Behind every music tour — from Beyonce’s Vegas-styled extravaganzas to Phish’s weed-and-‘shroom-fueled odysseys — is an unsung individual who’s equal parts field marshal, political fixer, armchair psychoanalyst and bag man. The tour manager on a major artist’s outing is often responsible for shepherding more than 100 musicians, gaffers, carpenters, lighting technicians and accountants on voyages that span the globe and entire seasons. At the same time, they have to anticipate hundreds of demands from not-always-appreciative employers while keeping the entourage happy, safe and out of trouble.
Ross has tour-managed Tom Waits for more than 20 years, and was part of the team that launched Lollapalooza. He’s also headed Goldenvoice/AEG’s festival division and worked with acts like Metallica, George Michael and Weezer. He currently oversees touring and festivals at Red Light Management, and heads his own Music Tour Consulting agency.
Everyone has a preconceived notion of what a tour manager does. How would you describe your role?
Gus Brandt: What we do is such a rarified, weird, not noble thing. Just having that sixth sense of knowing when Barbra [Streisand] is going to go off on you or when [Foo Fighters’] Dave [Grohl] is going to be upset about the way the cheese smells — not that he ever has, but just as an example.
Marty Hom: It’s about budgeting. It’s about hiring and cutting the deals. It’s about logistics.
David Libert: We know how to get things done…You’re really not allowed to make mistakes because everybody depends on you. It’s like when [Alice Cooper manager] Shep Gordon [looked] me in the eye and said, “Is everything covered?” That’s like asking a thousand questions, and if I said “yes,” that represented a thousand answers.
Several of you started out in the late ’60s and early ’70s. How have things changed?
Stuart Ross: In the ’60s, bands would have one or two people working for them, doing everything. I worked for The Doors doing equipment when I was 16 and they had one person on the road with them, Vince Treaner, and he picked up people regionally and we worked for free. He did sound, lights, checked the band into the hotel, picked up the check from the promoter.
Libert: And there were no cellphones. And no email. (Laughter.)
Ross: I don’t remember how we sent the rooming list to the hotels.
Libert: You had to convince that hotel that if they didn’t have envelopes with keys and a room list, there would be mayhem and chaos in that lobby when those 50 people walked in…
Patrick Stansfield: At 2:15 a.m.
Libert: Somehow, 99 times out of a hundred, we were able to convince these hotels.
How did you handle the logistics, without email or cellphones?
Libert: Every road manager had that enormous book that could tell you the mileage from any city to any city in the entire country.
Stansfield: A Rand McNally Gazetteer.
Ross: If you were going from Anchorage [Alaska] to Xenia, Ohio, you looked up Anchorage and then you went down all of the names until you got to Xenia and it would give you the mileage. And that’s how we routed tours. We had no other way to do it.
Stansfield: Remember that in this equation, the band’s management had a somewhat different agenda in terms of routing…Management wants you to play where they’ve decided you’re going to play. If you were to say, “I can’t guarantee you we can make that gig,” [promoter-turned-movie producer] Jerry Weintraub would say, “Pat, I’m a rich man. I pay guys like you to figure this out.” Tap, tap, tap on the cigar. “Don’t tell me nothing except ‘yes.’ Now, get the f— out of my face.”
How do you cope when that happens?
Stansfield: You go out, throw the dice and make sure it happens.
Libert: One thing a road manager could do to influence the routing of a tour is, if there were two days off, you would try and figure out where the hottest girls were. That was where we wanted to have those two or three days off. Because to be in a town for one night was one thing, to be there for two or three days was completely different…So I would convince Shep Gordon why it was good business, why we should stay there: It was cheaper, the trucks needed whatever. But it was about the chicks.
The “sweet, sweet Connie,” from Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” right?
Stansfield: There was this body of knowledge, mano a mano, from your lips to my ears: “Man, that Connie in Little Rock…F—ed me silly. Swear to God. At the end, she brightly says, ‘Thank you,’ and was off. I found out she went to the other bus and f—ed the entourage until the sun came up.” (To Hom): You ever meet Connie?
Stansfield: If you played Little Rock [Ark.], you couldn’t help but meet Connie. She was a schoolteacher. Third grade.
Libert: She had her own room set up at the arena. There used to be a line.
Was that on a Stones tour?
Stansfield: That was Neil Diamond.
Those buccaneering days, why did they have to end?
Hom: There was so much money at stake. It had to end. You couldn’t run wild anymore. In the mid-’80s into the ’90s, it started becoming a legitimate, huge business for people to make a living — not just artists but also those that worked for the talent. You could actually support a family, buy a house, put your kids through school. I think it took a turn around that time. People got very serious about what they do. It was still a lot of fun, we still love it, but it’s a business.
