Opening Frights

I fear titleusually loved when Too Much Joy were the opening act, as the challenge of winning over a hostile crowd forced you to play your best, and the applause (when you managed to get it) always felt earned, which wasn’t necessarily the case with die-hard fans. But opening could also mean a steady series of lessons in humility, or of biting our collective tongue when headliners acted like entitled pricks. We always tried to be nice to openers once we were headlining, offering to let them use our drum kit if they didn’t want to set theirs up in front of it, and so on. But I’m sure we were resented, too. This Raygun piece from 1995 combined our own stories with those collected from a variety of other bands (three of whom, as it happens, TMJ had opened for at some point).

Imagine you are in a fairly young rock and roll band. An indie label has just put out your first record. You suddenly have a lot of new friends in the press and at college radio stations confirming what you were already pretty sure about: your band is great. Your manager or booking agent has called in a favor to get you a coveted opening spot on a bigger act’s national tour. You are on stage right now. In fact, you have just finished your first song. It was, you have to admit, incredible. This is pretty exciting. You wait for the applause.

For some reason, nobody is clapping. Someone in the back is yelling something, though. Now someone in front has joined in. Soon the whole crowd is chanting: MOJO! MOJO!

This is very good news if your name is Mojo. This is absolutely horrifying if you’re me.

I swear, that first song really was incredible. This wasn’t the first time my band, Too Much Joy, had ever played. We’d even been through this very town a few months before. Of course, we’d drawn about five people then, and this time we were in front of four hundred drunken frat boys who wanted to see Mojo Nixon. Now.

My ass was saved that night when Jay, our guitar player, calmly stepped up to the microphone and said, “Excuse me. If you want to chant ‘MOJO, MOJO,’ could you please do it on beat so we can start our next song? Like this: ‘MO-JO, MO-JO!’” Perhaps the crowd was too drunk to follow instructions. Perhaps they took pity on us. But they instantly shut up. At the end of the next song, a few of them even clapped.

That, however, is just one story. We have hundreds. So does every other band. And almost none of them end as well.

There are probably some people who would enjoy being the opening band. But these people are all chained naked to the wall at The Vault, begging fat old men in leather chaps to drip hot wax on their genitals. Opening is no fun. The headliners treat you like playthings, the club thinks you’re a nuisance, and the audience just wants you to hurry the fuck up and finish.

Audiences have many charming methods for encouraging the opener to speed their set along. The last time the Flaming Lips went out as the first act, poor Wayne Coyne had to dodge candy lobbed by an impatient Candlebox fan. “You know, those little bite-size licorice things,” Wayne says. “He’s two rows back, I can see his face, he can see mine. He’s just pelting me with ‘em — not hard, but he doesn’t have to throw very far. Just to bug me.” Throwing Muses‘ Kristin Hersh remembers touring Florida with New Order. “People threw cups at my bass player’s head. She was black, and they used to target her. Unless they were just aiming at me and they weren’t very good.”

“The crowd, given the opportunity, they’ll be inventive,” says Coyne, who should know. Opening for the Stone Temple Pilots, he played on a beach filled with “that new type of audience that looks like football players but they’re there to see a band. The bands don’t even start and they’re already moshing, beating each other up.” The beer was served in plastic cups, but fill the cups up with sand, “and they’ve become pretty decent weapons. People think it’s funny when they hit you. You try to see them as it’s happening, but of course, one football player without a shirt on looks much like the next.” Happily, though, the crowd bombarded STP as well.

It’s no wonder Coyne actually likes hecklers, “in a way, when they’re clever and they have something to say. Heckling almost elevates it to an art form of some kind.” If heckling is an art form, then Glass Eye played to a Dada convention when they opened for a thrash band. At first the audience just gobbed at them. Then, Kathy McCarty recalls, one crowd member got vicious. “He was trying to think of something really insulting to yell out at us, because we had girls in our band and some of our songs were pretty. And he said, ‘You look like my French teacher!’ It was the worst thing he could think of to say.”

Yes, try as they might, sometimes the audience just isn’t that intimidating. Tad, that guy in Tad, says he just challenges hecklers to “come up here and say that.” He’s only been taken up on it once. Dinosaur Jr. simply ignore their taunts. “Some kids screamed they hated us. They didn’t look too threatening, though,” says master-of-understatement J. Mascis, describing his experience opening for the Cure.

