Back Story

There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that you tend to forget about.  Tonight I watched David Steinberg as he interviewed two of my all-time favorite comedians, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams.

Jonathan was a great improviser, become different people before your eyes…..I saw him at the Hungry I in San Francisco and within the next few days heard that he was having mental problems; he tried to climb the mast of a major schooner docked in the bay….he mentioned in the show tonight that he was in a mental hospital for 8 months but managed to resume his career.  He is just as funny today as he was 50 years ago.

Robin Williams was so influenced by Jonathan and later became great friends…..Jonathan played Robin’s son (!) on Mork and Mindy and the interplay between them was pretty much left alone by the director.

Steinberg was talking to Robin about how he had played the Boarding House in San Francisco, which of course Robin played also,  and how David did what he felt was a great show.  However, on the plane back to Los Angeles the next day he read a review by John Wasserman of the Chronicle that criticized him up and down for being so self-centered.

Well, I knew John Wasserman, a very talented guy who drank too much and who faced a couple of difficult situations; he became jazz and music critic for the Chronicle after the death of Ralph J. Gleason, one of the best jazz critics ever.  And he was the nephew of Dale Wasserman, composer of “Man from La Mancha” so he felt compelled to succeed.

Photo by nkzs from

John, like all of us, loved David Allen who owned the Boarding House where such great talent as Robin, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and others got their careers going; unfortunately David was terrible at keeping track of money and was about to be shut down.

So John organized a benefit for David at the San Francisco (now Bill Graham) Civic Auditorium in 1976, and lined up Steve Martin, Martin Mull, Billy Crystal, Robin, and Joan Baez, who John was seeing at the time.  Of course, I did the ticketing.  The show was amazing; it was the first time I and a lot of other people had ever seen Robin Williams who was in the unenviable position of following Steve Martin but stole the show.

BASS Tickets was opening in Hawaii in 1977, and I had approached Robin’s manager about appearing for us (for $3000) at Sears where our first outlet would be;  I heard shortly thereafter that Robin had been signed for a TV show and would be playing a space man and wasn’t available for my top-flight gig.

Meanwhile, I had asked Joel Selvin who was John’s protegé at the Chronicle if he wanted to take the trip to Hawaii and cover it from the perspective that BASS was now going to be a major part of the entertainment scene in Hawaii.  Joel said that as a courtesy and as protocol, I had to invite John who he was sure would not be available for the trip. I did and he accepted.  I felt a sinking feeling.

We flew over first class (it was cheap then) and John promptly went through all the free drinks and the little bottles he could find.  When we arrived in Oahu, we were met by Ron Gibson who worked with me, and I turned John over to him, as there was much work to be done on the system and promotion prior to opening.  John could barely stand.

The idea was that John would write a column about how the Bay Area’s own ticketing company was spreading its wings.  Over the next 4 days I don’t think John could have written his name.  He spent the time in every bar and was seen walking up and down Kalakaua shouting “where is kukalakalualaka street and where is the Sheraton Hotel?’.  of course he was right in front of it.

We had the opening; had some local entertainment, the mayor, the head of Sears, but no John (thank God).  And we were flying back the next day and that thought was not pleasurable.

Well, I picked up John at the hotel….he was 100% clean and sober and was a perfect and affable companion on the way back.

When we parted he told me he had enough stuff to put together a good column.  It was never written…..a short time later John was at a party, left suddenly and on his way back to the City drove on the wrong side of the road, killing a young couple and himself in a head-on collision.

My friend Joel got the job he never wanted under those conditions of rock and music critic for the Chronicle and has done such good writing over the past 35 years.  He has written some great books on rock and roll (look ’em up) and cowrote “Red” with Sammy Hagar (Number 1 on NY Times bestseller list).  We are still friends although I never got to take him to Hawaii.

Derby to Dylan, Part 2

Once rehearsals were ended for Dylan and company for the Rolling Thunder Revue, my job began.

