On John Popper’s Birthday: Remembering When Blues Traveler and Phish Vied for MSG
Earlier this week, John Popper made a surprise appearance along with Peter Shapiro during the Relix Channel’s Wayback Wednesday programming, which revisited The Jammy Awards as well as the Wetlands Preserved documentary. (Popper’s spirited recollections included an uncomfortable moment for Shapiro, who was sheltering in place with his family.)
Today Popper turns 53 and in honor of the occasion, we share this excerpt from his memoir Suck & Blow: And Other Stories I’m Not Supposed to Tell, written with Relix editor-in-chief Dean Budnick. This sequence looks back on Blues Traveler’s headlining gig at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 31, 1996 (and his attempts to poach the venue from Phish for New Year’s Eve 1998).
As New York musicians who grew up in New Jersey, we always lived in the shadow of Madison Square Garden. We never imagined that we’d have the opportunity to play there. No, we imagined it, but that goal seemed very distant from reality. But as my conquest maps and road fantasies seemed to remind me, we were never too tethered to reality anyhow.
Our first opportunity to play MSG came through the Spin Doctors. They were at the peak of their popularity with Pocket Full of Kryptonite when they asked us to join forces on a show at the illustrious venue. More specifically, they asked us to open a show for them at the illustrious venue. It wasn’t that bad an offer, and they couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t do it.
As I mentioned, it was weird watching them get huge because they were our little brothers. We had it set in our minds that they would always open for us. They had different ideas, though. I can remember, before their record hit, when I came to see them at a gig, they each pulled out an article they had saved that described them as “Blues Traveler’s favorite opening band.” They had saved it with a purpose, and if I were them, I would have also saved it with a purpose.
But MSG was a hill we wanted to assault on our own.
In 1995, Phish had their first shot at it the Garden on New Year’s. Our show that night was at Roseland Ballroom, which was about 20 blocks away, so before we went on, I decided to go down there and check it out. I can remember they were in the middle of some jam and Page was looking up into the endless ceiling that is Madison Square Garden. I desperately wanted to get into the damn room, but in just watching them play, any sense of competition kind of left me.
We finally had our chance, one year later, on December 31, 1996.
There was some added stress, though, because they kept telling us right up until the show that we’d only sold 6,000 tickets. We were having some shitty gigs around then too, so we thought we were heading into doom. But it turned out that when they were doing their calculations, they had somehow forgotten about all these other tickets, and we walked into a sell-out.
Our heads didn’t get too big, though. There was this kindly looking, old elevator operator in the uniform of a doorman with the epaulets and the bright orange hat. I could tell he’d been there since the ‘30s or ‘40s, maybe even the ‘20s, because he looked like he was 90 years old. He’d clearly shrunken with age, and it looked like this had been his entire life’s work. I could picture him as a teenager helping Louis Armstrong onto an elevator. Man, I thought, he must have seen it all. So I said to him, “You look like you’ve been here forever. I bet you’ve seen Sinatra, the Ali-Frazier fight, the Rolling Stones how many times. What’s your favorite act you’ve seen?” And he looked up at me with those cute little eyes and said, “Get the fuck on the elevator.” And that was Madison Square Garden.
A day earlier, while we were rehearsing for our big masterpiece, 10-years-in-the-making Madison Square Garden show, we met a guy at the rehearsal studio who had this human fly musical suit made of synthesizer parts. If you touched one part, it would say, “Blues, blues, blues” and another would say, “Traveler, traveler.” None of us really thought much of this guy, but Bobby was such a sweetheart and so enamored of the technology that he had this guy open for us at Madison Square Garden. He asked him on all of our behalf, and then Bobby looked at us with such childlike eyes, we couldn’t say no. The guy promised it would be a five-minute introduction, but on the night of the show he wound up doing a 45-minute set. We could hear the roar we’d been waiting 10 years for, and then everyone slowly became bored and started mumbling amongst themselves. So I turned to Bobby: “You gave away our 10-years-in-the-making standing ovation in Madison Square Garden.”
I want to say it was one of those days, but you only have one of those days.
My other memory of that night was the death of the black cat.
This was our New Year’s Eve ritual, which began in 1990. It largely had to do with Dave Graham and was sort of a tribute to his father, Bill Graham, who would dress as Father Time for the Grateful Dead every year. One night, while Dave and I were inebriated and I realized there were nine years left before the next century, we hit upon the idea that one of the black cat’s lives would be sacrificed each year, with Dave on stage in costume dressed as the black cat.
The first year at Roseland Ballroom, he came out as a black cat, and all we could afford to do was throw him off stage. The next year, in New York City at the Paramount, we had a little more budget, and I mean a little more, so curiosity killed the cat. There was a question mark on a garbage can, and he when he opened it up, it exploded and he died. Then, in 1992, I’d just had my accident, so we put the cat on a motorcycle and he crashed into some barrels.
