Backstage at Gunpoint
On September 14, 1985, I was sitting on the front steps of my fraternity house at TCU in Ft. Worth looking a little ragged. It was a typical early Saturday afternoon for me. They called me “Rick at the House” (okay, so mostly Hooky, Jack, and Rusty called me that) because I could mostly be found right there at the house - on the front porch - and usually holding a Lone Star (although we had to hide them in cups most of the time). Rick was short for Eric (seriously, why waste an entire syllable). I’d watch everyone come and go and most days someone would be there with me until something better came up - maybe a barbecue, a game of pool at the Hi-Hat, or the jukebox at the Oui Lounge. There was so much more time to waste in college than there is now. We had the blessing of no Internet and no cell phones.
On this day, my buddy Tommy was sitting with me and it was our lucky day. Tommy couldn’t have been more different than me. He was a big tough muscle-builder kind of guy who didn’t like college much and didn’t study much. He was from the mid-west and had the personality of a Chicago mob boss’ right hand man - but also a total teddy bear. Tommy’s greatest asset was that no one would dare touch him - or even make eye contact with him for fear of getting their head smashed. He loved cars, girls, weightlifting, and beer. I loved pickup trucks, guns, hunting, music, and beer. With beer being the only thing we had in common, what could possibly go wrong?
An old beat up white Chevy pickup pulled up in front of us (which was a bit odd on the TCU campus normally filled with BMWs and Audis). The driver, who I recall looking a bit hung over, with long messed up dark hair and dark eyes and maybe five or ten years older than us, leaned over to his broken and duct-taped passenger side window and yelled, “Hey, you guys want to come work the Springsteen concert tonight at the Cotton Bowl?” It took us each about a half-second to not even look at each other and respond in unison, “Yes!”. He replied, “Then hop in the back.” We tossed our beers down and jumped in the bed of the truck and headed to Dallas. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like the wisest move we could have made that day, but I suppose we didn’t yet realize that we weren’t indestructible and that there were consequences to our actions - two of the biggest apparent benefits of being 21. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of my passion for spur of the moment adventures.
The drive on IH-30 from Ft. Worth to Dallas was only 30 minutes, but it seemed more like hours. My mind raced with questions like, “What have I done?”, “What if this guy is kidnapping us and going to murder us?”, “Will I get to meet Springsteen?”, “Will I ever finish college?”, “Will anyone believe me when this is over?”. I have no idea what Tommy was thinking. It was probably something related to what type of engine the pickup had.
We were dumped out at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas where another few hundred people were standing around, who were all there to work too. The concert was being produced by Pace Concerts and we were all told we would make $70 cash for the day and that we might or might not get assigned to a location where we could see the concert. I was getting a little worried that this was all about to really suck and that we would be selling hotdogs. It sort of reminded me of getting picked for teams in elementary school and being the last one picked because I sucked so bad at sports. But this time was different. Tommy and I were both over six feet tall and I guess since we were confident (or stupid) enough to hop in the back of a truck with a stranger, we were picked immediately to work security.
They took us first to the front gates. Our supervisor had a large flashlight, the type bouncers used to carry that held four size-D batteries and weighed five pounds. During our few minutes of training, we quickly learned that it wasn’t used for light. He taught us how to beat the crap out of people. As the crowds were pouring in and rushing the gates, they weren’t allowed to bring in any alcohol or weapons. It was our job to search people and remove these items. If you knew me at all, you’d have known I was terrified. I’m not a fighter. I just knew we were either going to go to jail or be killed - it was mayhem - but at the same time - total adventure and rock and roll - especially since I had Tommy with me. Since the supervisor didn’t have extra flashlights, he told us to just rear back and kick people in the chest if they start pushing - then showed us how it was done. Tommy was great at it. I couldn’t do it. I wanted people to like me. But the two of us as a team nailed it. I just politely piled everything into large metal trash cans. We collected about four trashcans full of things in less than an hour like Jack Daniels half-pints and harmless pocket knives, and maybe a few switch blades. No telling who took it all home. It showed how much people loved Bruce - enough to toss their knife in a freakin’ trash can!
