Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Oct. 8
This Guy Mooches Meals Backstage, That Guy Removes the Brown M&Ms
Backstage Raider Mooches Meals, Backstage Diplomat Fulfils Star Contracts
Backstage Raider Mooches, & Backstage Diplomat Delivers
1 – Backstage Raider: He Mooches Meals From Rock Stars
2 – Backstage Rider On The Storm: He Removes the Brown M&Ms
“When Axl Rose found out I ate his sub sandwich, he was ready to kill someone,” says “Tweeter Donruss” (not his real name, ‘natch). He’s recalling for me one backstage party among the hundred or so he claims to have crashed.
“I snuck out of there before anyone told him it was me! But that was a royal chow line, man - shrimp, crab legs, this sweet juice they served in metal cups, damn.”
He says Gn’R’s after-show buffet was spread in an open tent where everyone mingled, including friends of the band, roadies, select young ladies plucked from the audience and at least one local jazz fan who hates rock and roll but who loves to mooch free food.
“I walk up all cocky like a hotshot roadie,” explains Donruss. “I wait until the show was over to sneak [backstage], so the guards would be busy dealing with groupies and DJs and stuff. My coat has a lot of flaps and [guards] get this illusion of a pass flapping around. If I act official enough, they don’t even blink and I can go wherever.”
Where he usually wants to go is wherever the food is.
Donruss says he used to live on the streets, where he hated getting into lines for free meals at local churches and shelters. “If you’re not there right on time, they tell you to get lost, and the food’s not worth standing around. Except Thanksgiving and Christmas...they pick up guys off the street and drive us to a movie theater or a church and totally stuff us.”
Donruss can’t stand rock music (“Give me Miles Davis any day”) and he doesn’t always know anything by or about some of the rockers he’s rubbed shoulders with…
“My last actual job was L.A., doing phone collections. I lost it for being late so much and then I lost my place. But the streets were okay. There’s a lot more safe places to sleep up there but finding enough [food] to ‘nack on was tough.”
He says one time he just happened to be by Universal Amphitheatre, as a show was letting out. “I just walked in ‘cause the doors were open. I found so much good sh-t on the floor and under the seats, I was in heaven! Not just snackbar food, but stuff people snuck in...wine flasks, weed, pipes!”
Outdoor events are particularly lax about manning the gates during the closing hour or so. “They let you bring in picnic baskets and bottles! It’s incredible what people leave. Untouched sub sandwiches, barrels - not buckets - of fast food chicken, and a sh-tload of diet sodas and water.”
Donruss chose San Diego as his new home turf in 1992, after using the free bus ticket given by a family member who wanted him to visit his La Mesa home.
For awhile, he earned money by collecting aluminum cans and recyclable bottles. “I turned [them] in for cash at a place near Imperial [Avenue]. My hideout was right up the street, in some thick bushes on private property, along a fence behind a house, so I didn’t have to worry about the city coming to cut sh-t down and chase me out or trash my sh-t. That’s what they do when they find out someone is living there.” He doesn’t say whether the private property owner knew or approved of his residency.
Donruss says he found easy trespass at most local venues, but few lunchable leftovers. “Getting in is easy near the end of the night. But there’s not much in the seats. I used to find lots of food at Humphreys, but [patrons] have to buy it there and it’s always the same old, same old. All the medium size places suck.”
Bathrooms, he says, are a treasure trove of illicit drugs, dropped wallets (“I keep the cash but I’ll put the wallet in a mail box”), lighters, liquor flasks and loose money. “Guys sit on the pot and get high , maybe ‘cause they don’t wanna share, or they’re with someone who’s not into it. And stuff drops out of their pants, especially if they’re f-cked up.”
Scouring the seats after a concert nowadays, tho, is a competitive effort.
“There’s a bunch of kids doing the same thing, a lot of the same ones at each show. It gets so we’re all running through the rows looking down between the seats trying to be the first one to score something good. The smart ones start at the top seats, so security can’t see you and herd you out the door. Up where it’s dark is where people do their drugs anyway, that’s where stuff’s more likely gonna drop.”
Donruss’ first trip backstage happened by accident, when he was mistaken for a roadie at Jack Murphy Stadium concert. “I was near the side of the stage and some guy just handed me a piece of equipment and told me to take it back to the break room. I didn’t know what I was holding, and I had no idea what or where the break room was, but I went off like I’ve been doing that all my life.”
Backstage, between the aluminum tentpoles holding up a vinyl tarp and piled onto several rows of cloth covered folding tables, he found what he describes with a laugh as “the pot at the end of the rainbow, or the pot roast anyways!”
Caterers were just finishing the gourmet display of meats, fish and decadent deserts, including many dishes Donruss had never seen or sampled. “Have you ever had truffles? I wasn’t impressed. Didn’t eat the caviar, I know what it is. Mousse, that’s pretty good, and this stuff had like a crust on top and came with a cookie on the side.”
