Columnist George Tucker takes us into the studio and back stage to reveal some of the darker moments in his tech engineering career
The livelihood of supporting live events quickly becomes an addiction; a religion almost, a life itself. There is an almost sinful pleasure in designing a system that helps make that moment, in getting the unrehearsed-one-chance-only cue to sync for an audience of thousands, or seeing the client brimming with the knowledge that the attendees will not forget this one. Seriously, what high can match all of that?
The work can be gruelingly hard; disaster can lurk just around the corner and requires an acceptance that sleep and good nutrition are often optional for survival. Lord knows there are far easier ways to make a living, yet why would we do anything else? Many of us intimately know the feelings of Michael Corleone when he states, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Even when we do manage to move to another profession the allure never leaves you — the sirens calling you, as muse, to the rocks at every event you attend.
My career in AV has weaved in and out of Broadway tours, ballroom events, trade show support, recording studios, and integration. In many ways my professional life has been like that of the thrill-seeking freight train hoppers. As such, my permanently temporary insider status has prevented me from getting any serious scars.
And yet there are moments that make you step back, scratch your head with an existential awe at just how f’d up people can be. These tales are the fodder for the late afternoon therapy sessions or are to be told only at the end of day-drinking whiskey — lubricant for those in the know and a hazy anesthetic for the uninitiated.
Rock Stars, Well, Being Rock Stars
I worked in recording studios from 1990 to 1995. They were exciting times and helped me develop listening skills, interpersonal relationships (read: how to deal with insane creative types under the influence and not get yourself canned), and a life skill of eschewing sleep. The main studio to employ me was built for a legendary guitar hero, its name often mistaken for an album by the same.
Studio sessions are odd affairs, and when the Flaxen Fighter and her solo band took up residency in Studio C, it was assured to get strange. Long days in the studio are not action packed. As a result, folks take on all manner of oddball activities, often imposed on the entire group as a communal connection and inside joke.
Flaxen is a well-known breakout artist from the early days of New York Punk. Her original band, which many call her by instead of her name, were more pop oriented than their CBGB compatriots. Her ‘90’s solo sessions required many things, but most importantly the Flaxen provided ThighMaster, the Suzanne Sommers hyped exercise product , was to be on hand at all times
After a few weeks of working and reworking songs the band took a few needed days off to recharge and reset. As it happened my (then) wife and I had a rare free Saturday and decided to see if the 20th street flea market had any cool mid-century furniture.
It is here that the trouble started. The producer of the record, who also played on the album, was someone I worked with every day and it was him I noticed first. As we finished our hellos, I introduced my wife to him and his companion. My wife was in Flaxen’s infamous rap video when just a teenager (look for the purple beret wearing ‘street walker’).
It was then that it hit me, quite literally. Before the introductions could be properly made, I took a sharp right cross to the shoulder and then a jab to my chest, effectively driving me sideways and backward a few steps. A 5-foot-5 blur rushed past me and across the avenue, obviously in a huff. Once I regained my bearings the producer explained that I had not recognized Flaxen, hidden behind the others covered by a shaggy faux jacket and hoodie. The Producer just shrugged, saying, “She’s mad you did not introduce her first.”
When the sessions resumed, I found Flaxen’s umbrage unsubdued. I was banned from the control room except for urgent work. The most damning indication of my transgression was that my ThighMaster was taken away and now hung on the wall, my name tag covered in white camera tape. While I was eventually allowed back in the studio and could talk with her present, I never did get the exercise unit back.
No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn
Anyone who has worked at least one live event knows that the primary skill appreciated is the ability to work with limited or no sleep for days on end. It is not an ability one lists on their resumes, but the most talented of crew can have a career sidetracked by an inability to fight off the effect of sleep deprivation.
Before there was CES there was COMDEX (Computer Dealers’ Exhibition). The show, at its height, premiered the latest technologies from 2,500 exhibitors to over 200,000 attendees. The show was so influential that the annual adult entertainment expo moved their event to overlap with it.
We were hired to help automate a booth for a major processor manufacturer. The booth production had trouble from the start. As a result, a number of us were pressed into the work of mounting items, running cable, focusing lights, etc. This pushed back our final programming and run through. As the clock hit 30 hours, we had all the effects working except the final curtain opening. Our initial programming had all the rails running smoothly, but now they would not budge.
The production manager raged; the client huffed. There was no time left to fix it. When you have not slept in nearly a day and a half, you have the option of controlling two things: your emotions or your bowels. I commenced to have fits of bawling until my hotel room shower.
The show that day went off just fine, excluding the fact that the curtains had to now be manually opened. As we finished our final packing, I overheard the producer ringing out his shop on the phone for sending the wrong rails. Bastard was throwing us under the bus to avoid blame! The anger welled in me but after so many hours -the rest was a blur.
I was awoken by the hotel security attempting to enter my room. Apparently, I had returned to my room and slept for two days straight. Security was making sure I had not died/been murdered.
On my way to the airport the producer and I had a run-in. I told him what I knew and replied with a few choice expletives back. Let’s just say the quiet conversation ended with me telling him that if we ever did meet again it would not be pretty.
It’s getting dark out, the bar is picking up with the first shift night owls and the whiskey bottles are now empty. I also have a 6 a.m. crew call. What are ya’ doin’ Saturday? Bring your stories or post some below.