It was determined ahead of time that no venue over 3000 seats would be booked on the tour, and some more would be added as it went along, kind of like traveling troubadors  going from town to town.  The first concert was going to be in Plymouth Mass, the home of the famous Plymouth rock where the Pilgrims first landed.   The auditorium was a little over two thousand seats, all tickets were general admission and not very expensive.

My crew and I had handbills on which we printed the particulars of the concert which was scheduled for the following night…no ads, no promotion.  As we walked through the legendary town we stopped people and handed them the handbills.  One lady who was pushing a baby stroller looked at the piece and threw it back to me “Who the f— are you trying to kid?  Dylan in this town tomorrow and we haven’t heard about it on the radio?”

We immediately realized we were up against a major problem….even Springsteen does not just show up and play unannounced.  I was under strict orders not to let any media know about the events, and the building managers were told if any word got out the dates would be cancelled.  At this point I through this was the craziest thing I had ever been associated with.   So of course I called a radio station in Boston with a rock and roll format and said I lived in Plymouth and people were handing out handbills saying Dylan, Baez et al were performing the next night in Plymouth.  Well the word got out, we put tickets on sale at the building box office next morning, and the show sold out that night.

That show was the first time I was able to hear Dylan in concert; without trying he had the audience enthralled.  You could tell that he and Joan were happy to be performing together again and the rest of the show picked up the energy.  I was only able to see a couple of the nights of the tour as I was always out in advance but they were playing in small venues and the audience could reach out and almost touch them made me think they were playing clubs.

The subsequent dates became easier because obviously people were aware that the shows were for real.   We would show up, pass out some handbills in the cities, put tickets on sale the next day at the venue box office and then move on to our next city.

My younger son Richard who was 12 at the time had a vacation, so he flew into Hartford and I met him and he joined us.  We had a couple of days clear, so we met with the whole traveling party.  Joan Baez immediately became friends with Richard and told the members of the press who wanted to interview her that Richard was her bodyguard.  He also got to watch over the Dylan dog, an untrainable beagle.

After 10 days Richard had to go back to school and I had my longest conversation with Dylan; his son was joining the group shortly and was about Richard’s age and asked if he could stay longer.  Unfortunately  he couldn’t, so we never knew if my son could have eventually joined Jakob’s band The Wallflowers.  (My other son, Steve, played lead guitar in Sascha and Yuri, the first Russian  Rock and Roll band to play in the US.  They weren’t bad, featured on Walter Cronkite and other national media.  Unfortunately the Russians hated each other.   This was my first and only attempt and managing a band).

At the same time of the tour, Dylan employed the whole revue in a movie he was shooting in the daytime or after the show called “Renaldo and Clara”. I don’t know if it is still available, but the only scene I was in was when we were handing out handbills and announcing the date the next day at the University in Storrs Connecticut and we were rushing through all the dorms at night with the cameras following us.  Unfortunately, I never saw the film or my memorable scene.

Another night the performers had been invited to a house where a colonial pageant was being staged for them.   I was hanging out in front by the gate with security when some young women came up to us and volunteered to perform some unusual acts on us if they could get in…..We didn’t let them and I thought this is certainly different than Roller Derby.

We became aware that the tour was losing money so suddenly the decision was made to go into larger venues such as the Providence Civic Center, a building I rented for Roller Derby.  My phone calls were now going to many different stations.  I don’t know if Dylan or Barry Imhoff knew about them at this point, but I don’t think it would have made much difference to them.  Dylan became very involved with the unjust incarceration of Hurricane Carter, the prize fighter who many felt had been framed and jailed in New Jersey.  He wrote and performed “Hurricane” at one of the concerts and then went to New Jersey to try and visit him.

My six weeks were up and they wanted me to continue; Madison Square Garden  (another of my Derby venues) had been booked as well as buildings in the south, but Hal and Bill Graham would have  killed me if I didn’t come back.  I was able to get them someone to take my place and I returned to the Bay Area.

After that tour, I was very careful just to stay with ticketing and never get too close to the performers or those associated with them…I had had a great experience touring but realized that I never wanted to get in the middle between the arenas, theatres, and promoters who were my clients and the acts they brought in.