ZZ Top and Me
I am writing up this little vignette after being prodded on Twitter by a couple of the virtual Algonquin Roundtable squad at @ordinarytimemag about the story behind my tweet about an encounter I had with both KISS and ZZ Top. On the heels of a wonderful expository about classic rock recently from @writegrlprobs, I made a comment about an event from my youth. I was challenged to tell the whole story. Before we get started, I need to warn you there is no moral to this story nor is there some literary tie-in with global events or stoic philosophy. None. This is just a story of a Ferris Bueller-like day I had as a rootless young adult during a period of dramatic social and cultural change, otherwise known as the 1970s.
In order for you to follow along at home, I need to set the stage for you. The events of December 10, 1974 took place around my hometown of Moline, Illinois. Moline is one of four closely associated towns collectively identified by the clever moniker of the Quad Cities – quad meaning four, of course. Two towns are on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River and two are in Illinois, easily visible to each other across a wide expanse of water: Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, Moline and Rock Island in Illinois. The towns are primarily connected by a pair of large suspension bridges carrying Interstate 74 traffic. Since town leaders wanted something more exciting than just an I-74 bridge, the spans are also known as the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge (notice which state got top billing) and the Twin Bridges. Locals just call them “the bridge”.
On that fateful day in 1974, I was 18 and ending my first flirtation with higher education. After high school, I had been attending classes at a Lutheran Church-affiliated school in neighboring Rock Island: Augustana College. I was a mere week away from washing out of college with a GPA that would only be envied by John Blutarski from Animal House. One of the more accomplished students I had met in my music program there was a go-getter whose father was a regional music promoter. He pulled me aside in the hallway the first week of December.
“Hey, John, I need some help. Want to blow off class next Tuesday and help out my dad and me?”
“I am always up for blowing off class,” I replied too quickly. I blushed and continued, “it’s not like my grades are going to improve with a Hail Mary study session.”
“Great,” he said. “Here’s the deal. My dad has three bands playing at the Palmer Auditorium across the river in Davenport next week. We need help with staffing the event. I can’t pay you any money, but I can promise you a backstage pass for the ZZ Top show and you can pick your job.”
“I am NOT turning down that deal,” I said enthusiastically. “but what jobs are you looking to fill?”
“Well, you’re not a trained sound board guy and you likely know nothing about stage lighting,” he said as I felt my chances for a free concert slipping away. “But, we need someone to drive the limo for ZZ Top. You got your driver’s license, eh?”
“Of course,” I jumped. “Driving a limo? The only thing cooler than driving a limo would be driving a limo with a rock band in the back!”
“OK, consider it done. They will be coming by motor coach to the hotel, so we will need you at the hotel around noon where you will pick-up the limo and be responsible for chauffeuring the band to their meals, sound checks and anywhere else they need to go until after the show.”
I was in a daze the following days as I anticipated the world’s coolest job for an 18-year-old kid in 1974. As I walked around town that week, I took note of the posters and flyers around town advertising the event. Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard were pictured in their finest Nashville attire. They were promoting their 1973 Tres Hombres album. I didn’t even take note of any of the other scheduled acts.
When the fateful day finally arrived, I needed to get what was then for me an early start. I showered and combed out the hair I had styled after another musical celebrity of the era, John Fogerty, front man for Creedence Clearwater Revival. I also had a fine set of mutton chop sideburns. After a quick grooming check, I pulled on my most worn pair of patched and embroidered jeans and a floral print shirt. I now considered myself ready for my duties.
When I got to the modest hotel, it was a bit of a letdown. The 1972 Lincoln Town Car limo was out front, of course, but the antiquated lobby was just a mess of bags, cases, and luggage. My college buddy found me, tossed me the keys to the Lincoln and introduced me to Mr. Tickle. (Yes, even the names are real). Mr. Tickle was the tour manager and told me to be ready for my driving duties at his direction. He then escorted me to a couch in the lobby to wait …and I waited…and waited. Nearly three hours and I didn’t see anyone but a few roadies and Mr. Tickle among the band’s dunnage.
Finally, loud and boisterous conversation announced the arrival of the band members as three young men blew into the lobby like a Texas dust storm. There was no mistaking them. Billy was just a week away from his 25th birthday and had a close beard that would one day grow to become a national treasure. Dusty had the same facial hair. Frank Beard, the drummer wore longer hair and a dark moustache. They looked just like the posters. Billy and Dusty had on their cowboy hats. Mr. Tickle intercepted them and pointed to me, saying, “Here’s your driver, John.”
I jumped to my feet as Billy strode purposely over, clapped me on the shoulder and said, “Nice to meet you, John. We’re hungry. Let’ go eat.”
“Any place in particular?” I asked, suddenly realizing I didn’t know anything about dining options on this side of the river.
“We’re Texas boys and we’ve been eating hotel food for a week. You got any of that Tex-Mex food here in this area?”
“Well, I know about this nice Mexican family across the river that runs a well-regarded restaurant over there. It’ not too far, but we’ll have to cross the Mississippi River.”
“Well, let’s go!” said Billy as he cuffed my shoulder a second time.
“As the four of us walked out of the lobby, I realized I was alone with the band. “Doesn’t Mr. Tickle or someone need to come along?” I said, hoping I sounded helpful.
“”Aw, hell, he’s got a lot of stuff to do to get ready for the show. You know where to go, right?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“Don’t make me say ‘Let’s go’ another time, then,” smiled Billy.