After talking to him, and picking up on his hungry-outlaw vibe, I can just picture him eyeing the buffet and trying to remain inconspicuous, breathing in all the tempting aromas and struggling to hold himself back from that chimerical “pot roast at the end of the rainbow.”
He snuck a few chips into the dip bowl and managed to grab an errant sandwich when he thought nobody was looking (“I chewed quietly”), earning glares from at least one other bystander. What must have been a maddening half-hour passed before the twenty or so people milling around seemed to decide that the band wasn’t coming any time soon, if at all.
On some apparently unspoken cue, everyone converged on the buffet tables all at once, including - especially - Donruss.
“I had three plates and two glasses, like a waiter, and I filled ‘em all up!”
After eating fast and gulping down five or six beers (“I didn’t know until later it was ‘near-beer,’ no alcohol”), Donruss loosened his pants and walked out via the same checkpoint he’d entered, leaving the stadium very happy, and VERY full. “I went whole hog that time, for sure!”
He’s reluctant to talk further about dates, venues and methods, and at this point we’ve already talked on the phone for almost 90 minutes. “What I told you is enough to make it interesting, I don’t wanna shoot myself in the foot.”
He’s still doing “makesh-t jobs” around town, but he says he’s living in a house with family members, paying his own bills, and generally doing well.
All ‘pending one’s definition of “well,” I think to myself, but I don’t say this to “Tweeter” (which, by the way, was the AKA he requested to go by when I said I wanted to write about his many Missions of Mooch).
There’s a pause, as we both probably conclude that last sentence was more than self-evident.
“I hate competing with groupies and all that sh-t. Besides, all the big rockers are going vegetarian, or they don’t f-cking drink or party, so it’s like a church picnic back there.”
“Either that, or they’re too f-cking cheap to lay out a good spread for the rest of us.”
Brian Lewis didn’t hire the entertainment while serving as venue manager for Humphrey’s bar and concert showcase on Shelter Island. However, he feels the experience he gained there from 1990 to 1992 prepared him for booking and marketing jobs at several pivotal San Diego venues, including Mission Beach’s Catamaran resort hotel where he ran their Cannibal Bar.
“Humphrey’s was doing about fifty concerts a year, sometimes two shows on the same night. My job was making sure the performers were satisfied when they got there, setting up the backstage catering and fulfilling all the requirements passed on by the production manager. Or [I worked] from a list written into the ‘rider,’ [which is] part of the performer’s contract.”
Early on, he worried about being starstruck, but working closely with the venue’s famous guests wasn’t as intimidating – or as disillusioning – as he’d feared. “The type of acts at Humphrey’s aren’t usually known for bad behavior. Most…found the place so comfortable, they’d just relax and be regular people, their everyday selves. I didn’t recognize him at first [but] Huey Lewis was talking to me in the hospitality suite while we watched Clinton lying through his teeth on TV. Dana Carvey would come into the inside stage and just chat with everybody. George Benson will hang out at the pool bar and drink Mai Tais and then come inside and say ‘hi’ to people.”
He feels that most performers, especially A-list draws with the most to lose, don’t want any trouble due to the media’s willingness to tear them apart. “It’s usually in the audience where you find people with the biggest problems. The funny thing is we can have Michael McDonald and everyone’s dancing in the aisles and drinking like fish and nothing happens. Then Tony Bennett comes in…and we had trouble with this older woman acting up.” He says the woman was drunk and shouting, upsetting nearby patrons. “We had to kick her out and put her into a cab, and she was fighting the whole way.”
Growing up in Point Loma, the diverse tastes of his six older siblings exposed him to a wide array of songs and performers, but Lewis’ early career goals had little to do with musicians, nightclubs and Bennett-crazed inebriates. “I studied business in college, worked for the Spagetti Factory chain and at one point I was taking maitre de jobs and planning a career in food service.”
Twenty-seven years old in 1985, Lewis replied to a want ad by mailing his resume to a blank PO box. “I thought I was applying for a fine dining job…it turned out to be Diego’s on Garnet (Avenue, in Pacific Beach). I’d been there maybe once or twice with a friend but Diego’s liked me, liked my ideas and they said they wanted to hire me for a management position, with a generous salary.”
The offer caught him by surprise. “I think [I was hired] because I was creative and artistic, and that helps in designing ads and promotions. I was always interested in how things were sold. [I] even studied magazine ads, billboards and TV commercials.”
His new career allowed him to put his flair for design into new menus, a kitchen layout, newspaper advertisements and event promotions. “The weekends would be so busy that we’d need the weekdays to lick our wounds and recover in time for the next weekend. We did about five mil[lion dollars] that year…the dollar margaritas special was going on and we’d have lines around the building.” Diego’s and other nightclubs hoping to attract new patrons operated “in the spirit of friendly competition, whereas today it’s more of a battlefield.”
