thousands of hungry eyes watching your every move, except for this one security guy down at stage right who just won’t look over here no matter what I do. Challenge accepted.

Jessie danced across the stage and I felt the audience’s attention follow her, thereby releasing me from awkwardly standing there trying to keep a straight face and not look back at her. Granted, there wasn’t going to be one crowd surfer or fight during this show, so I could steal a glance more often than normal. Then the entire song stopped, the music dropped out, and she did a dramatic attention-getting move. The music stopping so abruptly was so jarring that I looked over to see what was happening and that’s when she got me. In the silence the music gave her she kicked her leg up high in a circular fanning motion, like a propeller, and slammed her foot down on the stage. Just as she stomped there was a super loud music cue that she synced her move to. The stomp was so loud and timed perfectly with the sonic boom music cue on the backing track that I actually felt it on the stage. Her final position was leaning forward over the leg she just stomped down and looking straight at me, frozen in pose. Jessie locked eyes with me and I stared back at her fearfully. I didn’t know the song so I can’t tell you what it was. But I would assume that she does something like this every night at that moment of the song. Then she smiled a huge smile and laughed a little bit as the song kicked back in. She went back to dancing and singing and I went back to watching the crowd. If I could read her mind I would bet you she was playfully saying, “Made ya look, boy!”

Trench Warfare

There are a lot of similarities and connections to the military working on an event security team. Most nights I feel like we are the elite team there to look out for and protect an allied army of less trained and less organized rookie soldiers. But on this particular night, I felt like we went to war with a hostile enemy army trying to destroy our castle.

Ex-military are very comfortable working a physical job like that of a bouncer, so any security team will likely have staff with military training. But it’s not just that, it’s our radio protocol and how we look at the concert itself. The unique nomenclature that we use is all taken from military jargon. Listen to any radio call and you’ll hear people asking for someone’s 20 (location), talk about being stationed at your post (and jokes about abandoning your post), calling color codes for various situations, and lots of “Copy that.” When I climb over the barricade to enter the crowd I feel like a WW1 soldier coming up out of the trenches into battle. We often refer to crazy situations as FUBAR (which originated during WW2). We refer to the division trench for staff to walk between the crowd as the DMZ (demilitarized zone), and we call the space in between the barricades and the stage The Moat. It’s like the stage is the castle and the performers are the King and Queen, and we are the soldiers standing by the gates defending them from the hordes. Sometimes I do wish that I was in charge of a flaming trebuchet.

But tonight I witnessed something I have never seen before. I refuse to name the band because I will not give them any further notoriety or attention. But in three words, fuck these guys. This band was known for their crazy out of control crowds, and the tour manager informed us that some of the previous venues suffered minor damage after their show. Since our building is very very old, this was a valid concern. It was decided to change the structure of the DMZ that usually divides the hall into sections. Staff were concerned that a building as old as this one would potentially not be able to sustain a sold-out crowd jumping aggressively for the duration of the concert. There was worry of floorboards and support beams possibly cracking. So we built the DMZ (which is already very heavy steel) in a totally different way than we ever had before, bisecting the crowd down the middle giving us an access corridor from center stage straight back to the back of the room. I had my doubts about this doing any good, and questioned the physics of this idea to my manager. But certain people who were higher-up outnumbered any dissent among the grunts.

So the show started and was indeed batshit crazy. Their music was complete garbage. It was a schizophrenic mishmash song-salad of wanna-be hip hop, performed by people who looked like they were high school dropouts. But this definitely wasn’t hip hop. If hip hop music was a studio-financed feature film, this dreck was a 3-minute long Saturday morning cartoon on cocaine. But the crowd was absolutely maniacal with their enthusiasm. They weren’t really crowdsurfing, but they were just pogo-ing and knocking into each other and the barriers as hard as they could. Swirling like a mosh pit but without any moshing. It was as if the band sent out a message to their fans on social media prior to the show that said, “HOMIES! For tonight’s show we want everybody to smoke all the meth you can find, and try to destroy the venue.”

I found out later that this was indeed the band’s first time touring, so they apparently didn’t know the etiquette or expectations of respect for the venue. Their rabid crowd had the same problems, and acted like they had never been at a concert before. But somehow this inexperienced infantile group got enough of a following to sell out this concert, so we had just about 1500 of these lunatics here. Looking out into the crowd was like watching a playground full of kids that were all trying to kill each other. I wouldn’t know where to start, but I wanted to intervene. Normally the staff up at the stage will climb over the metal barricades to intercept people fighting or thrashing around hard enough to injure the people around them. But this crowd was nothing but people thrashing around acting stupid. There wasn’t anyone to isolate and pull out of the crowd. We would have needed a hundred staff like me to move into the crowd and pull out the insane ragers without getting swarmed and pummeled ourselves. It just wasn’t worth it to try.

The crowd was ramming the barriers so hard that they were bending and breaking the connecting pipes. We were in a constant state of repairing these broken areas of pipe and drape that we need there for emergency exit/access, but aren’t anywhere near as strong as the two-panel stage barricade pieces. The obnoxious crowd started throwing full bottles of water around. Not only can these hurt and damage your eye on impact, but they also splash water all over people, including the expensive music and lighting gear onstage. Just to add to the chaos, the band kept playing a sample of a shotgun being racked and fired. Over and over again, constantly. Combine this with the fog machine filling the hall with stage smoke, and the bright strobe lights flashing and blinding people, and you have what felt like a war zone.

Then something happened that I have never seen happen in all my years of working security at concerts. Those metal barricades that we always have set up parallel to the stage started to move. Now just one of these barricades weighs so much that it takes two people to move them into position. I secure all of them together at the stage with c-clamps and bolts before each show. And the front couple rows of people in the crowd stand on the base of the barricade, adding their weight to it. So the full barricade of 8 or 9 of these pieces together with people standing on it must weigh hundreds and hundreds of pounds, and is typically immovable. The one thing that you can count on at any concert is that the barricades will stay in place.

And yet tonight….the barricades moved. The space between the barricades and the front of the stage is usually about 6 feet, to allow space for staff to move about and catch crowd surfers. That crowd was thrashing around so hard directly into the barricades that they were achieving the unthinkable; moving the barricade towards us. It was as if their collective hive mind had actually decided to attack the barricades. Obviously, if they continue pushing the entire barricade towards us, eventually we will be in danger of being crushed, and would have to get out of the moat by climbing onstage. If the barricade was pushed all the way up towards the stage, then there would be no staff stopping these maniacs from climbing directly up onto the stage with the band. This is, I suppose, every stage manager’s nightmare. The idea of ravenous fans getting up on stage en masse is a worst-case scenario. If a crowd this crazy had access to the stage, they would be risking damage to all of the bands’ musical equipment and instruments, and the venue’s sound and lighting equipment, not to mention the stage structure itself. People could also swarm their musical hero onstage, resulting in more injuries and an inability to keep them safe. In a certain scenario, I could even imagine a male stalker fan groping or sexually assaulting a female artist if they got onstage in a hysterical mob like this one. If you’ve studied groupthink and mob psychology, you know the potential for a crowd of people to do some sick inhuman things.

Shockingly, nobody had made a radio call about this first-time ever emergency. This situation didn’t fall under any of our usual radio codes. So, with my jaw dropped, I made this infamous radio call. “The barricades are moving. We are losing the barricades. Please help.” I felt like I was making a last-ditch “Broken-Arrow” call. This is when an American unit is overrun and all nearby combat aircraft come in and drop bombs on all of the surrounding enemies. Amazingly, this is kind of what happened. Not only did other security staff rush to the stage to help, but so did bartenders, roadies, and managers. People that I’ve never seen up at the stage for a show ever were up here to help us defend the stage from this crowd. We all started pushing against the barricades in hopes of stopping its movement. But inch by inch this crowd kept pushing it towards the stage. We were hopelessly outnumbered and simply couldn’t muscle our way out of this.

I did flash to the scene in Star Wars where our heroes are in the trash compactor with the walls moving in closer and closer. And much like that scene, we next attempted what Han Solo tried: bracing the barricades and the stage with thick steel pipes. The stage manager scrambled to get these foot-and-a-half long steel pipes to the stage from the bowels of the venue. We started placing them in between the metal barricade and the front of the stage before there wasn’t any room left to fit them in. Since the stage itself was wooden, we had to also place metal panels against the stage so the pipes wouldn’t punch a hole right though. As people were doing this, we were running out of room. So we did something that would never be allowed in a normal situation. To avoid being squished between the barricades and the stage, we jumped up onstage and sat on the edge of it, putting our feet on the top of the barricades to hold them. If they did get pushed all the way to the stage, we were already sitting on the stage so we would avoid injury. It was at this moment, with my butt on the edge of the stage and my feet on the barricades, that I looked out into the crowd and back to all of our security staff working furiously to save the stage. The barricades were inching closer with each coordinated push from the crowd. Smoke filled the hall, water bottles were flying through the air like grenades, the damned shotgun boom sample kept blasting through the PA system, and the strobe lights went off like flash-bang grenades. Staff were holding onto the pipes as hard as they could to contain the crowd. We were all covered in sweat. The crowd was thrashing around harder and harder, building upon their own frenzy. I have never been in combat, but this felt like what I imagine it would be like. There was so much stimulation and panic that I could barely even focus on anything. This was, hands-down, the most bizarre and surreal moment I’ve ever had working at a concert.

Had the band been experienced, or cared about the venue or the staff (or their own reputation), they could have easily stopped this. There’s no possibility that they couldn’t see all the nonsense happening. All it would have taken was one of the singers to pause and address the crowd like this, “Hey, we want you to have a good time, but you need to chill out for a second. Let the staff here repair what you did so we can keep playing. If you don’t calm down we won’t play any more songs. Everybody please take 2 steps back.” People respond to the requests of their revered musical performers. That’s what needed to happen, but of course it didn’t. The group seemed to think it was funny, and was encouraging the crowd to get crazier. People threw water bottles onstage and the band would throw them back out, replenishing the crowd’s ammo. Many water bottles flew so close to my head that it had to be intentional. Bastards were aiming for me. I bet that band was unaware that if any equipment was damaged by the actions of the band or the crowd, they would have to pay for it. We would deduct it from their payment at the end of the night. And also, their actions (or inactions) ensured that they will never get booked here again. So they were burning bridges because of their behavior.

We were able to get those metal bracers set before it was too late. We had to bring up ratchet straps to secure barricades to each other and to fortify the pipe and drape sections (those were the weakest due to the crowd pushing against the pipes until they bent and unhooked). Everybody stayed at the stage in case some new crisis happened. I was able to get down off the stage and stand in the mere 18 inches that was left between the barricades and the stage. We were furiously ratcheting the tie down straps and kicking out all of the empty water bottles from the moat area. The last thing we want after all this is to step on a water bottle on a soaked floor and injure ourselves in a fall. The show finally ended and we all breathed a sigh of relief and shock.

But it didn’t quite end there; the band’s assholery continued. While we were all taking photos of the devastated barricades and starting the inevitable clean up of all this mess, the band was tagging the green room. We do have a small wooden panel that performers are able to sign their name to, which they did. It’s about the size of a painting frame. But then they just kept going, writing their nonsense directly on the walls all over the green room. Nobody does this, it is clear and obvious where you can write with a sharpie and where you can’t. They used fat inch-thick markers and vandalized all of the walls in both rooms, and even the mirrors and the refrigerator. They also vandalized the hallway outside the green rooms, and the stairwell leading out. Did they not think that signing your fucking name on the wall leaves indisputable evidence who did it? Did they not think that they would have fees deducted from their payout to pay for the repainting of the two green rooms that they vandalized? They just didn’t care. A coworker summed it up perfectly when he said they were garbage people.