ZZ Top jumped in the back and I fired up the throaty V8 engine. I had decided to avoid the interstate traffic of the “the bridge” and opted instead for a smaller bridge that would be a more direct and less traveled route. I swung out onto the Arsenal Bridge that crossed the river via a connection to the Rock Island Arsenal, a military facility built on an island in the river at the start of the Civil War. In addition to its ongoing use as an armory, it had also functioned as a POW camp for Confederate soldiers and prisoners in both world wars.
The Arsenal Bridge was an antique rickety iron affair, but the guys said they were happy to see the sweep and size of the river as well as the quick trip to the Mexican restaurant. I let them out at the door and wheeled the monster car into the nearly deserted parking lot. It was a cold day, and we were there long after lunch hour. These guys didn’t wait for their escort and blasted right through the doorway with the same noisy ebullience they had entered the hotel lobby. After a friendly patter with the owner as she was washing up after her lunch crowd, we all ordered tamales, rice, beans, and covered everything with hot sauce.
As we sat talking companionably (I played the tour guide), we noticed the owner’s daughter peering intently over the pass-through from the kitchen. A quick scan of the restaurant also revealed several posters announcing tonight’s performance. The young woman looked intently at her raucous mid-afternoon guests, then turned to stare at the concert poster. You could tell from her facial expression the exact second she made the connection. We heard her cry out as she ducked back into the kitchen, “Oh my God, they are here in my mother’s restaurant!” Then we heard a coin drop into the pay phone on the wall.
Billy smiled at me and laughed. “Well, John, this was a great lunch, but it sounds like it’s time for us to leave. I’ll pay the bill. Do you mind bringing around the car?”
I ran out the door, unlocked the limo, and whipped it in front of the door to the restaurant. I saw Billy wave to the owner and the three band mates slid into the limo. “We have a sound check coming up, anyway,” said Billy. “Can you take us directly to the auditorium?”
“On the way,” I said as I kicked up a thick cloud of dust in the gravel parking lot and headed back to the Arsenal Bridge.
As I rolled up to the entrance ramp to the bridge entrance, I noticed a line of cars with parking brakes engaged. Oh, crap, I forgot about the rush hour when they release the arsenal day shift and bring in the swing shift government workers. The normally somnolent bridge traffic was now blocked as the US Army used a special traffic signal midway down the bridge to stop cross-river traffic as they provided priority egress for their employees. I could no longer back up. We were stuck.
“Why are we waiting here, John? We have to be on the stage in 20 minutes. Can you hurry?” I was flummoxed. I felt like the abject rookie chauffer failure I was. I hadn’t foreseen this eventuality. I felt awful.
“Well, gents, I have an idea,” I said. I am going to get out here, run ahead to stop the Arsenal employees where that traffic signal is located ahead, and bring this lane through to the other side. Anyone want to drive?”
(I probably should have thought through this course of action before impulsively making a decision. The recurring story of my life.)
Billy let out a hoot, tossed his hat in the back, and jumped into the driver’s seat. I ran along the lane of parked cars, jumped up on the traffic signal island, and threw out my arm to stop the departing government employees while I waved to the Davenport-bound traffic with the limo crawling up about a dozen vehicles behind. Angry drivers coming from work were incensed to have some hippie kid stomp on their time-honored privileges of egress and among the many honking horns came a barrage of profanities and calls of outrage. The commotion on the bridge sparked the military police to grab their binoculars. Once I was identified as the problem at the intersection, an Army jeep with lights and sirens was dispatched from the guard shack with two armed soldiers.
My mind was quickly doing the calculus as these interrelated events were happening in real time. I was still holding back the Arsenal traffic while confused cross-river drivers had to be encouraged to continue across the bridge. They knew this was not the usual situation. The limo was slowly creeping its way closer to my position, but it was going to be a near-run thing. Who was going to grab the stupid kid on the traffic signal island first? The military police or ZZ Top in a limo?
Just as the cops rolled up to the crunch of cars stopped at the island. I looked over my shoulder to see the limo right behind me. Dusty opened the rear door and called out to me in a perfect deadpan, “Well, John, I think it’s high time you to stop playing in traffic and get in.” Billy whooped again as he floored the Lincoln and we raced over the remaining bridge into Iowa while the MPs were stuck behind the traffic jam I had caused. I switched back to the driver’s seat once we were safe in a different state and I drove the team to the auditorium for their sound check with five minutes to spare…
Later that night, as I waited backstage for the show to begin, I was startled to see what I thought was a circus or vaudeville act coming up to the stage to start the show. The backup to the backup band (Point Blank) was a brand-new band out of New York City who had only played one other gig with this tour two days earlier in Evansville, Indiana. The band was idling a bit nervously just off-stage waiting for the announcer to finish his introduction. I was standing next to this guy who was dressed like some medieval nightmare with a bass guitar shaped like an axe. He looked over and saw my dumbfounded stare. He smiled, stuck out his hand, and politely said, “Hi, my name is Gene Simmons, and we’re KISS.”
As we watched KISS perform, Billy said, “We will have a couple hours before we go on, let’s go grab a beer.” I followed him to his hotel room where we just sat and talked for about an hour, drinking some Lone Stars. While we spoke of life and music, he opened a case and withdrew a straw cowboy hat. “We give these away as band mementoes. This is yours, but I don’t want you looking like a goat roper, so let me crease it appropriately.”
I still have that hat as a prized possession.
While Billy, Dusty, and Frank churned out La Grange to a roaring crowd of Midwesterners, Mr. Tickle walked up behind me just off stage. He grabbed my shoulder and shouted into my ear over the amps. “Billy told me how you handled that little traffic problem to get them to the sound check. We’d like you to join the road crew.”
I still don’t even remember the actual words I said in return, but I politely declined. Apparently, I felt I had to hang around town to be formally kicked out of college. Talk about your life decisions…