Oh hi! Didn’t see you there! Welcome to a new, hopefully regular feature here on Scratchbomb called The Crooked Frame. The name comes from a quote from Chuck Jones: “When you have 10 pictures on a wall, the crooked one will get the attention.” At least that’s how I remember it goes. If I’ve misquoted you, Chuck, please do not drop an anvil upon my head from The Great Beyond.
What this is is this: I ask people I like and think are fun to share their most memorable “live” experience. By “live experience”, I mean any sort of performance-type event that one observes as an audience member or participant. That could be anything from a rock-music concert to a comedic monologue to a chicken race. I do not discriminate.
By “memorable”, I don’t mean one’s best or most favorite such experience, but the one that made the most firm impression on one’s mind. For instance, I have a few candidates for the best baseball game I’ve ever seen in person, but the most memorable one I ever attended is undoubtedly this one. What I’m looking for, really, are instances where one is overwhelmed by discomfort and overall oddness, or where things don’t quite work out as envisioned, yet the overall experience becomes indelibly imprinted on one’s psyche.
I’m very pleased and excited to kick off this feature with one of my favorite people in the world. Franz Nicolay is a musician from Brooklyn; formerly of the Hold Steady and the World/Inferno Friendship Society, currently of his own damn self. You can catch him this Tuesday 8/16 at Death by Audio, along with the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players, and on Friday 8/19 at Union Hall with Fishtank Ensemble. Those who like to plan ahead can mark their calendars for 9/12, when he will participate in Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal’s Hot Tub Variety Show at Littlefield (all these venues are in Brooklyn, by the way). Without further ado, here’s Franz’s tale.
ROCK STARS, AS OBSERVED IN THE WILD
I’ve seen a 300-yard swath of a backstage area cleared for Leonard Cohen. I’ve seen Paul McCartney get out of an SUV with a full police escort. I’ve been hugged by Bruce Springsteen and stared at by Kool Keith and run into Shane MacGowan with his pants down; exchanged nods with Madonna at David Letterman’s studio and twirled Ronnie Spector on the stage of Carnegie Hall. I saw the Rolling Stones arrive backstage in separate helicopters. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m just saying I’ve been in a position to see famous people in the act, if you will, of being famous.
So I feel somewhat qualified to make the observation that honest-to-God rock star behavior, in the wild as it were, is somewhat rare. I assume you know what I mean by “rock star behavior” – the arrogance, the unreasonable riders, the bullying tour managers, the smashed tables and crying girls. And by “in the wild,” I mean in their natural habitat, not in heavy-breathing magazine profiles, unauthorized biographies, and Oasis. For the most part, it seems that the people who are massively, inarguably successful, with nothing in particular to prove; are actually rather pleasant and accommodating, as well they might be – there’s only downside to being a jerk when people are watching. It’s not a huge secret that it’s the people in the middle – on the way up, on the way down, treading water – who can betray the need to regularly and ostentatiously make a point of their importance.
But I have seen it once. Those of you who follow pop music gossip will not be surprised to hear that involves a band called the Kings of Leon. It’s not a big story of TVs through hotel windows, or mid-set blowjobs. But it seems to me that it’s a kind of milemarker en route to becoming a full-fledged rock jerk.
In 2007, I was playing keyboards in a band that was on our way up. (And I’ll leave it to others to judge whether or not we were making any of the aforementioned ostentatious points along the way.) We were in England for the first time, and we were doing it right: selling out shows, playing rooftop magazine parties, being festival “picks” in arts-section overviews; and doing shows at ever-bigger London venues with ever-bigger bands. Hoxton Bar, the Borderline, Koko; with a series of anonymous-sounding British up-and-comers I started to collectively think of as “The Plural Nouns,” then the Astoria with another American band, the Kings of Leon.
The Kings of Leon had come up a few years earlier in a flurry of stories about their backwoods upbringing, their family band, their preacher father, and their scruffy, hairy, back-to-basics classic rock stylings. We hadn’t heard their jams, but the story sounded a little like the Black Crowes to us; and hey, we like the Black Crowes.
Astoria was one of these old wedding-cake theatres; a deep floor and three tiers of balconies. We loaded in, and sat on our road cases on the theater floor as the Kings finished their soundcheck.
It was the point in the check where the utility of the thing was beginning to peter out. The singer was complaining to the sound guy.
“It sounds like shit.”
“In what way?”
“In the way that it sounds like shit.”
