The Long Goodbye
Barry Fey: genius. The last of the old-time rock promoters. A man with a legendary ear, terrific taste and an unmatched ability to hype a concert into an event. A bit rough around the edges, maybe, but a good-hearted fellow who single-handedly saved Denver's symphony orchestra in 1989 and set aside a percentage of ticket sales from shows staged under his Fey Concerts banner during the past three years for a "Safe Summer" fund intended to decrease violence among young people.
Barry Fey: monster. A greedy, venomous sort whose business dealings are notable for their lack of ethics and utter absence of fairness. A verbal abuser of longstanding whose addiction to food and mania for gambling are just the most obvious of his personal foibles. Mean and dangerous, yet so powerful that many of those who've witnessed his actions or suffered at his hands are too afraid to say anything about what they've seen.
Which of these portraits is accurate? Perhaps both of them, but it's nearly impossible to tell for certain. The former claims are made by city officials and selected Fey intimates, the latter by ex-employees and onetime business associates who, in the main, will speak only under the cloak of anonymity. But there's one thing upon which all parties agree: Fey, 58, has been the most important figure in the Denver music community for thirty years--which is why the August 11 announcement that he has sold his share of Fey Concerts to Universal Concerts Inc., a onetime rival that's been his partner since 1991, is so intriguing. Fey is not disappearing from the scene; he has agreed to serve as an "active consultant" to Universal for the next five years and expects to be intimately involved with the planning of the annual Summer of Stars series, which he calls "a labor of love." Moreover, he notes that Universal has "carved out" the Las Vegas market for him, thereby allowing Fey to promote between twelve and fifteen concerts a year there as Feyline, the name of his original company, which was dismantled by a bankruptcy court in early 1987. But for the first time in well over a generation, he will not be promoting performances in the state that he put on the rock-and-roll map. Vocabulary-challenged pundits will refer to his decision as "the end of an era," and for once they may be right.
As might have been expected, Fey handled the announcement itself with aplomb, hosting a media roundup at the site of the Family Dog, the West Evans club where he began his reign as Denver's rock guru. That the Dog closed ages ago and is currently PT's, a strip bar, appeared not to have bothered him in the slightest. Many observers in the room could not help but see irony in the setting, but Fey is a sentimentalist. To him the room will always be the Dog, where he introduced listeners from the Rocky Mountain West to musical glories about which they had only dreamed.
Fey's Cherry Hills Village home overflows with mementos from the Dog days to the present. Over a sofa in his front room is an Andy Warhol painting of Mick Jagger, and the airy entranceway is lined with oversized works typified by a genuinely tacky rendering of Jimi Hendrix by splatter artist Denny Dent. The walls of the nearby den are hung with vintage posters and guitars autographed by the Eagles, the Who and U2, the most contemporary act represented. A half-filled vinyl jukebox offers a window into the songs Fey adores most: The most recent 45 is Don McLean's "American Pie."
Dressed in a dark T-shirt and shorts held up by a belt, Fey weighs a trim 192 pounds (he once tipped the scales at 320 pounds), and although his hairline has that store-bought look, he otherwise seems younger than his years. His son Tyler, who celebrated his sixth birthday this week, is padding around the house in bare feet, and Fey scoots after him, doling out advice. "Wash your face, Tyler," he says in reference to a red, sugary-looking substance smeared across the boy's face. Later, Fey helps him lace up his shoes in advance of a trip to practice hitting golf balls. After learning that there are no holes on a driving range, Tyler asks, "So what are you supposed to do?"
"You try to hit the ball as far as you can," Fey explains. "They have signs: ten yards, twenty yards, thirty yards. The further it goes, the better you did. That's how you win."
Winning is still important to Barry Fey. These days, he soft-pedals his fiercesome reputation, referring to himself as "a wimp" and noting, "I'm all mouth. I've got nothing to back myself up anymore." Likewise, his preferred conversational volume (while reminiscing, anyhow) is surprisingly low, and he smiles and laughs easily. But every once in a while, a testier Fey can be located beneath the surface. When a photographer takes a little longer than he likes in getting the expression he wants for a shot, Fey asks him, "Would you like to see my irritated look?"
