Roadies of Fortune (Part 1): Grid Monkeys in the Mist

Humans have climbed higher than any primate on Earth—mostly for their own entertainment, but also for yours.

Originally published in ColdType | Issue 212 | Mid-August 2020

Last spring, the live entertainment industry vanished in the blink of an eye. Across the world, millions of careers were vaporized. As the panic intensified, every touring show came to a screeching halt in the middle of the road. From well-paid production managers to cleaning crews who scraped for change, pretty much everyone was told to hit the bricks.

Pop stars are still singing for virtual audiences, but as for the workers backstage, our former lives are in suspended animation. Sometimes, it evokes a haunting sense of emptiness.

As a rigger, I don't miss the performances. Not really. With massive pop shows, the talent onstage is inversely proportional to the weight in the air. But man, do I miss the mark-outs in the morning, the view from the ceiling, and the fellowship at night.

The first thing you have to understand about riggers is that we take pride in our work. This isn't just a job for us. It's a complicated craft with a rich tradition. Rigging takes years to master. If we didn't know what we were doing, believe me, our employers wouldn't let us climb up here and do this—if they had any idea what we were actually doing, anyway. So just relax. And stand back.

Imagine the average large production from a tour rigger's perspective. The sun's coming up. You had two hours of sleep on the ride in from the last city. The goal is to get 50 tons of truss, intelligent lights, audio arrays, LED video walls, and an automated rigging system into the air in time for soundcheck. Every chain should be up by the five hour mark. You know what, we're off to a late start. Get 'em up in under four.

Make the band happy, man—at least happier than your nagging, anal retentive audio tech, who just sneezed the last of his common sense right off the mirror. And watch out, because your production manager is hung over again, and it's literally your fault.

The 50 tons of gear will hang from 100 chain-hoist motors, attached to the arena's rafters, most well over 100' high. (In some cities, it's over 200'.) Your local rigging crew, many of whom you've never met, will climb out, send in ropes, and pull every up chain, one way or another. To get each point in the right place—some time today, dude, holy shit—you'll need to balance exactitude with time constraints. You have to weigh necessity against safety.

Roadcases full of steel are rolling in from the loading dock. There are 20 up-riggers and 10 ground-riggers from the local crew standing around, waiting for instruction. There are 30 some-odd touring techs watching from the sidelines. They command a 70-strong army of impatient stagehands. No one can do their jobs until you do yours. Better make this good, son, because in in this cutthroat business, one false move can mean your gig.

Coveted as the tour rigger's position may be—hot damn, I loved it—walking that razor's edge is just half the fun. The real magic happens up top.

Yep, rigging a rock show as a local feels as good as it looks. Every time you climb a stage tower or walk out onto an I-beam, there's this surge of animal energy. You can actually get high pulling up a 200 lbs. reeved chain, rope in hand, balanced on a six-inch beam a hundred feet in the air, staying in sync with your simian partner, toes hanging over the edge. You feel the life in every breath.

There's something primal in climbing angle iron upside-down, relying on taut limbs that evolved for arboreal maneuvers. It feels natural. Rappelling in fast after a long day puts your body in tune with the equations that underpin the universe. Especially if there's cold beer waiting for you down there—or, best case scenario, a good lay. During those fleeting peak moments, you don't just have a job in rock n' roll—you fucking are rock n' roll.

If riggers are arrogant jerks, on rare occasion, it's because working at heights demands serious skill and responsibility. If you drop a 22 oz. steel shackle from a hundred feet, it could punch a hole in some stagehand's skull and let all the smoke out. So screwing up isn't an option. Got it?

Excellence requires a heroic paradox. It's contradictory, but it works. Mostly.

An up-rigger does everything exactly right, every time. And when he doesn't—which happens way too often—it's his duty to whip himself until he never makes another mistake. That's why accidents don't happen (knock on wood). But when they do happen—and they always will—you've gotta put a boot up somebody's ass. That's just the law of the jungle gym.

There's an integrity to entertainment rigging—especially up in the rafters—that you won't find in many fields. The sheer physicality makes bullshitting impossible, at least in the long run. It simply isn't one of those “fake it til ya make it” gigs that attract morons and grifters. Not unless you can stomach horrific accidents. To cite a controversial example, when you meet a fit woman swaggering across the high steel, you can generally assume she's solid to the core. Rigging forces you to prove your strength.

This critical attitude extends to the wider society. Riggers despise people with no work ethic. We would gripe about it all the time in hammocks under the stage, or over beers in the tourbus's back lounge. We hate laziness and complacency. And we can't stand a phony.

Now pass that over here, will ya? It's a pipe, not a microphone.

Because I suffer from a genetic disorder called “aching sentimentality,” I miss my steel-bound brothers and sisters even more than I do the work. Riggers develop the sort of camaraderie you might find in a fire hall or a mercenary squad. You can't trust these guys with your wife, but you can trust them with your life.

Local riggers are either snarling lone wolves or they travel in bands of thrill-seeking gypsies, so you meet all kinds of misfits. Depending on the city, you find various combinations of white, black, and Latino, with all the attendant synthesis, conflict, and off-color jokes.

