Guitar World’s Jeff Gilbert makes a break for the border with Pantera and Kiss.
Mexico City. It’s six o’clock in the morning, and the temperature has already climbed to 80 degrees. I find myself part of a team of roadies, every one the size of a small building, unpacking several semi-trailer trucks crammed with rented speakers, billion-channel soundboards, 10-ton lighting rigs, dozens of guitars and enough drums to jump start Mardi Gras. Sweat is beginning to run down my back and torso like an overflowing toilet.
A nightmare? Nope. It’s just my latest assignment dreamed up by those treacherous bastards at Guitar World. “It’s simple,” they told me. “Pantera is opening up for Kiss at Mexico City’s Sports Palace and we want you to be there. You know, hang with the band and give us a feel of what it’s like to travel with heavy metal’s finest.”
It sounded like fun. What they didn’t tell me was, in order to help defray expenses, the deal included volunteering my services with the road crew. One of my co-workers takes five to urinate—on my shoes. As I curse the entire Guitar World staff and their families, my thoughts are mercifully interrupted.
“How’d you expect me to do my damn job right if I don’t have any beer?” a roadie complains loudly.
Priorities being what they are, the beer is quickly and systematically removed from cartons and packed in personalized ice chests. Bottle openers are brandished like switch blades. The sound of beer caps hitting the pavement is followed by a symphony of unrestrained belching, the sweet sounds of which reverberate in the darkened, cavernous arena.
Breakfast is served.
>>> Everyone except the first-shift crew is sleeping off last night’s performance. Despite being added to the bill at the last minute, Pantera turned in a muscular performance worthy of a headliner, rewarding their young Mexican fans with irreversible ear damage. Though most of this city’s teeming millions are already hard at work, it’ll be hours until the elevators in the plush, 40-story Presidente Inter-Continental Hotel are filled with groggy rock stars and bleary-eyed guitar techs whose clothes—which conveniently double as pajamas—reek of “Texas aftershave” (tequila and vomit).
>>> Pantera sleeps. A group of teenagers wearing Kiss T-shirts and clutching pens have gathered just beyond the outdoor concierge station and set up an unblinking vigil. Obviously, they’re not familiar with the slumber patterns of American rock stars. It will be a long wait.
>>> Pantera still sleeps. The kids outside pass the time by singing “Rock and Roll All Nite.” When this somehow segues into “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” a few of the waiting taxi drivers join in with gusto. The only thing missing is an Ace Frehley solo.
>>> And still they sleep. A few “up at the crack of noon” drum techs bravely venture out into the sweltering heat in search of hangover food. Their efforts are rewarded when they discover that the local El McDonald’s has an unlimited supply of greasy fries and Egg McBurros.
>>> Pantera are just getting up. They finally come down to the lobby—their rumpled duds and conspicuous sunglasses proclaiming that everyone did, indeed, rock and roll all night. But their slow movements and pained expressions suggest that any attempt to “party ev-very day” is out of the question. Clearly, no one in Pantera is a morning person.
>>> Like convicted murderers being transported to the state pen, Kiss is secretly escorted through a side door into heavily guarded vehicles. Pantera and crew, on the other hand, amble into promoter-provided family vans. There is little conversation, with everyone preferring to yawn and rub last night’s whisky out of their eyes.
Talk in the van slowly turns to last night’s alcoholic debauchery, evaluation of their own performance (“Man, I thought we did pretty good, considering that we weren’t even advertised on the bill”), and, ultimately, to Kiss. Pantera, all of whose members are cardcarrying sergeants in the Kiss Army, do little to hide their excitement over the chance to tour with their all-time favorite band—especially Dimebag Darrell.
“Dude, when we were first told that it might happen, I just freaked. I didn’t even want to think about it and get my hopes up in case it fell through,” says the guitarist. “And when our management finally confirmed it for real, I couldn’t even sleep!”
Memories of watching Kiss (always from the front row) are recounted by the Panterans to the accompaniment of enthusiastic high fives, and the adrenaline begins to flow. “We’re gonna kick some serious ass tonight, I’ll tell you want,” predicts Dimebag, barely able to sit still.
