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Two hours before the first of three punk bands is scheduled to hit the stage for a mid-February concert at Denver's Mammoth Events Center, the only people inside are musicians, crew members, promoter Doug Kauffman and a teenager named John Ferrucci whom Kaufmann has grown accustomed to seeing.
"That little kid?" he asks as he glances at Ferrucci, a diminutive fifteen-year-old wearing a knit cap pulled down low over his forehead. "I first saw him outside the Violent Femmes show we did in January. It was, like, three hours before the show, and he was out in front crying that he'd lost his tickets. And he was really crying--tears and everything. I listened to this for a while and then said, `Shit, get in here.' So he came in and hung out backstage during the show, and the Femmes even let him thump the bass a couple times while they were playing. And since then, he's been coming early to every goddamned show, saying he'll `help out' if we let him in." As a grinning Ferrucci waves at him, Kauffman grumbles, "I don't know how we got by without him."
On this night, Kauffman, who's 34, can use all the assistance he can get. The Mammoth show--headlined by the Offspring, a SoCal quartet riding a triple-platinum album--has been sold out for weeks, and ticketholders are so enthusiastic that they started lining up outside the venue hours before its doors were set to open. Meanwhile, at the Ogden (a block away from Mammoth on East Colfax), Eighties hitmakers Simple Minds are the night's main attraction--and there are no more tickets available for that date, either. Kauffman's role for the Simple Minds appearance is as landlord, not promoter, but he still feels compelled to monitor the gig. "I try to go to every show I'm doing," he says. "I can't not know what's going on, but I can't just sit and watch it, either." He gestures at the vast interior of Mammoth, whose capacity tops 3,500. "That's why the design of this place is perfect for me. I can circle around and around and around all night long.
"Besides," he continues, leaning against a guardrail as a guitarist tunes up a few feet away, "it's close enough to walk over to the Ogden and make sure there aren't any disasters. Got to keep Barry happy."
"Barry" is Barry Fey, the promoter who brought Simple Minds to the Ogden. The acknowledged king of Denver-Boulder concert booking, Fey claims he isn't bothered by Kauffman's rising profile in the music community--but last year he was bothered enough by something to have offered Kauffman a job that would have brought him under the Fey umbrella. Although Kauffman was then in deep financial trouble (trouble that he only now feels comfortable discussing), he turned Fey down, and the choice seems to be paying off. Friends and enemies alike agree that Kauffman's promotion firm, nobody in particular presents, has become a preeminent force in local event booking--perhaps not a direct threat to Fey, but certainly a considerable thorn in his side. For example, the summer season at Red Rocks this year opens not with a Fey-booked concert but one from Kauffman--the Beastie Boys and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, on May 1.
Moreover, Kauffman's ownership of the Ogden and Englewood's Gothic Theatre has forced both the competitors who respect him and those who do not to knock on his door. And his early 1995 decision to drop Ticketmaster, the largest ticketing service in the entertainment industry, has resulted in a growing reputation for hardheaded independence among his peers across the country.
Not all of Kauffman's bets have come in, of course, but none of the failures he's suffered since he took his first steps as a promoter nine years ago have made him gun-shy. "I've always had the attitude that life is short," Kauffman barks over the noise of the ongoing sound check. "You only live once--and what do you have left if you totally fuck everything up? Fifty years?"
Ducking into a ratty space outside a Mammoth dressing room, Kauffman sits down on a folding chair and tugs at what for him is a new chapeau--a promotional hat for the band Tool, which he picked up when the combo appeared in Denver in 1994. "I had this Pride Seed hat that I wore for something like ten years, but I had to retire it--the bill was falling off," he says. "And I had another one that said `Gunnison' and had a fish on it. That one lasted for about five years. So when it wore out, I had to get some more."
Even Kauffman isn't sure why he's so attracted to hats. After all, he's not balding. Chalk it up, then, to his fondness for anonymity, for disappearing into a crowd. When he's clad in his usual uniform (well-worn jeans, a tattered jacket, a crummy T-shirt and one of his hats), he might as well be the Invisible Man: just another lanky, distracted palooka into rock and roll.
That's as apt a description as any of Kauffman during the first phase of his music career. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he was already a fancier of rootsy rock and roll and a bass player of no small skill by the time he graduated from high school. The problem: He didn't like Michigan much. "I wanted to live in the mountains," he says. "So I looked at a map and saw Gunnison."