Is That a Microphone in My Pocket?

When rock show banter goes wrong.

David Lee Roth. Click image to expand.
David Lee Roth

We who live in the end times of rock ’n’ roll, blighted as we are by melancholy and déjà vu, are nonetheless afforded certain privileges. A few weeks ago, for example, I was favored with the sight of David Lee Roth, back on the mic in the revamped Van Halen, engulfing 10,000 Bostonians in the magnitude of his cornball charisma. No longer diluted by acrobatics (he is 53), Diamond Dave’s performance now runs on pure personality. He preens; he leers; he does absurd, venomous little high kicks. “Is that a microphone in my pocket,” he enquired of the groupie-stacked front row, “or am I just pleased to see you?” And then, in the middle of “Dance the Night Away,” something interesting happened. A keen-eyed roadie, having spotted a puddle of fluid near Eddie’s effects pedals (did Dave spill his Red Bull?) began tossing black hand towels onto the stage, presumably so someone in the band could mop it up. Dave took a step to the side and directed at the poor man a look of truly atrocious vituperation: “What the fuck are you doing?” he snarled, away from the mic. “Fuck off.” Then he turned back to the crowd and smiled like the sun.

A small incident, but it got me thinking. Might there be a secret history to be gleaned from the informal or off-message utterances of lead singers? The snake-strike suddenness with which Dave had, as it were, reversed the polarity of his enormous charm; the crack in the patter; the abuse of an underling; it was easily the most rock ’n’ roll moment of the whole night. And the realest, too—in Dave’s awful instant of vexation at his roadie was betrayed the strain, after years of disunity and mutual carping, of playing with the Van Halen brothers again and having to look pleased about it. Disaffection, complication: The bantering of rock stars, be it showbiz bluster (“We’re Spinal Tap from the U.K.! You must be the USA!”) or faux intimacy (Bruce Springsteen telling a story about his car), is all about the concealment of such things.

But there are times when you just can’t stop the bones from showing through. All Elvis-heads, for example, remember with sorrow the night of June 21, 1977, when the King, opening a show in Rapid City, S.D., got lost in the spoken word section of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” A ghastly piece of footage: Elvis is six weeks from death, heavy-faced and desolate in his white sunburst jumpsuit. A choir croons behind him, repeating the song’s melodic motif, bearing him aloft on soft pulses of seraphic cheese even as his eyes close and his sweat runs like tears: “You forgot the words, they’d been changed, you fool. … Honey? Who’m I talkin’ to?” Elvis is in deep, deep trouble, dying on his feet. Fumbled jokes, an abortive sense of interior monologue—the colossal solitude of the man seems to thicken the air around him. “And now the stage is bare, and I’m standing there, without any hair. … Huh, huh. … Ah, the heck with it.” As if from a mile away, the audience titters.

Similarly previewing their own end were the Sex Pistols at San Francisco’s Winterland, less than a year later, caterwauling their way through the Stooges’ “No Fun” in what turned out to be their last show. Johnny Rotten—hunch, rodent glare—is at the end of different kind of rope. Three years into the kamikaze fiasco of this band, his exhaustion and disgust have hit epic levels. “No fun, my babe, no fun. … Oh bollocks, why should I carry on?” To his right, the soon-to-be-extinct Sid Vicious is playing his bass like he’s thumbing somebody’s eye. Clonk! Thwonk! “This is no fun,” coughs Rotten. “It is no fun at all. … No fu-un!” The song, and the band, collapse into history. “A-haha! Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night!”

Willingly or unwillingly, Elvis and the Pistols were showing the void to their fans—a taste of the grave. But what happens when the void is reaching up from the front row? As far as onstage banter goes, nothing sorts the men from the boys like genuine offstage mayhem. Altamont may have been a disaster for Mick Jagger, whose effete pleas for order (“Cool out, my babies!”) went unheard, but anyone who’s seen the Maysles Bros. documentary Gimme Shelter knows that it was a shining rhetorical hour for Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner. As his lead singer falls beneath the blows of vigilante bikers, Kantner loses neither his head nor his sense of humor. “Hey man,” he offers into the mic, his voice only slightly constricted by anxiety, “I’d like to mention that the Hells Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit. I’d like to thank you for that.” The Angels, for all their leather, are not impervious to Kantner’s Shakespearean irony. “Is this thing on?” growls a biker brother, seizing a microphone. “You talking to me? I’m gonna talk to you.” Could Jagger have piqued them with a similar mordancy at the crucial moment, things might have gone a little differently that night.

Fugazi of Washington, D.C., had riot containment down to a fine art: You might say it was part of their raison d’être. Anyone stage diving or slam dancing at a Fugazi show risked a brisk philosophical re-education—the music would stop, and through the buzz of idling amps, singer Ian MacKaye would make his displeasure plain. “You wanna kick and punch people?” he can be heard asking on Jem Cohen’s 1999 documentary Instrument. “Then get the fuck up on the football field!” Co-singer Guy Picciotto becomes interested. “Those two?” he asks, before addressing the culprits in a folksy, reflective manner:

“You know, I saw you two guys earlier at the Good Humor truck, and you were eating your ice cream like little boys. And I thought, ‘Those guys aren’t so tough! They’re eating ice cream! What a bunch of swell guys!’ I saw you eating ice cream, pal. Oh, don’t you deny it. You were eating an ice cream cone. You were eating an ice cream cone. Oh, you’re bad now, you’re bad now, but you were eating an ice cream cone, and I saw you.”

It says something for the presence of Fugazi, for their commitment to a complete encounter with their audience, that Picciotto was able to improvise such a beat-perfect oratorical flight. What can have remained of the mosh pit goons after this fantastic denunciation? Two smoking pairs of sneakers?

Then again, a good riot is just what some people think they need. In a bootleg recording made at a 1972 concert in Frankfurt, Germany, dark blue troubadour Leonard Cohen can be heard growing suddenly depressed at his own depression. “I have been noted for my quiet songs,” he murmurs, “and for my melancholy and solemn atmosphere. But I don’t care if this concert turns into a riot. Because, you know, I can’t go along with this, ah, pretence any longer.” The crowd, devoutly hushed, seems somehow unripe for insurrection. Returning with a sigh to his music, Cohen strikes a morose half-chord on his guitar and is further dejected by some supportive applause and a single whoop of recognition. “You couldn’t possibly know what song that is,” he says wearily.