Today, such a phrase would strike fear into many of Fey's colleagues. But if his account of his childhood is accurate, he was not always such an intimidating presence. He was born in New York City; his father wholesaled steel pipe while his mother stayed home and looked after Barry and his sister. Before long, the family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, and Fey describes the years that followed as idyllic. Unfortunately, the good times would not last forever. "When I was eleven years old, the world was my oyster," he says. "I was going into sixth grade, I was going to be president of the class at Nassau School in East Orange, and my baseball team was really great. I played third base and was captain of the team, and we were playing for the city championship when a very significant thing happened. We were ahead 9-0 and there were two outs in the ninth inning, and the other team was batting when the guy hit it to me. And I just held it. Everyone was yelling, 'Throw it! Throw it!' But I didn't throw the ball.
"Now, if the other team had scored ten runs, this would have been a disaster. But the next guy made an out, so everything turned out fine. But when I look back on that, I think what happened was that I had a premonition that things were going to change and I would never be that happy again. I didn't want it to end. But two weeks later, my dad came in and said, 'We're moving.' And things took a turn for the worse."
The Feys settled in Pittsburgh for two years before heading west to Chicago. For Barry, the result was "culture shock." He never felt that he fit in and began to gain weight at a dizzying rate. Then, when he was sixteen, his father died. "It hit just like that," he remembers. "He had bronchial pneumonia and asthma. I came home one night and he was in an oxygen tent, and the next day he died."
There was not much money in the Fey account after Barry's father expired. Hence, his mother, who is 91 and still living in Chicago, had to get a job for the first time in her life (she became an interior decorator), and Barry was forced to forgo college plans in favor of a stint in the Marines. He describes his time in uniform as a relentless hell. "I was seventeen, a useless seventeen--237 pounds, no skills. A real waste of skin. Nice kid, but they took care of that real fast. Of the four drill instructors that were there, three of them went to jail for brutality. One of them was an ex-boxer named Kowalski, and he would have me stand at attention and say, 'How's the drill instructor's left hand today?' And he would hit me in the stomach and say, 'Sir, Private Fey thinks the drill instructor's left hand is fine today.' And then it would be right, left, right, until I would collapse. One day he said to me, 'Your dad must have been a dumb son of a bitch to raise a pig like you.' And I just started crying."
After two years in the Corps, Fey got out and never looked back. But he recognizes that the military did him some good. "It had a tremendous effect on me. It's made me very successful, because I realized I had nowhere to go but up. Ain't nothing scared me since."
At nineteen, Fey won a scholarship to the business school at the University of Pennsylvania, where one of his roommates was talk-show host Maury Povitch. ("When he got big a few years ago I put in a call to him, but he never called me back," Fey reveals. "So I said, 'Fuck you,' and that was the end of it.") After a little over two years, though, he dropped out, winding up with a job working at a Robert Hall store in Chicago. Within a couple of weeks, he had been promoted to assistant manager at an outlet in Rockford, Illinois, and on a lark decided to put on a show there featuring Baby Huey and the Babysitters, a cover band that played a club near his mother's house called Thumb's Up. Says Fey: "It was Easter Sunday 1965, and my share was $92. And my reaction was, 'Wow, how long has this been going on?' I quit my job the next week."
A Rockford date Fey put together featuring the Byrds was considerably more profitable. But just as he was getting ready to branch out, he was stricken by a mysterious inner-ear disorder that laid him low for five months, until October 1965. He spent much of the time between then and the following summer "bumming," but that changed in July, when he and his future wife, Cindy--with whom he had three children, now in their twenties--were approached at a Chicago nightspot by two University of Denver students who had learned of his promoting efforts in Rockford. They asked him to find a band for a frat bash the next October, and Fey delivered, lining up the Association for gigs at DU, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Montana. Because the act's biggest single, "Cherish," broke in advance of the shows, he wound up with three highly profitable sellouts. However, collecting the cash proved more difficult than he had anticipated.
"I remember when it came time to settle up, there was $2,100 missing," he notes. "So the housemother called a meeting and I set everybody down and said, 'I'm not going to put you motherfuckers in jail. I'll just have some construction workers come and build bars around your house if I don't get my money.'" In a sense, he was blowing smoke: "I could have sued them, but I didn't have any laywers back then. But by the way I talked to them, I made them think, 'Either this guy can do what he says or he's crazy. Either way, we better do what he says.' And I got most of my money."
