Back in my college days, my days of misspent youth where I could have studied more and partied more and thus enriched my life, I almost saw the Ramones play.
I kind of heard them play. I was definitely in the auditorium where they were performing. I was probably no further than 20 feet from them for about an hour. But I can’t say that I saw them play.
Let me explain.
Hey Ho, Let’s Go (Hokies)
Back in ye olde twentiethe centurie, I pursued my higher education at Blacksburg, Virginia, the home of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Also known as Virginia Tech. Go Hokies. (My sister went to the University of Virginia, so you know there was no peace in the house during college breaks for a few years. My parents might say that that had nothing to do with our college rivalry. Whatever.)
I wasn’t a super-involved college participant. I mean, I went to classes and so on, but I didn’t really engage myself with clubs or societies or stuff that brings post-college benefits.
But, on the urging of my friend Steve, I joined the Pop Concert Committee. For the rest of this post, I will refer to my buddy Steve as ‘Rivethead‘, a nickname he earned for being a fan of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music album. (This also unambiguously identifies which Steve I’m talking about to any of my Tech friends reading this, since the concert committee had more than one Steve.)
Rivethead was into music, in a way that I wasn’t. He knew things about music and bands. He could listen to songs and speak authoritatively about some element in the music. I’d have to take his word for it.
It’s not that he was a musical genius. I’m just a musical caveman.
But Rivethead and I both were fans of Blue Oyster Cult and the Ramones, so at least I had some frame of reference.
Being on the concert committee was a great time, but also frustrating. It was hard to get bands that would make cash for the college, since the largest venue on the campus was the indoor basketball arena, Cassell Coliseum, with the engineering wonder of a wooden ceiling.
I’m not trying to be sarcastic, it was considered amazing that the arena had a wooden ceiling.
The problem: bands couldn’t hang equipment from the ceiling; it wouldn’t support the weight. So any prospective bands would have to bring portable scaffolding, called genies, on which to rig up lights and speakers and whatever the hell else. This would result in obstructed viewing for the back end of the stadium and so some sections would not be available for tickets.
It just wasn’t cost effective. And there was no incentive for bands with impressive stage performances to come play Va Tech.
Bonzo goes to Burruss Auditorium
But occasionally, we’d get a band priced just right that we could break even on (or maybe make a small profit to save up for the next concert) by having them perform in the administration building’s auditorium. We’d have the band play Burruss Hall.
I have a lot of fond memories working shows at Burruss Hall, as opposed to Cassell. At the indoor basketball arena, we’d have to put down sheets of plywood over the flooring to protect it from the chairs and concert goers. We were responsible for hauling in all the genie equipment; which actually was not all that much of a chore, since it was cool to work with the road crew of the bands. When we’d done a good job, they’d tell us, and that was quite a rush.
But set up at Burruss was usually a breeze. Super easy.
Look, I’ll get to my Ramones story in a moment.
I remember some great shows at Burruss. George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers opened their set with the 60s Batman television theme song. The auditorium was pitch black except for the Bat-Signal projected on the back of the stage.
Bruce Hornsby came and played, and stressed us out when during set up, he came out to chat with the committee members who were on break in the back of the auditorium. It was stressful because we’d always had it drummed into us not to talk to the performers. At all. We weren’t prepared to have them talk to us.
Okay, Ramones. You all know who the Ramones are, right? If you don’t, you need to educate yourself. They’re a legendary band. I’d no doubt do them an injustice trying to talk about them, so just take my word for it that they’re a big deal.
The Ramones were touring, were available to play Virginia Tech, and the economics looked good for us to host them in Burruss.
The Ramones were a recognizable name, and we felt that we ‘d get a good turnout from the students. Tech’s a big place.
Tickets sales were good, since the punk rock population in Roanoke, Virginia (the nearest “real” city) were interested in seeing this seminal, legendary band.
