Barry Fey on that time that he held a gun to Axl Rose's head and how the business has changed
For years, Barry Fey says, music fans have been needling him to write a book. "You know, people have been saying 'When's the book? When's the book?' for fifteen years," Fey notes. "It was daily, wherever I would go out... 'When's the book? Come on, you've got to write a book!'" Well, he finally did -- and it's quite a read. In the appropriately titled Backstage Past, Fey dishes freely on his years in the music business.
There's the story about how he almost passed on booking Led Zeppelin, until the manager of Spirit offered to give up part of his band's guarantee in exchange for adding Plant and company to the bill of a show that had already sold-out in which Spirit was headlining. And then there's the one about how he supposedly held a gun to Axl Rose's head when the Guns N' Roses frontman mysteriously disappeared from a gig at Mile High Stadium that Barry had booked with Guns and Metallica (spoiler alert: didn't happen, even if Lars Ulrich remembers it differently).
Suffice to say, Barry's got about a million yarns to spin and he's finally spun a few them. We recently caught up with the legendary concert promoter and asked him to spin a few more for us, a request that he gladly obliged, even sharing a few stories that aren't in the book, including the time Cheech and Chong literally gave him the shirt off their backs and when he had lunch with Bono and Brad Pitt -- back when the latter was still playing bit parts on shows like Dallas. Read about it below, and then stop by the Tattered Cover in LoDo this Tuesday to pick up a copy of the book and have it signed by Barry.
Westword: What inspired you to finally write the book after all these years?
Barry Fey: It was not an inspiration. It's uh, you know, people have been saying, "When's the book? When's the book?" for fifteen years.
Right. I guess I should say what finally convinced you?
Well, it took a barrier - there's a barrier you cross, and I'm going to make this up as I go along - to think that you can write a book that someone really wants to read, you know? And it was daily, wherever I would go out: "When's the book? C'mon, you've got to write a book." I'd go on the air and tell stories - "When are you going to put 'em in the book?" When I'd do Lewis & Floorwax, "When are you going to have a book?"
I kind of slumped it off, because, well, about two years I got serious, and then ran into certain obstacles. I had a best-selling author who wanted to do it, a Pulitzer prize winner and a best-seller. He wanted an advance bigger than the publisher wanted to pay me.
And that went awry. So I didn't care. So I tried to look around into other ways of doing it over the last year, and I found a wonderful publisher, who just does it - he's the biggest sports publisher in the country the last eleven years, and he's only done two other books.
Mine is the second non-sports [book] he's ever done. He did something like Tim Russert, We Hardly Knew Ye or something - you know one of those type [of books] and this Barry Fey. So it took about five months, five six months to do it. But the biggest thing was to really think that, 'Hey, I got something people want to hear,' and the people of Denver convinced me of that.
So what's your favorite story?
I guess my favorite story... oh, God, that's hard. Dave, that's really hard -- and I'm not being cool - but the one I had most fun with is debunking the story that's not true.
The Axl Rose story, as told by Lars Ulrich. You've heard about that one, right? That story is, I guess, the most famous of the stories. We had Guns and Metallica at Mile High. And there was 48-49,000 people there. It was a big tour, and they alternated closing. One night, one band would close, and the other night the other one.
This one, Metallica opened, and... the whole story's in the book, but I'll tell you... Metallica opened, and I went out - it was a great set - I went backstage for the opening number of Guns. I went out, and they played "Welcome to the Jungle." I'm walking out - I'm going to give you the language, and you clean it up however you want; I'm just telling you how it happened - I'm walking backstage, and this guy comes running out and says, "Barry, Axl just left."
I said, "'The fuck are you talking about, 'Axl left'?" So I ran backstage, and I found out that he had come down off the stage, got into the limousine and left the site. So I said to... I went up to - his name was Big John; he was the guy who ran the limo company - and I said, 'You don't work for him; you work for me.' I said, 'You ever want to see another fucking dime of this company's money, you get that car back here.' And he said, "What?" I said, "Yeah. The only way he gets out of that car is if he jumps out. And if he jumps out, you leave him in the street. But you get that car back here."
So he gets on his little telephone. People are getting a little pissed by this time. Guns is up there just jamming, right? They played "Welcome to the Jungle," and then they didn't do anything; they were just jamming, and people were getting a little pissed off. In fact, I found out that they were taking their Guns N' Roses T-shirts back to the concession stand and throwing them at them and saying, "Give me a Metallica shirt."
