Monday, September 20, 2010


Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Review
After years of rock bands playing at Milwaukee's Summerfest, a minor incident has slightly marred this summer's festivities, and the event's pristine track record.

The Unknown Soldiers, a Doors cover band which was a last minute addition to the roster, in an all too good emulation of the sixties classic rock band, the lead singer exhorted the drunken crowd into a reenactment of the worst elements of a Doors concert. It's unclear if the audience reacted the way they did because they thought that's what was expected from them, or if they were genuinely moved by the band and the antics of lead singer Michael Desmond. Most of the crowd was seemingly oblivious to the danger, and no one was hurt. Otherwise, a good time was had by all.

By the time the bad reviews and fallout of the show came out, we were already back on our scheduled itinerary. Swifty forwarded the reviews to us. Despite the initial bad review of the Milwaukee paper, the 'riot', as they termed it, was nothing more than a few people near the front rushing the stage. The reviews from the outlying areas offered a bit more of a balanced look at the events and put them into perspective.

Afterwards the band became more distant. None of them said a word to me until they decided to confront me between sets of a show about a week after the Summerfest reviews came in. I was sitting in the backroom of the bar we were playing when all of a sudden all four of the boys came piling into the room.
“Are you trying to sabotage the shows?” Brian asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“Your little riot.” Johnny said, flinging the reviews at me. "We gotta talk about working some of our songs into the sets."
“I thought we did already?”
“No, you never bothered to answer us, you just mumbled something and walked off.”
"You're not ready and neither are your songs." I said, dismissively.
"What!" Brian said, genuinely incensed, "you can't even name one of our songs!"
"It doesn't matter, I can tell."
"What do you mean, you can tell?" Johnny asked. "You can't even tell us how to play your damn Doors songs and you have the nerve to tell us we aren't ready? We've been riding in that van for months now, practicing your Doors sets, then practicing our songs. Did you ever listen to the tape I gave you when we first met?"
"No." I admitted.
"And you managed to disappear with Caitlin Stewart when we played it for her."
“Did you tell her something to discourage her from calling us?”
“Did she contact you?” I asked.
“Obviously no!” Johnny said.
“Then she won’t.”
“How do you know that?” Mitchell asked.
“Because that’s how things work. If she was interested she would have called.”
"We just played in front of the biggest audience we're probably ever going to be in front of.” Johnny said, “what good does it do us to tour if people don't hear our songs?"
"You couldn't do your songs at Summerfest because we were booked as a cover band. And cover bands don't do originals. And you're right again," I said, "I can't name one of your songs, but I've listened to your rehearsals. You've never availed yourselves of my opinions and rebuffed my offers to help. I know a lot about this business and I can help you."
"Like you've helped us so far?" Johnny said, "all you've done so far is take advantage of us. You cut yourself a better deal with Swifty while it's us that's carrying the burden of performing. You treat us like roadies. You've never moved a piece of equipment that I'm aware of and your drinking is affecting the shows."
"All the reviews Swifty sent us are all about you and your 'antics'," Brian said. "How're we going to get more gigs if word is out about you?"
"I got you this far didn't I?"
"You've lucked our way this far. You only got us that first gig because you were friends with the bar owner."
“And this tour because he was friends with Swifty.” Brian said.
"All right." I said, straining to rein my temper in. "You wanna do one of your songs?" I asked rhetorically. "At the end of this set you can do a couple of your songs." I smiled, as I walked out the door and back to the stage. I was going to use everything I'd learned to make the audience do what I wanted. An exercise of power, if you will.

