Backstage with Neil Young, Jones Beach NY, 1989
Neil Young, Backstage at Jones Beach, June 14, 1989
There are two versions to this story. The short one and the long one.
Fortunately for you, this is the long one.
I believe there are a multitude of reasons why people go to concerts. Among the obvious are: they love the music, they feel the connection with others, they want to hear their favorite songs while in that atmosphere, they want to get drunk and/or stoned and forget about everything else in their life for a few hours, and they want to have a story to tell. But one thing occurred to me that may not be readily apparent, and that is that these seekers want to, or need to, be in the same place as the musician, songwriter, entertainer, storyteller, performer that has made residence in their heart. It’s what makes them more real and tangible. What was simply the sounds, feelings, words, pictures and videos, becomes us and them occupying the same room in a shared religious-like ritual that leaves everyone spent and fulfilled. There is indeed nothing in this world like live performance. No two performances can be the same. Each one is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
This is my story of just one once-in-a-lifetime concert experience.
Interestingly enough, the big night was preceded by two other pretty darn big nights that were the primary cause for the big night to even happen.
Big Night Number 1
June 5, 1989
I was living in a Philadelphia, PA suburb. My oldest brother Dave lived in Connecticut and somehow we arranged for a visit and a concert. It was the first show of a summer tour. Neil Young – A Solo Acoustic Evening. This was the “Freedom” tour, as Neil played a handful of songs from the forthcoming album (released Oct 2, 1989). Also playing on a few tunes each night were Ben Keith and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. Lake Compounce was an outdoor venue with a festival feeling, adjacent to a lake and amusement park. No ticketed seating. Just a large stage and a field full of Neil faithfuls.
Before Neil appeared there was an opening act. Being an opener, especially for a huge name artist, can be a thankless task. They are there as a likely little-known nobody to promote their name and probably a new album. Some concert goers don’t even bother to listen to the opener, which I just don’t understand. If anything, you know the opener is going to do their best to play their ass off. This is their big opportunity to grow their fan base. It’s crucial that all goes well. The opener that night was the Indigo Girls.
I can honestly say that I was not prepared for what my ears were about to hear. I mean, the first song I heard them play was Closer To Fine, for cryin’ out loud! A song which became their traditional closing number on the thousands of shows they’ve done since, with every single person in the house singing every word along with them. They went on to play six more songs and I was duly impressed by their sound.
During this time period, I was playing music with my friend Scooter. We were an acoustic duo that had some original songs and vocal harmonies that got us some attention now and then. I told him about this amazing duo I’d seen and how much I think he’d appreciate them. Fortunately for us the tour was about to land in New Jersey. I got us two tickets for the show which was in just a few days.
Big Night Number 2
June 10, 1989
Bally’s Grand Hotel and Casino
Atlantic City, NJ
Scooter and I head down to Atlantic City early in the day, hang out a little, and then go to seek out the venue. It’s an outdoor setup once again. Near the water again. Bright lights and amusement parks.
Out on the perimeter of the venue we suddenly hear what is most likely a sound check. Guitars strumming and voices. We were near a gate, a guard was there and we naively and innocently asked if we could meet the Indigo Girls. He made a call on his walkie, we waited, and a woman came out to talk to us. The woman said that the girls were kind of busy, then something like “Wait here” or “Let me see” or “I’ll check”. I really don’t know. What I did know is that there seemed to be a possibility it could happen. Adrenaline.
Moments later, out came Amy Ray and Emily Saliers – the Indigo Girls – and they just started chatting. Just them and us. Introductions. Said I’d just seen them in CT, loved their sound, and just had to bring my friend Scooter to see them. We’re an acoustic duo also. We jokingly say we might call ourselves Vertigo Guys. It’s exciting and relaxing at the same time. They could not have been nicer. We thanked them and they went back inside, and we were buzzing for the show to start.
After the show (which has more fun stuff to tell about), we hung out with other folks near that same gate, which also had a tour bus parked nearby. Once again, the Indigo Girls came out and started greeting people. They recognized us and we talked again briefly. I said that I’d be seeing them again in Jones Beach. Emily said, “That’s great! We’ll put you on the list.” The List! Turns out the woman who allowed us to meet them initially was their tour manager, Bunny. Bunny would become very important to this story.
The Big Night
June 14, 1989
Jones Beach Theater
It was a Wednesday, a work day, and I was driving three hours by myself from PA to Long Island. I must have left work early, otherwise I never would have made it to the show on time. I was to meet my old friend Tony (we grew up across the street from each other) who was coming with a friend of his from CT. Tony is another monumental Neil Young appreciator.
I parked at the venue and found a side gate with a guard. Trying to stay cool I explained that my name might be on “the list”. I was then disheartened to learn that it was not. Well, it did seem a bit too good to be true, so I went about meeting up with Tony and getting to our seats. The Indigo Girls came out and did their set, which of course was wonderful. It felt great to hear them again and to know I had met and spoke with them just a few days before.
This is when I learned a very convincing lesson – persistence pays off.
During the break between Indigo Girls and Neil playing I decided to go to the guys at the sound board, which as usual sits in the middle of the crowd. I told one of them my story. How I met the Indigo Girls in Atlantic City and their manager Bunny may have put us on “the list”, and is it possible to ask someone about going backstage. I guess I sounded believable because he said, “Come with me” and led me down to the front of the stage. He called over a very large man to talk to me. I told my story again, making sure I mentioned Bunny, and he said, “Wait here”, and walked off. In just a few minutes he came back, said “Here ya go”, and handed me a backstage pass. He then told me how to get there, which was via a tunnel. I could not believe this good fortune. To have simply explained myself in a sincere way, then being trusted enough to walk freely, by myself, to the backstage area.