So I went into the Guns and Metallica dressing room. So Guns sends down an emissary -- and this I know for sure because I was standing there within three feet - and he tells Lars, "Would you guys consider coming back up and jamming with us, because the crowd's going to get out of line?" So Lars tells him, word for word, "You bozos don't have enough money in your collective bank accounts for me to get back on that stage."
So at that point, I left the dressing room, went back out to the parking lot and got my .357 out of my glove box and put it in my back pocket. So I go out there, and I don't know what I'm going to do, because, you know, he had caused a riot in Montreal, I believe, by leaving and not coming back. Well, a few minutes later, the car comes back, and Axl gets out and talks to his manager - his name was Doug Goldstein; he was a glorified security guy; he use to do their security, and he took over their management. But how do you manage, manic depressive heroin addicts? That's a pretty good trick. I don't know how you do that.
So he [Axl] comes and talks to his manager and goes right up on the stage and gets back into it. So I put three of my, what do you want to call 'em, security, goons, thugs -- the toughest ones I have - at the top of the stairs and three Denver cops at the bottom. My instructions are: "The only way he gets out, if he leaves again, is that way," and I point to the crowd. Doug Goldstein says, "Barry, you can't do that. Axl will get so pissed." I said, "I don't give a fuck about him, and I don't give the same about you. I care about them," and I pointed to the people.
So that, basically, is what happened. But Lars tends to tell a different story, and Lars has far more credibility out in the industry than I have. He swears I put the gun up to Axl's temple and said, "Get on that fucking stage or you're going to die." It [his .357] never left my pocket. But every time he sees me today, he says, "Barry, are you packing today?" So that was that story.
Of course, that also was Slash's bachelor party that night. It was downtown at the Embassy Suites, which is no longer there. They were handing out little tickets - a blue ticket, like if you wanted a blow job, a yellow ticket if you wanted to get laid, a red ticket if you wanted to do both. It was a crazy night. And it turns out, I found out later, the reason Axl left was because he had a fight with Slash on the stage. But you know, I didn't really care. I just... I wasn't going to let him get away with that.
And Lars says to me, "Don't tell me you wouldn't have shot him." I said, 'Oh if he's not going to go on, he's going to get shot." But it didn't have to happen. So that's a great story, but it's true. That's the way it is. If you hang up with me and call Lars, he'll tell you the story, "Yeah, Barry put this fucking gun to his head." Didn't happen.
Were there any great stories that you left out of the book?
Yeah, there were a couple of them, but you know it's all... how the book was written: I would call up, the guy turns on his recorder, and I talk. And he doesn't know to ask me about things, and then later, I forget - I mean, one of the best stories I left out was Cheech and Chong.
Can you tell me that one?
Yeah, sure. You're going to have things that ain't even in the book. It's great. Cheech and Chong were very big here. They were huge here. And one night, they sold out McNichols Arena, so it had to be '75-'76. It was early on. And we really had a good relationship. Ah, this ain't a great story, but it's a story... so they come out on stage and they're wearing this incredibly - you know, I use to weigh 320 pounds at the time - and they put this incredibly big shirt on... Cheech has his right arm in it and Chong has his left arm in it, both of them. And they say, "We're going to tell you how much we like Feyline, man. We're going to give the shirt off our back." So onstage, they called me out and they give me this shirt. It was huge for me, but it was a nice moment.
Do you still have the shirt?
No, I don't think so. Let's see, by that time, I was... no, I wasn't divorced yet, but my second wife, Lisa, threw away so much shit. It's ridiculous. I can't find anything. That would be a ceremonial shirt. In fact, I think the office mounted it once. I don't know where it is. But they gave me the shirt off their back. We had a great relationship for many, many years.
How did you decide which stories to include in the book, Barry?
I just talked. It was 330 pages, and it had to get down to 270, so there was one chapter that I was really unhappy about being gone, but I don't have that kind of choice. I'm lucky. Working at Feyline, where he interviewed Chuck [Morris] and Pam [Moore] and Bill Silva and Jeff Krump, he got some great stories, but they had to cut it out.
Another one that was ridiculous to leave out is when Brad Pitt - he hadn't even been in Thelma and Louise yet; he was playing in three episodes of Dallas, and Phil Lobel [Fey's publicist] was his first manager. I don't know if you know that, and he called me and says, "Brad would like to meet Bono." So I say, "Oh yeah, sure." We're all staying at the Sunset Marquis. It was November 1987, and we're getting ready for the U2 date at the LA Coliseum. It was the last part of the Joshua Tree tour.
So Phil brings Brad Pitt over to the hotel, and they hit it off. They sit around. And he also brought a young lady with him, who was a star. She played Priscilla Presley's daughter on Dallas. And Brad Pitt was 22-23 at the time. [He] had to play a seventeen year old. He played her boyfriend.