I Don’t Wanna be Buried/
In a Pit Sematary…
The concert committee had a set of plywood barriers that we would set up for crowd control, to separate the attendees from the stage. At Cassell or at small shows at the student union, the barriers would be assembled on the floor before the stage. We’d bolt them together.
There’d define a small space between the stage and crowd for a handful of guys to act as security guards primarily, but also as a means to assist people in the front who were being crushed against the barriers, or who might be passing out. It happened.
Burruss didn’t really have that accommodating a set up for the barriers. In front of the stage was an orchestra pit, and in the pit was where we’d set up our pallisade.
The barricades normally came up to someone’s mid-chest level (depending on how tall the person was.) With our wooden barriers set up in the pit, even on risers to add height, they’d go up to not much more than hip level on the average person who would be standing in the auditorium. It was more of a nice idea that a method for crowd control.
Please respect our space. Please! We’re asking nicely!
I was stationed backstage, stage-right, by an exit. Really, just to discourage people from sneaking backstage. It was a pretty easy job; people rarely bothered to try. I wasn’t near the dressing rooms so I wasn’t likely to see the band in my part of the backstage, but at some point I expected to be able to move back and get a look at the band performing during the show.
The opening band was some legit reggae group. I don’t remember who they were, I just remember that before the show, they played some soccer with our audio crew. Their music was fun and mellow, if you were into reggae.
There was a brief intermission. That’s when things got interesting.
Rivethead came to my post.
Rivethead: Hey, in the pit. Now.
Me: What? You don’t want me by the door?
Rivethead: Everyone’s going in the pit. Now.
I didn’t need to be told twice. Hmmm, now that I look over the dialogue, apparently I did. Okay, I didn’t need to be told thrice. I got into the pit.
It became clear why we needed to reposition.
Right after the reggae set had ended, the previously mellow crowd had gotten up from the seats, and had moved to the front of the auditorium, pushing up against our barricades. They were all getting ready for the Ramones.
I’d never been in the pit before, or even behind the barricades during shows where the barriers were on the same level as the crowd. We had some big dudes on the committee for that task.
I was a pretty scrawny guy in college. As I mentioned, I didn’t party enough really, and didn’t study enough. And I certainly did not command a personal zone of control enough.
Not like Big Bobby S., who could have played football for Tech had he just been a bit bigger.
The lights went out. I heard “ONETWOTHREEFOUR” from behind me and the first song started with the unmistakeable Ramones guitar-heavy sound. And the crowd surged forward.
Sheena is a Punk Rocker (from Roanoke. With hundreds of others.)
Who here watches Game of Thrones? (Spoilers are about to be dropped, yo.)
Remember in the recent season, when the Night’s Watch were trying to evacuate Wildlings from the fishing village of Hardhome, and the Others attack? And the undead wight soldiers of the Others start smashing their way through the fishing village’s defensive wall?
I watched the two-by-fours that framed our plywood barriers pulled at and wrenched by the crowd. I could see nails being worked loose, wood being slowly dragged over bolts. Down in the pit, we grabbed on to the frame as well and tried to keep them from being torn apart.
We’d try to prevent people from coming over the barricades. We’d try to.
It wasn’t really a smart move on the part of the average attendee, to try to get onto the stage via the orchestra pit, because, well, it’s a pit. But they were above us, they were young and strong, and the stage was right there.
Some tried to jump across to the stage.
Once in the pit, they really had nowhere to go but to be escorted out the sides. To try again.
Sometimes we’d help people over the barrier and into the pit. Not everyone was trying to rush the stage (and I shouldn’t imply that everyone was trying to destroy the barricades either, they weren’t. But the barricades were deteriorating from the pressure.) Everyone up front was being pushed against the plywood frames, and since the barriers were low in relation to the crowd, that couldn’t have been comfortable.
If someone looked like they were in distress, we’d pull them over and get them over to the side. This tended to make opportunities for those rushing the stage, though.
