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The Turtles last tour - Part 3 <1 2 3>

Working to Rule -Across the Yellow Union Line

Bethel, Sullivan County New York
Bethel, Sullivan County New York -1997 Woodstock reunion
(p)© Paul Ramesis / 3rd Ear Music 2001

But '69 New York wasn't like that at all. And the Unions ruled. I got off at my underground connection right underneath Madison Square - a journey I was to undertake many times for many great concerts & events through the summer of '69. The Yellow Bird duly arrived from Boston & Dick spun it around backwards through the cursing vegetable vendors & street merchants into the Garden's loading bay. Dick still hadn't joined the Teamsters, but he did his Union thing anyway; locked the Peterbilt's tractor cab, threw me the trailer keys & got lost in downtown New York for the day. I took off my leathers & looked around for the khaki clad Madison help. There were none & our crew was still inside, so I opened the Yellow Bird & proceeded to be a good SAfrican boy & off load the odd loose bits & pieces of equipment onto the tailgate & down into the trolley. Then I started pushing the now cable ladened trolley down the shiny fluorescent lit & cemented runways toward back-stage. It reminded me a lot of the cleaner underground Gold Mine Tunnels - impeccably hollow with the bluish florescent tubes strung along the top of both sides of the hanging wall. Hey what do you think you're doing young Marks? I hear from behind me, as Rick, the main Hanley Sound team roadie comes running up. Don't let them see you do that! Do what? Push that loaded trolley into the Gardens. What do you mean - isn't that our job? Loading & off loading yes, but not across the Rigger Union's yellow line back there. You must be joking! He wasn't. Quickly get the trolley back to the Yellow Bird & wait for the Union men to arrive.

But why wait for the Union men Rick, I asked after about half an hour of getting-to-know-each-other loose chat & a few smokes? That's the way it works in New York. And besides they are on a go-slow strike so they work to rule & by the clock, to the second. It's not past lunchtime yet. We'll just have to wait. In my limited experience of sound & shows at that time, there was no way that we could wait for or take breaks or keep strict conventional working hours. The sound crews were the first to arrive & the last to leave a gig. Concerts & festivals just wouldn't work any other way.

So a sense of frustration was setting in by the time the old Union men did arrive - all clad in uniform khaki attire & grey short or no hair - None of them could have possibly been under 50 or 60 years old. I've never seen any gang of men walk & talk so slow or soft in my life. What I wouldn't have given for a team of CTO learner mine officials & a gang of Shangaan now! We had to off-load the Yellow Bird making sure that we do not step over the yellow union line with one iota of equipment in hand.

At that point we would hand over the gear to 2 or 3 or 4 doddering old union men, who would slowly, oh so very slowly, wander down the shiny mining looking cemented fluorescent lit passage with all this heavy rock equipment while one of their main-men officials stayed behind to make certain that we didn't step over the yellow line. I know you think I'm joking. So what? It's my story & I'm sticking to it - because it really happened. But more was to come - like when we did the Rock 'n Roll Revival Festival in the Felt Forum, Madison Square. But for now, this was my first real union work-to-rule experience; & I was lapping it up, making many notes because I knew nobody back home in Africa, or even up in Boston, would have believed me.

The gear was finally offloaded & we were not permitted to touch a cable or a connector - & nor were the riggers, who had come to take our equipment away from us on the yellow union line. This was the electrical Union's job. Then there was a grey area of where the duty of the Riggers ends & the Stagehands begin. Who was responsible for what, took another pow-wow discussion. When the electrical Union men finally arrived from another part of the Gardens, and the clock was ticking closely toward knock-off time, they were even older & slower than the riggers & the stage-hands. But Bill, ever the New England Boston gentleman, would patiently point & guide the shaking union hand toward the correct connector - no not in that one, in that one. Male into female. The traditional way around. That cable, not there, there we are...that's it.. Little more to the left, as the bi-focals steamed up like a granny squinting one-eyed with a thread & needle up to the light, aiming & hoping for a hit. The cables slowly got laid & plugged in - the crew struggled to keep their hands off the connectors & the union men's throats. It wasn't easy - it was just incredulous - like out of a movie even Andy Warhol couldn't cook up in a drug stew.