When we got on stage I stood off at the far end, doing my best Morrison scowl as the band plugged in their instruments. When they were in place, I walked in front of them and said.
"When the Music's Over." They started the song. I hung back listening as the music built, until it got to the part where I was supposed to come in, but I didn’t and they had to start over and they played it louder, but this time I wasn’t missing the cue because of nerves, it was on purpose I wanted the pressure to build until no one thought they could take it anymore, they hit the cue again and sustained the crescendo, I jumped at the microphone screaming "Yeahhhhhhhh!" And did the best show I knew how. I used every trick Morrison knew to whip crowds into a frenzy. I screamed, writhed, fell to the stage, jumped, until the audience didn't want to hear anything except another Doors song. I saw the band exchanging looks between them, asking themselves what the fuck I was doing, but they knew what I was doing and it was too late. Then I went into a Morrison rap.
"We have a special treat for you tonight!" The audience cheered, "right on! All right!" It was easy to manipulate them. At the very least their reaction was predictable.
"The band wants to do a couple of their songs!" I walked off the stage and Ghost Dance was received to a thundering silence. I watched the rest from the bar. Johnny and the band played loud, hard but it was empty, an empty gesture, the audience didn't move. A sea of blank faces staring back at them.
"Light My Fire, motherfuckers!" Somebody screamed.
'That'll show them who runs this band.' I thought.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Swifty had rented a van from the airport to the fairgrounds, we were driven straight to the backstage area. The backstage was all skeleton scaffolding that our equipment needed to be lifted onto, but the boys and the backstage crew would see to that. As I walked onto the grounds I felt like it was my triumphal return to Summerfest, though it played only in my head. It had been a long year since Deidre and I were here together. There was a row of bikers sitting on their bikes having a couple of beers. I crossed their gauntlet to jeers and catcalls.
"Lookit here, it's Jim Morrison." One sneered.
'Uh-oh,' I said to myself, not a very auspicious beginning for my triumphal return.

As I climbed the stairs to the backstage area my fears were allayed. Summerfest was a big ticket production, there were production assistants and gofers rushing around with walkie-talkies showing the bands where to set up. After talking with the stage manager they had a PA show me where the dressing room was.
“Wait here, one of the production assistants will come and get you five minutes before you go on.“ I finally felt like I was making it to the big time.

I sat in the dressing room in a studio chair in front of a theatrical mirror, listening to all the hustle and bustle happening around me, running footfalls on the metal scaffolding, someone yelling for someone or something. But I was in the calm eye of the storm, I wasn't nervous, I couldn't even remember the last time I was nervous. I reflected on how far I'd come from being part of the milling crowd to setting myself above the crowd, but I was also aware of how far I still had to go. I wondered if Deidre was somewhere out in the crowd. There was a knock at the door.
“Yeah?” I said. A woman peeked her head in the door.
“Make-up?” She asked, “you want a little make-up it’ll make you shimmer and the people in the back will be able to see you.”
“Sure.” I said.
“OK, just sit back in the chair and close your eyes. I did as she said, and I heard her put a few things down on the table and then I felt the make-up caressing my face, and she continued to talk, “I have to kind of sell the idea of make-up to the male bands even in this day and age it’s hard to get men to put on a little base, if only they realized Elvis wore make-up.” This was part of the seduction and I knew it, the woman running her hands over my face, an intimate act, one that you could get used to very easily. There was a knock at the door.
"Ready Jim?" A woman's voice asked, as she opened the door.
"Lets go!" I said jumping out of the studio chair. The PA led me through the maze of the backstage area until we, at last, arrived in the wings of the stage. From where I was, I could see the band's equipment was already on stage. It looked woefully small on a stage out in the open, not enclosed in a club. I wondered if the amps were big enough to pump out a loud enough sound. The boys were nowhere to be seen.
"Is my band here yet?" I asked the PA. She whispered into her walkie-talkie before saying,
"They should be coming up on the other side any second now." And as I looked across the stage to the other wing I saw the boys come up the stairs.
"There a lot of people out there?" I asked, trying to make small talk.
"Uh-huh." She said, distractedly. Then I heard the stage announcer say,
"Ladies and gentleman, The Unknown Soldiers!"
The PA said, "go."
"Thanks." I said. As I walked out onto stage the band came out from the opposite wing and took their places at their instruments. I took my place at the microphone and for the first time I was able to see the whole audience. There was literally a sea of people in front of me. It was then that I truly understood what was meant by the phrases 'a sea of humanity', and 'an ocean of people.' They ceased to be several thousand individuals, they became one thing, a new creature to do with as I pleased. Suddenly, I knew what Morrison knew. You become part of a crowd, faceless, anonymous. The individual becomes lost, you lose your self in a crowd, free to do as you please, free to live your dreams, free to enact your nightmares, all bets are off, there are no limits, no laws. People do things in a group they ordinarily wouldn't do. There are no witnesses, there's truly safety in numbers. I could make them do whatever I wanted, I could make them wave, I could make them dance, I could make them riot or I could throw them away. It was the door to power, the power that despots and rock stars know. There’s always been something of the fascist about Rock 'n' Roll, that’s probably why every rock opera is about exactly that, a charismatic leader with a small band of followers to assist. The Who understood this with Tommy, Bowie and 1984, hell, even Styx understood this.

