November , 1979
By Gene Triplett
Rowdy N' Rambunctious Reo Speedwagon
As the door to REO Speedwagon's dressing room swung open, a loud, cascading crash of porcelain and metal resounded from the brick walls within. Mixed with the shattering and splattering din was the sound of angry cursing. We found ourselves walking into a vengeful orgy of destruction. A long buffet table laden with food had been overturned, sending a landslide of steak and gravy, green salad, cold cuts, a variety of sauces, dressings, chips and dips into a huge, steaming liquid heap on the floor. Mixed with the multi-colored mire were the white shards of dozens of broken dishes. In the middle of the mess stood the vandals -- REO lead guitarist Gary Richrath and singer-rhythm guitarist Kevin Cronin. Cronin, deciding their work needed a crowning touch, picked up a huge bowl and dumped a snow-cap of popcorn on the oozing mountain of food. Richrath smashed a container of guacamole salad against the wall and watched the green stuff slither down to the floor.
Then the pair noticed that visitors had entered the room and their expressions of anger melted into embarrassment, like two kids caught in the act of egging a house. "Uh, what happened?" I asked Cronin. "The food was terrible," he explained. “They expect us to eat this shit."
"This is the only time of the day I get to eat," Richrath added with half-hearted indignation. "I don't like to eat before the show 'cause I feel bloated, y'know?"
They had just finished their concert in the Myriad before a raucously receptive crowd. REO Speedwagon's current tour, from all indications, is a smash success, and their new album, Nine Lives, is selling very well, especially in this part of the country.
So why the backstage temper tantrum? "Well, shit," said Cronin, shaking his long tumble of curly brown hair from his eyes and supping a Heineken's, "you do a good job for a promoter and then they shit on you by hiring a cheap caterer and sending you shifty food. We're not gonna eat this stuff. It makes us pretty mad. The steak was lucking terrible."
Was this the same Kevin Cronin I had talked loon the phone three days earlier? I had asked him about REO's reputation for rambunctious behavior on the road and their gambit of getting kicked out of hotels. "Nothing we do is destructive," he told me in that interview. "We don't throw TV's out the windows or anything. We just think of the road as one big party."
During that interview he talked with the breathless enthusiasm of a man who'd been on speed for a week and his rapid-fire discourse was frequently interrupted by a maid bent on cleaning his hotel room whether he liked or not.
"No, thank you, not now, would you please get the hell out?" Cronin kept insisting to the woman during our phone conversation. "Goddamit, I'm sitting here in my shorts talking on the phone. You'd think she'd get the message."
Then he would plunge back into his lengthy, double-time explanation of why REO Speedwagon enjoys so much success in the Midwest but is largely ignored on the East and West Coasts.
“The critic in New York try to control the national press," he said. "They would like to control everybody's taste in music. I don’t wanna rap'em, but they like to build up anything that's nouveau or chic -- the newest thing y'know?”
"Acts like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello are more critics' favorites than people's favorites. Our last three albums have sold 10 times more than any of them." REO has been around for nine years, cranking out eight albums and finally striking platinum two years ago with a live LP, You Get What Yon. Play For. Critics have pegged them with artists like Van Halen and Aerosmith as throwbacks to the power-pop style of rock that some feel was milked dry of its artistic possibilities by 1970.
"That's just stupid if they (critics) think we're old fashioned,” Cronin said. "We play WITH our audience. They're the sixth member of the band. They know what-the fuck we're doing."
Have groups like REO offered anything really new to rock in the 1970s?
"There really hasn't been a lot of new stuff in the seventies, Guys like us who were lost in the shuffle in the late sixties - Bob Seger and Ted Nugent and Steve Miller -- finally got recognition. That was the best thing that happened since 1970. The biggest downfall of the last 10 years has been disco. All the clubs were taken over by music machines. But that's almost a thing of the past now. Disco is on the way down."
Cronin, an Illinois native, has been an on-again-off-again member of the group since it was formed in Champagne, and was finally added three years ago as a permanent member, replacing keyboardist/vocalist Mike Murphy. Since then, the onstage chemistry of Cronin and lead guitarist Gary Richrath has generated enormous success for the five-man band. "We play the kind of music that gives the audience an outlet for their hostilities that's harmless," Cronin said. "It's a helluva lot better than letting it out on the streets -- and a lot healthier." Cronin thinks artist, who sing songs with social and political themes are more likely to find favor with East and West audiences and critics.
"But I don't consider us to be U.S. senators," he said. "We're a rock and roll band and I don't think that's the proper medium for political speeches.”
"Our kind of music is more viable for 'people politics.' My rock and roll politics are just to roll with the changes...only the strong survive -- more inner things. We try to stimulate people to feel better about themselves.”
"If you can get people to feel good about their lives, then maybe they'll get out and do something about the rest of the world instead of lay around and do nothing. As far as singing political songs. I had nothing to do with Viet Nam. The government fucked up. What can I do about that by singin' a song?"
Despite what critics say, Cronin insisted, audiences in New York and California "like us once they see us. They don't have too many outdoor festivals in New York but we've been playing a lot of festival dates in California. We just did a couple of dates in San Bernardino and Long Beach and did real well. We've played like third billing or something, but the reactions we've gotten have been fantastic. We haven't played the Forum yet, but we'll get to that."
Another knock at the door was heard over the phone and Cronin again shouted, "Can't you see I'm on the fucking phone? Would’ja please come back later?"
It was the persistent maid again. I then asked Cronin about REO's propensity for raising the wrath of hotel managers when they're on tour.
"Well, you just get bored on the road sometimes when there's nothing to do at night," he observed. "We always have a party after a concert, but usually never the night before. So you've gotta give yourself diversions."
Their promotional stories relate an incident in a Muncie, Indiana, hotel when the boys spotted a pond in the lobby stocked with real ducks. Each band member promptly grabbed a duck for his own personal bathtub.
"Yeah, that's a true story, but we didn't hurt the ducks. Nothing we do is destructive..."
The band was also thrown out of three hotels in one night in Columbus, Ohio for writing on the walls with ketchup. There was another incident in Johnson City, Tennessee, when the band woke up the morning after a concert and decided to have a picnic in the motel parking lot. So they dragged table and chairs from their room, opened bottle of wine and did just that, drawing a crowd of some 100 curious people and, eventually, the police.
But the band's pilot, a man of apparent foresight, could see trouble brewing and quickly drove to the airport, returning with a helicopter within minutes. He landed the craft in the parking lot and while the police were still standing around trying to figure out if any laws were being broken, the band members sprinted for the helicopter and were swept out of the law's reach.
"Our roadies had to go back and pick up all our things later on and they said the cops were laughing about the whole thing," Cronin recalled. "Nobody was even mad.”
“We try to keep things as harmless as possible."
I recalled those words as I stood in the ruin and rubble of the Myriad dressing room three nights later. Cronin and I were scheduled to continue our interview, but both he and Richrath seemed distracted and nervous in the aftermath of their food-flinging spree. Several road crew members had walked in and were laughing at the mess in shocked amazement. I reminded Cronin of our interview and he nodded vaguely and assured me we would sit down and talk.
But moments later he and Richrath wandered out of the dressing room in a daze, kicking at pieces of broken plates as they went. They didn't come back.
One of the remaining crew members, apparently inspired by his bosses, sampled some dip, then flung the bowl against a wall, shouting "Fuck this shit, man."
Such are the rigors of rock and roll stardom. Somehow, though, I felt more sympathy that night for the Myriad janitors.