But anyhow, he was only on three episodes. I forgot her name... McClaine...something... it's an Irish name. You can probably look it up. She played Priscilla Presley's daughter on Dallas [Shalane McCall], and we sat at the... we all had lunch, and I said, "Well, look at this, two stars and two wannabe stars" - me and Bono and Brad and his girlfriend. [laughs]
So at one point, I went down to your house when I use to work for the Hawk, back in the old days, and we took pictures of all the memorabilia you had on the walls and that sort of thing and did a virtual tour of all the cool memorabilia you had...
Yeah, and you put it on the website?
Uh-huh. Exactly. Do you still have all that stuff?
It's all in one place now. It's all in a warehouse, thank God.
Are you at some point planning on doing something with that, like putting it in a coffee table book or something?
Yeah, I'm not allowed to say.
'Cause somebody's going to display it. It's an honor, but it will be displayed for everybody within the year.
A lot of awesome stuff in there. I remember at one point you had a Captain Fantastic pinball machine...
I've still got that.
You just had one incredible thing after another at your house. I even seem to remember an autographed basketball from Michael Jordan...
Yeah, I've got that, too. It's Jordan, [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] on the same ball.
I remember just going from one room to another and just being awestruck by all the cool stuff you had...
That's why the queen of real estate in this town, Edie Marks, said, "I'm having trouble selling your house because everyone just keeps looking at the walls." I said, "I'm sorry, Edie. I'm very sorry."
So now that the book's put together, what are your thoughts in retrospect?
About the book? Well, I'm a little nervous. I'm very excited. As I said on my page, I'm nervous - and I haven't been nervous in a long time. But it feels kind of good. ...Certain parts I love about the book is the fact that it's not where you just read the book and put it down. This is something you can go back to and refer to, especially for the people in this area, plus all the people in the United States and elsewhere.
This is a part of your life, man. You can review it, but I don't think it's something you just read and put it down. There's lists in there; there's things you want to refer to. And it's my opinion. It's how I see it. That's the only eyes I have are mine.
I heard a bootleg of the show at the Rainbow -- I believe it was the second time they came through - and at one point, Bono makes a point to not only thank you but to kind of point out how you had championed the band to the radio, like actually had called the radio stations and lobbied for them to get played.
Yeah, and I also did it for Alan King. Remember him? He had that British radio show. I said, "This is going to be the biggest band in the world," and I believed it.
What about U2 early on struck you that they were kind of special from the other bands you had worked with?
Well, musically, I said it... after they had played three numbers, I went into the office at the Rainbow and called Frank Barcelona, their agent, and I said, "This band is going to be the biggest band in the world." They've got the musical integrity of the early Who - and that's what I saw. I mean, they were just unbelievable.
And that was from the first time that you ever booked them?
First three numbers.
Wow. What was it, was there just a sense of urgency to what they were doing?
No, their command of their music, their audience, the stage, it was just amazing. I mean, you know, usually, a group the first time in, I think was '81, and it was amazing. I remember I went to the box office and I got four fifty dollar bills, and I went back in... you know the Rainbow didn't have a dressing room; it had a trailer in back. So I walked back in the trailer, and I said, "Here, take these." I gave them each a fifty. I said, "Go have a good meal on me, because you guys work hard and you deserve it." And then Bono called me out. I was outside trying to buy a U2 pin from somebody who had it, and I had to pay three or four dollars for it, but he saw that and never forgot it.
And then they heard the Jonathan King story, 'cause they were on the road some place when they tuned in and they heard me say they were going to be the biggest band in the world. I was their champion. I didn't think there was any... you know, music was stagnating at the time. I mean, we were about to into the - this was 1981 - and we were about to go into the terrible, polarizing '90s. And this was it. That's it. The last great band. I mean, Guns N' Roses would've been had they not been manic depressant heroin addicts. But U2 has been amazing, and they've become bigger than life.
Were there any other bands that you felt kind of similar about over the course of your career?
Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, the first time I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd play at Ebbetts, I about ran out. I wanted to shout: "Get in here! Get in here and hear this!" Because when they did "Freebird," man, the three guitar players stepped up front, I don't think I'd ever seen anything like that in my life. And they're, of course - he became my best friend in the business of superstars. Ronnie used to call me every month just to talk. And you know, they shot their album on my lawn. The photograph for, what, Street Survivors? I forget which one. But anytime they came to town...
That's the one where they're playing touch football, right?