The culture is untamed and beautiful. On any given day, you might find a macho farm boy, a knot-tying bondage freak, a hardass from the 'hood, a shell-shocked war vet, a tough chick in striped knee socks, or a right-wing metrosexual on the beam beside you. Every local crew is an exclusive cabal where ability is the watchword and weirdness is the norm.

Of all the maneuvers you'll see up in the steel, ghostwalking is the wildest. The practice is borderline spiritual in its intensity and potential repercussions. A ghostwalker simply steps out onto a beam, high in the air—with no safety whatsoever—and puts one foot in front of the other. Few human beings are capable of doing it on command. Even fewer can make it look good.

Maybe it's just coincidence, but the three best ghostwalkers I've ever known—men who can glide down a six-inch beam like a cat—also hold a supernaturalist philosophy. One is a damn Yankee, twenty years older than me. Back in the 90s, he was drumming for Debbie Harry. These days, he techs the drum kit for Metallica.

I met him on the low steel in Nashville's main arena, years before any safety system was installed. The guy just hopped over the catwalk rail, marched out onto the black box beams—90' over the concrete floor—and tossed in his rope tail.

“Hey, kid,” he barked, “whaddaya waiting on? The work's out here.”

It was stunning, for sure, but he really shocked me when he later confessed to loving the white-toothed televangelist, Joel Osteen.

“Are you serious?!”

“Life is full of horror and negativity, Joe. At least Osteen brings something positive into the world.”

Incidentally, the world-famous Nik Walenda, who recently walked a 1,800' tightrope over the crater of an active volcano called “The Mouth of Hell,” is also a diehard fundamentalist who—for the love of God—follows Joel Osteen.

Quite a few men have died proving themselves in the air. In response, OSHA now requires anyone working above 6' to wear a harness. But boys will be boys. There's tremendous value in realizing human potential for its own sake, however senseless it appears to the outside world.

The best steel-climber I know is my brother from another mother. We grew into manhood together—however reluctantly—bouncing from one adventure to the next. Hippie dens in Minneapolis. Waterfalls in Oregon. Shroom tea on a California cliffside. The cursed eclipse in Dallas. Bike rides through Miami ghettos. Pints in London pubs. Ancient shrines in southern France.

While building a stage in Flushing Meadows, Queens, I saw this African lion walk a 15' plan bar—a steel tube, 3 inches in diameter—at 70' up, his arms out like wings, cawing like a bird. In arenas, I've seen him zig-zag from one end of the steel grid to the other, a hundred feet up, like he was strolling to the local bodega. The last time we worked together, he literally leapt from truss to truss across a European mother grid, grinning from ear to ear like a kid hopping creek stones.

The soul is strong with this one. As a boy, he was raised by a Baptist preacher in the Deep South, who turned him on to the Holy Spirit. As a young man, he ventured out to the liberated edge of pagan mysticism. Throughout his journey across the planet, my friend has never strayed from the magical path. He just steps across the clouds, one foot in front of the other.

In circles down South, the next generation's best steel-climber is a country boy, ten years younger than me. I've watched him walk the four-inch spreaders in Nashville's arena, 107' up. I've seen him underclimb the curved I-beams in Knoxville's Civic Coliseum—70' over certain death—with pure Zen in his eyes, swinging upside-down like a badass gibbon. The kid's whip smart, crazy as hell, and—wouldn't you know it—a devout Christian.

A couple of years ago, our wild child made national news. The smarmiest headline was “Man Lets Jesus Take the Wheel and Truck Flips 5 Times” written by the self-proclaimed “progressive secular humanist” Michael Stone. This hot take was published at Patheos, a left-wing Christian site.

Displaying his nauseating blend of progressive sensitivity and Christian charity, Stone concluded: “Bottom line: An intoxicated man in Tennessee let Jesus take the wheel, with predictable consequences.” In the unflattering mugshot that follows, we see a tear under the culprit's eye.

I wonder if hypocritical needle-dicks like Michael Stone ever consider the sort of pain that pushes a man to guzzle whiskey, sniff uncut cocaine, and haul ass into the void? Has Stone ever lost his mother to tragedy, or endured separation from his wife and son? I'd be surprised if this condescending blogger has even lost his virginity.

To be fair, though, it really is a hilarious story. When our wayward ghostwalker told me his side, he quipped, “You either do cocaine til it's gone, or it does you til you're gone.” He insists that the police report was inaccurate. For one thing, the truck flipped seven times, not five. But he admits to closing his eyes and hitting the gas.

“Afterward, I looked up and saw angels.” For a time, he was reduced to tears and speaking in tongues. “Once I recovered, I simply gave God glory for my miraculous survival as they put me in the back of the car. … I didn't deserve to live.”

But he did live. And he still keeps the faith while climbing to the sky.

Backstage work has its kicks, but no dream job is perfect. As a local, my least favorite duty is shooting spotlight during the show. You have to actually watch the ... ahem ... “talent” on display. Every second of it. If the CIA had known about this form of torture, they could've saved money on all those waterboards, and promoters could've cut labor costs.

