Dancing on the Ceiling with Sid Bernstein & The Freelance Vandals

 

 

Just the other day, I happened across a YouTube video of the Beatles at Shea Stadium and the name Sid Bernstein immediately took centerstage in my mind.  For those of you who never heard of Sid, here's some backround info from Wikipedia: " Sid Bernstein was an American music producer and promoter who changed the American music scene in the 1960's by bringing The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, The Moody Blues and The Kinks to America."  

At the time that Sid broke into the concert promoter biz, it was pretty much unheard of to promote shows outside of clubs and small concert halls.  Bernstein was the first impresario to stage rock shows on a large scale.  Along with making history by presenting the first rock concerts in sports stadiums such as The Beatles at Shea Stadium, Bernstein was the first promoter to stage a rock show at large venues such as Madison Square Garden in New York city.  He was a true pioneer in the presentation of live rock & roll.


As it turns out, I have my own Sid Bernstein story to share with you all today.  My Sid Bernstein story begins in 1978, back when I was the lead singer in a rock band named the Freelance Vandals. We had started making some noise in the music biz after we signed a production deal with a fella named Dennis Ganim.  Ganim's main claim to fame was producing Green Eyed Lady, a Top 40 single by the band Sugarloaf.  The production deal we signed with Ganim, which involved recording an album for RCA which ultimately ended up being shelved, gave the band one of our first lessons about how down and dirty the music business can be.  To this day, whenever I think of that whole sordid RCA episode, I am instantly reminded of this quote by Hunter S. Thompson: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” 

By 1979, after the RCA deal collapsed, the band realized that it needed professional management.  Our search for management was relatively short because Edward E. Finch, the father of Ray and Jack Finch (the lead guitarist and keybard player in the Freelance Vandals), had connections in the entertainment industry.  He was friends with Sid Bernstein and was able to convince Bernstein to come check us out at a live show and possibly manage us.  I was aware that Bernstein had managed such acts as The Young Rascals and Laura Nyro and was looking forward to working with the man who brought The Beatles to America!


The first order of business was to perform a showcase performance for Sid at a New York club to see if Sid would be interested in handling us.  Sid pulled some strings and arranged for us to do a  June 25th show at Trax, one of the hottest clubs in the city.  
 


As I recall we did our usual Vandal type of show which involved a finale that featured me cavorting around the stage like a monkey on amphetamines while throwing shredded newspaper confetti onto the heads of the audience (hey, that's why they call it "show working the crowd" right?).  Luckily, the band was firing on all cylinders that night and I think we impressed Sid with the band's ability to make an immediate connection with the audience.  It turned out to be a great night all around.  Well....it was almost a great night.  As I was leaving the stage, a grizzled Asian fellow, who was the club's janitor, handed me a broom and a dustpan while pointing at the massive amount of confetti that I had strewn all over the club's floor.  In what would best be described as a 3 a.m. Tom Waits voice, he said, "Now you clean up dis fucking mess!"  After much back and forth with the irate janitor, I simply ran off to the sanctuary of the band's dressing room.  "What the hell!"

As I entered the band's dressing room. I ran into none other than Sid Bernstein himself.  Pictured above, you can see Sid giving me the two handed showbiz handshake.  I remember asking Sid about the Beatles' Shea Stadium show and he recounted the story of how he had the Shea Stadium personel flash the message "The Rascals Are Coming!" on the ballpark's big board and apparently Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, took issue with him promoting another act during the Fab Four's show.  The entire band chatted amicably with Sid for awhile and then we all drove off in the night.

After a few weeks went by, we heard back from Sid.  We were jumping for joy when he informed us that he was definitely interested in managing us.  I think the phrase, “You guys will be more popular than sliced bread!” came echoing across the phone lines.  It was decided that the the band was scheduled to show up at Sid’s office in the city for a photo op for Billboard magazine which would announce our signing with Sid's company, Sid Bernstein Presents.

We showed up at the appointed time and the photographer from Billboard positioned us around Sid, who was seated at his desk.  The photographer tried to get numerous shots but all of the Freelance Vandals kept moving around as he tried to take his pictures so he couldn’t really get a decent shot.  Finally, he read us the riot act.  “Hey!  You guys aren’t rock stars yet!  Let’s get this over with!”  We all hunkered around Sid at his big desk.  I glanced at Sid and noticed his eye lids were quite droopy.  I remember thinking, "Hmmm...what's up with that?"  The photographer, who had been snapping away, suddenly stopped and said, “What the hell!”  We turned our heads and discovered that Sid was fast asleep!  For a moment, the collective mind-think of the band was, "Our new manager just had a stroke!"  Once we realized that Sid was only sleeping, we all burst into a fit of nervous laughter.  The sound of our guffaws woke up our new manager and the photographer finished taking his picures.  We all shook hands and the band journeyed back to Long Island, anxiously awaiting Sid Bernstein to work his showbiz magic
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A short time later we found out that, yes, Sid suffered from narcolepsy; a condition which causes frequent excessive daytime sleepiness.  After all of the music biz carnage of the past year, we had been looking forward to making a new start with Sid.  After discovering that Sid was a narcoleptic, we suddenly realized that the man who was now in charge of our musical careers would most probably fall fast asleep while in the midst of making a big deal on the phone with a major record label!  "What the hell!"

As it turns out, Sid was never able to get the Freelance Vandals a major label record deal or do much else for us.  Pretty much all the band ever got out of this whole experience was a good barroom story but, in the music biz, life can be like that sometimes.  I still have fond memories of having met the man who brought The Beatles to America.

In closing, I'll leave you all with this Sid Bernstein quote which I think captures the true spirit of the man:  " My secret to success is that I’ve always loved good music and people. The players in the promotion business today are, by and large, not in it for the art anymore. It’s all about how many bucks can you make on a concert. That’s permissible. I mean, we are in a capitalistic society. But I feel a lot of the art thing is lost. It shouldn’t just be about money. It should be about loving what you do.”
 
 

Photo Credit: the photos of the Freelance Vandals show at Trax
were taken by renowned photographer, Paul Colliton
 
 
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