“There was Wrangler’s Roost in El Cajon for country [and] contemporary rock at Park Place, which is now a bowling alley. Our only real competition was Confetti’s in Mission Valley. They had a thing called Club Piranha, adult alternative music…I did a parody of [their] event and called ours ‘Club Mean Fish.’ The ads had a giant big mouth bass swallowing a piranha.” Asked about his proudest accomplishment during the two years he worked at Diego’s, he replies “I guess [it was] making the place busy every night. I brought in KGB on Sundays, on Mondays we had $1.50 Name That Drink, 91x had their own night…the crowds came by having radio stations sponsoring [events].”
A partnership in a Mexican restaurant drew him briefly to Washington state, but he soon returned to San Diego to take a job as marketing and promotions director for a new club then dubbed Belmont At The Beach (later the Hop, then Chillers and currently ‘Cane’s). “I went head to head with my former employers at Diego’s. Their biggest thing was the Tuesday Dollar Margarita night and so on the same night I had 91X at Belmont with ninety-one cent drinks. Bikini contests had started there and I brought that over to Belmont…we just kind of buried them.”
However, Belmont never developed as he’d planned. “There were so many operational problems. We opened without a liquor license while we waited on it from the ABC so it was hard to compete with other bars. Plus, the dynamics of the beach area are low priced meals and we were serving expensive dinners. And from the get-go, there were protests about the whole Belmont Park development, on the liquor license, on the roller coaster being rebuilt…they [the residents] didn’t want the noise, didn’t want the traffic, didn’t want the natural things that happen when you develop and improve [an area]. The biggest problem was that the place was owned by a limited partnership of forty people. I put in a lot of blood and sweat but it didn’t end up working out.” He quit in early 1990 and the club was closed by summer.
“I ended up taking a position at Humphrey’s, in charge of entertainment and management for the inside bar and venue management for the outdoor theater.” The outdoor theater presented noise problems, though not from the music being too loud. “At some of the quieter and more intimate shows, we’d have people in the audience talking too loud, drowning out the music. We’d try talking to them about it at first and if they continued to cause a problem we’d have to remove them.”
He inked the next credit on his resume in 1992, when he took a marketing position at the Barefoot Bar, in the Princess Resort on Mission Bay. “Every Saturday and Sunday, we had a band called Doctor Chico’s Island Sounds…then their lead singer got arrested and went to jail for being a PB rapist! The group had gotten really popular and only one of the seven guys was a criminal so I met with them and talked them into staying together.” Lewis came up with a new name, the Banana Republicans, and the band remained a staple at the club for several more years.
He feels his marketing strategies for the club made it very profitable. “We did things like making footwear optional and you could even wear a bikini in the bar. There’d be a line for two hours to get in and we got to a business level where we did a hundred thousand dollars in one day. The previous year before I came in, I think they did less than a half million dollars in business. By the end of my first year there, we were doing two million. As to whether he received percentages or bonuses from the increased profits, Lewis replies “Let’s just say I quit in 1994.”
After taking some time off to try his hand at consulting work and fatherhood, he accepted an offer to work for Humphrey’s once again. “When the Rolling Stones played the stadium, we did a promotion called ‘Gimme Shelter Island.’ We rented three double-decker buses and had two hundred and twenty tickets for the show. [We] offered a package deal for $150.00 that included a commemorative T-shirt, a three course dinner, beverages and a tribute band called Sticky Fingers played a three hour show in the [Humphrey’s] bar. Then we put everyone on the bus and all of us went to see the Stones with Carlos Santana.”
In early 1999, the General Manager of Paradise Point, which had formerly been The Princess Resort, made what Lewis calls an offer he couldn’t refuse, if he’d return to work at the Barefoot Bar, a position he accepted and kept for nearly two years. “We almost doubled our previous numbers for the best day [income]. But at the same time, they were changing format and going through an entire renovation. The [marketing] I worked at didn’t match what the new owners wanted. They were catering to people willing to pay top dollar for the rooms. They didn’t want music festivals or theme nights, which is fine, that was their decision, but it kind of eliminates what I do for a living.” He walked away from Barefoot in August 2000.
Lewis’ next position was booking the Cannibal Bar in PB, bringing in top-flight acts like former Animals leader Eric Burdon and Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, as well as Hootie and the Blowfish, Dave Mason and The Psychedelic Furs.
“There’s a lot more competition nowadays,” says Lewis. “You have the Indian casinos, there’s Cox Arena. Humphrey’s ties up eighty-five to a hundred performers a year. Viejas is up and coming...when all the other clubs are bidding against each other to pull in a touring act that can only do one night and one venue in San Diego, I have to get pretty creative to come out on top. But I like being creative. And I definitely like being on top.”
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