By April 1967, Fey was looking for other worlds to conquer. He read an advertisement in Billboard magazine placed by Family Dog Productions in San Francisco soliciting tapes. Because he and Cindy had not enjoyed a proper honeymoon yet, they decided to travel to the Bay Area and pitch a cassette by a Denver band, the Eighth Penny Matter, while they were there. Fey was granted an audience with Chet Helms, the head of the Family Dog, and also met Bob Cohen, Helms's right-hand man--and while the pair didn't flip over the recording, they connected with the cocky kid from Colorado. Upon his return to Denver, Fey learned that the Byrd, a teen club, had closed and that the owner was looking for someone to take over the venue. He decided that it would be the perfect spot for a Family Dog spinoff and called Cohen to tell him so. Cohen promptly flew to Denver, and within a matter of weeks, Fey was the owner of a very trendy franchise. Successes with bands like the Doors followed, and after the establishment of his production company, Feyline (originally a misspelling of "Feline," Fey says), he started challenging promoters like the folks at KIMN-AM for live-music supremacy.
"I was in the right place at the right time," he says. "Because KIMN and the rest of the guys in town then were doing the wrong music. They were bringing in people like Sonny and Cher. But Sonny and Cher weren't ever going to beat the Grateful Dead."
It was a tumultuous era for popular music, and Fey was right in the middle of it. He was involved with the 1969 Denver Pop Festival that ended in a cloud of police tear gas, and he was behind a chaotic 1971 Jethro Tull date that inspired the city to ban rock concerts at Red Rocks for a couple of years. "I sued the city to bring America there for the Fourth of July and won," he boasts. "I'm six wins, no losses and a tie in lawsuits with the city."
His combativeness didn't stop at the courthouse door. During the Seventies it was not uncommon for Fey to become embroiled in physical confrontations. "I used to get into fights all the time. I didn't go looking for trouble, but if I was attacked, I'd fight back. Like the time I hit the lead singer of Sha Na Na. It was 1973 at the Denver Coliseum with Steely Dan, Chuck Berry and Sha Na Na, and Chuck Berry walks in and says, 'I'm going to play now.' And since he gets his money up front and will walk if he doesn't like something, we started tearing down Sha Na Na's stage setup. It was an ugly scene, and the singer starts yelling, 'Bill Graham would never pull this shit.' I said, 'So go play for fucking Bill Graham.' He took a swing at me, and I hit him. Hard."
As Fey admits, he hurled everything from the most profane invective to random items from his desk at anyone and everyone who crossed him. "I remember talking to this one guy once, and I said, 'Bill, I'm going to be on the next plane to New York. Why don't you go get a cop, because when I get there, I'm going to throw you out the fucking window.' I'd tell people that I'd tear their eyes out, throw them in the garbage can, stomp on them. I was nuts."
His peers agreed. "In 1974, which was a down time for the industry, I remember [former employee] Chuck Morris coming into my office and telling me, 'Barry, you're in the finals.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' And he says, 'The guys in the business had a vote, and you're in the finals of the top five craziest guys in the music business.' I said, 'Who's in it?' And he told me about this one guy who was a madman--God, he probably slept with his Irish setter--and this other manager who'd done acid every day for years. I said, 'This can't be.' But a month later Chuck comes to me and says, 'You won!' And I said, 'Chuck, how could I be crazier than these guys?' And he says, 'Because everyone else had drugs to blame. But you were the only one who was crazy and straight.'"
As Fey tells it, he steered clear of narcotics in part because he attended Jimi Hendrix's funeral and "saw what damage they could do." This opinion was confirmed in his mind by the demise of Tommy Bolin, a Denver-based guitarist whom Fey managed twice--once in 1969 as a member of the band Zephyr and in the years immediately preceding Bolin's death in Miami on December 4, 1976, from a combination of heroin, cocaine, Valium and alcohol. "I was so naive about his problem," Fey claims. "I was hearing stories, but I couldn't tell." Because Feyline was the beneficiary of an insurance policy on Bolin's life, Fey haters have accused him of everything from enabling Bolin's drug dependency to actual culpability in his death. More than twenty years later, such talk still incenses Fey. If anyone had vocalized this theory to him in person, he says, "I would have beaten him within an inch of his fucking life."