Ross: Once we started carrying sound and lights and all of a sudden, it’s not just two to six people, you’re at 25-100. The dynamics shifted when carrying big production became feasible and our jobs went from making sure people stay out of jail to essentially being the CEO of a small corporation that shuts down after six months or a year.
Speaking of staging, there have been several collapses in recent years. Ultimately, it’s your decision where to call off a show.
Brandt: Which is a tough call.
Hom: We were doing a sold-out stadium with Shakira in Spain. And during load-in, a corner of the stage buckled. I called the promoters and the guys who built the stage into the tour production office. They said, “Oh, it’s safe.” I looked at them and said, “OK, you’re going to stand with me, your kids and your family underneath that stage when we play tonight. Because what you’re asking me to do is put my family underneath that stage.” They didn’t say a word. It was dead silence. And I said, “Here’s my answer.” We canceled.
So your show is done for the night. How is the money handled?
Ross: Until about 10 years ago, maybe less, tours were all cash. There were a lot of dollars going across the desk every night. So tour managers or tour accountants had to call the promoter in advance and say, “I need $50,000.” And it was not unusual for any of us to pick up that amount or $100,000 and distribute it.
How is $100,000 in cash delivered to you?
Ross: Somebody comes in with a big briefcase or a gym bag and lays down a stack of $100 bills and we count them.
Libert: You didn’t let the band go on until you had the money — period. And if you didn’t have the money, you’d hold up the f—ing show.
Ross: I went to see Al Green at the House of Blues and noticed after his last song, he walked over to the drum riser, picked up a thin, fashionable, alligator briefcase and walked offstage. (Laughter.) And I knew that he had gotten paid in cash prior to the show. Putting his pay on the drum riser: safest place.
Stansfield: I walked through U.S. customs with Keith Richards, coming back in from Australia into Honolulu. And I had my own briefcase and an extra suitcase that was filled with, I don’t know, a couple hundred thousand dollars.
Ross: I remember when they started putting on the customs forms: “Are you carrying more than $10,000 dollars in cash?” And it’s like, I’m going to have to divide this up between a bunch of people on the plane.
Brandt: Exactly. Do the envelopes before take off. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Hold this for me, please.”
Tour managers are famous for solving crises. Tell us about some.
Hom: When Barbra Streisand was playing Staples Center, it was like going to the Academy Awards. Everybody was there: Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman — the creme de la creme of Hollywood. What happens is, they all send her flowers at Staples Center. And at the end of the second night, she says, “Marty, I’m going to send my gardener back to pick up all the flowers and have them driven to my house.” I tell her, “No problem,” and I ask our production manager to lock the dressing room. The gardener shows up at Staples Center the next day, the dressing room door is open, and all the flowers are gone. Panicked, I call Barbra’s assistant and ask, “Do you still have the cards that were attached to the flowers?” She did and I called them all and said, “Do you remember those flowers that you did for Dustin Hoffman and Sidney Poitier? Can you duplicate those and send those up to Barbra’s house?” I get the 20 arrangements that we were supposed to pick up, and they all get delivered to her house. And then at the end of the day, I give Staples Center the bill and they pay for all the flowers. (Laughter.)
Ross: When you knock on the hotel door and wake up the singer at 1 p.m., then you get the call saying, “I can’t believe you woke me up! Now I can’t sleep! I’ve been up all night writing songs. I’m not playing the show!”
Libert: Alice [Cooper] was doing a show in Vancouver and he slipped on one of the props and flipped off the stage like a tiddlywink and ended up in the pit. He cracked his skull open. This was after a couple of numbers. We take him backstage and I know he’s in bad shape. And it came down to this: “We’ll put a bandage around your head. You go back out there and do two or three songs. Otherwise, we’ll have to postpone the show, we won’t get paid, and you’ll have to come back.” So that was the motivating factor. “Go out there and do a couple of songs because as bad as you feel right now, it will feel a lot worse tomorrow.” So we put a bandage around his head with a little red ink on it, he did three more songs, pretended to collapse and we took him offstage. And he got paid.
Brandt: When I was working for the group Il Divo, we were flying from Mexico City to Monterrey and back in the same night. And it was down to the choice of planes: a turbo prop, a small jet, a bigger jet. So these guys chose the turbo prop.
Ross: Nothing wrong with turbo props.
Brandt: But Mexico…
Brandt: So we go up, no problem. Coming back, there’s rain and I’m trying to ask the pilot, “Hey, are we going to be OK?” He shows me the radar and it’s just red. But the band wanted to go, so we took off right into these thunderstorms. One of the guys filled four bags of vomit. People were crying, screaming. The plane got zapped by lightning and the pilot was like, “I have to pull us down.” So we landed in the middle of what we found out was a drug cartel war zone, this abandoned airport that was surrounded by guards. The promoter wouldn’t send the cars to come get us. We sat there until dawn guarded by these 16-year-old kids with moustaches and AK47s. And then drove three hours back to Mexico City and played a show.
