Houstonian Karl Kuenning is a roadie for life. No, he may not run sound anymore, or go days on end without a shower, or grope groupies, or catch a few hours' uneasy rest in a smelly bunk on a crowded bus, but he's done all that, and for the likes of Patti Smith, Ray Charles, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many, many more, including a long stint with Jean-Luc Ponty. Neither does he still fuel himself for long stretches with little more than fast food, Tennessee whiskey and Colombian marching powder, but he's done all that, too.
Today, he still clocks a lot of miles, but now he's selling financial services -- not the rock and roll variety -- and the clean-cut, sandy-haired 48-year-old looks less like your typical tattooed, longhaired road dog than he does the loan officer at your bank. But beneath that staid exterior lurks a rocker's heart, one he has put fully on display on his Web site, www.roadie.net, and in his memoir, Roadie, which, though full of spelling errors and sloppy editing, is ultimately a wise, hilarious, lurid, scary and at times sad chronicle of a few years on the road with various bands both famous and obscure in the mid- and late '70s.
Kuenning begins Roadie with the series of accidents that eased him degreeless out of college and onto the road, capped with a story about being backstage at a Blue Öyster Cult show in 1975, where he saw a roadie perform an act of heroism. A fan had climbed onto one of BOC's flashpots -- a huge white-hot flash-bulb-type apparatus -- just before it was set to go off. In the blink of an eye, the roadie had realized that the flashpot was about to fire, dropped his beer, sprinted over and executed a flying tackle that saved the girl from having her face burned off.
Kuenning was already hooked on the adrenaline of being backstage, so this was just gravy. As he saw it, the job combined the traits of firefighter, soldier, policeman and rock star. "If there was even a microscopic particle of doubt that I was going to be a roadie," he wrote in his book, "this event erased it."
Virtually all of the action in the next 200-odd pages of the book can be explained by one or more of Karl's Roadie Rules, a list of 15 hard-won nuggets of wisdom included in the appendix and scattered through the pages. I sat down with Kuenning and got him to elaborate on a couple of them.
Rule No. 1: Never under any circumstances take your spouse or significant other on the road with you for more than 24 hours. "Nothing good can come of that," Kuenning says. "I'd been on the road for almost four years and then I got married. My wife wanted to come on the road with me, and she thought she could handle it. So I got her a job selling T-shirts, and she hated it. She hated that she couldn't get a shower every morning, that you didn't have a guaranteed bed every night, the constant extenuating circumstances She just hated it. It ended up costing me my career." (The whole story's in the book.)
"There's a vibe that happens on the road with the band and crew that you don't understand unless you've been part of it. Throw an extraneous person in that mix and you screw it all up. All of a sudden the routines, vibes and relationships that have been happening have all been thrown into turmoil. Now instead of actively being a part of this collective, you've got this spouse you've got to be attentive to, and it's distracting. And you can't be distracted. It's a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week deal -- you're always either getting to the gig or doing the gig. Everything else is secondary -- you eat, shower and sleep when you can. That doesn't mix well with any kind of significant relationship. And yes, the other obvious thing is true, too: If you want to whore around on the road, it's completely impossible if your spouse is there with you."
Rule No. 3: Never turn your back on anything of value on the road. "I don't care how classy the band is, there are gonna be people backstage who are not trustworthy. It doesn't matter if you're at a small club or the Toyota Center; you don't set something down without it being under lock and key or guarded by someone you trust." Kuenning learned this the hard way at a show in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where at the end of the gig he was faced with a dilemma. Thanks to some kookiness from the show's promoter, the band had been paid $5,000 in small bills, which Kuenning had stashed in a briefcase. Once the show ended, it was his job to go grab the band's mikes, and that task would require that he set the cash aside. Instead of hiding it, he handed it to a security guard he had just met, dashed over to the mikes, collected them in a few minutes, and then found that the security guard had vanished into the night with the whole take.
Rule No. 4: When confronted with an insurmountable situation, improvise. This dictum is illustrated over and over in the book. "Most successful roadies have to be like MacGyver," Kuenning says. "They can take a few rubber bands, some gaffer's tape and a couple of coins, and they can fix anything." You might even have to fix something that isn't broken, as Kuenning once had to do for an eccentric member of the Australian group the Little River Band. During sound check, one of the band's guitarists barreled over to Kuenning. "How the hell do you expect me to perform with a black monitor?" he demanded. (Monitors are the speakers musicians use to hear themselves play.) Kuenning was extremely puzzled -- "Aren't all monitors black?" he asked. Not mine, the Aussie replied. "If the monitor is black, the devil can jump out of it during the show and get me. I refuse to play tonight if I have to use this cursed monitor." In just a couple of hours, Kuenning and the local stagehands had managed to round up a paint brush and enough white enamel paint and white cloth to appease the Aussie and close Satan's rock and roll wormhole. The show went on.
As his road career wore on, Kuenning fell victim to more and more of the perils: groupies, booze and finally cocaine. Some chapters read a little like Penthouse Forum, while others come across like vintage Hunter S. Thompson. There was the plane flight to Tokyo in which Kuenning and another roadie snorted an entire coke stash off the square surface of a Jack Daniel's mini-bottle. Kuenning was wary of the residue that still lurked in his little brown vial. Suddenly a Pat Travers song popped into his zooming head: "Snorting Whiskey and Drinking Cocaine." Kuenning poured some more Jack into his coke vial, shook it up, and he and his buddy snorted the concoction out of the vial.
Kuenning has neither drugged nor boozed for decades, but he still keeps track of the road life through his Web site, which is now the No. 1 roadie-related site on the Web. There you can find job tips, "Roadie Recommended" books (in a fit of immodesty, Kuenning anoints his book as the best), movies (not surprising, This Is Spinal Tap tops the list), music (Jackson Browne's "Rosie" edges out both the Metallica and Bob Seger versions of "Turn the Page") and various road gear. There are also dozens of lurid and hilarious roadie tales, glossaries of roadie lingo and a bunch of roadie top ten lists. (Here's a more-or-less random sample: three of the Top Ten Things You Will Never Hear on a Tour Bus: "Checkmate!" "Hey, why is there porn in the VCR?" "Ladies, can I see some proof of age?")
But it's more than just a sort of Yahoo! for roadies -- it also breaks news. Often roadies will anonymously send in their eyewitness accounts of famous and infamous shows, and the site's reporting on the Great White fire, the Dimebag Darrell shooting, the incredible crapping Dave Matthews tour bus and a riot-marred Philadelphia Guns N' Roses show is second to none.
Kuenning's latest article takes aim at the idea that the policeman who shot and killed gunman Nathan Gale was the only hero in the house. The official story that went out over the wires has it that Columbus policeman James Niggemeyer took out Gale while Gale was firing into a crowd of retreating fans. Not so, Kuenning says. Aside from Dimebag, all of the people Gale killed had charged him with the intent of disarming him. "Niggemeyer was a hero and I'm not taking anything away from what he did," Kuenning says. "But the members of Damageplan's crew and one fan charged a gunman from the front, while they were all unarmed. And they all paid the price. I think there were five heroes there that night, not just one. Hale could have been shooting fans or the rest of the band if he didn't have to deal with these guys who charged him."
Once again, Kuenning's complaint about how roadies always get the shaft. It's not enough that the musicians get all the sex, money and drugs while they're alive, but roadies also get none of the credit for being heroes when they die.
Get the Music Newsletter