By 1996, we had finally made it to Madison Square Garden, so our lighting guy, Paul Morrill, convinced us to let him do something special. Back when we had a band van and a crew van, he constantly asked whether he could ride with us because he thought he was an artist. He would also try to hit us up for a lighting fee and a designer fee during an era when we barely had any money to pay the crew, so of course, we put him in the crew van—it was great.
What Paul pitched us was that because we finally were in Madison Square Garden, what better thing than King Kong? The cat would be dressed in a gorilla suit and would climb the Empire State Building far over the skyline of Manhattan, where cartoon planes (as promised by Paul) would fly out of the sky through some holographic projection, swoop around and buzz him like flies, causing him to fall off at precisely the stroke of midnight.
By the way, none of our strokes of midnight were ever on time. There was never an exact counter, although, to her credit, Gina really tried her best without access to a Navy clock. So in the era before iPhones, if you came to one of our New Year’s Eve shows, you were at the mercy of the house. That was keeping in the tradition of, “Leave the time to us when you enter these hallowed halls.” The New Year’s countdown could take place at 11:58 or, far more likely, at 12:03, but what was really important was that you came in on December 31 of one year and you left on January 1 of the next year. Who really cares when it’s midnight? We’re focusing on a point together, drinking champagne and hugging.
Really, that’s how a New Year’s party goes, unless you’re lucky enough to have the TV on where they show the ball dropping. A timely ball dropping is always good, but sooner or later all balls will drop, and remember, where the ball lands is where you want to keep your hands.
Another problem we had with the New Year’s Eves was keeping track of the black cat’s lives. The first few years we started counting down, but somewhere in the middle, Gina started counting up. We knew that the whole thing would end at 1999 but there was some confusion about what to put on the shirts. What does number six mean? The sixth time we’re doing it or that there are six lives left? I don’t think anybody else noticed, but one year I lost it: “Oh, my god, the whole thing’s ruined! Now nobody knows how many we’ve done and how many are left.” That was as annoying as it gets.
But back to Paul Morrill’s New Year’s Eve spectacular. The day of the show arrived, and instead of a backdrop of Manhattan, all he could get was a backdrop of Pittsburgh, which was troubling. Also, his Empire State Building looked exactly like the Williamsburgh Bank Tower in Brooklyn. Then, instead of an actual gorilla suit, he had a gorilla chest and six pack, which he would duct tape to Dave’s belly. The airplanes, which he touted as cartoon projections independently flying through the air, were just light gels that would spin around where the lights were hung, so in no way would they be bothering the cat. You would just hear airplane noises.
When the moment arrived and the black cat climbed up to fight these imaginary airplanes, his gorilla chest and six-pack fell off, so it looked like he’d been vivisected. And then when he fell, no one lowered him. He just hung there like in a bad school play. So being the improviser he is, Dave Graham just died right there, hanging.
So the grand effect at midnight on New Year’s Eve with Blues Traveler at Madison Square Garden 1996 was that the King Kong cat climbed up the Williamsburgh Tower in downtown Pittsburgh, had a hallucination, vivisected himself and died a mysterious midair lynching.
It cost us $40 grand, and, oddly enough, I believe that was the last year Paul Morrill worked for us.
Another thing we learned was that all the production costs were part of an exquisitely perfected art form in how to bleed you. The unions, for instance, were required to be there for anything that had to do with shipping and transportation, and they earned three times their normal rate if you went into overtime on New Year’s. So we ended up doing four times the work and earned a little less than what we’d normally make.
But in spite of all that, we wanted back in.
However, you needed to reserve Madison Square Garden more than a year ahead of time. In the summer of 1997, it turned out that Phish was already sitting on MSG for December 31, 1998. They had what’s known as “first hold,” and we had decided to challenge them for it, in which case, we put up half the money—it was over a half-million bucks—and they had 48 hours to respond, when they had to put all their money down. Finding a time when they were without resources or the ability to respond in that 48 hours would require chicanery.
We picked a time when we strategically found out they were in Scotland. This was in the ‘90s, so there weren’t really good phones in Scotland, especially at 2 a.m., which we decided was the perfect time to start the clock ticking. The only person representing Phish in America was their accountant, and he was the guy we had to stop, so I sent a stripper every 15 minutes for eight hours to his office to read from Sammy Davis Jr.’s Yes I Can. His office was destroyed because, every 15 minutes, someone would show up, take her clothes off and start reading this bizarre book, and he wanted to know who was sending these strippers. It never occurred to him that it would be us; every stripper took a stripper’s oath (I wasn’t aware of one, but I was grateful) not to divulge who had sent her on this errand of evil.
But to his credit, Phish’s manager, John Paluska, using a borrowed telephone and wire transfers, made it in the last two hours. We held him off for 46 hours, but with two hours to go, he transferred nearly $600,000 to Madison Square Garden, and I had to just give him a salute. I gave him everything I had, and he survived it. I don’t even know if he knows this, but I’m ready to share that info now.
Adapted excerpt from Suck and Blow: And Other Stories I’m Not Supposed to Tell by John Popper with Dean Budnick. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016.