Wanting to get our little hands on to move this & that to the right spot, into the amplifier, across the crossover back to the mixer, over to the speakers & so on. What a painful Union operation. Then the clock struck home-time & the changing of the guard. 3 hours to show time & we weren't near to connected yet. Bill sprung into negotiation mode. Remember that the next shift of stage-hands & riggers were now on over-time; so no matter how long it took not to get the job finished, so that it didn't have to get done in time, you could earn a few extra union hours if you just sat back & let the sound crew do their job. It worked - & in an hour the gear was setup & sounding.

There was a little more flexibility up where the lighting consoles were, because the electrical Union's overtime man took one look at the mess of faders & knobs & his eyes glazed over. 6 o'clock being well passed his brandy & bedtime, he fell asleep. We were not so lucky down at the sound desk in the auditorium.

Joe Hill insisted on doing his duty with the faders; no one but a genuine card-carrying Union man could touch the mixer. Joan Baez had spent the best part of her life fighting for the rights of workers in song - so I don't know if she was meant to sound check by singing Joe Hill - that most legendary of all Unionist who died at the hands of the copper bosses. But if the electrical Union man hadn't eventually given up in defeat at trying to get Joan Baez not to sound like Mickey Mouse - he could have died at the hands of Sam the French engineer.

The equipment all rigged & the sound checks done - we still had time to take a break & see the stage get bedecked with flowers & stuff. This had to be done by the Catering Union. Which was OK because we didn't know much about rigging flowers & stage décor. However, there was one last small job that had to be done before show time. The very rough looking wedge monitors that were on the edge of the circular stage were in a state. The paint had all been scrapped off from the rigours of the last wild rock show, with the wood showing.

Bill, who was about to retire for his regular Southern Fried Chicken meal - because that's all he ate, ever - had given me instructions to make sure that the appropriate union man got the monitors cleaned - lightly sanded & then sprayed. The rest of the crew had dispersed and as the junior I was shown where the black tins of spray paint & sandpaper were. I looked around & didn't see any Union men, so I assumed that I'd have to remind them about the painting - because I'd learned the hard way, that if the memory of Joe Hill was to be respected - it was a job I could not do. By now I had calmed down some and a little respect for those old Union people started creeping in; I thought of those poor buggers that I had shared my time with underground for 5 years, earning 35 cents or less a day - almost a dime in American money; digging out the gold that helped make the USA the most powerful nation on earth. They had no Union & no way to bargain.

While waiting for the man to do the monitor speakers I climbed to the back row of Madison Square Gardens. All alone, not a soul or a sound in sight! It truly was a magnificent mass peopled structure. Could this have been how Caesar would have felt, when nobody was looking & he was alone, climbing all the way up to the top of an empty Coliseum? He would have felt far more powerful than if it had been filled - because when it did get filled - with 22 000 people - you felt small, just like one of Them! That would cut anybody - even an emperor - down to size.

I took a few shots on my old 35mm Pentax SL from up there & hiked all the way around the top to find the Union men & negotiate the painting of the monitors, which I couldn't even see from up in the bleachers - but noticed just how ugly & unsightly they would have looked to those in the expensive seats, when I went back down to sit alone in this edifice & wait. Looking around I saw nobody, but I did notice the tin of blackboard spray & the sand paper.

It felt good to be alone in this place before it imploded with people. I could hear the ushers & other obviously unionized people being given what sounded like instructions in the far distance. But there was nobody in the arena or the Gardens itself. Knowing what a pain in the ass sand-papering things were, I went straight for the can of blackboard sprays, and after cautiously looking around again, proceeded to push the trigger - careful not to get spray paint onto the stage, the grey cables or the flowers. One monitor done. That was easy. So I snuck over to the next one & proudly went about doing the same. Suddenly the house lights went on - reminding me of when the compressed air-pipes to the underground drills burst & I was caught in mid song by a dozen miner's headlamps; like the battle of Britain - or those movies when suddenly the spot light hits the hero with - we huv vays & mins to make u spik! What are you doing down there? Bellowed a menacing B grade movie voice from within the shadow of the searchlights. It's getting late & I just thought I'd help you guys get these monitors painted, sir.