I had to watch the crowd. I had to keep an eye on the plank of wood I was holding onto, or reach up to support someone who was being pushed over, or obstruct someone from leaping over.
I mentioned at the beginning that I didn’t see the show. That’s not 100% true. I saw a few seconds here, a few seconds there. I remember seeing Joey Ramone looming up, as he did. I remember seeing Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, cool as f***. I might have seen Richie drumming, but it was all in snatches and blurs. I couldn’t recognize any song because nearly all of my attention was on the crowd. I just remember a lot of guitars and the end of each song flowing into the next, with a fresh shouted cadence of “ONETWOTHREEFOUR!”
And then they were done.
They probably did an encore set, which meant we had a brief break to catch our breath before we had to handle the crowd again, but I honestly don’t remember.
And then there were really done.
And the crowd went home.
And we started moving equipment from the stage to the trucks.
The breakdown of a show always went faster than set up, and everyone was motivated to get things put away and either get home or to the post-concert party. I was with Rivethead when one of the Ramones crew came over.
Only three people got on stage. You guys did alright.
No one got seriously hurt, that I remember. The pop concert committee was mostly guys, maybe 30 men and 10 women. That tracked closely with the demographics at Va. Tech in general for that time.
When Rivethead had redeployed the guys into the pit, the girls on the committee were stationed on the side entrances to backstage. One of the Lisas (we had two Lisas, I’m not using Lisa as some generic term) had gotten bruised up tackling a guy who had made a rush to get backstage during the show.
But I think that was about it.
I think someone might have taken a swing at Big Bobby in the pit, but again, there was nowhere to go, Bobby didn’t get hurt, and neither did the wall-jumper.
I recall so much joy. Joy that we made it through okay, sure, but just a sense of exhilaration for the experience. For illustrative purposes, I described the Roanoke punk rock fans as the feral undead army in Game of Thrones, but of course that’s unfair and inaccurate, and doesn’t describe the affection I had for the crowd’s enthusiasm and love of the experience.
(Maybe I should have compared them to the Free Folk going over the Wall, also defended by the Night’s Watch. That would make me Jon Snow in this story! Actually, Rivethead would be Jon Snow, and I’d be Sam.)
The way I look at it, we had a party, the punks from Roanoke came as our guests, and had a great time. Part of having a great time as a punk is to not let The Man tell you what to do, and like it or not, we were kind of The Man. But we were also part of their experience, and they were part of ours. Everyone did their part and had a great time.
The college administration (our The Man) did not see things as favorably. More than just our barricades were damaged (which totally had to be rebuilt) the seats in the front rows of Burruss Auditorium were significantly damaged.
I don’t know if that was the last time we got to use Burruss for concerts while I was at Tech. I think before I graduated we had an evening of light jazz there. Maybe.
Anyway, I was fortunate to see the Ramones twice more, both times in Washington D.C., and both times with Rivethead. The last time was on their long, extended farewell tour. It bums me out that I’ll never see them in concert again.
But regardless, the best time was still that time they played for an hour behind and above me, while I was too terrified that our crappy wood walls were going to go down to be able to really listen to the music, or see them perform.
Hey Ho, Let’s Go.
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! )
Ramones logo obviously does not belong to me, and I clearly did not take the promotional pic of the band. I blame Google.
Images from Game of Thrones belong to HBO, obviously.
I take credit for the photo of Rivethead lounging about in his British Invasion outfit. Love those shoes, man.
I have no idea who took the picture of me windsurfing. My dad, probably.
Pictures of Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum and exterior and interiors of Burruss Hall were not taken by me. I’ll blame Google again, but as an alumnus, I’m hoping they’ll overlook my use of the images. Hey, I probably shed some blood hauling plywood sheets to protect the floor of Cassell Coliseum. I think they owed the Pop Concert Committee pizza, anyway. Stick it to The Man!
I can’t make any claims to the images (except for the ones I own…) but some claims to the text. After all, it happened to me. So there.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2015 Some Rights Reserved