Disgruntled spot operators compare the task to A Clockwork Orange, when Alex is forced to watch awful videos with his eyes held open by metal forceps. Some nights you'll hear a spot-op on the headset yelling, “It's a sin! It's a sin! It's a sin!”

By aiming a bulky spotlight at the Rascal Flatts for two hours—or Selena Gomez, or R Kelly, or Katy Perry, or neo-NKOTB, or Kings of Leon, or (shivers up my spine) DC Talk—you're exposing yourself to their repetitive, brain-numbing tunes with no PPE whatsoever. I've had earworms crawling around my skull for weeks afterward. Honestly, you'd be better off taste-testing uranium at a nuclear plant.

Not everyone feels this way, of course. Many stagehands and touring techs will wax poetic about adding their small part to a worldwide production. In their noblest moments, they explain that bringing tremendous joy to so many people satisfies a deep need to do meaningful work.

To which I say, “I guess so. But this show still sucks.”

Many nights I've leaned on the catwalk rail, burning a joint, watching some robotic pop star go through the motions for the thousandth time. The nebulous, smile-pocked blob undulates before their exalted idol, smartphones held aloft. I see the culmination of thousands upon thousands of man-hours, woman-hours, and machine-hours down there. A gorgeous lighting design. An impeccable audio focus. The intricate movements of automated truss moving from one geometric configuration to the next.

All of this technical excellence for a postmod tribal totem doing the orgy porgy onstage. This android belts out lyrics that are so idiotic—yet so damn memorable—every line must've been generated by neuro-linguistic programmers. The crowd can't help but sing along. Their wallets empty out as their heads are filled with vapid propaganda:

Be free. Embrace your vices. Live for one another. Do your own thing. Make love. Make war (on hate). Make duck face for selfie.

My eyes roll until I'm dizzy. What time is it, anyway?

Then I'll look over to find a fellow rigger completely entranced, smiling, bobbing his head in pure bliss. Or maybe it's a stagehand dancing her heart out. In those moments, I understand that life is about sharing happiness, whatever form it may take. I realize I'm just a sardonic killjoy, and that the human community, starved for pleasure, deserves satisfaction—with or without my participation.

Then again, other times I've looked over and seen co-workers nodding out from too much heroin. So maybe some joys are healthier than others.

I mean, what if hypno-pop really does make the populace dumber? What if the accelerating cultural transitions from the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys to Barack Obama to Donald Trump are as seamless as they appear to be? What if pop culture is engineered to keep us obsessed with synthetic stars instead of understanding the complexity of our social constellations?

Seriously, how long before we reach peak Idiocracy, and people just gather to watch a giant, jiggly butt passing gas on the big screen? They'd never notice the electrodes in their own rear ends, draining their lifeforce away.

Vital questions, I suppose. But every night, I'd ground myself with the same thought: The paycheck will clear.

Nowadays, we're humming the chorus in the unemployment line. Mass gatherings are banned until further notice.

In fact, the only up-coming concert I'm aware of is an epidemiological experiment to be conducted on August 22. German scientists from Martin Luther University will stuff 4,000 ('vid-negative) fans into Leipzig Arena to watch Tim Bendzko play his schmaltzy tunes. Each individual will be slathered in florescent hand sanitizer and have their exact position tracked via contact-tracing devices.

Researchers hope to uncover the patterns by which germs spread through crowded venues, with the ultimate goal of creating a super-safe New Normal. Maybe social engineers can also analyze spending habits and mating behaviors, and finally quantify the bar-to-urinal pipeline.

If it's gonna be years before the touring machine gets back on the road, the most competent people will probably shift to other careers. Salaried bureaucrats have plenty of time to invent more tedious rules for the replacements.

When shows finally come back, arena floors will be flooded with clueless goobers wearing shiny new hard hats, hi-viz vests, and expressionless PPE burkas, eager to smash thumbs with mallets and crush each other with roadcases. Up top, you'll find greenhorn riggers tangled in their mandatory safety gear, ready to rain carabiners and shackle pins on the hapless ground-pounders below.

Should my worst fears be realized, there won't be enough bright minds left to raise the collective IQ to a reasonable average. Due to stagnant wages, negligent supervisors, and increasingly atrophied brains, that scene was already popping up all over the country.

In my experience, there's a high correlation between heavy-handed regulation and decreasing competence. If you want to cultivate strong, independent workers, there's a sweet spot somewhere between black-lunged coalminers and self-driving trucks.

It's one thing to provide prophylactics. It's another to cut off our balls.

But those are concerns for another day. For now, us grid monkeys are left sitting on our feet-hands. If all else fails, we can always climb back into the trees.

Originally published in ColdType | Issue 212 | Mid-August 2020


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Further Reading

NWRS 2021: Learning to Navigate Complexity” — in Protocol: The Journal of the Entertainment Technology Industry — Vol. 26, No. 3 | Summer 2021

A Family Tradition: From Rigging Pioneers to Polished Professionals” — Protocol | Spring 2019

Rise Above: The New World Rigging Symposium in Review” — Protocol | Spring 2018


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