With many of our staff being ex-military, the events of this show actually did trigger their PTSD. Those repeated gunshot sounds, dodging flying objects, and the smoke and strobe flashes sent some staff over the edge. I watched many of them go outside for a long smoke break to get themselves together afterwards. A couple of them even left early because they were so upset and couldn’t get hold of their anxiety. I felt for them and was glad to see them go home early after suffering through that shit show.

And even worse, we got reports of the band members misbehaving outside at their limousine during load out. These male band members were hanging out in their limo trying to lure underage female fans inside with a fifth of whiskey. We’re talking about fifteen year old girls who probably idolize and worship them being fed hard liquor by men trying to take advantage of them. By the time I heard about it, they had already left to drive to the next city on their tour. But if I would have caught them trying to prey on female minors outside of our front door, I probably would have lost my usual decorum and professionalism. They were untalented immature predatory vandals with no respect trying to incite a crowd riot and potentially destroy our venue. They will never get booked here again, and I won’t be surprised at all when I see them in jail for rape charges.

Shows like this are rare, thank goodness. But surviving one show as terrible as this one makes you enjoy the slow nights where nothing much happens. When you see me up at the stage staring out into the crowd smiling, you’ll know that I earned it by working shows like this one.

Bigger on the Inside

Amanda Palmer was an artist that I was only somewhat acquainted with through her first band, The Dresden Dolls. Somehow her solo work after that band had escaped me until she scheduled a show at the large music venue I work at. I should have already been a huge fan, as I have always been drawn to the strong, politically active, feminist singer-songwriters. I have seen Tori Amos in concert more than any other artist, and collected her concert bootlegs like an obsessed acolyte tending to their preacher. I’m a huge fan of Ani DiFranco, buying each album as it was released and seeing her live as much as possible. I am one day older than Ani, which probably means something astrologically, but I have no idea what exactly. I attended Lilith Fair for several years, soaking in the songs of Sarah McLachlan. As a kid I bought vinyl records from The Pretenders, Pat Benatar, and Blondie. Later I got deep into the lush goth tapestries of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance. Suffice to say, strong women who rock have always held a special place in my heart.

Amanda Palmer is certainly a very unique artist and performer. She primarily plays piano, keyboards, and ukulele; with extremely personal lyrics that feel like you are listening to someone read their most private unfiltered thoughts out of their diary. In a world where trite pop music and vapid dance songs seem to dominate our aural landscape, her songs actually have something meaningful to say. Her lyrics are definitely gorgeous poems put into songs. If you haven’t listened to her, please listen to the song “Not the Killing Type.’ Seriously, stop reading this and go watch the video for that song. You’ll know exactly what she is about after watching it, and I think it’s the best music video of the last decade. I’ll link it at the end of this chapter. From the first moments of her quirky faces and mouth movements, to her interesting phrasing and singing cadence, you know she isn’t like most singers. The video moves from mesmerizing to disturbing, and is a powerful cinematic vision. You may be familiar with her husband, Neil Gaiman, a pretty famous wordsmith of his own. I can only imagine the deep literary conversations these two creative geniuses must regularly have around the house over a glass of wine.

But Amanda Palmer’s show came with special requests in her rider, which unfortunately rubbed some staff people the wrong way. This was the final American show of her There Will be No Intermission Tour before heading to Europe. Her concert was to be an intimate show of just her onstage playing songs and telling stories and interacting with the audience. Previous shows have gone on for 4 hours. This would be more of a spoken word confessional like you might find in a theater production, and not a music venue. So the tour manager requested things to make the show as quiet and intimate as possible. They requested that we all wear earpieces on our radios, so the constant squawking about irrelevant behind-the-scenes issues wouldn’t interrupt and distract from the show. I always wear an earpiece up at the stage, so that was a non issue for me. They also requested that the bartenders try to be as quiet as they could, limiting loud conversations and, I think, only selling drinks in cups to avoid the clatter of bottles and the explosions of beer cans opening. She discusses empowerment, bisexuality, rape, and abortions; inviting members of the audience to disclose their personal tales as well. Experiences involving homophobia and transphobia will be shared. There was likely going to be sadness and rage and crying with the exchange of these very personal life stories. Since Amanda Palmer was trying to create a safe space for women to gather and share, they requested that no male security staff be in the concert hall.

This is where some of the staff blustered and, in my opinion, took that request the wrong way. First of all, at that time we only had a handful of female staff, so it was impossible to meet that request. There just weren’t enough women on staff to make that happen. Secondly, it was a request if possible, not a mandatory demand that would result in the show not happening if it could not be staffed that way. They asked, we couldn’t meet the request, the show must go on. You certainly wouldn’t want a male staff there who is ogling the women in the crowd, rolling his eyes and scoffing, or who happened to resemble a woman’s rapist. I’m no stranger to emotional heartfelt concerts. The local bands I was in would sometimes tell the crowd to go talk to any security staff if anything made them feel unsafe or uncomfortable in the venue that night. Creating a small bubble of safety and acceptance in a world filled with hate, sexism, racism, and predators is the right thing to do. Amanda Palmer was just trying to do this on a larger scale. Requesting females to staff a feminist-themed event is on par. It just meant that the men who would end up staffing the event should be aware of this, and sensitive to it. There wasn’t any intention coming from a place of man-hating or ‘reverse sexism’ (that’s ridiculous.) The patriarchy obviously dominates most facets of our society, so asking to tip the scales of gender at a delicate event is reasonable and understandable. So, of course, I was chosen to be in the hall near the stage to assist if needed.

I always love being at the stage, but I felt especially honored to be there for this show. Some people just have the gift of being a performer and riveting their audience. I don’t know that many people who could command an audience’s attention alone onstage for four hours doing anything. I was moved and thrilled by her songs and her stories. So much so that I went to the merch table and bought her memoir called The Art of Asking. Being an avid reader, I devoured this book the next day. It proudly sits on the shelf next to memoirs by Ani DiFranco (No Walls and the Recurring Dream), Tori Amos (Piece by Piece, Resistance), Debbie Harry (Face it), Pat Benatar (Between a Heart and a Rock Place), and Chrissie Hyde (Reckless: My Life as a Pretender). That is, when I haven’t loaned these books out to my friends to read. And Siouxsie, I’m still eagerly awaiting your memoir.

So the show was indeed about three and a half hours long and went off without a hitch. Amanda sat at a gorgeous grand piano singing and talking to the crowd. The audience loved her and was in tears several times. There were discussions and disclosures about rape, incest, sexual abuse, and abortions. There was even a political discussion that got a bit heated, but Amanda handled it well. Overall the fans got a very special show and got to interact with the artist in a way that never happens at a large music venue. Hell, I’m a straight white CIS male and I even felt empowered afterwards.

One of the most powerful stories she told was about her first time. She was making out with her boyfriend and things were moving towards having sex. He tied her up and she went along with it. Then things turned dark. He left the room and came back with a friend, who’s birthday it was. He offered Amanda to him, tied up on the bed, as a birthday gift. Thankfully, the friend didn’t want to have sex with somebody’s girlfriend who was bound and restrained, so her untied her and everyone left, each of them irrevocably changed. This disturbing near-rape would, of course, damage your ability to trust others and forever haunt you. But instead of focusing on how sinister the first man was, she focused on how the second man refused to participate and released her. She talked about more men needing to stand up against wrongs like this, instead of giving in to peer pressure and rape culture. She called on men to be more trustworthy and interrupt or intervene when they see other men doing wrong. She was thankful that her first sexual experience wasn’t a rape, but reminded us how many women’s first times are rapes.

As you can imagine, during this story and others, the venue was so quiet that you really could have heard a pin drop. Deeply personal stories, harrowing retellings of abuse, and disturbing disclosures are supposed to make you uncomfortable and shake you up. In sharing our pain, we can achieve catharsis for ourselves and resonance for others. The human experience is riddled with suffering and pain, but building from it and learning from it is essential.

Since she had to get on a plane to Europe the next day, she wrapped up the concert ‘early’ by not being onstage for the full four hours. I was standing at an access point by the stairs simply to be ready in case anything happened, and to prevent fans from entering a restricted area. Some fans are so rabid for contact with their musical idol that they forget basic rules. As the audience applauded, Amanda walked behind me towards the stairs leading to her green room. But instead of just walking down, she course-corrected and walked over to me. I thought perhaps she had a request for me to allow a family member into the green room or something. I was wrong. She put one hand on my shoulder and with her other hand she grabbed my forearm and squeezed it, looking in my eyes with her intense gaze and famous eyebrows. She just held onto my arm and said, “Thank you. Thank you for being here.” We smiled at each other and I thanked her for being here as well. She released my arm and walked off, still smiling. I’m not sure why she did that. Maybe she saw my smiling face throughout the performance, or maybe she just knew that if I was in the hall working then I must be a trustworthy man.

I always appreciate when really famous people don’t just ignore the staff helping to make their show go well. Just a ten second interaction like this one forever endeared her to me, and made me want to support her by purchasing her book and her music. I also defended her and the tour manager when some coworkers tried to malign her or complain about the gender staffing request. Her concert was one of the best I’ve ever seen, made even better by the fact that I got to work it and have an honest human moment of shared gratitude with her. Tonight’s show was all about immediacy, vulnerability, and connection. Live concerts sometimes elevate to being something more than just entertainment. They can provide safety and affirmations and belonging. They can help with networking and community-building. They can be educational and inspiring. They can heal you and even change your life.

because the thing about things
is that they can start meaning things nobody actually said
and if you’re not allowed to love people alive
then you learn how to love people dead

Anatomy of a Scene: Jennifer 8

Sometimes one scene in a film is so impeccably done that it elevates a routine film into greatness; an actor’s state of bliss. Jennifer 8 is a 1992 police procedural film involving the hunt for a serial killer. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, it has a solid cast of Uma Thurman, Andy Garcia, Lance Henriksen, and John Malkovich. John Malkovich’s short performance is what takes this standard police detective movie to an entirely sublime level.

John Malkovich’s character enters the film at the 82 minute mark, which is when most average-length films are beginning to wrap things up and race to the climax. Malkovich’s part is essentially a cameo as an FBI interrogator. He only has two scenes, but they are what I remember from this movie and keep going back to enjoy. We’ve all seen the interrogation room scene before in countless detective films and TV series. It is a trope of the genre, and hard to do anything new with it. And it’s a lengthy dialogue scene with characters sitting in chairs. But Malkovich and Garcia take this opportunity to really shine and suck us into the cat-and-mouse game of seeking information and strategically revealing information.

John Malkovich absolutely steals the entire film away from the other actors, competent and entertaining as they all are. Watch Malkovich observe and analyze Garcia while he tries to get a reaction from him. He does everything in the book to antagonize and unnerve him during these scenes. Listen to his cadence and his pause; I think it is his delivery of the lines that is so memorable. And watch his face as he fiddles with pencils, lights a cigarette, or blows his nose. Malkovich pauses to actually write comments on his legal pad, making Garcia and the audience wait. He smirks. He looks up at the ceiling as if contemplating some difficult scenario, in disbelief of the story being told to him. He gets right in Garcia’s face to whisper certain accusations and reveal a card or two in his deck. He repeats statements Garcia made with malice as he spins it to confirm his own narrative and bolster his case against him.