But it's different from the first time I saw the Stones. I was totally in awe from the minute we got the date until they played. And of course, the greatest show - I say that in the book - the greatest show I've ever seen was June 9, 1970 with the Who at Mammoth Gardens. I've never seen anything like that in my life.
What stands out about that show? What made it the best show?
Well, the elements itself, just like the elements itself [for] Under a Blood Red Sky. It was so hot. We had sold 5,000 seats, because that was the capacity. It was so hot that we cut it off at 3,500. We had to turn people with tickets away. 'Cause it was just too unbearable. Oh you don't remember. I don't know if they still do... they used to have these giant windows that would open. We opened up all the windows and all the doors. You could hear the music - you know, this is the Who; it's like a jet plane - you could hear the music plainly down at Civic Center park.
Oh yeah. It was so loud. Well, this was only at Clarkson, so it was only a few blocks away. The Mammoth Gardens is where the Fillmore is now.
That wouldn't even be possible today.
Oh, I don't know.
I think within ten minutes of that it would be shut down.
I've never met an ordinance I couldn't get around. You know? That's neither here nor there.
So we got together with Peter, Rog, Frank Barcelona was in town and the Who, and we agreed to do a second show the night of the tenth, so we could let those 1,500 people in who didn't get in. Plus we sold another 2,000 tickets, and then, you know, made lemonade out of lemons. But that first show, what made it so great: When Pete steps on the stage and he says, "I'm sure you've read that we'll never perform Tommy live again." And he says, "Bullshit!"
And then they go into two and a half hours of the most mighty, amazing music I've ever heard come from the stage, the energy and everything. But the most amazing thing - and I'll never forget - the people at that show, when it was over and the Who left, there was no "More!" no clapping, no roaring. They got up and walked out. The people had a sense of what they'd just seen. And that's the best show I've ever seen in my life. I've seen some great shows, Dave, some great shows, but nothing like that.
Of all the artists that you've worked with over the years, who was the most difficult to work with, or who gave you the most aggrivation?
Well, they've from the same genre, but I'd have to say, in ratio to their talent - and you'll read all about it - the Marshall Tucker Band. I hated them. Hated them. And at one Colorado Sunday, the tour manager, who was an ex-convict or something, turned off the power on Heart, and Heart just didn't know what to do. They were on stage, and he turned off the power so they [Marshall Tucker Band] could get on. I mean, they were just an ugly bunch of people. But I say in the book.
In contrast to that, who was the easiest person and the band/artist that you enjoyed working with the most?
If you go from top to bottom, I would say Lynyrd Skynyrd. Never a peep. Now, the Stones were a pleasure, but you still had Mick and Keith. You've got to put them in a different category. But Lynyrd Skynyrd from the... I mean, the Who. My god, every time you ever played the Who it was an adventure. You never knew what was going to happen. But I would say, from top to bottom, Skynyrd. They were just so nice.
And after Ronnie died in the plane crash, and inevitably we had Rossington Collins at the Rainbow - you know the Rossington Collins band? And Gary and what was the name - Alan Collins, yeah? Right. They were so fucked up on dilaudid that I took them aside and I said, "Didn't you get the message from God? You are alive. What are you doing to yourself?" Gary's still alive, but Alan, of course, died. But you know, what can you do?
That's amazing. So you actually called them out on it?
Oh yeah. The good thing about me, after a while in the business, I started thinking I was every bit as big as they were, even though I knew better. People didn't pay to see me. But I mean, they were friends, and you've got to say, "Hey, man!" One of the great stories from the book is the intervention that Aerosmith had on me.
What was that about?
Do I have to give away the whole...? No one's going to buy the book, Dave.
[laughs] What prompted it - let's say that?
Well, first of all, Aerosmith was on the wagon at the time. Tim Collins became their manager and pulled them out of the drudgery of heroin addiction. And they were straight, Perry and Tyler, and their manager was Tim Collins. And we have a show in Vegas, right, me and Aerosmith. I remember because Robert Deniro was there. It was when they were shooting Casino. And he came back because he was involved in kind of a CD-rom -- which I didn't know what a CD-rom was at the time; I still really don't - project with Aerosmith.
So then Tim Collins comes to get me. He says, "We want to talk to you for a minute in the dressing room. Would you come in?" I said, "Sure." So I go sit down in the dressing room, and there's Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and Tim Collins having an intervention on me. They say, "Barry, you're killing yourself. You're going to be eating yourself to death. We have a man outside waiting for you to take you to a rehab center."
And I said, "What the fuck is going on? This is the pot calling the kettle... You've got two fucking heroin addicts - three heroin addicts - telling me that I gotta go into rehab because I eat too many spare ribs.
