During the late summer of 1969, I got a call from an agent.
"Check on your availability at the Civic Arena for a Janis Joplin date for November."
I knew the song "Piece of My Heart" was already a hit in other parts of the country, and while in those days, Pittsburgh was a little behind the music trends, I knew it would be big here by November.
Predicting which act could sell out an arena was not easy. A mistake could cost tens of thousands of dollars, but I could usually tell by the response people gave me when I mentioned the name if the act could sell out or not. Fortunately, I got a positive response for Janis.
"I'm in!" I said.
That meant I could maybe clear $25,000. I printed the tickets and put them on sale. It sold well immediately.
'You call this garbage "music"?'
In some circles, I was not popular in town back then for bringing in these acts. People thought rock 'n' roll was a bad influence on the kids. Guys like Charlie Strong, the 60-something executive director of the newly opened Civic Arena, liked the big band music of the '40s.
When acts like the Coasters and the Drifters became popular in the '50s, everyone thought that was crazy stuff, but it was nothing compared to music of the late '60s.
Arena employees complained about the music I was bringing in. Little old lady ushers who were used to Civic Light Opera productions -- what the arena was originally built for -- would get mad at me because they had to work the rock shows.
"You call this garbage 'music'?" they'd say. "You should be ashamed of yourself. Why don't you bring in someone good like Lawrence Welk?"
The arena staff was especially put off by Janis Joplin, who was more demanding than other artists. In the early days of rock 'n' roll, we never even gave the acts anything to eat. They were on their own. The Beatles changed everything in 1964 and acts started adding riders to their contracts.
The Joplin show marked the first time I supplemented the arena's sound system, at the request of her manager, Bill Graham. He insisted that I use Clair Bros. from Lititz, Pa., as the sound technicians. When they backed a 40-foot truck up to the stage door, I said, "You have that big of a truck with just sound equipment?"
Sure enough, they did. I had never seen so many speakers for a concert, and we had to move seats to accommodate a soundboard. I knew we were in for a loud show. The head usher was bent out of shape.
"What's all this fuss about the sound? They're blocking the view of people behind the stage and on the ends of the stage," he said. "And what will I do about the people who bought seats where that soundboard is located? Those were good seats. Where do I put those people?"
Roy Clair, who was by my side at the mixing board, said, "Sir, you better get used to this, because this is the way it is going to be for all the bands."
The usher walked away muttering ...
Before the show, backstage was more crowded than usual. Janis was a sensation and everyone wanted to see her. There was more arena security, plus we had the city cops and my own security. In addition, there were stagehands, runners, teamster loaders, spotlight operators, sound crews, caterers, limo drivers, clerks and assistants all trying to hang out backstage to see her. Even the assistants had assistants and they all had someone they "had to take care of." Everyone had an excuse to be backstage that night.
I was at my usual spot in the main box office. Chuncie Vaccaro, my assistant that night, burst in.
"Pat, she's complaining that she is going to run out of Southern Comfort before the show even starts. What should I do?" he asked. "She said if you don't have more Southern Comfort she's not going on."
I urged him to look in the back of my trunk for more. "We must not have brought in the whole case. Here are the keys. Go look there."
With that crisis averted, I got ready to meet with her road manager, who would do the box office settlement. All of these acts thought you were trying to cheat them out of money. They were all so paranoid and the rampant drug use at the time didn't help.
There was no way that I could take advantage of her, nor did I want to. I had to produce a statement showing all the tickets that were printed and sold. It took a lot of time to prepare the statement for the artist and that is where I spent most of my time. I never had the luxury of just hanging out backstage with the act.
'Get her on that stage'
Soon after, Harry Popovich, one of my runners for the night, came knocking on the box office door.
"Damnit Harry, this had better be important!" I yelled.
He was nearly out of breath, having run from the backstage halfway around the arena.
"She's [having sex with] someone in her dressing room," he said.
I looked up from the box office report.
"What did you say?"
"She's [having sex with] someone in her dressing room."
"And you ran all the way back here and interrupted us to tell me that. First of all, how do you even know that?"
"Nicky heard them. And the door was partly opened and he looked in," he said rather boastfully as though he just solved a crime.
"Harry, I don't care who she is [having sex with] or where. All I want is her on the stage right now. We have to get this night over with.
"Get her on that stage!"
The crowd was growing antsy. The intermission between acts was extra long and even though the audience enjoyed the opening act -- Santana -- it wanted to see Janis. People were chanting "Start the [expletive] show! Start the [expletive] show!"
After a call from Bob Miller, the head of the stagehands for the night, saying that she wasn't ready to go on because "she was fornicating in her dressing room," I thought I had better get backstage.
When I got there, Janis was finally walking up to the stage. She wore a sheer netted skirt with no underwear. When the spotlight hit her, you could see everything. When the crowd saw her walking toward the mike they stood, cheered and ran toward the stage. This is exactly what I didn't want. I knew this type of reaction would give Charlie Strong a heart attack. In addition, she was the first female performer that I remember to use the f-word on stage.