The first scene is Malkovich beginning the interrogation. He uses classic techniques of asking the Garcia character’s permission to do things, smiling like he is on his side, and making sympathetic and understanding reflections of his testimony. He asks a hundred clarifying questions. He makes bland small talk, appears somewhat neutral and bored, tries to build rapport, all the usual tactics. He does a lot of great things with his hand gestures. He rests his face on his fist as if these games are tedious and cliche to him. This scene is about 7 minutes long, but absolutely flies by. The viewer is locked on their every word. And honestly, Andy Garcia does a fantastic job as well. These two actors playing off each other in this tit-for-tat is endlessly entertaining.

“You don’t like Sergeant Taylor, do you?”

“Like?”

“You want me to use another word?”

“I am indifferent to Sergeant Taylor.”

“You don’t blame him in any way for the situation you find yourself in?”

“His motive for exposing my witness was malicious.”

“So you don’t like him?”

“No, I don’t like him.”

“You….. (checks his notes and quotes him) wish him ill?”

Garcia scoffs and nods, understanding the interrogator’s intention to use his own words, out of context, against him.

“Do you want a lawyer, Sergeant?”

“Oh there you go, another game question. ‘Do I want a lawyer, Sergeant?’ What would I want a lawyer for if I’ve got nothing to hide?”

“Don’t you?”

“You know I don’t. So why don’t we quit the bullshit and get down to it? What’s your angle, Mr. St. Anne?”

There is a quick cutaway to the Uma Thurman character, then we are back in the interrogation room, presumably the next day. We see Garcia’s character seated in a chair, then the Malkovich character moves into the frame as if on a dolly. It’s both magical and unnerving. A dramatic entrance explained by his character silently rolling his office chair over to Garcia while he outlines what he thinks happened. He rolls right up to the side of Garcia and ends up just behind him, whispering into his ear.

“This guy’s got a 12 gauge Winchester up your nose. And he’s drunk, and you’re dizzy. Your eye’s full of blood. And you ain’t thinking good, and you’re seeing worse, and –WOW!–(claps his hands together behind Garcia’s ears to startle him) it just went off. You just put him down.”

This scene ends with both men sitting next to each other, looking into their reflection in the two-way mirror with other law enforcement officers behind it watching the interrogation. Almost as if they are watching a television show of their own existence; or in Malkovich’s case, knowingly giving a performance for the men behind the mirror. The audience watches these two characters on a movie screen, and inside of that the characters are watching themselves on a mirrored screen.

The second interrogation scene is over 9 minutes long, and this one is where things get more intense. Not only does Malkovich become angrier and more confrontational with Garcia, but he had a cold in real life on the day of filming. But he pushed through and gave an even more intimidating performance than the previous one. He is so congested during this scene, you honestly feel for the actor. But he uses that to his advantage and it only adds to the realism. Who among us hasn’t had to go to work when we had a cold and just tough it out? And weren’t we a bit more on edge, curt, or quick to bark at people? Malkovich gets to fuss with a roll of toilet paper on his desk to dab his nose with it. I think some directors might have juggled the filming order around if an actor had a bad head cold. Since this was a cameo, I’m assuming Malkovich was flown in for maybe 1 or 2 days of shooting. They may not have had other shooting options since he is a minor character. Whatever the reason, Malkovich delivering his dialogue while being severely congested pushes the scene over into the legendary category.

The scene begins with Malkovich using an electric pencil sharpener to irritate the weary and dejected Garcia. Malkovich is great as using props, similar to Christopher Walken. Cigarettes, pencils, legal pads, toilet paper, notepads, evidence bags, etc. Like a verbal boxing match, Malkovich pushes Garcia up against the ropes until he breaks. He goads Garcia to snapping by mocking his ambition and motivation, bringing up his marital problems as well. He even puts his fingers in his mouth like a child would during this mocking monologue:

“Maybe he thought you were making it up. Cause you wanted to be top cop. Isn’t that why you went running up that garbage dump? So everyone could stand in awe of top cop? Isn’t that why you came up here, cause you couldn’t make it in L.A.? So you got a pissy little degree and you come up here so you can be top guy. Right? But Ross was top guy, wasn’t he? Always would be top guy. And you know what? He did it without even trying. Everybody loved him. He had everything you wanted, didn’t he? Great marriage. Great kid. Everything that you couldn’t have. And you wanted it all to go away. Cause you had a lousy life. With a lousy wife. Who was fucking everyone, wasn’t she? Is that why you need to pick on this little blind girl? Cause you can control her, control who she’s fucking?”

At this point the Garcia character finally snaps and grabs Malkovich around his neck in anger. Malkovich, getting what he wanted, says quietly and calmly, “Come on John. You wanna lose your temper with me? You’re good at losing your temper. Come on, lose your temper with me.” Nose to nose, the two men consider what is next. Malkovich smiles as he would love nothing more than to provoke Garcia into assaulting him on camera, adding to his case against him. It’s the emotional climax of the scene, and my favorite part of the entire movie.

Malkovich only has a total of 16 minutes onscreen, but he absolutely owns the entire film. Interestingly, this is the exact amount of time Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal character is onscreen in Silence of the Lambs. But you feel his presence throughout, as if he was in the entire movie. Most people are shocked to learn that Hopkins has such little screen time in that movie. But Jennifer 8 is different because Malkovich’s agent is unknown to us for almost the first hour and a half of the run time. Nobody is talking about him, retelling terrifying stories, reading letters, acknowledging his character’s importance, etc. Malkovich comes in long past the time where new characters usually get introduced, and he is equally as stunning as Hopkin’s Hannibal Lector character. The gravity he brings to this movie is powerful and undeniable.

“John, I’m running out of questions and you’re running out of lies.”

Sometimes after watching a mediocre movie, I’m motivated to watch a scene of classic acting where everything just came together perfectly. These interrogation scenes in Jennifer 8 are one of my go-to cinema scenes that I’ll watch by itself. I am in awe of John Malkovich’s performance in this film, and how he inhabits the small role with everything he has. While I consciously know that he is an actor that was paid to perform this role in a movie, I never think that while watching him. I completely believe that he is that character; a seasoned FBI interrogator who has been in hundreds of rooms like this trying to suss out information from a suspect. He could be worn out and bored by it all, but he revels in it instead. Interrogating people is his greatest skill; his art. He takes this lengthy dialogue scene that is, perhaps, generic on paper and makes it the absolute highlight of the film.

Jennifer 8 is available on DVD and BluRay, but as of this writing they are both out of print and somewhat expensive. Unless you’re lucky like me and have a physical copy of this movie, your best bet is to rent or purchase it on Amazon Prime.

I Will Bring You the Head of Alfredo Garcia

One could say that I’m a long-time disciple of Sam Peckinpah. His movies have spoken to me in a way that other movies have not. I have read numerous biographies about the man, and for some reason can list all of his filmography in the order of release. His films mean a lot to me. Several of his films remain firmly on my top 10 lists of all time. His films deal with outlaw characters, and themes of men out of time, trying to finish something in a world that has moved on. Honor among thieves. He was definitely a troubled soul that fought lots of personal demons, but sometimes he took that darkness and angst and put amazing beauty on the screen.

Perhaps his purest vision is the 1974 film Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I have previously written about his 1977 WW2 film Cross of Iron, but I have wanted to delve into this dark masterpiece for a while now.  But much like any journey into the heart of darkness, you have to be equipped and mentally ready for it. 

Some brief background info for the layman first. There are many great books written about the man, so I’ll just give you some basics here. I’ll list my favorite books about him at the end of this article. Peckinpah is primarily known for his western films. He made a name as a solid director on series such as The Rifleman and The Westerner before moving into film. He was known for working with amazing actors and getting unique and powerful performances out of them. A short list of actors who shined under Sam’s tutelage includes Charlton Heston, Jason Robards, William Holden, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, James Coburn and Warren Oates.  Peckinpah worked with Steve McQueen twice in the same year, releasing Junior Bonner and The Getaway in 1972. Sam was fired from the 1965 Steve McQueen gambling film The Cincinnati Kid. I often wonder if both men had lived longer and not pissed off the wrong people what they could have done together. The independent, macho, strong silent type of character that both men were drawn to could have given us a long lasting working relationship akin to Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah filming THE GETAWAY

Sam was also known for pushing the envelope of on screen violence, so much so that his primary nickname is Bloody Sam. Another innovation that Sam made his trademark was the slow-motion montage action shot. He used slow motion, multi-camera coverage, innovative shot editing, and even the variable speed camera. His style was hugely influential, to the point of virtually every action director that followed him using these techniques. Sam loved the poetry of violence, the dance of death. And using slow motion can warp time, elongating the moment of death. 

He also loved to fight against the perceived authority of the studio executives. He pissed off so many producers that he lost many great films that were planned for him to direct. He would go over budget and fight with the bigwigs that in many cases, his films were taken away from him and edited together by other people, or important scenes would be cut against Sam’s wishes. This resulted in several of his movies being released in highly edited forms that didn’t do well at the box office. Major Dundee and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are prime examples. It is no surprise that after the debacle of Pat Garrett, Sam made this angry, no-holds-barred film. 

Of all of his great films, Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is the only film of his that he had final cut on. This means that whatever he filmed and edited together stayed intact without any tampering from studio executives. So, for better or for worse, this movie is exactly what Sam wanted, done his way. This is interesting to keep in mind as you watch it, for it is so gritty and bleak. 

The setup of this movie is pretty simple. A powerful Mexican land baron puts a large bounty on the man that impregnated his daughter. One million dollars for his head. Warren Oates plays Bennie, the quintessential anti-hero. He finds out that Alfredo is already dead from a car crash. So he and his girlfriend Elita go to find his grave and remove his head to turn it in for the cash. Of course, this dark plan gets much darker and many things go wrong. 

“I’ve killed people.
And worse, a whole lot worse.”

This film is Warren Oates’ film all the way. He carries the whole thing and is in almost every scene. It’s a tour de force. Peckinpah had worked with Oates for a long time, and obviously saw something in him. A gifted character actor, this movie might be his most successful starring role. Sam had previously worked with Warren in The Westerner and The Rifleman, then he cast him in his films Ride the High CountryMajor DundeeThe Wild Bunch, and gave him the lead in Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Oates decided to just do an impression of Sam Peckinpah for the character, even dressing like him and borrowing his sunglasses. Sam liked it and went with it. 

I feel like Sam was challenging us with this movie from the first 5 minutes. It opens with a poetic beautiful shot of a young pregnant woman resting by a pond full of swimming ducks and dappling sunshine. Then she is brought inside and interrogated by her father. He asks who the baby’s father is and she refuses to name him. Her own father then has his two henchmen strip off her shirt, exposing her breasts to everyone in the room. He continues to ask her and she refuses, so he gestures for the henchman to twist her arms in a pain-compliance hold. She cries out in pain and hunches over. He gestures to continue and we hear the sound of her arm breaking and her screaming. If this isn’t the kind of film you would want to continue watching, this is your exit point. It is a cruel scene that sets the tone for the journey to follow. 

Some dialogue exchanges also give you an idea of the type of nihilistic film you are in for. This is from the early scene with Bennie playing piano and accepting the mission from the two assassins paying him to do their dirty work for them.

Bennie: “Don’t worry, if he’s alive I’ll find him.”
Sappensly: “Alive isn’t our problem.”
Bennie: “Well, How bout dead or alive? How about that?
Quill: “Dead. Just dead.”

Later when Bennie meets with his girlfriend Elita at her workplace, he orders a drink like a true antihero would:

Bennie: “Gimmie a double bourbon and a champagne back and none of
your tejano bullshit. Now shove off.”