The Bolin allegation is hardly the only nasty rumor about Fey. His detractors, and they are legion, accuse him of myriad bad behavior--some of it criminal, some of it legal but decidedly unsavory. Below is a partial list of charges made against Fey by former employees and other sources, all of whom decline to be named in print, along with Fey's retorts:
*Fey lost several hundred thousand dollars he didn't have gambling in the early Nineties. Universal, then known as MCA, had to bail him out. The alliance between the two companies soured immediately thereafter.
Fey's response: "Ridiculous. Ridiculous. MCA never bailed me out of anything."
*Fey sent two flunkies to Las Vegas with a suitcase brimming with cash in order to place a bet on an Orange Bowl game. He lost.
Fey's response: "I've never sent anyone to Las Vegas with a suitcase filled with money. I do gamble too much, but I'm a real good gambler. I don't do casino games. I gamble on horses, and at the end of the year I bet on bowl games like the Super Bowl. And I'm very rarely wrong. But the most I think I've ever lost on a game is $10,000. I don't have the balls to bet more than that."
*In December 1992 Fey scalped 2,000 tickets earmarked for a Grateful Dead show. Representatives of the band found out about it, but because of their long relationship with Fey, they ultimately chose to overlook the matter.
Fey's response: "Absolutely not. Besides, I don't have to skim tickets. It's my show. All I have to do is take them."
*The MGM-Grand Casino in Las Vegas caught Fey on videotape taking tickets from the box office prior to a Rolling Stones concert in 1995 and then calling a well-known scalper in Los Angeles, where the tickets were ultimately traced. Again, MCA covered up for Fey.
Fey's response: "There were some problems at those shows, but they had nothing to do with me."
*At a 1994 Pink Floyd show, Nate Feld, who had worked with Feyline and Fey Concerts on and off since 1968, was running the T-shirt concession when he discovered that Fey's son Geoffrey had stolen approximately $2,000 from the proceeds. For this sin, Feld fired Geoffrey--and when Fey found out about it, he sacked Feld. Shortly thereafter, Feld filed a lawsuit against Fey that was ultimately settled in Feld's favor. (Feld, who now runs an area liquor store, confirms that he sued Fey and won, but he declines to comment further, citing an agreement not to discuss the case that was part of the settlement.)
Fey's response: "I can't talk about the settlement, but I can tell you that it didn't have anything to do with Geoffrey. During intermission, Nate went on the P.A. and started hawking the T-shirts, and Pink Floyd was livid about it. So when I found out about it, I got Nate on the phone and said, 'What the fuck was on your mind?' And I ended up firing him. He then in turn sued for age discrimination. MCA decided they didn't want to fight it, so they made a settlement with him."
*At an Olympics-themed event in 1996, Fey arrived at a backstage area without the proper passes. Security personnel on hand did not recognize him and refused to grant him access, so he walked to his car, grabbed an automatic weapon and brandished it at the security guards. Fey's own people had to restrain and disarm him.
Fey's response: "Nonsense. I don't even have an automatic weapon. And I've never pulled a weapon on anyone in my life."
*Fey regularly carried a loaded pistol into his office with him. Given his proclivity to throw violent tantrums, the presence of the gun terrified his employees. The situation wasn't resolved until MCA ordered him not to bring the weapon to work with him anymore.
Fey's response: "That's almost true. I've had a permit since about 1971, and then when Alan Berg got killed, I was told basically that it would be a good idea as a high-profile Jewish member of the community to carry it with me. But MCA's risk-management department had a policy against weapons, so I stopped carrying it. They wrote me a little letter, and that was that. But I don't think anyone in the office was ever scared of it."
