THE MUCOUS MAN
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.
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."
Riefman quickly developed a routine to get performers out from under the Colorado weather. "You must immediately start drinking two to three quarts of water to stay hydrated," he says. "Have a vaporizer going even if you're not sick. I will give you certain medications to thin the mucus, sprays with glycerin and aloe vera, and certain lozenges. It all depends. I have only failed to get a performer out on stage twice in fifteen years."
"I don't even remember the first time I saw him, with that little black bag," says Denver-based band manager Mark Bliesener. "It must have been back when I was working for [concert promoter Barry] Fey. I find it refreshing that Buzz does it for the love of music, not for the glamour of hanging out backstage, which, as you may know, is entirely nonexistent."
Though not without its allure. "Buzz gets a thrill out of the most menial stuff," Bliesener says. "He told me some story about filling up Stevie Nicks's water bottle, which was shaped like a little lamb and even had that plush, stuffed-animal covering. Even that made him happy. And he does provide a real service--not just for the musicians but for the crew. I mean, the music business is not exactly known for its health benefits."
"He's very, very reasonable," agrees actress Deborah Persoff, who has paid Riefman for house calls and midnight consultations, but who, while working at the Country Dinner Playhouse, has received more than her share of free treatments. "Buzz loves the performing arts," she says. "Even when you have to crawl on stage, he will be there to make sure you can do it. I do whatever he says, even if he tells me I may only answer the phone once a day, which, for a talker like me, is quite a sacrifice."
"As far as I know, he doesn't charge any of us," says Country Dinner actor Paul Dwyer. "And it's not just singers. He takes care of the techs and the busboys. Sometimes I feel sorry for him, because I'll call him to come see me for a sore throat, which should take ten minutes, but he ends up being here for two and a half hours, because whenever anyone around here sees him, they want him to look down their throat. And this can be at one in the morning."
"I'm cheap," Riefman agrees, "but so what. Being Doctor Buzz is not how I make my living--and anyway, I feel responsible for those Country Dinner Playhouse kids."
Riefman's own kid Andy, a high school senior who's spent countless hours backstage with his father, has settled on country/western as his music of choice. But he still sometimes takes in a heavy-metal show or musical. "I do it for the atmosphere I grew up in," he says. "I like it backstage, and I've been there so much that certain performers know me--Jason from Metallica, and most of the Temptations. You never know what kind of musician my father might know, and know real well."
"He has this affection for pro wrestlers, did you know this?" asks Channel 4 sportscaster Les Shapiro. "He gets newsletters from these underground wrestling freaks. He works on all these guys for free--when they come to town, he sits ringside. Sometimes I'll throw something on the air about wrestling, just because I know Buzz will call and say, `Thanks for covering real sports for a change.'"
Shapiro himself has been seeing Riefman for more than a decade. "We have a nice little strategy for fighting off the allergy symptoms," he says. "I get postnasal drip that makes my throat raw. When I'm doing play-by-play, I can't afford that."
"You build up a bond with these people," Riefman says. "Some of them call me just to talk. M.C. Hammer--I guess we're supposed to call him just plain `Hammer'--anyway, he's a very nice man, a very good friend. The band Tesla--I spent a long time discussing vitamins with them just the other day." Bonnie Raitt--well, it's confidential what they talk about, but you can bet it's mucus-related.
Right now, Riefman is "popping off a note" to the Temptations' management. Again, it's confidential--just one of the many courtesies Riefman affords the many stars in his private firmament. "These people have a right to their privacy," he says. "I almost never take anyone to shows with me because of that. They need to understand how to go with the flow, and very few people do. The most charming person can become obnoxious in the presence of a star.