Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I’m On the List

Text and image by © Robert Barry Francos

Did you hear about the poseur punk? He paid to get in.

That’s an old joke from the ‘70s. While I’ve paid for more shows over the years than have been on the guest list, I have also had the honor of having my name at the door quite a few times.

I don’t really remember the first time I made the list for my work on my fanzine (1977-88), but most likely it was either at CBGB (RIP) or Max’s Kansas City (RIP). However, making the list itself could have come earlier, in 1976, while I was Arts Editor of my college paper and had the opportunity to see a number of shows for free, such as Sparks and Mott at Avery Fischer Hall, or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at both CBGB and the Bottom Line (RIP).

Actually, there are different levels to the list. The primo is considered the backstage pass at a bigger show, which usually results in a laminated card that is either hung around the neck or clipped to your clothes. As I mostly review independent artists (I’m still proud to say I turned down a chance to interview Duran Duran during their heyday because, well, who cares), the odds of the pass being that sophisticated is unlikely. In fact, the only laminated pass I have ever received, as far as I can remember, was to see the revived New York Dolls play a private concert at the now defunct Tower Records on lower Broadway, in 2006. Admittedly, I had nothing to do with it really: my pal’s son, Ben Kugel, used his influence to wrangle a pass for himself plus one, which ended up being a very fortunate “Uncle Robert.” We even got to hang out a bit with the band after the show.

When going for a guest list at the level to which I am used to, there is no fancy memento, even for some of the relatively bigger names. The end result is usually my name handwritten on a sheet of paper at the front door, hopefully with a “+1” following it. Now, it is always a gamble that you’ll get down there, and either you were forgotten, the band isn’t there yet with the list, the management suppresses the list because it’s that much less money for them if you get in free, or you were lied to because it’s easier to say yes and then ignore it after than confront a requester. If this occurs (and it has happened to me a number of times) you’re standing there saying “I’m on [band name]’s list,” only to find them responding, “No, nothing here.” In fact, this is so common that when I went to see D.O.A. at Amigos in Saskatoon, I brought along a printout of the email from the record company, Sudden Death, saying that if there was any problems at the door, to have them “find Joey” [Keithley], the band’s frontman. Occasionally, the door person will believe you anyway and let you in, but that is exceptionally rare, even for the smaller venues.

And just what does one do in that situation? Do you say screw it and pay anyway, or do you say screw it and walk away? Well, for me, it depends on a formula based on the factors of who is playing, how much is the cover charge, and how much cash do I have in my pocket. Since I’ve been to Saskatoon, I’ve been pretty lucky, and every time I’ve been on the list, my name was there. But more on that in a sec.

Back in Brooklyn, when I learned about a club called the Punk Temple (RIP) in my own Bensonhurst neighborhood (held in a Synagogue basement) in 2002, I contacted the guys who ran the place via email and asked them to put me on the list in exchange for photos that I would give to them and the bands. The answer was solidly no, because there were people already taking pictures. Yeah, I thought, teenagers with little to no experience on cheap digi cameras (I still used film then). So, I went anyway, gave my $8, and handed in the pix in anyway. That was the last time I paid at the Temple.

I got there early for the Temple shows (something I still like to do) and started hanging out with the guys who ran the place, making myself known to them and the bands, many of whom invited me to other gigs elsewhere. And when the fans formed bands, they in turn asked me to come. Honestly, I don’t think I paid for a single show from 2002 until 2009. Somewhere towards the end of the Punk Temple heyday, around 2004, I was in the space waiting for the show to start. While the mean age was probably 19-20, I was in my mid-40s. Some pimple-faced smartass approached me and asked, “What are you doing here, you fuckin’ old man?” Unperturbed, I responded by asking to see his wrist. After some “Wha?” from him, he showed me his stamp. “See that stamp?” He affirmed in a “What about it?” I continued, “See the stamp on the hands of everyone here? See the stamps on the band setting up?” He was getting angry(ier) and wanted to know my point (though he stated it in different words). I held up my clean hand: “Do you see any stamp on mine? No? That’s because I can walk in and out of this place any time I want. Can you?” At that moment, members of two different bands came over to me. “Robert! So glad you could make it,” giving me that man hug/back pat. I looked over at the kid, and he could only shrug his shoulders and walk away.

Yes, I like being on the list. The show could be for $50 or 50¢, it doesn’t matter. It’s sort of like the old First Nations’ “coup” (a bloodless game of war where you won by touching the opponent). But for me, no matter how I joke about this, it’s not something to be taken lightly, ever. When I’m on the list, for whatever the price of the ticket, for me it’s a contract that I intend to honor. I have never thought, “I’m not in the mood for the show; I’ll just blow it off because I didn’t pay for the ticket.” No, it’s a sacred bond; a promise on my part.

I’m not a musician, though I’ve tried both the guitar and bass. I’m untalented musically since I cannot remember chord streams and I have absolutely no sense of rhythm when it comes to actually playing. However, I still want to give to the scene, so what I do is a write and I photograph, making the photos accessible to the bands. This is how I contribute. Whenever I have been put on a list, I have reciprocated through documenting the show through reviews and/or photographs (lately, mostly on this blog). The bands can then use my thoughts and images for their own publicity. See, when I don’t pay cash to see a show, I still give my time, my mind, and my art in exchange, so it remains two-sided.

Since being in Saskatoon, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Johnny Winter, D.O.A., the Saskatoon Reggae and World Music Festival (including Jah Cutta), the Oral Fuentes Band, and Absofunkenlutely [AFL], while being on the entrance list. For the last three, it was pretty easy because I’m friendly with Oral, who is my neighbor, and through him met Randy Woods, leader of AFL; Oral also runs the Reggae Fest. Even with the personal connection, I have contributed solidly through photo and review.

With Winter and D.O.A., well, I asked their management or record company through emails. I had reviewed a bunch of Winter’s material previously, such as one DVD collection of his performances from the 1980s, and another of his shows in Germany from 1979. The management was uncertain about letting me in, I could tell, but after I published the review, they were quite happy and informed me they would let me know when any of their other artists hit town. For D.O.A., well, I’m sure Joey knows about my fanzine from the ‘70s-‘80s, which may have given me some extra credibility, and I’m hoping they liked the review and photos that are two blogs back from this one (see the list on the right).

Most of the time when I ask, especially with larger touring acts such Simon & Garfunkel or Roger Daltry who were to play in town (both cancelled), odds are I won’t hear anything back but the tumbleweeds, but it never hurts to ask. As S&G may have said, this is my blog for the asking, if you will.

That being said, do I consider myself a freebie whore? No, because part of the deal on my part is that I will be honest. If there is some act I see and don’t like, I was say so. I don’t whitewash just for a name at the door. When I agree to see a show, my end of the bargain includes my true opinion. I have had bands mad at me for saying they sounded out of tune, or were boring. Without honesty, there is no credibility. I am not merely a human press release, so it is a gamble for the band because of my sense to truthfulness, but it’s also one for me because the show may be, well, crap. Fortunately, most of the time, I have not been disappointed, and have had a blast.

So, you acts out there who are either in town or on tour coming this way, let me know, and if I say yes, I will be there, with camera and notepad in hand. But please, don’t forget to put me on the list (plus one).

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