With the death of Gary Richrath this past weekend, I am reminded of just how heady the rise to fame must be for those lucky enough to enjoy such a ride, but also how hard the eventual fall to earth can be. I saw this up close and personal in 1993 when I briefly took over booking for the longtime Chicago venue Martyrs.
The owner of the club at the time, a mustachioed man who wore shorts and flip-flops well into November, hired me five minutes into the interview and immediately put me to work formulating the club's itinerary for the next few months. This job was made harder by the confusing docket of shows booked by the previous booking agent.
One of those shows, I quickly discovered, was by the band Richrath, whose new American-flag-adorned self-released CD Only The Strong Survive sat on a desk with a Post-It note reading "$400". The owner then informed me that Richrath was scheduled to play at the club in two weeks and that $400 in question was the band's guarantee for the evening.
That couldn't be right, I thought, and promptly contacted the band's booking agent, who referred me directly to Mr. Richrath, who informed me that the reason the guarantee was so low was because he was still waiting to hear if he'd be taking part in some upcoming REO shows. It quickly dawned on me during the conversation that Richrath was the only one truly holding out any hope for his return to REO and that his continual reliance upon such a long shot actually coming to be was sad, but it was also hurting his bottom line.
"What's your normal guarantee?" I asked the former REO guitarist.
"$1500," he responded.
"So, why $400 for this show?"
"It's non-refundable," he responded. "If Kevin calls me and wants me there for REO, then I have to be able to clear my schedule."
"Has Kevin called you?"
"Has Kevin given you any indication that he might call you."
"I've heard from some people within the band that he's thinking about it."
"Which people in the band?"
The Neil in question is longtime REO keyboardist Neil Doughty, the sole remaining original member of REO. Through mutual friends, I contacted Doughty and asked him if there was any chance of Cronin bringing Richrath back into the fold for shows around the time of our scheduled Richrath show.
"Not in this lifetime," he replied.
It was at this point that my heart sank because I knew I was dealing with a legend who was hopelessly mired in the past, waiting for a phone call that, quite frankly, was never going to come. Oh, Kevin might call him some day, sure, but it wasn't going to be for the one reason Gary had hoped.
Knowing this before Richrath did was one of the more eye-opening experiences of my time in the music industry. Here was a guy who had been to #1, sold-out stadiums across the country, and built REO Speedwagon into the solid machine that it was fronting a third-rate bar band while waiting for the phone to ring.
I went to the owner and told him that we either need to cut another check for $1100 to bring the guarantee up to $1500 and commit to promoting the show in the manner befitting a legend or cancel the show altogether. My vote was for the latter because, in truth, I didn't want to take part in Richrath's further decline into complete obscurity.
A little further digging revealed that the $400 guarantee had been paid out of the pocket of the previous booking agent, who, in light of his recent firing, had made no request to his former employer to be reimbursed. A quick call to the former booking agent revealed that the check had been returned to him as "undeliverable" because the address Gary had given him was incorrect.
"Gary swore up and down the address was correct so I re-sent it to him and it came back a second time as undeliverable," said the former booking agent.
On the day that Richrath and company showed for their gig, I made sure he and the band were given a $1500 guarantee the minute they walked through the door. While his band left much to be desired and Gary himself no longer resembled the iconic guitar god he'd been just a decade earlier, his guitar playing touched everyone in that room. It may have only been 150 people or so who came out, but every last one of them stayed to the very end and most who wanted to do so had their moment with a rock legend, who stayed until the very end, autographing REO CD's and t-shirts, and posing for pictures with anyone and everyone.
As the room emptied, I could see the glow in Gary's demeanor dissipate. There is no lonelier place to be than in the shoes of a musician after the last fan has left and all that remains to do is grab your instrument and walk out that door yourself into the cold, dark night, or morning. As Gary went for the door, he paused, looked back at me and asked, "Is that it?"
"I guess so," I replied with a smile and a handshake.
"Okay, well..." and out the door he went.
|REO's Kevin Cronin|
Such "cheesy" decisions have always been right up Cronin's alley, but were a big reason why he and Richrath weren't getting along at the time Richrath was let go.
Had it been wrong for Cronin to kick the hard-drinking Richrath out of the band? Considering that Richrath had kicked Cronin out of the band years earlier, only to be forced to rehire the popular singer a couple years later, one certainly couldn't blame Cronin for wrestling control of the band away from Richrath at the first available opportunity.
Still, it was a situation that Kevin could have made right many times over the years, but chose not to do so for fear it would undo his new re-branding of the band as a younger, bottle-blonde version of its former self.