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Stashed in the far reaches of Associates of Otolaryngology, a group of south Denver ear, nose and throat specialists, is a stack of autographed eight-by-ten glossies. At some point during every working day, nurse practitioner William "Buzz" Riefman will flip through them with a certain possessive glee. There's Bonnie (Raitt) and Johnny (Cash). Cher. Bruce Hornsby. Ozzy Osbourne. Peter, Paul and Mary. And then there's the stack of over a thousand backstage passes, including one each for the Offspring and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers--the latter signed by the Pink Ranger.
"Look at this Bon Jovi picture," Riefman offers. "He's written on it: `Thanks for believing in me.' Is that hot? Is that fun?"
Riefman sifts on through Metallica, Skid Row and the Temptations. "Here's me with Miss Channing," he says. "Here's me and Christie Brinkley. I bet you don't know who this is--it's the Highlander, from Saturday-night TV. Here's a really deviated septum," he adds, without the slightest change in inflection. The picture he's holding is an inside view of a human throat, obtained by putting a telescope down someone's nose--just one of the skills that have made him the darling of the entertainment industry.
In fact, though he's worked for Dr. Paul Dragul by day for nearly twenty years, Riefman has put in an almost equal amount of time backstage. By night, he can be found thinning some singer's mucus or hydrating someone's vocal cords at a huge concert arena, a dinky neighborhood theater, or somewhere in between. He always gets in free, always treats someone for something and always stays for the show, which he always enjoys, in his unique, equal-opportunity way. He makes no distinction between a stadium heavy-metal show and a church production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which means he's emotionally drained from exposure to all that talent by the time he arrives home. At that point, it's sometimes midnight, and that's when the emergency calls start coming in.
"Just the other night," Riefman says, "I got a call from some actor who was filming a documentary. He lost his voice and had to have it back by the next morning, so I told him to come right over. After that, there was some lady who was getting laryngitis." He treated her, too. The next night, there was Sheryl Crow--"such a nice lady," he recalls. Sheryl Crow was not in need of medical attention, as it turned out, but Riefman treated several crew members and stayed for the show. If he did not, he would not be Doctor Buzz. Going to shows is what Doctor Buzz, with his black bag and backstage pass, does.
"But don't say I'm a doctor," he warns. "I'm not. I'm a physician's assistant and a nurse practitioner. I just have this reputation as the rock doc."
"People know Doctor Buzz in touring circles," agrees Brian Celler of Q Prime management in New York City, who first met Riefman while on the road with Metallica. "He started out providing oxygen to people working the shows, but now it's all kinds of illness-type stuff."
Illness-type stuff is particularly virulent in Denver, it would appear. "Touring-wise, you always come to Denver from a low-lying area," Celler explains. "It's a huge change for singers, and the air is awful and dry. Musicians get sicker more often. They can't leave and go to a doctor's office, so you call for a doctor, but you get Buzz, and he's a total anomaly. He doesn't just write out his bill and leave. Buzz is there for the tunes."
"I have to be the biggest groupie there is," Riefman agrees--and at 319 pounds, this is no idle boast. "Backstage is my extended family. It's my identity. It keeps me young."
At 48, Riefman has an unlined, somewhat ageless face with conservatively short dark hair, and he is almost always dressed in suit pants, a button-down shirt and a tie. "Even in the mosh pit," he confirms, "although I may do blue jeans and a Ban-Lon for the real thrash-metal shows. Twenty-five years ago, if someone had said, `This is going to be your life, Buzz,' I would have thought they were out of their mind."
Riefman grew up in the entertainment-poor town of Weirton, West Virginia. "All-star wrestling came through, and a little country-western music," he remembers, "but that was about it." An army tour took him to Vietnam, where he trained as a helicopter medic. After his discharge he landed first in southern California, where he married, and then, in the late seventies, in Denver. Two years later his wife, Susie, died of cancer, leaving him to raise two preschool-aged children on his own.
"When Susie died, there was very little that made me happy," he recalls. "The only thing that worked was going to shows where she and I used to go."
Riefman has been attending at least five performances each week ever since--which makes it hard for him to pinpoint exactly when he mutated from paying customer to backstage medical man. "It may have been oxygen for the Grateful Dead at Red Rocks," he says, "but it may have been when I helped Lou Rawls at the Turn of the Century with a flu or a cold. The dryness gets to all of them. Even Mr. Pavarotti has said how much it bothers him."