Talk about rock’n’roll hotels. You’ve all stayed in the same ones.
Stansfield: The Riot House in L.A.
Libert: Which was Gene Autry’s Continental before that.
Ross: Swingos in Cleveland.
Stansfield: The Holiday Inn, on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Where [“This Is] Spinal Tap” was made with the famous line, “And this twisted old fruit…I am, sir, as God made me.”
Libert: I guess my favorite story is the Edgewater Inn in Seattle. You have to get the artist the rooms that overlook Puget Sound so they can fish off of the balcony. It really was a shitty hotel but you could do that. Everybody wanted to stay there. So Alice, just before we were about to go to a show, catches a shark . . .
Another shark story from the Edgewater? I though Led Zeppelin owned that particular urban legend.
Libert: . . . And he doesn’t want to throw the shark back because he wants to get a taxidermist to stuff it, right? Well, what are we going to do with the shark in the meantime? He says, “Fill the bathtub up with water. We’ll pour a bunch of salt in it.”
Did the shark die?
Libert: Of course it died. But as we were standing there with Alice, we’re looking at the shark, and this shark in the bathtub, he’s actually looking at us. I don’t know what he’s thinking but he’s looking at me and Alice. That was a really bizarre moment.
I can’t picture that happening today.
Hom: Now on bigger tours they have hotel advance people who actually fly ahead of the artist and prep the hotels and make sure they’re ready for the artist’s arrival.
Libert: And on really big tours, the artists want their suites with their own personal stuff in them.
Ross: I know somebody whose job it was to drive Bono’s bed from hotel to hotel on the last tour. Bono wanted to sleep in his own bed every night. So instead of being able to fly him, I assume, back to Dublin, there was a bed that was in a Ryder truck and they loaded it into the hotel.
Sounds like a long way from the Riot House.
Ross: We went from having to deal with guys who would wreck hotel rooms to dealing with people who won’t accept a hotel until they see the 24-hour room service menu in advance. So the expectations we’re managing are a lot different. It’s like, “What do you mean I can’t get into the Ritz-Carlton? What do you mean they’re sold out? Where am I going to stay?”
The concert business used to be populated with promoters who were fairly outrageous. Tell us about your experiences with them.
Hom: That’s the thing I miss — back when I first started, the personal relationships with all these guys, the Jack Boyles and the Larry Magids. The business was so vibrant and they were such an essential part of it.
Stansfield: We walked with giants [then].
Brandt: A lot of the big personalities aren’t participating anymore.
Ross: [New York promoter] Ron Delsener is still participating, thank God.
You all speak with such reverence about these guys, like they were the lineup of a great baseball team, even though they were trying, as you put it, to screw you.
Hom: But they were smiling, and they were your friends.
Libert: Promoters traditionally feel like they’re getting screwed by the artist, so they have a hundred different ways to make money that you don’t know about. It was like a game.
Ross: Even after the show was over and we battled it out, you would always look forward to seeing Ron Delsener or Jules Belkin or Rick Franks. These were the guys we looked forward to working with.
Ross: They threw good parties, they were big personalities, they were colorful.
Some of you have toured with the same bands for more than a decade. Describe the bonds that form between you and them.
Hom: I’ve been with Fleetwood Mac for 17 years, Barbra for 13 years. If you’ve toured with somebody long enough, they are your family. And you’re kind of like the dad who takes care of them, and they depend on you. The younger artists are a little different in that they surround themselves with entourages now. They have assistants, they have managers who go on the road, publicists, they have people. The relationships are still good but they’re not as personal because there are layers of people you have to go through.
Sounds like it can get pretty intimate.
Hom: Let me tell you how intimate. I had to tell Ian Astbury from The Cult that his father had passed away. They were onstage at the old Omni in Atlanta, and the manager called me. It was one of the hardest things I had to do.
I was just in Europe with Fleetwood Mac and [bassist] John McVie wasn’t feeling well. So we got him to a doctor in Berlin. And he called me afterward and says, “Marty, can you come over to my hotel and talk to me?” I know that’s not good, so I jump in a cab and go over to his hotel. We sit down and he says, “I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer.” And John’s sitting here and then Mick [Fleetwood] comes over, and we have a discussion of what we’re going to do next. We ended up canceling Australia and New Zealand-15 sold-out shows. The band thought about moving on without a bass player but…you can’t get onstage without John McVie.
Some of you have been at this for more than 40 years. What keeps you coming back?
Ross: We’re in a bubble. Nobody new comes in, nobody leaves. And we all support each other.
Hom: You know what I think it is? I think we do it not only because we love it and we’re passionate about it but I think there is a sense of camaraderie. It’s like when you all go on the road together and you have this great team of people and you pull off a show and you kind of look at each other because everybody on that tour played a small part in accomplishing that show.
Ross: It’s all about 8 o’clock. Showtime.