'I'm going to wash her mouth out with soap!'
When Charlie caught wind of this, he came backstage and wanted to turn the house lights on and turn the sound off on Janis. He was telling City of Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Jim Patterson, "I'm going to wash her mouth out with soap!"
I said to Charlie, "Whatever you do, don't cut the sound or turn on lights while she's performing."
Janis had the house rocking. Everyone was standing. The aisles were jammed with people, and they were all pushing on the stage. Charlie wanted everyone in their seats and he wanted to stop the show -- in his mind the situation was out of hand.
"Charlie," I said, "we only have about another half hour and the show will be over and everyone will go home and we won't have any problems."
I warned him that if we cut the show short, we'd cause a riot. "People could tear the arena apart, throw chairs, rush the stage and fight with security. And people will get hurt."
He was undaunted. "I'm going to go up there and wash her mouth out with soap," he threatened again.
"Mr. Strong, shut up and go back up to your office!" Sgt. Patterson demanded, "We will take over."
"Pat," Charlie implored. "Can you go up on the stage and talk to her?"
I feared we'd be playing into her hands. "I can assure you that there won't be a problem if we just let her finish the show," I said.
"Let's go up on the stage," the sergeant said. "If there is a problem we have a better chance to do something."
'Why the fuzz, man?'
Sgt. Patterson, Charlie and I walked up the stairs to the back of the stage. Janis couldn't see us. Neither could the audience. Just then a roadie with the act ran over to me and grabbed my arm and said, "What the [expletive] are you doing? Why the fuzz, man?"
"Be cool, nothing's happening, man. They are just checking things out," I said.
"Don't go doing anything stupid," he said.
The situation was getting worse. She would swear and the crowd loved it and they would swear back. Then she would drink Southern Comfort straight out of the bottle and swear and the crowd would go crazy especially when she belted out "Take another little piece of my heart now, baby." Charlie yelled in my ear, "I'm going to stop the show!"
"Please, Charlie don't," I pleaded.
Her road manager now came over to me.
"Pat, are you crazy? Get these guys off the stage right now or I'm going to pull the show," he shouted.
It was difficult for me to plead my case because no one could hear. We just shouted into each others' ears. Just then the house lights went on. All I could think about was my $25,000 profit going right down the drain.
Janis stopped singing and said, "What the [expletive] is going on?"
The crowd screamed even louder.
Charlie said to me, "Go up and tell her to tell everyone to take their seats. If not, the show won't continue."
This reminded me of being in grade school. I knew I couldn't say that to her and that she wouldn't say that to her audience. But on the other hand if I didn't do something, Charlie was liable to make good on his promise and cancel the show. That meant nothing but trouble -- and a refund to everyone. Instead of a $25,000 profit, I would have a $50,000 loss.
Janis put the mike down and walked toward the amplifiers, leaning on one of them and drinking. I walked up to her and she said, "What the [expletive] is going on, man?"
I said, "I'm going to ask the audience to be cool so that we can get the show going on again. Is that OK with you?"
"Whatever," she said.
Janis to the rescue
I grabbed the mike and started motioning the crowd with my hands to quiet down. They only yelled louder. I continued to try to get them to quiet down. They started yelling in unison, "We want Janis!"
Just then a big roar went up and next to me stood Janis, who shouted, "He's the man. He wants you to back off the stage and clear the aisles so we can start the show, OK?"
I couldn't believe it. But she said it and they listened. She just went into the song she was doing and the crowd went crazy.
I walked to the back of the stage and screamed to Charlie and Sgt. Patterson, "Turn the lights off and let her finish the show. She only has a few numbers left to do and it will be over."
Finally it was.
The crowd didn't want her to leave and kept waving their matches and lighters for more encores. She came back once, did another song and left. I went up on the stage and kept yelling that she left the building. I didn't know where she was, but we didn't want her coming back doing more songs. We wanted the people to leave. The house lights were up and I kept repeating that the show was over and thank you for coming.
'I wish I had your life'
As I watched the crowd leaving, I could see the 2,000 portable chairs on the arena floor, upside down, bent or mangled.
"If your insurance doesn't cover the cost of replacement, you know you will have to buy us new ones," Charlie said.
"Don't worry Charlie, I will," I said.
I could see my profits shrinking. But I knew I had to take care of it. I had the exclusive right to do all live performances at the arena and had to do what was right for Charlie.
The arena was finally empty. It was quiet. No one would have known what stress or worry had just taken place. No one knew the amount of work that went into producing an event. The audience just thought that my work began when the show started at 8 p.m. They never realized that it started six months or a year earlier.
As I was walking out toward Gate 2, I could see one of the arena employees coming in and punching the time clock. It was Gino, a janitor I knew from Level Green.
"Hi Gino," I said. "How's the family?"
He looked at me with a smile and glanced at my briefcase.
"You got the life, Pat. You're leaving with all the cash and no worries. My work is just starting. I wish I had your life. You wanna trade?"
"Yeah, Gino, sometimes I might just agree with you, especially tonight."