Arguably, one of the reasons Morrison may have wanted to start a rock band was to prove some of his theories. Morrison thought crowds, like individuals, could be neurotic and like individuals, they could be cured. In college he tried to enlist some friends in an experiment to see if they could make a crowd riot by placing his friends throughout the crowd and shouting slogans at appropriate moments. His friends thought he was crazy and refused to participate, so he couldn't prove his theories until he was in The Doors. Morrison saw music, theatre, poetry, film, and the neuroses of crowds as a crossroads. The crossroads is the place where magic is practiced, the crossroads is the place you can sell your soul to the devil to play the blues, the crossroads is the place where a cure can be effected. Morrison consciously provoked riots. Later rationalizing it, by saying, 'I thought we ought to have a riot. Everyone else did. So I tried to stimulate a few little riots.' But later saying, 'it got to the point where people didn't think it was a successful concert unless everybody jumped up and ran around a bit.' I decided to see if I could do it. Finish the experiment to see if it was something inherent in Morrison, or if it was the neurosis of the crowd. The crowd was the right size and temperament, and they were ready for it, maybe I could cure them, maybe I could cure myself, I discovered power.

Planes Are A Problem

The next big gig we had was Milwaukee's Summerfest. Swifty must have had a lot of connections in the Milwaukee entertainment industry. He'd managed to finagle us a spot in Summerfest's lineup. I didn't know if there was a open spot until the last minute, or if we were a last minute replacement for a band that canceled. Whichever the case, the problem was that we were nowhere near Milwaukee. We didn't have the time for an overland haul across the Midwest. Everyone and everything squeezed into the van for a prolonged period. Fleeing the scenery, the only breaks long enough to fill the tank, empty our bladders, and grab a sandwich, all to arrive at the gig tired, smelly, and more pissed off at each other than the normal road irritations. It would've been the Battan Death March of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The airplane lumbered onto the runway. As we taxied, Mitchell started one of his informative travelogues.
"Did any of you guys ever see the movie Alive? Where the plane crashes in the mountains and they have to eat each other." No response. Everybody had become used to Mitchell's musings. Recitations that had pretty much had become part of the background noise. Undaunted, he went on, "I read somewhere that landings are controlled crashes."
"Shut up!" Brian snapped. "What are you? The bearer of glad tidings?" Mitchell picked up the sarcasm in the comment. It was true, the track record wasn't very good for rock bands in airplanes. Just ask Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Lynrd Skynyrd, or Ricky Nelson. Most of the big bands rely on them for touring, smaller bands use them infrequently, except for emergencies like we had. With every bump and tussle of the plane, all I could think of was Buddy Holly, and the little splatter of a footnote we'd make in the annals of Rock 'n' Roll if we crashed. Not even an answer to a trivia question. We couldn't pass up playing in front of an audience that size. The payday was a little better than we were used to, which justified all the effort. Swifty had rented a plane, and like the van, it was just big enough to fit all the equipment and us, and fulfilled a rock truism, the smaller the band, the smaller the plane. I just hoped the plane was in better condition than the van. I sat looking out the window imagining I was a real rock star on tour. Then the engines throbbed with pent up power and the plane jumped and raced like an animal that had remembered its purpose, speeding down the runway until it pulled itself into the air.