>>> The van pulls into the arena grounds… and right into an improvised flea market filled with bootleg Kiss and Pantera merchandise— thousands upon thousands of spectacular T-shirts of every imaginable color, covered with the bands’ logos and the likenesses of the individual members. “These shirts look better than the ones our merchandise company makes,” notes Vinnie Paul, Pantera’s strongman drummer. He presses his face against the van window and drools over the striking designs.
That the life span of a typical bootleg Tshirt is usually three washes on gentle cycle, no bleach, disturbs exactly no one. The shirts are selling like burritos at an average of 80 pesos (10 bucks) a pop. The salesmen here have no “official” competition; there are no laws governing bootlegging in Mexico, so Kiss and Pantera don’t even bother bringing merchandise to the shows.
>>> Darrell, a wad of fresh pesos burning a hole in his pocket, says, “Dude, I wanna go out there and get me some shirts.” Val—Pantera’s intimidating bodyguard and seven-foot mascot— leads the way beyond the relative protection of the arena’s chainlink fence. Darrell, Vinnie, a few production assistants and this Guitar World correspondent (valiantly battling a thunderous cae of Montezuma’s Revenge) slowly wade into a sea of several hundred metal-starved maniacs.
Darrell, with his unmistakable hot-pink beard, is immediately mobbed. At first it’s hard to tell whether he is being surrounded because he’s a famous guitar hero, or because he is a Texan with a fistful of dollars.
Three very young, virginal Mexican girls approach Darrell, giggling and saying something that sounds like “He has a Chevy in his beard!” Not familiar with local colloquialisms, Darrell shrugs and heads for a wall covered with Kiss shirts.
“What do they mean by ‘Chevy’?” I ask a kid who speaks English. “Not ‘Chevy,’ ” he laughs. “They say he has a cherry beard—you know, all red.”
Val, whose giant arms resemble tank turrets, effectively keeps the rank and file away from everyone’s facial hair as his boys do some sidewalk shopping. “How much for that shirt right there, the one with Gene on the front with the devil horns? Gimme two of those…” “What? You want 160 pesos for that hat? Fuck you, man…”
Darrell is on fire. Hundreds of bootleg Kiss and Pantera shirts are spread out on the ground as the merchants, possessed by the spirit of free enterprise, bark out their prices. Darrell—who’s having a bit of trouble converting pesos to dollars in his mind—simply reaches into his pocket and stars pulling wads of money while grabbing as many hats, posters, Kiss clocks and shirts as he can carry. Finally out of cash, their arms sagging with their new wardrobes, Darrell and Vinnie follow the wide swath cut by Val’s mountainous form back to the arena, a throng of fans swimming along like pilot fish. Darrell reaches into his pocket and tosses out a handful of Pantera guitar picks, creating a pile of fans battling each other like dogs for their prized souvenirs. Amazed, laughing, he tosses another handful of picks in the air. More scrambling, more dust flying, more heads banging. “It’s like feeding barnyard chickens,” chuckles a production assistant.
>>> Pantera’s dressing room is furnished with several couches, a chair or two and a table sagging with Crown Royal, Seagram’s, beer and several thousand disposable cups. Darrell walks in with his arms straining with Kiss shirts, taking care not to crease his prized find: a glossy Kiss/Pantera tour poster. “This is so fuckin’ cool,” he gushes, holding it up for all to worship. Someone calls for a celebration. Styrofoam cups are lined up like firing squad targets, and Darrell, the band’s self-appointed bartender, expertly fills seven cups with whiskey and a splash of Coca-Cola. “These are called ‘Black Tooths,’ ” he grins, handing the potent drinks to everyone in the room. A group cheer and down the hatch, anywhere from 20 to 50 pesos a day ($3.50 to $8.50), which means that a lot of people just spend a week’s wage to see Kiss.
>>> With cannons blazing, Kiss hit the stage. With drinks in hand, Pantera rush out and edge themselves intot he front row, much to the delight of the crowd. Darrell, high-fiving everyone around him, settles into air-guitaring along with Ace. Rex, Vinnie and Phil stay closer to the side of the stage but rage no less joyously. Pantera and the crowd—the same crowd they just finished immolating—gradually bond and become one. Together they do their damnedest to get Gene to acknowledge them from the stage. The God of Thunder, however, cannot be distracted from a buxom blonde shaking her fine body in the third row.