That may be, but Fey certainly frightens plenty of people not employed by him. The only Fey critic contacted for this story who would allow his name to be used was Rob Marshall, the head of Road Home Productions, the most prominent promoter of Christian musical events in the area. He once worked regularly with Fey and says, "Doing dates with Barry and Chuck Morris basically exposed me to the mainstream, through B.J. Thomas and Amy Grant and Stryper. But I was also exposed to their way of doing things. And my eyes were opened when I saw how Fey abused his employees--really good employees who he subjected to verbal abusing and unbelievable screaming and yelling. So many of his people have quit over the years because they just couldn't take it anymore. And I understand why. I took my children to his office with me one day, and he really frightened them. When the building began to shake, they jumped from the reception area into the elevator. I guess they were very sheltered children; they had never seen an adult act that way. But most people haven't."
For Marshall, who refers to Fey as "the anti-Christ," the last straw was a Michael W. Smith concert approximately four years ago for which he had agreed to serve as a consultant. "But Fey reneged on the deal--a signed deal. And that was it," he says. "Everyone in the industry encouraged me to sue him, but I didn't. I just walked away, because I hadn't lost any money. But so many of his partners aren't that lucky. Barry Fey doesn't share the pie like a regular partner should. His profit centers and streams of revenue are extraordinary, and they're not shared with the venues, the artists or the partners the way they should be. And at a certain point, that just can't be ignored. He's the most self-centered, out-of-control, egotistical person on the planet."
When told about Marshall's comments, Fey denies treating him unfairly and seems unconcerned about the other characterizations. "I always thought Rob Marshall liked me," he says with affected surprise before dismissing him as "an absolute flake." But he concedes that he was not always so magnanimous when he heard such criticism.
"In the old days I used to be so sensitive," he says. "I would hear that a conversation took place about me in a bar, and I'd call up the owner and say, 'Who were these guys? Do you know them?' I mean, if you're going to call me an asshole, give me a chance to prove it."
For those who don't need Fey to prove anything along these lines, the financial difficulties that struck him during the Eighties seemed like appropriate retribution. His first hit came in conjunction with 1982's Jamaica World Music Festival. "That was disastrous," Fey says. "We built the Bob Marley Performing Arts Center there, and the Dead came, and the Beach Boys, Gladys Knight and a lot of reggae acts. But people couldn't get there. It was Thanksgiving weekend, so there were no flights. Plus, the tickets were too expensive. The ministers we were dealing with said, 'That's fine, that's good,' because they could afford it, but the regular people couldn't. We lost about $900,000. But it was a great show--and the jerk chicken was so good. I tried to smuggle it out three times, but they caught me every time."
More greenbacks were lost in an ill-fated attempt to take Feyline public, an effort that fell apart in July 1985, costing Fey, by his estimate, another $800,000. After the failure of a second stock scheme, Feyline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 1986. Fey swears that he had a plan to "pay back everybody 100 cents on the dollar" but that it was sabotaged by "this one asshole on the creditors committee. And by February of '87, we'd had enough. We said okay, fine, forget it, and converted to Chapter 7." After this designation was granted, Feyline was no more, but Fey was not done yet. He formed Fey Concerts and continued as before--at least until 1988, when MCA came to town.
MCA and Fey Concerts did not immediately go to war. Fey was not thrilled when MCA, led at the time by onetime Eagles manager Irving Azoff, barged onto his turf and built Fiddler's Green as an alternative to Red Rocks, but he did business with the company anyhow and divulges that "we made really good money with them for two years. But then Irving left and someone at MCA said, 'We don't need Fey. Fuck him. It's our market now.' And it was a bloody war for two years. We didn't make hardly anything, and they didn't either. After a while, everyone was telling me, 'Barry, you need to make a deal and end this.' And finally, [MCA head] Mark Bension came to me and said, 'I cannot afford any more Di-Gel. You make me sick to my stomach.' So we signed a deal."
The pact, inked in September 1991, made Fey Concerts and MCA halves of the same whole and included a clause that allowed either firm to buy out the other at the end of five years. Fey describes it as a good marriage until the departure of Bension and his replacement by Fred Ordower, an executive no longer with Universal whom he blames for "fucking me out of $700,000" by refusing to honor an accord Fey made with Bension. He still has not forgiven him for this alleged sin. "I went through recovery for my compulsive behavior--the rage and stuff like that," he says. "And at this one meeting, Ordower came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'I'm glad to see you here.' And I said, 'Fred, the main beneficiary of my change in life besides me is you. Because not very long ago, if you would have put your hand on my shoulder like that, I would have torn your fucking eyes out. Now get the fuck away from me.'"