Other times, though, the audience doesn’t have to say a word. “The roaring silence is the worst thing for me,” laments Mojo Nixon. He opened up for The Bodeans, “that heartfelt band from wherever. And no one got it. I’m trying to get ‘em to sing along, I’m trying to get ‘em to call and response: Nothing. Just nothing.” And St. Johnny‘s Bill Whitten fondly remembers opening for a heavy metal band at a fishing derby. “When we played everybody slowly backed out of the room. You could hear doors slamming and cars starting in between songs.”

Once they learn how to cope with hostile crowds, the opening band still must manage to stomach the dozens of minor humiliations served up by whoever’s headlining. The one time Too Much Joy opened for Concrete Blonde, we were sitting in our dressing room trying to decide how to divvy up the six pack of Budweiser thoughtfully provided by the venue when a stage manager knocked on the door to inform us Jeannette Napolitano requested no one watch her performance from backstage. “OK,” we said. The stage manager stood there uncomfortably for a moment. “She prefers you watch from the front of the house,” she said. Again, we said fine, and again, the stage manager just stood there looking awkward. “So let’s go to the front of the house,” she said. We explained that we had no intention of watching Concrete Blonde’s set. Apparently, this was not an option. “Then you just have to leave,” she said.

Like I said, every band has hundreds of these stories; I’ve heard many. But once you tell a musician you’re collecting anecdotes for a magazine article, you smack your nose against a bizarre, rock and roll Omerta. Suddenly, all musicians are one big, loyal family. Shonen Knife send me a suspiciously upbeat fax filled with exclamation marks about all the really good friends they made on all their really good tours! The Meat Puppets‘ Derrick Bostrom pretends to be offended when I ask who’s the biggest prima donna he ever opened for. “You just want negative stuff, you’re just looking for dirt, aren’t you there?” Well, yeah. The guy from St. Johnny tells me, “There’s definitely one band I don’t know if I should name cause we have the same booking agent.” Archers of Loaf offer to give me a name if I promise not to print it, as though that would be of some use.

Musicians are more willing to share secondhand stories. John Strohm, who played with famous virgin Juliana Hatfield in the Blake Babies, tells me about the time he met the Charlatans. “They were just giving off this air of unbelievable arrogance. Which I thought was kind of cool.” John’s friends the Cave Dogs had been touring with the Charlatans for about three weeks. Earlier in the tour, one Cave Dog had gone into the Charlatans’ dressing room to introduce himself. “They sent one of the crew guys from the Charlatans to the Cave Dogs’ dressing room. He came in and he said, ‘From now on the Charlatans dressing room is off limits.’” The Charlatans were polite, compared to Joe Walsh, who supposedly likes to divide the backstage area Gilligan’s Island-style. “This is hearsay,” Mojo Nixon says, “but Beat Farmers once opened up for Joe Walsh at Red Rock in Denver, and they had a line backstage that none of the Beat Farmers could cross.”

I suspect many of the musicians I spoke with refused to bitch about other bands for a simple and understandable reason: they’re craven bastards. A few, however, have actually had pleasant experiences as the support act. Coyne admits he was nervous about going out with Stone Temple Pilots. “They ended up being actually really good guys. I wouldn’t say anything bad about them, ever. They would come in all the time and just check to see if we got enough beer.” The Go-Go’s were also surprisingly sweet when Too Much Joy opened for them a few years ago. They even gave us permission to tell anyone who asks that we slept with them. And man-of-many-bands John Strohm has fond memories of Antenna‘s tour with Cracker. “We were thinking that it wasn’t a good pairing. We’d heard their record and we thought it sounded kind of slick. We ended up really enjoying getting drunk and watching their shows, and got on really well with them.”

fear insideMojo points out, “Bands that tour all the time, it just all kind of works out whether you’re opening or not. The big pain in the ass is when somebody suddenly thinks the sun’s shining out of their ass. They always have tight leather pants and they always have their manager with them. That’s always a bad sign.”

Mojo’s right. When Too Much Joy opened for the Darling Buds at the Whiskey, both our managers were there. Ours had an intern hang TMJ posters and album flats all over the club. The Buds’ manager had someone tear them off the walls. Ours had the intern hang up more. Their manager had Darling Buds posters pasted over ours. It was a festival of pettiness.