After a shootout where Bennie emerges the victor, he goes over to a henchman lying in the dust. Bennie already shot him twice, so he is either already dead or dying. But Bennie shoots him two additional times, executing him for certain.  He then says:

“Why? Because it feels so goddammed good.”

Here’s what you’ll remember about this movie: sweat, dust, flies, grime, nudity, blood, and bullet wounds. There are scenes that make us nervous and uncomfortable, and only a master director like Peckinpah can do that so effectively. He intentionally doesn’t explain some things, leaving the viewer to struggle with how to interpret it. I’m primarily referring to the almost-rape scene that jars everyone that watches it. Many essays have been written about that scene alone. There is much examination of masculinity, insecurity, jealousy, and gender role expectations. Sam even made the two main assassins homosexual, back in 1974. Bennie, and his character arc (or descent) is obviously the focus of this film, but his character is troubled at best. As the main character, he is seedy and lost and immoral, the definition of an anti-hero. The viewer wants him to succeed in this morbid mission, even at the peril of his soul. 

One of my favorite pieces of dialogue is when Bennie and Elita are discussing digging up the body of Alfredo to remove his head.

Elita: But you want me to desecrate a grave!
Bennie: Don’t give me that crap.
There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground
Or a man that’s in it.
Or you.
Or me.

I’ve watched Alfredo Garcia countless times and I still keep noticing new things. That’s the sign of a well-constructed film. On this last viewing, I spotted an uncredited cameo from Richard Bright. He is most famous for portraying mafia henchman Al Neri in all three Godfather films. Sam also cast Bright in small roles in The Getaway and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. 

I heard a nice sound cue this time around. When the two company assassins show Bennie a photo of Alfredo Garcia, there is an added sound effect of a car screeching and crashing into something. I assumed that this was a subtle bit of audio foreshadowing, since later in the film Bennie and Elita kiss while driving and bump a passing bus as they screech out of the way. However, it is actually a plot point flashback of sorts. We learn later that Alfredo died in a car accident, so this added sound effect when we look at his photo is a nice connection.

Another detail I had previously missed was during a scene with Bennie driving around in his red Impala with Alfredo’s head in a sack.  He gets out of his car carrying the package with him to go get some ice. Files have been buzzing around the inside of the car, and the stench must be incredible. He needs some ice to try to keep the head from rotting any further. As he walks into a little side of the road restaurant, there is a pig’s head hanging from a hook behind him. A decapitated pig’s head acting as a talisman of bad luck to a man with a decapitated human head in a sack. 

Sam put in a couple of subtle homages to his own films. At one point, Bennie is suggesting that his employers do not need to know that Garcia was already killed. He tells Elita, “In this house, we know nothing.” I was instantly reminded of a similar famous line from Sam’s film Ride the High Country. In that great film, Joel McCrea’s character says, “All I want is to enter my house justified.” Another film also references the house as an important character. Dustin Hoffman’s character in 1971’s Straw Dogs says to his wife, “I will not allow violence against this house.” Peckinpah wrote or co-wrote all three of those movies, so it’s no wonder that dialogue repetitions would reappear. 

Sam also references his previous film, the 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. During the third shootout, in the hotel suite, Bennie runs around the corner and a bad guy shoots at him. His bullets hit the TV, and several hit the mirror showing Bennie’s reflection. The cracked glass patterns appear over Bennie’s face and torso exactly how they did over James Coburn in the climax of Pat Garrett. In that film he was the shooter, so he was shooting himself. This symbolized the death of his soul, as he was about to murder his best friend, Billy. And this scene, and the whole film, was about the two men being two sides of the same coin. If Garrett kills Billy he would be killing the original, outlaw version of himself, now that he is on the side of the law. In Garcia, the image of Benny is being further distorted and damaged, much like his body and mind. It’s a well-crafted reflection of the previous film.

Mirrors are all over the set in this film. Many of the quieter dialogue scenes play out in a reflection. A shot of Bennie entering a hotel is shot all in a huge mirror reflection and looks like a painting. At first nothing in the mirror reflection is moving, and the border around it definitely looks like a frame of a painting. Then Warren Oates moves into the field inside the mirror and we know it is reality–or that his character is walking into an artistic rendition of reality.

A final similarity between this film and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is turkey shooting. In this film, Bennie fires at some turkeys on the side of the road in a spontaneous show of excitement. He tells Elita that he wasn’t trying to hit any of them. That’s an interesting thing to put in this film that seems random. Peckinpah got a lot of heat from animal rights groups for actually shooting off the heads of turkeys in the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid target shooting scene. Could this be a veiled apology from Sam? Not likely. Maybe he just hates turkeys.

Another echo of a previous Peckinpah film is when Bennie says to the bag containing Alfredo’s head, “All right Al. Let’s go.” Anyone that has seen The Wild Bunch remembers William Holden’s character Pike saying “Let’s go.” It is ranked as one of the greatest movie lines of all time. Warren Oates, who plays Lyle Gorch in that film, laughs and says, “Why not?” Instead of a big speech explaining why the group needs to march back into an occupied city and face almost certain death by the army there, their communication is simplified into facial expressions, locking eyes, and these two words. Hearing Warren Oates this time say the first part of the famous line is deeply satisfying. And just like in The Wild Bunch, the main character says “Let’s go” as he decides to wade into the final bloodshed when he could easily just escape to safety.

Anecdotally, Warren Oates was the focus of a double feature I saw a few years ago in my city of Portland, Oregon. A group called BAM (Beer and Movies) put on a Warren Oates double feature at the Hollywood Theater. The two films were The Wild Bunch and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. This was, perhaps, the greatest double feature that I’ve ever seen. Four and a half hours of Peckinpah bliss on the big screen, as well as the Jerry Fielding soundtracks.

One of the most memorable shots is with Bennie sitting outside the shower with Elita. She is vulnerable and naked sitting in the water stream crying. Her hair is wet and reminds me of the mythological goddess Hecate. Interestingly, Hecate is known as the protector of the household and associated with crossroads. She is associated with boundaries, and therefore the underworld. I found this quite interesting in relation to the previous quotes about houses in Sam’s films, and since this film feels like a descent into the underworld. Oates looks right into the camera for the only time in the film and says, “I love you.” The expressions on his face are myriad.  This had to be a hand held camera shot, and it does feel like he is looking into a mirror, and that we are him. It is a striking and emotional shot.

The final 45 minutes of this movie is a gonzo roller coaster ride of Bennie’s descent into meaningless death and destruction. It’s a fever-dream with Bennie talking to himself, and talking to the decapitated head in a bag. Flies buzz and patter against the inside of the car windows. Bennie takes a pull of tequila, pours some directly on the bag saying, “Take a drink, Al.” This road trip movie is far off course and headed straight to hell. Many, many people die. We get four separate gunfights and it’s difficult to keep track of how many people are killed. Bennie has almost lost it all, and is definitely losing his mind. It is reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones at the finale of Rolling Thunder. They all go into the final act ready to die, even expecting to die, so nothing really matters. The bleak nihilism of all three films is striking. In The Wild Bunch, the group is at least finally standing for something–brotherhood and doing the right thing. They go back into the Mexican town to rescue Angel, their captured gang member. They are so outnumbered that we know they are doomed. But dying for a cause, dying for some honorable reason is better than becoming obsolete, or wasting away in an old folks home. In Alfredo Garcia, our main character isn’t really doing it for anything but money. This morphs into revenge and punishing all the villains–every single one. We want Bennie to ‘win’ since we have seen all he has been through and lost to get here. The sacrifices made were staggeringly high. As he says early in the film, “Nobody loses all the time.”

One of the greatest moments in this film, and Warren Oates’ career, comes late in the film. Bennie has returned to his cheap apartment with the ice and Alfredo’s head. He is preparing to chip apart the ice to pack around the head when he approaches the mirror. He takes a pull of tequila, removes his sunglasses and looks at himself in the reflection momentarily. After all the loss and killing, he can barely look at himself at all. He looks so haggard and beaten down, his sad red eyes look shocked and soulless. He puts his glasses back on and gets back to his job. 

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not
become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss
will gaze back into you.   –Nietzsche

Something else I was stricken by was Sam’s attention to background action and details that flesh out the scene, making it seem real. I think Sam likes kids, he puts in a lot of them playing in his films. In this movie young kids sit on the hood of Bennie’s Impala as he slowly drives through town. He even playfully makes shooting gestures at them with his hands, which certainly foreshadows all the actual shooting to come later. There are many shots of groups of kids playing ball, food vendors on the side of the road, bands playing music, herds of animals, lines of hanging laundry, and sweaty mustached faces. After one shootout, a young child is seen grabbing a revolver out of a dead man’s hand, then dropping it. When Bennie and Elita reach the cemetery where Alfredo is buried, there is a funeral procession for a child. A small wooden coffin is being carried by mourners, which made me think of the death of innocence.

The end of this film is done so well, I just can’t get it out of my head. Bennie finally delivers the head of Alfredo to the Mexican baron, El Jefe. He arrives on the day of the baptism of Alfredo’s son. A shot of the prized head being identified and placed back in the ice-packed picnic basket by the guards is juxtaposed with the baby’s head being baptized with holy water. Absolute genius. There are dozens of family members around, and El Jefe is celebrating the birth of his grandson. Family members outside are lighting off fireworks, which would ostensibly cover the sound of gunfire from inside this hall. The constant pops reminded me of the beginning of Cross of Iron with the sounds of the mortar explosions getting closer and louder. 

Bennie presents the bounty of the decapitated head to El Jefe and defiantly pulls out huge chunks of ice and drops them on the desk as he says, “16 people are dead because of him, and you and….and me.” Nobody knew or expected him to have stashed his pistol in the picnic basket. Bennie pulls it out and thus starts the final shootout, full of slow-motion gunfire and blood squibs. Bennie yells, “NOOOOOOO” as he fires, and his voice is as loud as the gunshots. He is yelling at the injustice of all these people dying for this twisted treasure hunt. Screaming for all he has lost on this journey. Screaming that they aren’t going to keep getting away with it, and keep holding all the cards. No more. Once all of the guards are blown away, Bennie aims the gun at El Jefe, shakes his head slightly with a nervous grin, and growls “Nooooo” like an animal. It’s like the sound that a tiger death bringer would make. It’s a great audio mix boost. I won’t spoil what happens next, but it’s a killer ending to a batshit crazy movie. 

This film is a must-see for Peckinpah fans. If you haven’t seen any of his films, I don’t recommend starting with this one. Build up to this one by watching The Getaway, The Wild Bunch, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid first. This is a grimy dark movie that comes from a place of desperation and anger. It’s part road movie, part love story, part action film, part drama, with elements of a horror movie. But it’s all Sam. 

“Look at me with your goddam fucking eyes.

Come out and tackle me, you bastards.
I’m gonna nail ya. Somewhere I’m gonna nail ya.
You’re up there. You’re up there you son of…
I’m gonna find you.
Damn your eyes.”

Nobody Touches the Priest

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A PRAYER FOR THE DYING (1987) – Mickey Rourke

Another film that slipped through the cracks at the time, A Prayer for the Dying is a great drama that needs to be re-appreciated.

This film was released in 1987 as a star vehicle for Mickey Rourke, who was on fire in the 80s. It is the second film of his to come out in 1987, with the first being the amazing detective noir-horror film Angel Heart.

Just to recap, Mickey Rourke in the 80s was a huge rising star. I’m not going to delve into his later years of taking any film that came along, or quitting acting to become a boxer and thereby changing or ruining his good looks. Mickey Rourke started receiving much acclaim in the 80s and was even called that era’s potential new Marlon Brando. Even when he only had a small part in a film, he was the actor you remembered. His acting style draws you in and makes you believe him in any role. His emotions are telegraphed perfectly just by his face and his eyes. His delivery of powerful lines puts him a notch above most other actors in the 80s.