The guitar player appeared to be practicing his pick-flicking technique, into the empty room. Empty except for our guitarist, who was sitting right in the firing line. He dodged one. “Son of a…” he muttered. He dodged another. “If he doesn’t cut that out I’m gonna shove those picks up his fucking ass.”
It was my first trip to London and I’d quickly discovered that there was a small industry of incredibly inexpensive, all-you-can-eat Thai vegetarian buffets. As their guitarist and a stagehand practiced tossing a tambourine offstage mid-song, I decided that this soundcheck didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, so I snuck out the back door and went looking for some heatlamped mock duck. In the back alley, behind the Kings’ bus, were two young Japanese girls sitting on the low curb, knees together, platform shoes akimbo, chins in palms. In late-February London, they were in miniskirts; pigtailed, and made up in the complicated and rococo way that makes pictures from certain Tokyo neighborhoods seem to be from the future. It was early afternoon, easily eight or nine hours before the show.
They perked up as I opened and exited the stage door. One got up and shyly tottered my way. “Excuse me,” she nearly whispered. “Do you know…are the Kings of Leon coming out?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know.”
“Thank you,” she said, and plopped back down on the curb.
The Astoria holds about 2000 people – big, but not, you know, U2 big. The band, though, was apparently prepared against the possibility of a frenzy. Each of the four members had a black-clad bodyguard with a Secret Service earpiece and wrist microphone, who fanned out and took up protective positions.
We played our 45 minutes to a front row of tall, bored blondes leaning with with arms crossed on the barricade; and retired to the dressing room, which was up three flights of old, curving stairs. “Well,” someone said, opening a beer. “Tough crowd.”
There was a knock on the door, and one of the venue crew opened it and brandished an overloaded keychain. “This’ll just be for a few minutes,” he said, fiddling with the lock.
“Wait, what?” we said.
One of the Kings’ security team positioned himself in the doorway. “The Kings of Leon need the stairway clear to get to the stage.”
“So you’re locking us in our dressing room?!”
“The Kings of Leon need the stairs,” he reiterated. I saw, briefly, the other bodyguards positioning themselves on the lower flights, as he closed the door and locked it. From the outside.
Well, there we sat, somewhat stunned, a little confused, and definitely, if obscurely, offended. Surely five sweaty, slightly overweight Americans stripped to the waist didn’t constitute a security threat to the four hairy, slightly underweight Americans with shirts unbuttoned to the waist? After all, we’d been comfortably coexisting until then, securely separated by…a wall.
After about fifteen minutes, we were uncaged. I made my way down the (now unguarded) staircase to see what the show looked like. The band took the stage to the cinematic, not to say melodramatic, choral strains of the Mozart Requiem – a pretty mixed message at the outset of a big rock and roll show, it seemed to me. I edged up next to the bodyguard watching from the stage entrance. Toward the end of the first song, someone gestured from the stage and the bodyguard’s earpiece crackled.
“Got it,” he told his wrist, and flicked over to another channel. “He needs his makeup,” he informed the wrist, with a new urgency. “Come to the orchestra pit after the first song, he needs makeup.”
Sure enough, as the first song ended – to rapturous applause – the band started an extended instrumental, and the singer headed stage left. I headed for the stage door. “Here,” I said, handing one of the Harajuku girls my backstage pass. “Maybe you can use this.”
Now, this sort of thing is a slippery slope, both to judge and to defend. I’m realizing, re-reading this, that the story of being locked in our dressing room by a headlining band reads as less egregious on paper than it does in conversational re-telling. And the Kings of Leon have taken plenty of ridicule in the past year for abandoned stages and cancelled tours, and I don’t want to pile on, necessarily. But I guess I’m saying this in the spirit of a cautionary tale, to performers on their way up. It’s easy to become gradually desensitized the subtle caste gradations of show business, and how they manifest in the wild: the dumbest fights in all of the music world are over set times and billing. Everyone is constantly aware of, and recalibrating, their status relative to everyone else in the magazines, on the blogs, and in backstage rooms.
Years ago, I wrote a piece called “Don’t Be A Jerk,” and I guess this is in a way a sequel to that. There are all kinds of very specific instances that lead to, for example, security policies; harried tour managers that lay down unbreakable rules just to avoid a problem that may never arise; and the famous Van Halen rider about the blue M&Ms, often thrown around as an example of rock demands run ridiculous, is also (less famously) a red herring. I get that. I’m just saying, we’re all in the same business, and it can’t hurt to look around once in a while and make sure you’re not locking your peers in a room – to protect yourself from them.