Once Ordower departed from MCA, Fey says that he and Jay Marciano, the current president of Universal, got along fine; at the August 11 press conference, in fact, Marciano proposed that the City of Denver build a statue of Fey at Red Rocks to honor him for his contributions to Colorado. Speculation is rife that Universal wanted to sever its relationship with Fey because he was a loose cannon, but Marciano disputes that. "Is Barry Fey a loose cannon?" he asks. "Of course he is. And that's one of the things we like about him. He was in the business 25 years before he became our partner, so obviously we knew a lot about him, but there was nothing in his history that made us unwilling to go into business with him, and nothing has happened since then to make us regret it. His colorful nature was one of the things we enjoyed. He is the undisputed heavyweight champion of rock-concert promotions. We in no way forced him out."
Marciano scoffs at the suggestion that MCA ever settled Fey's gambling debts or covered up ticket skimming or scalping by him, and he says he's looking forward to Fey's involvement in future "special projects." He sees Universal expanding its activities in the Denver market as a result of the acquisition of Fey's stake in the company--perhaps purchasing a "small venue room, becoming more active at the Paramount Theatre and broadening our programming to include theatrical and fine-arts productions." After a transitional period, the Fey Concerts moniker will likely disappear, and some longtime Fey staffers may as well. As Marciano puts it, "We plan to announce a management succession team in the next sixty to ninety days, and the new look of the company will likely include a mix of familiar faces along with some new ones."
Neither Marciano nor Fey will discuss the price Universal paid for Fey Concerts. "I'm a little embarrassed that I got so little, and Jay's a little embarrassed that he had to pay so much," Fey says. "But what it comes down to is that it's just the right time. I don't have that fire. I'm a good warrior, and I can turn it on when I need to. But I'm tired."
The music doesn't do it for Barry Fey anymore. He still enjoys hearing his old buddies in the Who, the Stones and U2, but he cannot think of a single act that emerged in the Nineties that really got him jazzed. So he plans to stick to the classics. "I can still promote the shows that I want to do in Las Vegas, because those are based on my relationships. But those relationships are dying. And when they're gone, I'm gone. Neil Diamond, Buffett, the Stones: They're all still doing great. But how long are they going to go? Not forever. And I don't see anyone coming along who cares as much as they do. No one wants to be stars. So there's no one to fill that void."
Over the years, Fey has tried to fill his own void--"that big, black hole in me," he calls it--with food, but lately he's been trying to moderate his impulses. In October 1994, Chuck Morris, Fey's wife Lisa (Tyler's mother) and Aerosmith associate Bob Timmons, among others, staged an intervention intended to get Fey to stop gorging himself so recklessly. To this day, Fey regularly attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings, and while he feels that he's made progress, he calls the desire to eat to excess "the hardest addiction. You go tell an alcoholic that he has to have three drinks a day and that's it, and he'll look at you like you're mad. But they tell us we have to have three meals a day. It's control, and that's what's so tough. Control is much harder than abstinence."
Fortunately, Fey has something else occupying his mind these days besides prime rib. He's begun gathering material for a book he intends to write about his life and times. "They give me this fucking little tape recorder to talk into," he says. "I don't like it, but I use it. No one's going to want to read about Barry Fey, but they're interested in the business, and that's what I'm going to tell about. I'm not going to beat around the bush. I told Universal, 'Once the book's out, I won't be much good to you.' Because I'm planning on telling the truth. And if the truth burns bridges, so be it."
At this point, Fey has not settled on a format for his tome. "There'll be two or three chapters that'll be called, like, 'Pricks,'" he allows. "But it's not all going to be bad. There'll be funny things and stuff about all the good times. And there have been a lot of those. I've been so lucky.
"I take pride in the fact that I made it. Because it's so hard to make it. It is a tough fucking business, and there are so many jerks. But a lot of them are gone now. They're fucking nothing." He smiles before declaring, "I've outlasted all the assholes.
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