One of the first rated R double features I was able to see in theaters was the 1985 Michael Cimino crime epic Year of the Dragon. Strangely, the other film on this double feature was John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest. Both really good films, but not connected in the slightest thematically or genre-wise. Oliver Stone wrote a hell of a script for Dragon, just a couple years after writing Scarface. I used to wear my Dad’s army jacket, similar to Stanley White’s in the film, while playing adventure time in my backyard. I had a toy handgun and would imagine I was running around fighting the triad in Chinatown. I still love Year of the Dragon and re-watch it often. I have a similar love for Alan Parker’s 1987 masterpiece Angel Heart. Seeing that in theaters changed my life. But that’s a topic for another essay.

Mickey’s run of great films made by great directors is quite impressive. I think people forget just how big of a star he was, and how he was considered one of the greatest male actors of the time. He was handsome, charming, naturalistic and mesmerizing on screen.

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Mickey’s select 80s filmography:

Heaven’s Gate, Michal Cimino 1980
Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan 1981
Diner, Barry Levinson 1982
Eureka, Nicholas Roeg 1983
Rumblefish, Francis Ford Coppola, 1983
The Pope of Greenwich Village, Stuart Rosenberg 1984
Year of the Dragon, Michael Cimino, 1985
9 1/2 Weeks, Adrian Lyne 1986
Angel Heart, Alan Parker 1987
A Prayer for the Dying, Mike Hodges 1987
Barfly, Barbet Schroeder 1987

That is quite a strong list of famous directors for any resume.

Clearly, every director wanted to work with Mickey. Cimino obviously found something he loved in working with him, perhaps planning a long-term working relationship similar to Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. He cast Mickey in Heaven’s Gate, Year of the Dragon, and Desperate Hours (1990). I truly wish we could have seen more Cimino-Rourke collaborations.

The greatest and most prolific year for Mickey Rourke was obviously 1987. Three powerful films were released this year, with each of them showcasing his stellar acting and command of the screen. He played the grimy 1940s New Orleans detective in Angel Heart, the haunted IRA terrorist in A Prayer for the Dying, and the alcoholic Charles Bukowski character in Barfly. If you were to only watch three Rourke performances, I would say this is the holy trifecta of where to start.

A Prayer for the Dying is now one of my favorite Rourke performances. I rented this in the late 80s and didn’t love it. I think it’s because it was mis-promoted as an action movie when it is more of a dramatic meditation on guilt and religion. Also at that time I probably wanted it to be a violent action film like Charles Bronson would have made, since it dealt with an IRA terrorist killing mafia targets. Death Wish in Ireland. Watching the preview confirms this, as they show each and every action scene of gunfire paired with heroic action movie music (none of which is even used in the film). The original composer left the project and was replaced by Bill Conti, who gives us an amazing soundtrack. Pretty sure that music on the preview was from the original composer. I am so glad that they went with Conti. I would buy this soundtrack easily.

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Mike Hodges directed this film based on the book from Jack Higgins. Mike Hodges slammed onto the scene in 1971 with the gritty crime movie Get Carter. People my age may also remember him as the director of the classic 1980 camp sci-fi movie Flash Gordon. He had a bit of a comeback with the films Croupier and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. He’s a great director for this kind of story.

Rourke plays Martin Fallon, an IRA terrorist sporting a sawed-off shotgun, red hair and sideburns, and what I found to be a very convincing Irish accent. He looks weary and defeated for most of the film, because he is. The movie starts with a botched attempt on military vehicles that results in a school bus full of kids being blown up. He wants out, but the powers that be won’t let him out until he does one last hit (and because he knows too much). With promises of a passport and 50 thousand dollars, he reluctantly agrees.

He assassinates the mafia target in a cemetery but is seen by a priest, Father De Costa, played by Bob Hoskins. For the first time in his career, he does not eliminate the witness. Instead, he does a very interesting thing. He later visits the priest and confesses the murder to him, thereby insuring that the priest cannot tell the police about it. Whatever is said in confessional is strictly between the priest, the confessor, and God himself.

De Costa cannot understand why Fallon let him live, and uses that as a sign that there is still good in him and a chance to save him.

Martin Fallon:

I could’ve closed your mouth with a bullet.

Father De Costa:

Well why didn’t you?

Martin Fallon:

There’s been enough killin’

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Watching the interplay between these two great actors is one of the many pleasures of this film. The priest takes him on as his project to try to redeem him, and the terrorist wants to keep the priest safe and debate religion and forgiveness. I think his character wants to do something good as penance for the murders he has committed. A clunkier title for this movie could have been Absolution for a Hit Man. It becomes an existential discourse on the nature of religion and redemption, between a man of the cloth (with a violent past), and a man of the gun.

One of my favorite exchanges is when the two reverse their roles by the priest sitting in his own church pew and the terrorist standing behind the pulpit giving an anti-sermon.

Father Da Costa:

Have you something to say?

Martin Fallon:

We are fundamentally alone.

Nothing lasts. There’s no purpose to any of it.

Father Da Costa:

That’s a bit of a statement. Can you explain it to God?

Martin Fallon:

No, Father. Wrong way around. Can he explain it to me?

Can he explain my lost faith and how I lost it?

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Another interesting scene is where the priest loses his temper after a group of teenagers vandalize his church. They reveal that some men at the corner bar paid them to destroy his church. De Costa goes to the bar, called COURAGE, and confronts the familiar mafia villains. He then viciously beats the three gangsters with his fists and a garbage can lid, which seems to be homage to Sonny Corleone beating up Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather. The shot is framed so only certain letters of the big neon sign are visible, just the four letters R A G E. Hoskins does a great job in this scene, showing his disappointment in himself reverting back to anger and violence. He and Fallon are just two sides of the same coin.

The rest of the cast is just as great. Liam Neeson is another IRA terrorist and good friend of Fallon. Alison Doody, later to be cast in the third Indiana Jones film, gives a solid performance as Neeson’s teammate. Alan Bates relishes his role as the mafia villain. He and his brother run a funeral home, with Bates enjoying doing the mortician duties himself.  Having the main villain also working as the embalmer was an interesting touch I hadn’t seen before. It was reminiscent of Norman Bates’ interest in taxidermy in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho.

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Rourke’s character spends time around the church with De Costa and his blind niece, Anna. In an inspired scene, Fallon tries to help Anna tune the huge church pipe organ. We have no idea of his background besides being a terrorist. A police detective arrives to question the priest and takes an interest in Fallon’s presence. Rourke plays innocent and tries to pass himself off as the organ tuner. He is sitting on the piano bench facing away from everyone, but looking at them in a mirror on the organ. The detective doesn’t believe him and pushes him to play a song. Rourke’s face shows a mix of distracted innocence and the tension is built as he just hits some random discordant notes. Then, when we fear the detective is about to arrest him for questioning, Fallon proceeds to play a beautiful somber fugue by Bach. The director lets the song play out and Rourke smirks and smiles with satisfaction.

De Costa’s blind niece, of course, finds herself in peril late in the film. She is terrorized by a bad character in a way that made me think of Terence Young’s 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark. Her character might be the weakest link in the story. Having her be blind almost felt like a gimmick to make her as vulnerable as possible. The actor does a fine job, she just has some pretty obvious lines and serves as a superfluous and somewhat unbelievable love interest. I suppose her character represents purity and virginity in a film about Catholic guilt and repression.

Certain shots might hold symbolism I didn’t catch when I first watched this movie over 30 years ago. The religious iconography is plentiful. Having the church be under reconstruction with scaffolding is unusual. That could represent the church trying to give itself a makeover to continue to exist in a modern society with changing priorities or disinterest. In another scene a huge statue of a crucified Jesus falls to the ground and a large cloud of dust puffs off of it. The ancient history of religion literally dusting itself off to reinvent itself anew. When a character is shot in a cemetery, a statue of a saint is spattered in blood, in a reverse baptism at the point of death.

There are many great acting moments from Rourke in this movie, but the best has to be this speech between his character and Liam Neeson in the tree park. His delivery and facial expressions truly show his pain and remorse. The camera holds in tight close-up on Mickey and we are gifted this short monologue about his suffering and loss of himself.

Martin Fallon:

Listen, I don’t want to keep waking up every night hearing the screams of young children. I lost something a long time ago, Malachy. Everything. Everything got very black, like dried blood. And something started to stink. Every day it got worse, sometimes so bad I couldn’t get out of my bed. I sat there in the dark like a wee scared boy, not being able to breathe or speak my name. I saw myself lying in the street, dying, not wanting to die. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

 

This somber film is full of great performances, music, and direction. Please track it down and give it a watch. I recommend the Twilight Time Limited Edition BluRay. And if anybody needs help curating a Mickey Rourke film festival, I’m your man.

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The Demon Alcohol

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I had already clocked out and was hanging outside the entrance of the venue talking with my coworker, who was closing by himself tonight. Almost all of the patrons were gone, and the bartenders were doing their closing cleaning duties. Two males exited the venue and wobbled off to wherever they were going. Now that we live in a time of cheap and convenient Uber and Lyft drivers, there is literally no reason to ever get a DUI. There never really was to begin with, but you get my point. Cabs regularly park outside our venue and wait for some easy fares. People stand on the sidewalk watching their Lyft or Uber driver’s progress on their smart phone’s map. Within minutes, they are safely picked up and transported home.

But tonight a female bartender came outside in a panic and yelled to us, “Those guys are hammered. We cut them off and they were talking about driving home. STOP THEM!” Immediately the adrenaline shot into my system and I kicked back into work mode. We ran around the corner and sure enough, saw the more-drunk of the two men opening up his car door.

We sprinted over to the car yelling at the men. I went to the driver’s side door where the man was already sitting, keys in hand looking for the ignition. All of his windows were down. My coworker was on the other side of the car talking to the other man. I started trying to talk the man out of it. “Sir, you are not going to drive home tonight. You have had too much to drink and you’ve gotta stay.” He mumbled some drunk-speak about being fine and he was going to drive. “Nope. You can pick up your car tomorrow. Let’s get some coffee in you and call you a cab.” He kept mumbling his protests. “My friend, this isn’t worth going to jail and losing your license. Or hurting somebody. I just want you to get home safely.” All of this sound logic would have worked on a sober person. But you just can’t reason with drunk people. My coworker and the man’s friend were on the sidewalk pleading with him to give me the keys. I finally said, “Hey look over there, your friend is talking to you.” The driver glanced over and I reached inside the car window and snatched the keys out of his hand.

The man looked like I had just stolen all of his retirement money. He nodded to himself bewilderedly and smiled. I walked away to the sidewalk with his keys. It turns out the less-drunk friend had a hotel room at the hotel directly behind us. He offered to let the driver stay in his room that night. I gave the keys to the more sober friend. We thanked him and watched them stagger over to the hotel room, open the door, and go inside.

My coworker said, “Damn man, you oughtta clock back in. You just saved somebody’s life tonight.”

* * * *

Some thoughts on alcohol. Without it I wouldn’t have a job. If you take a macro view of what I do, my job is essentially to confirm that you are old enough to drink alcohol, and then kick you out when you’ve had too much of it. That’s it. It’s a legal drug that kills more people than all other drugs combined. And yet, it is tolerated, promoted, pushed, advertised, and worshipped by our entire culture. At least here in the United States. It is potentially a part of every family celebration, rite of passage, and life event. It is the most popular social lubricant or anxiety crutch.