Going through the tunnel I saw a couple of guys approaching. One of them was Poncho. As we passed I said “Hey” and kept going. Coming out of the tunnel and through a doorway I found myself behind the large stage curtain. There were patio tables and chairs, what I imagined was a bar, and nobody else. I walked across the area and found someone to ask where I could find the Indigo Girls.
Up a flight of stairs, then I hear voices and laughter. I find a door to a small dressing room and stand there as Bunny, the Indigo Girls, and a few other folks are chatting away. Then Amy recognized me and said an enthusiastic hello. I was able to have a few minutes with both Amy and Emily, took a couple of pictures with them, gave them a cassette tape of my music, and then they went about their business. I grabbed a beer from a cooler.
Suddenly, their road manager Bunny made an announcement. “I don’t usually get excited about this kind of thing, but I just found out that Bruce Springsteen is on his way here!” Whoa! What? Bruce? Here?! This night just keeps getting better and better!
Neil was about to start. I went down the stairs and found myself at the side of the stage. I’m standing at the edge of that big curtain watching Neil Young play, his instruments lined up in front of me. Next thing I know, there’s Poncho standing there. I said, “This tour must be pretty easy for you since you’re playing just a couple of songs each show.” He chuckled and said, “Yeah, but I’m doing all the cooking on the bus!” He never questioned who I was or why I was there.
Next, I bravely made my way closer to the line of guitars and a guy wearing headphones working a sound board. This was most likely the infamous Tim Mulligan. He noticed me, took off his headphones and said, “Who are you?” I said I was there as a guest of the Indigo Girls. He said, “Well, you can’t stand there.” I respectfully retreated.
This side of the stage had a riser that was maybe 15 feet high on which guests could stand and watch the show. I went up the steps and there were maybe 5 or 6 other folks. No idea who they were. I’m pretty sure that Bunny, Amy and Emily also came up after a bit. Once again, I am watching Neil Young from just a few yards away, while looking out on the huge crowd, seeing the joyful faces of the people down front showing their love and admiration for this music icon.
Then, walking on to the platform where I am standing is Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti. Feeling brave again, but also what felt to be the natural thing to do, I approached him, stuck out my hand and said, “Hey Bruce!” He shook my hand and said, “How ya doin’?” As he continued on toward the rail to watch Neil, I went to take a picture (with a shitty little instamatic camera). His bodyguard immediately put his hand in front of the lens and forcefully said, “Don’t talk to Bruce!” So there I stood, 20 feet from Bruce as we both watched Neil play for a few songs.
Bruce goes back down the steps from the platform. I speculate he’s leaving.
Moments later, Neil finishes “Powderfinger”, says “Thank you, everybody” and exits the stage. The crowd shows their love, howling, knowing there will likely be an encore.
Neil returns. More exuberant cheering and yelling. Neil paces the stage and speaks:
“My songs are all the same. Now you can use Bob Dylan’s words and interchange the whole deal there. Or you could use Bruce’s words and that’d be okay too. I’d just like to thank you for coming here tonight. There’s a friend of mine out here somewhere, he doesn’t know I’m gonna’ do this to him, but ya know, somebody’s gotta do it to him, ya know. So, he’s out here somewhere. Bruuuuce. Are you in here? I’d like to do a song with ya Bruce, if ya got a minute.”
Out comes Bruce with an acoustic guitar. The crowd goes absolutely crazy. Neil kind of chuckles. Says they will play “Down By The River”. Tells Bruce to “just sing in to this”, indicating the one microphone on stage. Says to him, “E minor” and they begin a once-in-a-lifetime duet. Bruce watching Neil to pick up the chords, playing a few lead licks, and finding a nice high harmony on the chorus.
Song is over. Crowd is going crazy. They exit the stage. The show is over. I come down from the platform and am just hanging around with a handful of others. We are kept away to give Neil and Bruce some space as they are talking, just about fifteen feet away. The only things I remember hearing are Bruce saying, “I really love your songs, man” and Neil saying, “When you’re in California, stop by”. They talk only a couple of minutes, then head their separate ways. Neil walks swiftly, then right by me and as he passes I hand him a copy of an issue of the Neil Young Appreciation Society newsletter. He takes it and says, “Thanks”.
I hung around for a little bit longer until it was time to make my way back through the tunnel.
I drove the three hours home, wide awake, on an adrenaline high, slept a couple of hours, and somehow got up and went to work in the morning. A remarkable, unforgettable experience. Not sure, but I might have the backstage pass or ticket stub in a box somewhere in my attic. What I do have, though, are these fantastic memories of one incredible night, and that one photo of me and the Indigo Girls.
There is a bootleg film of the concert which I believe was filmed by Timothy Hutton. I saw him there backstage, but didn’t realize what was up. Maybe a year or two later I was in a record store and saw a VHS tape for sale called “Neil Young - Feeling Blue, Jones Beach, NY”. Holy shit! Could this be the same show I was backstage for? The song titles looked right, but the photo of Neil looked like it was from the Rusted Out Garage tour. The song list did not include “Down By The River”, though.
I have since found a DVD of the show, which looks to be a German bootleg and is labeled with a copyright of “2009 Showtime Movies”. It does indeed have the full list of songs, including a “with Bruce Springsteen” credit. It looks like this film was actually shown on Showtime Channel at some point as their logo appears on screen.
I have tried really hard to find myself in the footage, to no avail. Not sure, but I might have the backstage pass or ticket stub in a box somewhere in my attic.
What I do have, though, is that one photo (see below) of me and the Indigo Girls and these fantastic memories of one incredible night.
June 4, 1989 – Tiananmen Square Massacre
Oct 2, 1989 – Freedom released
Indigo Girls at Lake Compounce
Closer To Fine
Land of Canaan
Prince of Darkness