I've got to imagine you were fit to be tied?
No I was not... Hey, you don't get mad at the bands, Dave.
Well, Marshall Tucker, I threw Doug Gray off the stage. Occasionally you get mad. So I wasn't "fit to be tied." I said those words: "What the fuck is going on here?" Three heroin addicts telling me I gotta go into rehab because I eat too many spare ribs. So there's a guy standing outside. I said, "You can tell him to go home." And that was my intervention.
So as much as the industry has changed just in terms of even prices - the prices for the tickets back when you were promoting were ridiculously low...
Yeah, I kept them low. I mean, look, I charged $2.50 and $3.50 when I was starting, and the highest price I ever charged was 1994, three years before my retirement, I charged $70 for the Eagles, and $71 for the Stones, and $71 for Pink Floyd. And now they're $300-$400.
How do you view that now?
I think it's disgusting.
What do you attribute it to?
Well, I attribute a lot to one man, Robert Sillerman, who founded SFX and had to buy up all the promoters -- and he had 65 percent of truly great promoters in his pocket - but decided that he needed to do the whole tour. And that's when he offered three times what the band's worth, and then they made it back in ticket sales. And then, of course, he bought - because of his synergy - he bought Clear Channel, and that's when that shit started to happen.
I gave a speech a few years ago. I called American Bureau, the bureau of standards in Washington, and I said, "The highest price we charged for the Stones tour in '72 was $6.50." I said, "Would you extrapolate it now for cost of living and inflation and tell me what it would be now - this was a few years ago. And he said - he called me a couple days later - it was $29.62. And the Stones were charging $440 for the whole lower bowl at Pepsi Center.
So accounting for real dollars today how much was that be again, accounting for inflation and all that?
Well this was five years ago at least: $29.62.
Wow. So do you think prices will ever come back down?
No. Well, forever's a long time, but the genie's out of the bottle. I mean, you've got these two major corporations bidding against each other now. And that's the way it is.
What are the other changes you've seen in the industry and what are your thoughts on them - like what are the biggest changes and what are your thoughts on them?
Well, it went from the music business to the business of music. I think it's ridiculous. There's no soul, no heart, no loyalty anymore. It used to be if you were a small promoter - which I was when I started - I would hear of something, and I'd like it, and I'd play the group, and if I was right and they got big, I got big with them. Now if a guy does that, within two tours, one of the giants goes out and offers them a hundred and some million for the tour and you're gone. I hope it will come back to the small places again... in the early days, we had some great acts, Dave, great acts and no place to put them. Now you got all these facilities and you got no acts. Used to have great artists dabbling in drugs. Now you've got drug addicts dabbling in the music.
Why do you think overall that there's not the career artists like there used to be, like your U2s, the Rolling Stones, the Who, bands like that?
What do I know? Because the music sucks. There's an infinite amount of words and lyrics out there. You tell me. One of my favorite sayings when I teach that class at CU, I say that, "Classic rock will be the same in twenty years as it is now," and I believe that. I mean, you've got no Who, no Stones, no Eltons, no Zeppelins. Who's making the classic songs? It's really disgusting. Now that I'm out I'm out. For the first two years, when I got out, I wanted nothing to do with this business. I was disgusted by it.
What was the impetus for that? What were disgusted with?
You just mentioned all of it - the ticket prices, the lack of quality...
Just the way the industry had changed even then?
Yeah, see what you had to do - I got out in '97 - but to be successful... there's a lot of ways to be successful, but my key was that I loved my audience and I did anything to take care of them. In fact, Bono said that at my roast in '92. He says, "Barry loved his audience. He cared more for his audience than he did for us."
Do you ever miss it, Barry?
Are there elements that you miss?
No. I only go to a show now if I'm invited. I mean, Van Morrison invited me a year ago, October. Roger Daltry did a year ago. I don't go... U2 invited me, and then they postponed a year, and they didn't invite me to the last one. I don't know. If they did I didn't find out about it. But no, there's nothing I miss. I mean, you might describe me as - no I don't want to say this, because I'm going to say it at the book signing - but it's just... my time is... this book is great. That's all I ever had... this book is the finish. That's all I had to do, and I wasn't sure I had to that until I actually did it.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.
More MUSIC News
- Shows, Shows, Shows: A Glimpse of Rhinoceropolis Through Flier Art
Fri., May 22, 8 p.m.
Thu., May 21, 8 p.m.
Thu., May 14, 8 p.m.
Sat., May 16, 8 p.m.
- Tom Hagerman Talks About the CSO's New Collaboration with Local Artists
- Every New Denver Concert Announcement