I work around alcohol and deal with intoxicated patrons all the time, yet I barely drink at all myself. I’ll occasionally accept a free shot after work, commonly called a ‘shift drink.’ When I do drink I choose hard cider that I’m drinking for the taste, not to get buzzed or drunk. The last time I was drunk was at Burning Man in 2005, and that probably qualified as alcohol poisoning. I just can’t tolerate the hangover and the headache the day after being drunk. And I’m not 21 anymore, either. In college I could drink a bunch and snap back pretty well the next day. Now that I’m substantially older I would need the entire next day to nap and recover and be miserable and in pain. Screw all that, it’s just not worth it. I suppose I would actually make a great bartender since I don’t crave the product at all. I could never work as a chocolatier though. I would eat my weight in chocolate and be fired after one shift. I’m reminded of something somebody probably said in some western film I can’t recall the title of. “Alcohol? Oh it’s the devil’s drink. I ain’t got much use for the stuff myself….but I sure do make a livin’ off of it.”

One behavior that I don’t  particularly understand is this: Getting off work but staying at the bar you work at drinking with your coworkers. Some people hurry up so that they can clock out and run a block or two away to another bar. This is where their friends work, so they can get a drink or two in there before they stop serving. I suppose that if you really like alcohol, it must be a kind of torture to handle it, pour it, and serve it all shift when you can’t have any. Then when you’re done all you want is a shot and a beer back. Me? I just want to go home and chill out after work, where I could have a drink in peace and solitude. I’ve already been around people all night and I don’t have the bandwidth to put on the social mask and engage in small-talk with anybody. And drunken small-talk is even worse. I’m not single, so I’m not interested in flirting with anybody. And I’ve already been here for too many hours, so staying longer just doesn’t appeal to me. Blowing my cash tips that I was just given on overpriced drinks seems like a complete waste. I know I sound like a boring old miser, but I’ll save my money by not remaining in the bar giving my tip money right back to the business. I have a Tupperware container hidden away at home that I put all my tips in so I won’t spend them on impulse purchases. I even have a secondary envelope full of tips I get specifically from working private rental events or catering jobs. This envelope is beginning to look like something you would see in a crime movie when somebody is making a payout after robbing a bank. My Tupperware tips and thick cash envelope will hopefully allow me to take my family on a vacation somewhere without puddles of rainwater.

I’ve had a couple girlfriends who would definitely qualify as alcoholics. Functional alcoholics. Binge drinkers. But still alcoholics. That certainly contributed to the eventual demise of those relationships. I also used to throw epic parties out at my house in the country. Since the parties would go for three days, everybody would just stay and camp. That way nobody had to worry about driving home after drinking on dark curvy country roads. I’d put out a huge bowl and people would put their keys in there. But, accidents do happen and I always felt like I had to maintain sobriety in case I needed to drive anyone to the ER. So even though you’d see me walking about with a drink in my hand tending the bonfire, I was nursing the same drink for six hours. Reminds me of stories of Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin pounding back an entire fifth of Jack Daniels while performing onstage. He later admitted that the bottle was full of apple juice.

I can’t say that I didn’t experiment with alcohol. Friends of mine from high school and college might remember stories of me drinking too much in the dorms or a friend’s house. Luckily, that was decades ago and minimal evidence exists to prove our intoxicated excesses. In my thirties I did develop a taste for mango cognac, which I would deliver to guests at my parties in tall shot glasses. Nobody refused mango cognac. “You cannot possess mango.” I also liked drinking absinthe. I really liked the ritual of preparing this anise-flavored spirit. You pour absinthe into a special glass, then slowly drip iced water over a sugar cube on the slotted spoon set across the glass. When this drips down into the green absinthe and the cloud of sugar swirls around, it is called ‘the louche’ or releasing the green fairy. This was from the time where the psychoactive ingredients wormwood and thujone were still present in absinthe. Much rumor and confusion any mythology accompanies the story of absinthe. Absinthe was finally legalized in America in 2007, and it is commonly available in nightclubs and bars. Today’s absinthe is just an unusual tasty drink with much history, that appeals to those who like the taste of licorice.

My parents never had any problems with alcohol, but there were many alcoholics in their family. They did sit me down and talk about alcoholism at one point when I was a little kid, years before I would ever have even been thinking of trying alcohol. They said that, due to my heritage of being Irish and German, I should be very cautious when drinking alcohol. They said that many family members have struggled with alcoholism, and that I may be potentially more prone to react poorly to it, or to even become an alcoholic. The idea was that I may carry around a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. This warning lodged itself deep into my brain and I never forgot it.

I did indeed have an uncle who was an alcoholic. He almost died before I was born. He was drinking with his friend and they attempted to drive home. His friend was driving drunk without any insurance, and my uncle wasn’t even wearing a seat belt. They lost control and drove straight into a building storefront. My uncle went through the windshield of the car, and then crashed through the store window. He was in the hospital for three months recovering from that accident, and had to have his jaw wired shut. I never forgot this story of his completely preventable accident caused by drunk driving. When he would visit at family events I would secretly examine his face for any scars or evidence of his jaw being wired shut. As a little kid, I didn’t really comprehend what that entailed. But as an adult, I never got into a car with a driver who had been drinking, I always wear a seat belt, and I have never driven drunk.

I was also deeply affected by the loss of several of my musical heroes due to alcoholism. One of my favorite bands of all time, Led Zeppelin, broke up when drummer John Bonham died. He died from choking on his own vomit after drinking the equivalent of 40 vodka shots. Jimi Hendrix died the same way, but from a barbiturate overdose. Not only did I love Zeppelin beyond measure, but I was a budding young drummer myself, so I felt like this was a warning I shouldn’t ignore. When I started learning to play drums at age 16, I put on Led Zeppelin IV and attempted to play along with Bonzo. Keith Moon of The Who also died due to alcoholism, along with Bon Scott of AC/DC and Jim Morrison of The Doors. So many great talents self-destructed due to their abuse of alcohol. It seemed like the accursed trifecta of things to avoid as a musician were alcohol, heroin, and airplanes.

In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn
All I want for you to do is take my body home

When I do spend a few minutes at the bar after a long shift, I’m usually decompressing over a non-alcoholic beverage just watching people. Most people there are talking loud and saying nothing, to quote James Brown. They clumsily flirt and ogle one another, trying to glean some confidence from their friends around the pool table. They are spending far more money than they should be on unhealthy bar food and alcohol in an effort to treat themselves, celebrate some accomplishment, or let off steam. On the good side, they are creating memories with friends. On the bad side, they are getting sloppy drunk in public. Now that I’m clocked out, they aren’t my problem anymore. The problem is, I’m still in uniform, and being a bouncer isn’t something I can turn off easily.

I think mainly of the missed potential when seeing people getting drunk in a bar. Instead of regressing to a cro-magnon level, these people could be home creating something or achieving their goals. I think of all the dreams and projects that people in the bar might have while watching them smoke cigarettes and drink beer. I bet these people have projects that they are procrastinating. I bet they would normally be writing music for their band, working on writing their book, or studying for their college coursework. They could be working out by lifting weights or running, building their own business plan, or finishing their screenplay. Or even just the more simple act of spending time with their partners, parents, or kids — creating those good memories. There’s nothing but squandered potential in here during the wee hours. Very rarely, there are people who can get amazing things done while drunk. I’m thinking of the famous painters and writers who reportedly would create masterpieces while drinking. But that is the exception, there can only be one Charles Bukowski. That cantankerous old bastard wrote more amazing lines while he was drunk than I’ll ever write in my sober lifetime.

I have theorized with my coworkers that a certain very popular television sit-com has affected all of our lives in this industry. Cheers was one of the most popular shows ever made and concerned the lives on and off shift of bartenders. This show won numerous awards, ran for 11 years, had spin-off series, and started the careers of many beloved actors. Most of my coworkers are around the same age group, so we watched this show as it aired, or later in syndication. The idea of your neighborhood bar being your safe haven and sanctuary started with us all watching this show. No matter how bad your day was, you can walk into the bar and everybody yells, “NORM!” The neighborhood bar is the great decompression center with your friends. I think we internalized the themes of having work mentors/coaches, friends/therapists, lovers, and people you see more than your family becoming your family. No, I never consciously thought I would grow up and work in a bar. But somewhere in my childhood those archetypes and characters and relationships making a home and a family in a bar embedded themselves deeply. And decades later, here we are.
We all just wanna go where everybody knows our name.

I don’t think most people like drunk people. Intoxicated people become rude, boisterous (loud), selfish, cocky, demanding, and really repetitive. They can’t control their bodily functions well and might vomit, or trip and hurt themselves. Property damage is also a concern. Or they want to fight people, or put their hands on people without consent. And I would guarantee that alcohol has involvement in a majority of rapes and sexual assaults. Then, to compound things, the usual verbal de-escalation techniques or verbal judo that I typically employ are rendered ineffective. It’s like they put up a +10 Shield of Unreasonable. Because you just can’t reason with drunk people. Honestly, I really hate drunks. The irony isn’t lost on me that I hate drunk people, yet I have chosen a career that literally manufactures drunk people. We are producing the very problem that we then have to handle. Job security at it’s finest.

So at the end of the night, I’ve clocked out and am sitting at the bar. I’m tired and drained and sweaty. I’m not drinking alcohol, obviously. I’m drinking soda water with about four squeezed lemon slices in it. I’m texting my wife goodnight and telling her what time I will probably get home and quietly crawl into bed with her. I hear the manic sirens of an approaching emergency vehicle. Instead of rubbernecking to see if it’s police, fire, or an ambulance, I just look up at the rows of glasses hanging upside down above the bar in front of me. The red and blue lights from the police car reflect and glitter inside all of the glasses, lighting them up like a string of Christmas lights. I stir my drink slowly, wondering if they are responding to another drunk driver wreck, and hoping that nobody went through the windshield.

The Purple One

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I love Prince and I always have. I stuck with him through all of his different personas, albums, and musical phases. He was one of the most talented musicians and songwriters of my, or any other, generation. Whatever mood I am in, there is a Prince song to go with it. I can’t believe that he has left us already. I needed to take some time after his passing to process that loss before writing this piece. So almost four years later, here are my thoughts about Prince and my life-long experience with his music.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life

I was probably about 10 years old when I first started hearing Prince songs. I would have seen the Solid Gold dancers do their sultry routines to his music as the show charted what number in the top 10 he reached this week. American Bandstand also was playing his songs for the youth to dance to on camera. I finally got a compilation record from
K-Tel called NEON NIGHTS. They just put together some of the biggest hits of the day on one record and made money selling it. This was the precursor to the mix tape that you recorded and gave to somebody you liked in the 80s, the burned CD of music in the 90s, and the internet and YouTube mixes after that. I still have this album on vinyl. It turned me on to lots of funk and soul that my little white middle-class suburban upbringing wouldn’t have typically known about. The standout songs were “Whip It” from the Dazz Band, “Superfreak” by Rick James, “Get Down on it” by Kool and the Gang, and “Controversy” by Prince. Guess which song I played the most?