>>> Kiss build to a final crescendo. Peter croons “Beth,” the second of three encores, triggering a loud ovation from the delirious crowd. But it was the danceable “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” played earlier in the show, that scored a direct hit with this city where disco never really died. The show ends with Kiss wrapping things up with “Rock and Roll All Nite” amid a Fourth of July display of fireworks, near-miss explosions and the retooled lyric “you drive us wild, we’ll drive you lo-co!” Darrell spills his drink.
The musicians who still have their hearing and the use of their limbs return to the dressing room. “Now it’s time to do some serious drinkin’,” smiles Darrell, and everyone jams into the vans heading back to the hotel. The night finally cools down, but livers are just getting warmed up.
>>> Mexico’s Hard Rock Cafe is not unlike any of the other Hard Rock Cafes around the world, the only real difference being that there’s a giant album cover of Paul McCartney and Wings’ London Town hanging above the fireplace instead of in it.
An autographed bass guitar donated by Sting that is mounted on a wall right next to the kitchen is badly marred, a victim of the swinging doors that bash into it every time a steaming burger it hustled out to a waiting table. Though the employees speak little English, they all recognize the international “drinky drinky” motion and quickly fetch platters of Coronas and shots of Jack Daniel’s and tequila for our table. The party goes into overdrive when Darrell, seeking to emulate his rock idols, swallows a mouthful of rum, lights a napkin, and blows a near-perfect “Gene flame” in the crowded room, spattering Linda McCartney’s face with alcohol and singeing some Wings memorabilia in the process.
>>> Gene and Ace stroll into the packed restaurant, nearly causing a riot. Gene, spotting the same gorgeous girl he leered at from the stage all night long, corners the lass. All eyes humbly watch the master go to work.
“Ace, dude—pull up a chair,” invites Darrell. Frehley seats himself between Darrell and this Guitar World correspondent, who is busy trying to keep from hurling up the several gallons of whiskey, tequilla and beer he’s recently consumed. The smell of smoldering nachos and chicken wings wafting up from the table is helping things along nicely.
>>> Dozens of locals crowd around the glass doors, no doubt impressed with their first glimpse of live, drunk rock stars up close and personal. Waiters are sweating to keep up with Darrell’s orders. “Hey, man, another round...get on it, son!” In a toxic alcoholic haze, I end up staring at the back of Ace Frehley’s head as he talks shop with Darrell.
The back of Ace’s head is no different from anyone else’s head, except that it’s Ace’s head. And where Ace goes, so does his head, presumably. There are so many things I want to ask the back of Ace’s head, but my lips feel like two pieces of bologna slapping together. Rex, sharing my plight, just shrugs and drinks another shot. Ace, a confirmed teetotaler, gulps down glass after glass of ginger ale (“It’s time to leave and get another quart...”) and spoons his way through several strawberry sundaes.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear Ace— his speech slurred, his eyes half closed—was getting drunk on ice cream. “Hey, Ace—how do you get that tone on the intro to ‘King of the Night Time World’?” asks Darrell.
>>> The restaurant manager enters the room bearing gifts—denim Hard Rock Cafe jackets, leather vests and T-shirts for all. Ace tries on several coats until he finds one that fits. Menus and cocktail napkins are passed around for autographs. Seizing the moment, Darrell corrals Ace into posing for a photo with him. “In case you haven’t seen it in a while...” Darrell lifts his shirt to reveal a colorful tattoo of Ace Frehley on his chest. Visibly impressed, Ace smiles and wipes some ice cream from his face.
“Hey, Gene—man, you guys rocked tonight!” gushes Darrell as everyone prepares to leave. Gene smiles, leans over, and kisses Darrell on the forehead. That’s about as much as Gene will get tonight: the young girl he’d been hitting on for the past several hours had to leave; she has to get up early for junior high school tomorrow.
>>> The restaurant has been closed for hours, but Pantera keeps ordering more drinks. Only when the bartender brings the tab does everyone decide to pack it in for the night. The bill comes to a whopping 4,100 pesos, and those who are able to stand without assistance make for the door without paying. Sykes hands a giant wad of currency to the waiter.
The kid looks like someone just kicked his pet burro. For all the high-rolling, Pantera and Kiss have stiffed him for a tip. Guitar World to the rescue. “Here,” I say, offering every bit of cash left in my pocket. The waiter gives me a funny look and walks away, no doubt unable to express his thanks for the handsome $6 gratuity.