Besides audiences, headliners and managers, the opening band also has to tiptoe around the headliner’s crew. “You’ve got to deal with the crew as much as you deal with the band. Sometimes the crew are the biggest rock stars of all,” Coyne observes. Kathy McCarty concurs. “Every band has experiences of the sound man who hates your music so he starts fucking with your sound . . . someone just starts putting like echo on the drums that’s out of time, and tons of weird effects on your vocals because they’re bored. It happened to me just recently.” Luna‘s Dean Wareham loved opening for the Velvet Underground in Europe, but hated the guy running lights: “The lighting guy was a total dick to us. He’d do the lights with his back to us. We were paying him 25 pounds a night.” Mojo can’t stand that shit: “The thing I hate is when the club, and the light man and the sound man and the security all start thinking it’s their show. It’s not their show. No one ever came to see a light man. Never.”

Well, almost never. “The New Order show was like a light show, as far as I could tell,” Kristin Hersh says. “They’d start playing, lights would be flashing, the crowd would be yelling, and so I’d go into their dressing room to steal their beers, and they’d be sitting there. ‘But you guys went on like five minutes ago,’” she’d say. “Ten minutes ago, actually,” they’d reply.

Creepy as the headliner’s crew can be, there are certain advantages to befriending them. Wherever you are, they can almost always get you drugs. Share one debauched evening with them, and things tend to run a little smoother. You still won’t get a sound check, but at least they apologize.

There are other small solaces for the lowly opener. “If nobody shows up, it’s not because of you,” Derrick Bostrom points out. Hersh likes that there’s “no pressure, at all. It’s actually expected that you have people yelling at you to leave the stage.” 

Red Red Meat have a more material reason they enjoyed opening for Smashing Pumpkins. “One good thing about it is our bass player Tim, after the people would leave and before they would start sweeping the floor, he would go out every night and look for loose change in the mosh pit area. We didn’t have to give him per diems.” How much did he make a night? “Seven dollars, counting jewelry.” Money also explains why Tad liked touring Europe with Soundgarden: “There was mass destruction that went on and they would always pick up the tab.”

Also, really big bands get served really good food. “Nirvana had the best catering,” according to Derrick Bostrom. What makes for a good caterer? “They drive overnight, shop for fresh food the next day and then they have a varied menu that’s decent. Now, Cobain didn’t like it, cause he wanted white bread and macaroni and cheese. He ended up firing them.” Apparently Shonen Knife joined the tour when the food was more to Cobain’s taste: “In Nirvana’s dressing room we tried our first peanut butter and strawberry jam on toast. It was very sweet!” Kristin Hersh ate well touring with R.E.M. “It was like the cushiest 9 to 5 job ever, opening for them. They give you good food, good dressing rooms, the whole tour’s PC. The most dramatic thing that happened was that Greenpeace once sent a box of pamphlets in styrofoam peanuts and no one knew what to do.”

Sure, it can get boring watching the same band play the same set night after fucking night, but sometimes, Coyne notes, the opening band is watching an entirely different show than the audience. “I think the best thing sometimes is knowing what they did last night, what time they woke up, and now look at them, they’re on stage . . . Like with Porno for Pyros, there’s obviously some of that. ‘Let’s see what Perry’s gonna do tonight.’ Cuz you’re backstage and you know how much crack he’s smoked.”

And finally, there’s the supreme satisfaction of blowing the headliner away. Most rock bands tend to play better when they’re pissed off, anyway. So, which headliners have you blown away? “All of them. It would be foolish to think otherwise,”says Derrick Bostrom. “Oh everybody,” say Archers of Loaf. “Just about everybody we’ve ever opened for,” answer Red Red Meat. Acts from Boston are slightly more gracious. “I can’t say that. I don’t know,” responds a polite Kristin Hersh. Temporary Lemonhead John Strohm turns the question around: “I’m not gonna take that one. Lemonheads played with Buffalo Tom last summer, and I know for an absolute fact that we got blown off the stage every night.”

The suavest response of all comes from bluesman Buddy Guy. “I don’t go to blow nobody off the stage. Cuz I play the same whether they’re there or whether they’re not there. I don’t have a particular time that I want to play. If I come to play, and it’s Wednesday or Sunday night, just tell me when to play. I don’t give a damn who’s in front or who’s behind. You gotta do what you gotta do anyway.”

Maybe we should all follow Buddy’s example. Maybe I’m just bitter. Maybe Shonen Knife and Derrick Bostrom are right: all bands are brothers. As Tad tells me, today’s openers are tomorrow’s headliners. If we remember our roots, we can break this cycle of oppression and humiliation. Can’t we? I ask Derrick if there’s stuff he swore he would never do to an opener that he ended up doing anyway.

Derrick answers like a pro. “I never swore I wouldn’t do anything.”


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