Prior to MTV launching in 1981, watching music videos was a difficult task. I lucked out and was able to watch a locally-produced show called simply Video Music Channel. There was no host, it just showed music videos from all genres. And honestly, since there weren’t that many music videos being produced yet, if a band had a video they got played. Pure scarcity created the popular bands of the day. Lots of them were culled from a live concert that the band already had. Only a few were specifically created for use as a marketing tool, or had an actual storyline. Some were staged live videos; where they rented out a hall and filled it with their friends dancing while the band lip-since the song onstage, replicating a live concert. Or just setting up in a garage or abandoned warehouse and performing the song to the camera with minimal edits. This is how I first got turned on to artists like Pat Benatar, Kate Bush, The Specials, Elvis Costello, The Police, The Pretenders, and Fishbone. And this is probably why I still have such a strong love for these artists. Their music and imagery were burned into my brain lobes at a very impressionable age. I owned albums from all of these artists first on cassette, then vinyl, then compact disc. Luckily I still have crates full of these records from decades ago.

The beautiful ones always smash the picture. Always, every time.

The early videos from Prince are so fun to watch. The earliest one I saw would have been for the 1979 song, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” This was the first video that he ever put out, so it was most people’s first exposure to the man. He’s doing everything in the video. Prince is singing and dancing, but also you see him play the drums, bass, keyboards, and guitar. Some of the shots are close up so you don’t see his face, but some aren’t and you can see that it is all him. It’s almost like there are five different Princes, which is a very interesting idea.

In the 1980 video for the title song from “Dirty Mind”, Prince is starting to figure out what his image is. He is now starting to wear eyeliner, thigh-high socks with heels, and a tan trenchcoat with some heavy metal studs stitched onto it. He also is either wearing a g-string, thong, or women’s bikini underwear. He isn’t wearing a shirt, so his abs are on full display. He’s dancing around with amazing confidence and stage presence, doing the splits and jumping off the drum riser.

The lyrics to the 1981 title song “Controversy” may have been the first time a song made me think about sexuality, racism, and religion/athiesm. Prior to entering puberty I just listened to songs for entertainment and nothing more. Prince’s sexy yet ambiguous appearance shocked and confused people in the late 70’s. Wearing eye makeup and high heel boots while presenting as male wasn’t new (David Bowie, The New York Dolls), but Prince took it to a whole new level by wearing thigh-high kink boots and chaps (note that I didn’t say assless chaps, because all chaps are assless). He also was addressing prejudice from the perspective of being a light-skinned African American man. These lyrics can be seen as the groundwork for my adult interest in gay rights, feminism, equality, and alternatives to anachronistic guilt-based religions.

I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?
Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?
Some people want to die so they can be free
I said life is just a game, we’re all just the same, do you want to play?
 

In 1982 his album 1999 was released with the accompanying videos. By now music videos were essential, and any major album release needed mandatory videos of the singles. We got glimpses of Prince’s command of the stage, dance moves, and burgeoning confidence. We also got to see more of his backing band, including the two keyboard players Lisa Coleman and Jill Jones. They would both play the same keyboard standing very close to each other wearing revealing clothing and garish makeup. They would move in sensual unison while vamping and looking right into the camera. Their gyrating and pouting in close proximity made us all think they were lesbian lovers off-camera, which was by design. You can see them both in the videos for “1999” and “Automatic”, and then just Lisa in the video for ‘Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.”  While Lisa had been in Prince’s band for years, Jill was Prince’s new girlfriend and was used as a backup singer on a few songs on the 1999 album.

Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours

The video for “Automatic” shows a young man becoming an icon. This is where he started adopting purple as his chosen visual motif. Most of the first half is just Prince on stage hitting different poses with dramatic lighting showing him mostly in silhouette. He dances, grabs his hat, and seriously strikes the pose. But he can do a lot with just his body posture and stance. Watch how he pivots and sticks his heels, puts out an elbow perfectly with a percussion accent, and works his fingers amidst all the stage lights and fog. He graduated to being a pop music superstar in this video. Yet MTV refused to show this video at all. For one thing it’s eight minutes long, which doesn’t fit with their 3.5 minute song format. But also it got a little too hot. In the second half of the video, a guy with aircraft marshaling batons guides a king bed out onto center stage. Prince appears to be knocked back onto the bed by the power of the music. Lisa and Jill sit down and join Prince on it. They remove his gloves and shirt, tie his hands to the metal bedpost, and Lisa then removes her belt. Instead of the threesome that you expect to happen next, Lisa starts whipping Prince’s naked chest with her belt. She tortures him for the remainder of the song, along with the moaning and crying sounds from the original track. In 1982, MTV wasn’t much for kink.

Is the water warm enough? Yes, Lisa.

At this point I must admit that 12 year old me developed a huge crush on Lisa Coleman. She had been in Prince’s band and videos since 1980’s Dirty Mind, but was woefully underutilized. Sometimes she would get a brief eight second shot of her playing keyboards while every other band member received all the focus. I watched the ‘1999’ music video often, since MTV played that gem about once every 30 minutes. Lisa is (finally) heavily featured in this video, as she is one of the main singers. I vividly recall her purple dress with large openings at her waist, the purple dress gloves she wore, and her big hair flipped up off to the side. The holes in her dress were perfectly positioned so that, if you were dancing with her, your hands would naturally land there. She also starred in the film Purple Rain as herself. I wisely put on my headphones and listened to the salacious pornographic lyrics of songs like “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”, “Lady Cab Driver”, and “International Lover.” Lisa was also featured earlier on the super funky and lyrically scandalous song from Dirty Mind called “Head”, which is about what you think it’s about. Lisa softly speaks lines like, “I’m just a virgin, and I’m on my way to be wed.”
“I must confess, I wanna get undressed and go to bed.”

The catchy chorus is:

Now morning, noon, and night
I give you head till you’re burning up
Head till you get enough
Head till your love is red
Head, love you till you’re dead

With all these sexy videos and graphic lyrics coinciding with puberty, it’s no wonder that I credit Lisa Coleman with leading me by the hand down the purple velvet-curtained hallway of adolescence.

Isn’t it a shame this ain’t a movieThen U could rewrite my every line.

One thing that I loved about Prince is that although he could, and often did, play every instrument on some albums, he didn’t hesitate to give the spotlight to his bandmates. On  the song “1999”, arguably one of his biggest hits, he shares vocals with Lisa Coleman, Dez Dickerson, and Jill Jones. Also the album cuts were often extended versions with additional verses, instrumental jams, or spoken word portions. He was smart to always release a 3:30 minute long radio friendly version of the singles, then reward the fans with an 8 minute version of the same song on the album.

Related to that, Prince enjoyed taking young artists or bands under his wing. He loved to be a mentor to others. With his tutelage, numerous bands benefitted from at least a gifted song he wrote, a spot performing on his tour, an appearance in one of his films, or him performing/producing their albums. Bands that got vetted by Prince, or were associated with him or his label Paisley Park, include: The Time, Jesse Johnson, The Family, Vanity 6/Appolonia Kotero, Sheila E., Carmen Electra, Sheena Easton, The Bangles, Sinead O’Connor, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Martika, Wendy and Lisa, Janelle Monae.

One example of his amazing silent contributions is regarding the funk band The Time. Morris Day was their singer, but on their debut album every single instrument is played by Prince. He wrote the songs and sang backup for this record (you can totally recognize his voice on several songs), yet his name is not anywhere on the album. He used one of his stage names, Jamie Starr. There are band photos including the other members that joined later, including Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Jesse Johnson, Jerome Benton, and Monte Moir. But the album is all Prince. I reveled in the huge raging guitar solos, overly sexual lyrics, and catchy funk songs. Listen to the blazing guitar solo Prince gives us on the song “Get it Up.” It’s almost two full minutes of pure power, with intensity reminiscent of some heavy metal guitar solos. I spent many a teenage afternoon playing air guitar along to this particular song.

Prince cast the members of The Time as themselves in his huge 1984 film Purple Rain. They were his competitors in the club scene, and their two featured songs were ‘The Bird” and “Jungle Love.” For a while I loved The Time almost as much as Prince. I wonder why. Their debut record could reasonably be considered an alternative Prince album, since he did everything on it except record the lead vocals.

Dig if you will, the picture of you and I engaged in a kiss

Purple Rain was amazing. This had to be one of the first R-rated films that I was allowed to see. The live concert footage is still staggeringly good today. This was most people’s only idea of what Prince was like in concert. I was too young to go see concerts, and the internet didn’t exist yet. So the only way we knew what the shows looked like were fan magazines, the few live performance music videos he released early on, and then the film Purple Rain. This album is still one of my favorite and most listened to albums. Every single track is genius. That album deservedly went 25X Platinum, which means that 25 million people purchased it. Buying this album was a rite of passage, a zeitgeist moment, a turning point, a shared musical experience.

I got this album on vinyl when it came out in 1984, and still have this and many other Prince records in my collection today. I upgraded to CDs for just about all of them, but the vinyl holds a special place for me. In high school I was a Disc Jockey on our radio station. I remember bringing in Purple Rain on vinyl to discover what the backwards message was at the end of the song “Darling Nikki.” Played forward it sounds like a bizarre alien chorale. When an artist records something and then reverses it in the studio it’s called backwards masking. Today you could just take a moment to get the music software needed and reverse the track. But back in the 80’s, you had to work harder. You need to put it on a turntable, change the motor to neutral, then put your finger on the matrix of the record (the part after the last song where there is no music) and push it around counterclockwise. You had to try to keep your finger pushing the record around at about the same speed to get it to sound the best. Only by doing this could we hear these harmonized lines:

Hello. How are you? I’m fine. Because I know that the Lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon.

I’m sure everyone remembers the huge hit “When Doves Cry.” It was the top-selling single of 1984. The distinctive video for the song was directed by Prince himself. An interesting bit of trivia that blew me away when I first had it pointed out to me is that there is no bass line in the song. This is likely the only pop/dance song of the 80s with no bass at all. There was actually a bass track recorded but Prince decided to remove it. I like to imagine him defying all of the industry logic and advice of label executives by saying, “I’m motherfucking Prince, I don’t have to have a bass line if I don’t want to.” What’s fun about this is that the Prince tribute bands that cover this song get to make up their own bass line. I’ve seen a few bands take on this song, and having a bass player drastically changes the feel. I’ll often try humming along a bass line that I make up when I play it in my truck. But this only confirms to me that Prince was right to take it out.

When I bought my first CD player somewhere around 1985 the first CD that I purchased was 1999. The other first CDs that I bought were Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome,” and the soundtrack to the film 1984 by The Eurythmics. All three are amazing albums that I still listen to. Prince’s 1999 was missing the great song “DMSR” due to length restrictions of CDs back then. You just couldn’t fit all of Prince’s sweet funk on one disc. On subsequent CD releases of this 1982 classic, technology changed and they were able to make room to add the song back in. I played this album endlessly and loved deciphering the lyrics. Lyrically, this was probably the most sexual album that I had ever heard. All of the songs (except perhaps two) are explicitly about having sex. There was a photo of Prince laying provocatively on a bed with purple sheets with his ass exposed.

She had the cutest ass he’d ever seenHe did 2, they were meant 2 be

When his double album “Sign O’ The Times” was released in 1987, I rode my trusty ten-speed bike all the way downtown to The Record Garden to buy it on the day it came out. Riding back home, I felt like I had a coveted prize in my backpack that needed safe delivery back to the cave. A record release was a bigger deal back then. You really wanted to get a physical copy in your hands and listen to it before all your friends did. Sometimes you’d buy a new album and call your friends (on a rotary phone) to come over and listen to it together. The first listening session for a new album from a beloved artist was a serious matter. Almost holy in it’s reverence. There was no talking allowed, and no stopping after a song or repeating a song. You dropped the needle on the record and laid down and closed your eyes to absorb it all in one listen. Or you poured over the record sleeve looking at photos or album art, and if you’re lucky, a lyric sheet. It was a magical thing, listening to a vinyl record from your favorite performer for the first time. I didn’t understand how a needle dragged through a groove on a vinyl platter could transmit music through a stereo. Hell, I still don’t really understand that. I’m just sticking with the idea that it’s magic.