We must have done really well because the head of security drove up to us in a little golf-cart and grabbed us to “promote” us to another location. It was one of the back stage gates - a large one for vehicle traffic. It seemed boring at first - no one around. He looked us in the eyes and made it all too clear that no one, no one was to come through this gate without this one specific credential that he showed us. We felt that if we failed, he would kill us with his bare hands. Piece of cake. I love following rules and it was a really simple rule. As anyone walked or drove up, we easily turned them away knowing Tommy had this new-found skill of kicking people in the chest when needed. We were also feeling pretty powerful since they gave us a radio in case we ran into any trouble - and that we did.
A middle-aged man dressed like someone’s dad in a pair of slacks and a white polyester dress shirt was walking toward us with his arm around a beautiful blond in heels and a dress. They seemed kind enough with smiles on their faces as they approached. Of course we asked for the special credential to get through. He claimed to be a cop. We weren’t having any of that. Our job was clear. The rule was simple. No credential, no entry. He calmly lifted his right pants leg and showed us a .38 strapped to his ankle and said it was the only credential he needed. We were stupid college kids, but our brains started working a little better now. We knew not to kick him in the chest. While Tommy was distracting him with questions about why he needed backstage, I radioed for help. Within what seemed like seconds, the head of security skidded up in his golf cart, jumping out of it and running toward us even before it stopped rolling. He went straight to the man with the gun on his ankle and grabbed him by the collar and started screaming in his face. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but there were at least a dozen F-bombs mixed in with several insults and a stern command to leave the premises immediately. I’m pretty sure I had pooped my pants by this time. But the dude left in total shame and no one got shot. We were congratulated on doing a great job and they told us to take a 30 minute break to go watch some of the concert.
It was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. Tour. We got to stand over to the left side of the stage, but out front with a full view of everything. It was powerful. So far, it was one of the best days of my life. I can’t remember what song it was. Maybe Born to Run. I loved every aspect of the whole experience. The lights, the giant stage, giant speakers, tens of thousands of people going wild. Bruce was a hero. Solid fun loving blue collar middle class baller you could always look up to - singing stories we could all relate to. I also always had a passion for sax (even though all I ever learned was Mary Had a Little Lamb in 5th grade), and seeing Clarence Clemons throw down rock sax on that giant stage was incredible. Bruce was giving his regards to all of the soldiers and vets in the audience and a guy in front of the stage unscrewed his artificial leg and threw it up to Springsteen who caught it and then used it like an air guitar all the way through the first chorus. The whole stadium roared. It was madly addictive, that roar - and to be part of it.
But it was quickly back to work for us. They put us on another back-stage vehicle gate - a different one this time. The concert was ending and this time they wanted us to only allow one car to leave - period. A new rule - but still very clear and simple. They said the main entourage of limos and trucks and police will be leaving from the main gate, but that one little station wagon will be coming through our gate. No one else could come or go. Simple enough. And then like clockwork, the main entourage begins to drive out and the crowds tried to get close to the vehicles to wave at or see Bruce on his way out. But over at our gate, all dark and lonely with no one around, a small station wagon pulls up just like we were told, so we swung open the gate for it. It all happened so fast. I’m just way too slow - my brain tends to run deep instead of fast - over-analyzing how and why things are the way they are. As the station wagon drove by us, with our delayed reactions and ready for the night to be over, I could almost see Bruce laugh at us from the passenger seat realizing we had no clue what just happened.
I have no idea how we got home that night - or even if we did. I lost touch with Tommy after that year and haven’t seen him since. But that day cemented in me a life-long desire to be behind the scenes. Behind every concert, play, movie, or any production there is a whole other world going on. Some people want to be out front - to have the spotlight. Some people get the spotlight whether they want it or not. Some of us just want to help make the wheels keep turning. But any way I slice it, I aspire to Bruce’s level of humility and humanity - as long as there is a risky adventure up ahead - not to mention someone like Tommy to kick the enemy in the chest for me.