Aug. 13, 2007
What isn't waiting for me at the MGM Grand Garden arena is the first of many strong contenders for the title of today's greatest disappointment. It is 8:30 a.m. on the day of a rock concert by Rush, and Kate Hudson's "Almost Famous" groupie character is not at the loading dock offering meaningless gratification in exchange for a backstage pass.
"That's movies, this is real life," says my boss for the day, lighting crew chief Rich "Itchy" Vinyard, 44. "Now grab the next crate!"
I'm one of 50 roadies unloading seven tractor-trailers that arrived late last night from Phoenix, site of the veteran Canadian power trio's last gig.
Roadies, short for road-crew members, are sound and lighting technicians who travel with the hundreds of concert tours that play Las Vegas each year. Their specialty is transforming unadorned aluminum slabs into laser-shooting, drum-spinning, video-projecting concert stages.
"Let's go!" Itchy screams. (Rush is not only this band's name, but the state its employees always seem to be in.)
The 200 pound purple box I'm being ordered to wheel down a truck ramp is cryptically labeled "FEEDER." It has a stuck wheel that makes it want to turn in circles -- like the cart I always seem to pick at Albertsons.
Roadies do copious amounts of schlepping. They call it "rigging," but that's just so it sounds more cerebral. Roadies have different words for everything.
"No!" another roadie berates me for pushing it from behind. "Always stand in front of it when you're going downhill!" (Schlepping is not a task at which my people excel. I'm surprised we ever got those pyramids finished.)
Roadies land their jobs either by befriending a band or gaining experience with a production company. Itchy, who hails from Brunswick, Mo., and lives in Nashville, Tenn., began his career in the '80s at a concert lighting manufacturer called Vari-Lite.
"I love my job," he says.
Something about Itchy strikes me as funny -- and it's not just his nickname, which was conferred on a long-ago tour with the Grateful Dead. ("I talk a lot," he explained earlier, "and the production manager used to say, 'You're the equivalent of itching powder.' ")
In addition to being almost as annoying as me, Itchy is even punier. And I have the physique of a 12-year-old boy with anemia. How exactly can this guy earn a living as a schlepper?
"Downstage of the dimmer rack area!" Itchy announces as I spin my wounded purple box toward him. I nod as though I understand what he has said -- a skill I perfected in Mr. Diamond's high-school business law -- and hope that the roadie in front of me is headed to wherever that destination may be.
Did I mention that I hoped to meet groupies? The mating habits of the species roadie (homo-erect-us-a-stage) were glamorized in tell-all rock books such as "No One Here Gets Out Alive" by late Doors roadie/manager Danny Sugerman and "Hammer of the Gods" by former Led Zeppelin road manager Richard Cole. The highlights, all of which involve groupies, are not printable in a family newspaper.
I'm engaged to be married now, so I couldn't accept Kate's offer anyway. But what's wrong with wanting to hear it?
"There are Rush groupies," Itchy finally cracks, "but they're mainly guys." (Rush is a "musician's band," which is what rock acts call themselves when chicks don't care about meeting them.)
Well, at least I'll get to pal around with rock stars later. Maybe I'll even dine with them backstage. That ought to be worth something -- in addition to the $25,000 to $60,000 a year I'd earn at this job to start.
"We don't hang out with the band," Itchy informs me.
Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart will arrive between 4 and 4:30 p.m., after everything is set up. They will perform a sound check and then disappear into their dressing-room worlds, relaxing, prepping for the show or dealing with daily tribulations.
"The crew just hangs out with the crew," says Itchy, who is lucky if Lee knows who he is. (Itchy works for a production company that assigns him to different tours throughout the year. A handful of instrument technicians do work directly for the band and know them personally. But the value of that perk declines when you consider that they're between jobs as soon as their pals get off tour.)
"Move it!" Itchy yells again.
Feeder means electric cable -- an extremely heavy gauge of it. I discover this when I'm instructed to help schlep -- excuse me, rig -- it everywhere.
My apologies to Sheldon Bailey, by the way, the video technician whose head was positioned directly below the three 150-pound crates that my portion of feeder nearly toppled offstage.
"You almost made my old lady a very happy woman," Bailey told me.
Luckily, tour electrician Randy Garrett saw this accident before it happened.
"Undo the schnacker and hook it right over the pike," L.L. Brown tells me. "Where's your crescent?"
The different words are now flying like arpeggios from Lifeson's guitar. Brown, a man in both his 40s and five times better shape than me, is upset that I didn't bring a wrench. We're hanging LED strips on five steel light pods that will be yanked up to the rafters by chains. Two of the strips, which weigh 150 pounds each, are tangled together on my side.
"This has to be done right because these pods stand up on end during the show!" Itchy screams at us.
Rush is renown for the bombastic effects that accompany its members' virtuoso soloing. Not only did I pick a band with no female groupies, I picked one with possibly the heaviest equipment in the history of rock.
"It would have been nice if you came to work prepared," Brown tells me as he untangles the strips with his own wrench and makes a clicking noise with his tongue.
By the way, Itchy told me that he works from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. on show days. What can he possibly love about this job?
"Mainly, the travel," he tells me later. "I've been around the world 10 times."
OK, but how much sightseeing and fine dining do arena loading docks offer?
"I have days off between shows," Itchy says, adding that his wife is traveling with him on this tour.
By 2 p.m., the glamorous rock 'n' roll lifestyle has numbed my fingers, slumped my arches and put a fireball where my right rotator cuff should be.
"Stop slacking!" Itchy yells, likening my pace to "an antelope that was just born and can't walk."
Suddenly, I realize why Itchy needn't be muscular, and why his job may not be as bad as I thought. He doesn't schlep a thing. No roadie does. The job I'm ready to quit is Brown's. I'm a stagehand.
About 100 stagehands are assigned to tonight's show. They work various eight-hour shifts on a free-lance basis, earning $20 to $26 an hour. Provided today by the MGM Grand Garden and an independent valley contractor called Rhino Staging, they're the schleppers. A roadie's job is basically to bark orders at them.
"Wuss!" Itchy yells as I undo the workout belt snickered at by my co-workers all day.
What he means is, "Thank you for schlepping 16,000 pounds of our gear and serving as my personal whipping boy for 5 1/2 hours."
Roadies really do have different words for everything.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.