About a dozen or so khaki clad unionists descended on me. There's no denying it. I had the can in my hand - and now I'm going to have to carry it. It wasn't such a big deal I thought, really. They would understand - most probably just coming down to take up their posts for the show anyway. No such luck. They were actually coming out on strike, because I had flaunted their rules & antagonized them. That was the words they used. The rest of the sound crew were also coming back to get ready for the show.

What did you do that for Marks? You know the rules! No yes, buts... as the Union men gathered at the front of the stage - about 20 of them from all over the building. No show they said - they know my type - long-haired rebels, out to screw things up for this great country. They'd show us who were in charge. I'm not even from the USA, I pleaded - sorry! They weren't moved. We'd have to wait for Bill Hanley's return & let him sort it out. Some of our crew went looking for Joan Baez's people back-stage; they knew how to deal with the Union thing, in song at least. Anything to get these old men not to pull the plug on the show - because they were really serious. At that same moment, the Union man - from the painters Union I imagine - who had to come all the way from uptown to push the blackboard spray can trigger 2 or 3 times, had also clocked in & got dressed in his uniform. Ready for duty. And he too joined the strike. It was him that I was trying to do out of a job & his rightful over-time.

Bill returned & in his casual way started talking to the leading man; but not before he gave me a stiff lipped, slit eyed glance as if to say, I told you stupid ass-hole; you have no idea what we're up against here. Look he's not from around these places. Please don't say I'm from non-unionized fascist South Africa Bill! He's come all the way from Africa, said Bill.

He doesn't know your rules. Bill - for the sake of negotiations & compromise - may have even thrown in, he's not really one if Us, he's a Them! I don't know, but they eventually relented; provided I could show them proof - that I wasn't a long-haired American Hippie rebel speaking in a fake accent, sent just to upset the system? I'll get my passport I offered, in an unusual bout of quick thinking. Good idea. We'll wait here in the meantime said the artist who had come all the way on the subway to paint the monitors; no show until we see proof. Suddenly I remembered. My vital belongings were in the Peterbilt cab & Dick the non-union Teamster had gone out to get lost in New York for the day. And as I moved along the fluorescent lit gold-mine like cement passages towards the loading bay, I also remembered that Dick distinctly told me how much he disliked Rock 'n Roll. If he was spending the night on New York, would I be held responsible for the cancellation of a sold-out Madison Square Gardens Joan Baez concert.

Unlike the old khaki-clad card waving Union men back in the arena - who didn't know or seem to care where in the world South Africa was, or that I was a white boy working as a non-unionist in the USA - this concert would have been attended by every major politicized radical & media person in New York & every anti-South African hippie who could afford the tickets or find a way in for free. If Dick wasn't there I was busted.

Madison Square Gardens
Madison Square Gardens from the bleachers looking at the ring of Bill's sectoral horns 1969 (p)© David Marks / 3rd Ear Music 2001

Joan Baez ain't Rock 'n Roll; she's sort of Country 'n Opera with a liberal Boston protest edge - Dick's welcome seemed to say. He was standing there outside the Peterbilt cab, match in mouth, and dark glasses in the semi-dusk with his leather jacket slung over his shoulder on the crooked short arm. I grabbed the keys & dived for my passport. What's the hurry shouted Dick - as I dashed back inside; the show must go on! I'm coming in to see the concert myself, he called. See you there I replied, running into the seated picket line, proudly waving the worst possible geographical document known to mankind - a green & gold whites-only South Africa passport.

The Union painter from uptown scrutinized it & passed it around amongst the huff & puff of the other men & he proceeded to complete his task as the gates & doors slowly opened - slightly later than advertised I heard; all on account of my indiscretion.

What a wonderful concert it turned out to be. And when Baez & her adoring audience got lost in We Shall Overcome I glanced around at the 22 000-strong chorus & wondered what the emperors of the world would feel like if they were here tonight & what the Folk movement back at the Troubadour in Johannesburg were missing. But the best song of the evening - that & I sung quietly along with her - was Joe Hill.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you & me
Says I but Joe you're 10 years dead
I never died said he
The Copper Bosses killed you Joe
They killed you Joe Said I
It takes more than guns to kill a man
In truth I did not die

Next Issue - The South Will Rise Again & Chuck Berry Will Not Be Moved. More Fun at the Felt Forum Rock & Roll Revival Shows 1969

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