As the frontman of The Verve Pipe, I’ve had my share of bad gigs. It was all part of paying your dues in the 90’s. Back then there was this prevailing sense that things were happening in our genre, and that any day we were going to be signed by a major label. That potential deal was the golden carrot that dangled just out of reach. It was the reason that you played the shitty bars that had stages that felt weak under your feet; stages that inhibited your glorious rock moves, for fear you might fall through and discover god knows what beneath. It was the reason that you put up with crooked promoters and asshole sound men. You knew that it wasn’t going to last for long. You were going to be noticed by the majors. Your songs were so much better than anyone else’s.
Your fans knew that your were going places. They crammed themselves up to the front of the stage, accidentally spilling fifty cent drafts into your monitor, or worse yet, bumping your mic stand hard enough to send it into your face, bloodying your lip, or chipping a tooth. You got so drunk every night that your last set was a mess of bad chords and garbled lyrics.
I loved every minute of it.
The worse gigs came after you were signed. The label showcases and corporate gigs. And radio festivals.
It seemed every radio station had a festival in the late 90’s. Edgefests and Xfests, were everywhere. It was an opportunity for radio stations to flex their corporate muscle while bands massaged the station’s egos. After all, your band would not exist had it not been for radio. They made you. DJ’s were rockstars in their own mind. Program Directors and Music Directors were the men behind the curtains, forcing bands to play their festivals for free, or have their single dropped from the play list. Playing radio festivals was something that every new band that was signed to a major label did. And because every band was forced to play them, the line-up was schizophrenic; new punk bands like Goldfinger and harder rock bands like Fugazi and Filter were put on bills with bands like the Gin Blossoms and, well, The Verve Pipe.
The worst radio fest.. actually, the worst gig I have ever played was the radio fest in Dayton OH. Going into it, it seemed like just another festival with a typical eclectic line-up. We would go on, play our thirty minutes (unpaid) and get the hell out of there. Piece of cake. I was even anxious to get in front of that crowd. After all, Dayton was the home of one of my favorite bands, Guided By Voices. Not to mention Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders. But what went down that day was the biggest Fuckfest of them all.
It was a hot summer day, nearing 90 degrees. The festival was held in a dirt parking lot outside of town. The geniuses behind the festival took the corporate sponsorship money from Coca-Cola, who at that time was promoting the “Big 20” ounce plastic bottle. I’m not sure if they were giving the bottles away or not. For what it’s worth, I speculate that they didn’t have water available for purchase, only Coke. Again, I’m speculating. But I do know this: Just about every person in that fucking festival, about 5,000 to 8,000 people were given a big 20 ounce projectile.
Fans of Prong had no desire to sit through a set by No Doubt. Fans of Everclear didn’t want to see Seven Mary Three. I watched our friends get pelted with half emptied bottles of Coke thrown from hundreds of feet away. The music “fans” who drank all of their soda realized that hurling empty plastic bottles at the stage was futile; the bottle would only fly about 10 feet. A handful of brilliant Dayton-ites had the bright idea of filling the bottles with gravel. When 7M3’s bass player took a bottle of gravel to the nuts, he had the good sense to leave the stage, followed by his band. Not one of the assholes from the station tried to put a stop to it.
Our turn. I hadn’t even taken that glass bottle to the face yet (that happened a year later, in Toronto), so I really felt like it might be possible to win this crowd over.
We jumped up on that massive stage and were immediately pelted with bottles and rocks, lighters, and coins. Coins were the worst, actually, because you couldn’t see them coming. I was able to dodge the projectiles pretty well, bobbing and weaving around my microphone, trying in vain (for some reason) to put on a musical show. But the show wasn’t about the music. The show was the spectacle of musicians on stage scrambling for safety. You weren’t a rockstar: You were a target. When you looked down at your instrument, you were a target, when you went out to the front of the stage to touch hands with a few of your fans that were there, you were a target. Turn your back to turn up the volume on your amp? A target. Run across the stage to rock out with a bandmate? You were a moving target.
A couple songs into our set, I realized that there was something else on that stage. Something alive and angry. I’d like to say that it was our own primeval desire to rock, rising like a great black demon phoenix, vengeful and raucous. But it wasn’t. It was a swarm of bees.
As I said before, it was hot. And now the stage, set out in a parking lot next to a sea of wildflowers, was covered in soda, sticky and sweet. It was the a bad gig perfect storm.
I was swatting down bottles that said 20 ounces, but instead weighed 5 to 10 pounds. I was slapping at the bees around my ankles. And I was flipping off the radio guy on the side of the stage, the one who was enjoying this slapstick routine.
That was the beginning of the end for The Verve Pipe and radio station festivals. Our A&R rep, on the phone from New York said, “you should’ve walked off that stage at the first sign of trouble”, but we knew he was full of shit, or really had no clue what was going on out there. I protested every festival, and still played them. When I absolutely refused to do another, the stations dropped our songs from their playlist.
Yes, there have been shit gigs throughout my career. Shitty shows in clubs where the doorman pockets some of your cash. Gigs where the sound is so bad, that the feedback takes over an entire song, and becomes the new melody.
Getting famous, and being given the opportunity to perform on a big stage with pristine sound, made me realize that kissing the ass of radio was not worth it. That the real fun for a band is in the early days. The essence of live rock and roll is there in those old clubs. The ones that had a different band every night. The club shows where the only fear you had was what you might find beneath that weakened stage, were you to fall through it.
Brian is a bitter man who is deathly afraid of bees. Check out his latest album, one that the critics call ‘wonderfully bitter, like the sting from a bee full of vodka’, by Clicking Here