This double album was the first release after The Revolution disbanded. Amazing drummer Sheila E. was brought onboard, who Prince mentored and dated. This album has so many great songs on it. It was also the debut of Prince’s androgynous alter ego, Camille. Certain songs were sung in a female-sounding voice and sped up in the studio to sound different. These tracks are “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, “Strange Relationship”, “Housequake”, and “U Got the Look.” I could listen to this album every day of my life. Thirty years after this album came out, my kids and I will sing “Starfish and Coffee” in the kitchen in the morning. And that’s one of the only songs from this album I would feel comfortable hearing them sing.

Starfish and coffeeMaple syrup and jam.
Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine and a side order of ham

I was such a Prince fan that I found a copy of the infamous unreleased Black Album. This album was scheduled to come out after Sign o’ The Times in 1987. But at the last minute Prince changed his mind and held it back, releasing Lovesexy instead in 1988. The Black Album didn’t officially come out until 1994. Honestly all the hype and mystery of the album eclipsed the album itself. While the scant 8 songs are fun, it honestly isn’t nearly as scandalous or different from his previous ten releases. Prince sings to supermodel Cindy Crawford, raps in an affected voice, and digitally lowered his voice for the spoken word experiment “Bob George.” Had he just released it as a regular album on the timeline that he intended, it would have been a decent album (with some B-sides thrown in to flesh it out). I think that “When 2 R In Love” is the best song on this album. But like most Prince devotees, we accept all of his varied output with affection. Even a mediocre album from Prince still towers over a lot of other artists’ most respected records.

Every time I comb my hair thoughts of you get in my eyes

I only got to see Prince perform in concert once. But it truly was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in my life, still to this day. He performed at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon on September 28th, 1997 with Chaka Khan opening up for him. This was his Jam of the Year tour. My birthday was just a few days prior, so this was a big birthday present for me. I was giddy to finally see the man who wrote the soundtrack to my adolescence performing up on the stage. He wore all white and played a white grand piano that said the word BEAUTIFUL across it. He would often climb up on top of the piano and sing standing up there. He may have even done the splits on top of that Steinway. I couldn’t see this at the time, but looking at photos later he was singing with a specialized mic. He had the pistol grip of a revolver attached to the mic, making the microphone the barrel of the gun. When he held the mic using this gun grip, it looked like he was aiming a gun at his mouth.

He performed almost all the songs that I hoped and expected him to play, plus songs I didn’t even recognize. One highlight was Prince covering James Brown’s “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.” He played a portion of his big huge epic song “Purple Rain” near the start; maybe the fourth song of the set. Most of us assumed he would wait until the encore for that one. He played certain songs that made me lose my shit due to their imprinting on my brain. Super sexy songs like “Do Me, Baby”, “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, “Erotic City” and “Sexy Motherfucker” gave me Princegasms all night. He worked in pieces of songs like “The Glamorous Life” by Sheila E., and then played the entire Joni Mitchell classic “A Case of You.” A highlight was when he brought out Chaka Khan to perform a duet of the huge hit from Joan Osbourne, “One of Us.”  He did a solo set on the piano where he played stripped-down versions of “Girls and Boys” and “The Beautiful Ones.” He played a beautiful solo acoustic guitar version of “When You Were Mine.” Strangely, he did not play his huge hit, “Kiss.” But he did it all, flying around the stage, hanging out with all of his band members giving them time to shine. He sang, danced, played guitar, and played piano, all with equal mastery. And he made it look easy. I believe he was even wearing heels. I was in awe of the man’s talent, he had such a gift.

Prince was infamous for playing afterparties after the concert ended, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. Some tiny warehouse/venue in Portland got Prince to have his afterparty there. If memory serves, this space became an all-ages music venue called Meow Meow for a few years in the 2000s. We bought tickets to this special afterparty, hoping to see a second, more private show from him. We got in and immediately saw the mighty (but diminutive) Purple One hanging out in a roped-off area with his entourage and security team. I’m pretty sure that cameras weren’t allowed, so I don’t have any photos of this event. We ended up just dancing with the crowd for a long time, as Prince did not feel compelled to grab any instruments and start performing. He would, however, stand up and raise his glass cane to ‘direct’ the crowd during songs that he really liked. The whole place would freak out and cheer each and every time he did this, especially when he danced along at his table. I still remember vividly that he had a great smile. Bodyguards were all around him, offering no chance to even get near him, let alone talk to him. He wasn’t there to sign autographs or be fawned over by fans. Since he did get up and dance to certain songs, I can kind of say that I hung out at an afterparty and danced, with Prince.

You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me on

In 2019, Prince’s most famous backing band, The Revolution, went on tour and came through Portland to perform at the venue I work at. Some people had a negative opinion of the whole idea, thinking that they were somehow merely trying to capitalize on his legacy after his death. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In my position I often have the opportunity to meet and chat with the artists. We are, of course, instructed not to ever ask for an autograph or intrude on them in any way. We are just supposed to treat them like any normal person and not to be a fanboy at all, ever. But sometimes, the artists want to reach out and talk to the staff.

After soundcheck, the drummer Bobby Z was walking around near the green rooms and struck up a conversation with me. He was a tall good-looking guy that I easily recognized from all the Prince videos from the 80s. He would have been 63 at the time but looked much younger. We had a good chat about the Minneapolis sound that Prince is credited with starting. Bands like Prince, The Time, The Family, and early Janet Jackson. We also touched on Bob Mould from Husker Du, and Paul Westerberg from The Replacements. Bobby Z was Prince’s original drummer, and he started talking about drums and warming up his hands. He had no idea that I also was a drummer, the conversation just organically went there. I tried to ask intelligent questions related to drums and bands from Minneapolis, and I hope I succeeded. I think he appreciated talking to staff people who were in the music world, but weren’t gushing fans that only asked about Prince stories. I asked him how previous nights of the tour were, wished him good luck, and told him how excited I was to see them perform tonight. I fought the temptation to ask him to introduce me to Lisa Coleman, even though it entered my mind about a dozen times during our chat.

During the show I was posted right up at the stage where I usually am. I am there for crowd control and to respond to any emergencies or issues that come up during the show. The band moves right by me to walk onstage, and I’ll light up the steps with my flashlight for them as I’m calling over the security radio that the headliner is starting their set. Bobby Z recognized me from our earlier conversation and smiled at me and clapped me on the shoulder as he walked by and up the steps to the stage.

The crowd absolutely loved The Revolution, and it was great to finally see them in concert. I was too young to go see big concerts when The Revolution toured with Prince from 1979 to 1986. All of the musicians have been playing for decades now, and were at home and happy onstage. You could tell from their faces and their short stories that they were honored to still be playing the music of Prince. They still loved him deeply. The whole night had a feeling of a respectful tribute and celebration. When they finally played “Purple Rain” and the purple lights cascaded raindrops down the walls, the whole crowd, as one, lost it. The emotion in the hall was palpable and many people in the crowd were crying. Even though I had seen Prince in concert once in 1997, I had never seen The Revolution at all until now. So I had been waiting decades to actually see them perform in concert. It was one of the most meaningful and emotional shows that I’ve ever seen.

Wendy and Lisa were both located on stage left, which is where I was stationed. So I got to watch them closely during the show. They were in a romantic relationship for years, and put out albums together after The Revolution disbanded. Wendy seems to be the spokesperson of the band now, as she talked the most over the mic. Lisa remained near the back behind her keyboards, just like in the videos. I have to admit, I spent a substantial amount of the show watching her. I mean, I’ve had a crush on her since the early 80s.

As the show ended the group came off the stage and walked down the steps right behind me. I called over the radio that the show was over and the house lights were up. The crowd was still roaring, hoping for another encore. I kept looking straight out into the crowd when I felt someone grab my forearm. I turned around expecting to see the stage manager or another member of the security team. Instead I was looking directly into the face of Lisa Coleman. She was smiling at me. She kept one hand on my forearm and grabbed my shoulder with her other hand. She smiled wider and her eyes sparkled as she said, “Thank you.”

I smiled back at her and said, “You’re welcome.” I felt both of her hands release my arm, then she and the rest of the band sauntered away to the green rooms. At that moment I swear I felt 14 years old again, all awkward and not knowing what to say to a pretty girl. If, somehow, she would have grabbed my arm back in 1983, I likely would have just exploded. I have no idea why she came over and thanked me, but it was a highlight of my year. Maybe she saw me watching her during the show and mouthing along most of the lyrics. Maybe she saw a deep history of appreciation for her, the music, and Prince. Maybe she’s just a super-nice person and likes to thank the venue staff. Or perhaps she saw an expression of a little boy in awe peeking out of the face of a middle aged man.

I love you more than I did when you were mine

One of the music venues I work at had a Prince Tribute dance party where they played music videos on big screens all over the room. But what’s great about Prince is the current availability of so many songs and different versions of his songs. Instead of just playing all the videos that we’ve seen a thousand times from Prince, they delved deep into the internet and found lots of rare live footage that even I had never seen before. Songs from his concert film Sign O’ the Times, live television appearances, and live concert footage from unknown sources were played. Not only that, but any artist that was associated with Prince was mixed into the playlist that night as well. So the crowd got tons of Prince songs along with The Time and Sheila E. If there wasn’t a video to go with the song, they would just show a collage of great photos of Prince. Even if the patrons weren’t dancing, they were still glued to the screens watching this tribute to him.

I loved working this event, and I would have attended it if I wasn’t working it. I loved seeing people coming together to enjoy the music that Prince gave us over the decades. If you were alive in the 80s, Prince songs left a mark on you and undoubtedly accompanied some great memories. For me, he created the soundtrack to some of the best years of my young life.

The most moving part of the night was when they played the music video to “Let’s Go Crazy.” This video is just footage from the film Purple Rain. No new content was created, it’s really just a commercial to get you to go see the movie. But that movie contains some of the most electrifying live footage of Prince and the Revolution. The four-minute song comes to a screeching halt at about the three-minute mark, when Prince plays a blistering guitar solo. He climbs up on the piano and digs into his guitar like Jimi Hendrix. All the other musicians stop and the entire spotlight is on Prince soloing. We are shown a montage of Prince playing guitar in every outfit from different songs in the film. And he dances and rubs his hands all over his hair, stomach, and groin. An interesting thing happened in the crowd at this point. Since there is no longer a beat in the song, you literally cannot dance to this part of it. So the hundreds of people who were previously jumping all over, abruptly stopped along with the song. Everybody was just watching the video screens absorbing the immeasurable talent of this man who recently left us. They wanted to soak in every frame of this video. Nobody was texting on their smartphones, ordering a drink, or even having a conversation. Everyone froze. There is a quick shot of the Appolonia character watching Prince from the crowd with awe and lust, which is honestly how we all were looking at the screens as well. People put their arms around each other and leaned their heads onto each other’s shoulders in a mixture of sadness and amazement. Like good friends standing around a bonfire after a memorial wake, deep in thought. Everybody slightly leaned in towards the video screens to get closer to this moment. Whether people had seen this movie before or not, it was as if we all were watching it for the first time. With Prince gone, none of us will ever have the chance to see him play like this again. So these videos are to be even more appreciated as a document and a testament to his magic and talent. The song ended and everybody applauded and cheered as if they were at a live concert and not a video dance party. I saw some tears in the crowd, and if anybody had looked back towards me, they would have seen mine.

 
4 all time I am with U
U are with me
(until the end of time)
U are with me, U are with me