Howard Ungerleider: This is your Life
By Pope Francis
Yukon Blade Grinder reporter
My heavens! What a treat to be invited to Yukon Blade Grinder land. As THE man of the cloth, I find it quit humbling to have an opportunity to sing the praises of one Howard Ungerleider. So rich is his body of work. So diverse a resume of accomplishments and achievements. One could simply spend days upon days documenting them...but not me. Think about it. It's been written the entire world was created in just 6 days, so I can't give more than this to Howard without feeling guilty. I'm here, as they say in some parts of the world, to get my swerve on and share some thoughts about one Mr. Ungerleider.
I traveled all over God's green earth to find the real story. It wasn't easy. As with any assignment with the YBG sometimes you just gotta go with the flow. In the end, it was all my pleasure.
How it all started:
Ungerleider was born in New York in 1952 and moved to New Jersey when he was 12, spending his teens in Paramus. He credits his father, a former drill sergeant in the military, with instilling a strong work ethic in him. Success comes from the sweat of our brow, and sometimes from a boot in our rear. That gave him the tools to not be afraid to get his hands dirty.
Kudos to Dad--job well done!
His grandfather played mandolin with the New York Philharmonic, and Howard taught himself a little piano and guitar, which he played in a couple of local bands. Meanwhile, always cruising for the action and the next step up the corporate version of Jacob's Ladder, he volunteered at his high school theater where he first started running lights. He went to what is now Monmouth (NJ) University studying theater and drama right up to the moment when a prank got out of hand and he was shown the door. “It was stupid,” he laughs about the reason for his dismissal. No worries my son...you're forgiven! We all fall short. For example, the Yukon Blade Grinder didn't even pay the fuel tab for my papal jet to go interview Geddy and Alex. The bill is in the mail.
But before his dubious exit, he was on the student council, where he booked concerts and once worked with a New York Agent named Sean LaRoche. So he started showing up at his New York office, thinking if he met him he’d get a record contract for his band. All in God's good time my son.
LaRoche’s secretary kept putting him off, saying he was out of the office, at lunch — whatever — to get this kid to leave. After three weeks, Ungerleider figured out her schedule and marched into LaRoche’s office when she was out. LaRoche, who couldn’t believe this kid had gotten into his office, was even more flabbergasted that he was asking for a record contract. That's using the brain the good Lord gave us all Howard.
From dreams to a bowl of dust? NOT for Howard!!!
“Listen, there’s probably 20,000 bands out there and only one will make it, and it won’t be yours,” LaRoche told Ungerleider. “Now do you want to learn about this industry or do you want your life to be a pipe dream?” Undaunted, Howard was ready for his real "education".
LaRoche wrote some names down for him and sent him out the door. Perhaps crestfallen, but not deterred, it was his ticket to his job as an office boy making $75 a week for another agent, Jeff Franklin, then one of American Talent International owners. As always, Howard was able to learn what he needed to step up to the next level. He went from getting coffee to working in the mailroom, with Franklin seemingly screaming at him all the way. He got his big break when he overheard Franklin chewing out a room of agents because they couldn’t get a gig for Fleetwood Mac at a $3,500 package, with an extra $750 for the opening act. On the way home, Ungerleider stopped by Fairleigh Dickinson University and sold the deal to them — for $8,750. The applause of metal heaven reign on you my son!
Now an agent himself, Ungerleider worked with Deep Purple and Ronnie James Dio and did very well. “I developed a tough reputation, and they would often send me to collect the money from a gig,” he laughs. So tough in fact, he was the inspiration for the immortal tour manager "Ian" from the movie Spinal Tap. He's the one who made sure the motel accommodations were right. He made sure Alex had mandolin strings, and the band had bread that needed no folding.
Ian from This is Spinal Tap
Inspired by Howard Ungerleider
But as he traveled with the bands, they would always ask him what he thought of the show. He would be blunt. “Sometimes I’d point out that there was no ‘show’, just a band playing music.” He would make suggestions, particularly about the lighting, and the band would have him talk to the lighting director about his ideas. This blossomed into a moonlighting gig as a lighting consultant.
“In 1972, I was working with Blue Öyster Cult, and their booking agency was ATI,” Elliot Krowe says of his early days with Ungerleider. “Howard was always in the offices there, and we were introduced. He was available for work, so I hired him to do advance work for me on the BÖC tour. Subsequently he hooked up with Rush and they’re first foray into the states was on tour opening for BÖC, and his first lighting design was done on my system as an opening act.”
40 Years of Vision and excellenceAs the crazy overflowed at the agency, with partners fighting and threatening legal action against each other, Rush needed a tour manager for their first U.S. tour, and the prospect of working for a band looked good. In the summer of 1974, he was sent to Canada by his company to help a new band as they started touring regularly. That band was Rush and Ungerleider has played a crucial role in the success of their tours and production for nearly 40 years. 40 years! That's Moses territory right there, and Howard was certainly traveling the Promise Land in America. For so long he wore the Tour Manager and Lighting Design/Director hat and has been on the road with Rush for every tour except the Roll the Bones tour. From the early days opening for Kiss and Aerosmith, to the breakout 2112 shows, the blockbuster success of the Moving Pictures tour, introduction of lasers on 1984's Grace Under Pressure tour, triumphant return and astounding South American audiences on the 2002 Vapor Trails tours, to the Time Machine, and the current R40 tour, Howard has been instrumental in the look and feel of the band's performances. While the band provides the all important soundtrack, Howard sets the scene and creates the drama with precise and powerful lighting and video cues. He is an indispensable member of the band--thus says you-know-who!
One of the great perks of being a Yukon Blade Grinder correspondent, and the voice of God on Earth, is that I get to meet so many wonderful people. Geddy and Alex were next on the docket to meet for this homage to Howard. Flying into Toronto, admiring the skyline and after eating a healthy meal of poutine, I got the chance to visit with the two and get their thoughts on such a long a happy union with Howard--so rare to see such commitment these days. Little did the two men know that I've been a fan since day one, myself seeing them live countless times (Vapor Trails is my favorite album, though Totem is my favorite song). They were surprised to see me in my VT shirt.
As we sat down in the offices of Anthem Entertainment, it was so nice to get Canadian hospitality--and friendly smiles. Eschewing the customary decorum, I told them to call me Frank. After all, I'm just a guy myself who enjoys a drink and a laugh:
Geddy and Alex, so nice for you to take time from your busy schedule on this tour break to speak with me. You're big fans of the YBG I see. I'll bet you didn't know I was a big fan of your music.
Alex: Actually now I recognize you from the concert in Germany. You were fifth row in Koln right? I knew I recognized that hat. You were nuts that night
Geddy: I remember the "Sermon on Mt. Nerd" that was telecast all over the world when you were denouncing Vapor Trolling. Thanks a lot big guy...I mean Frank.
No problem, no problem my sons. Tell me what are some of the things you love most about Howard?
Geddy: Two things. 1) He can tell a story. A great storyteller. My goodness he can captivate a room with his storytelling
Alex: Truth be damned..er sorry...I mean, I've been at some of these events and many times it's being told in a way that I don't remember. But who cares they're great stories.
Geddy: Absolutely the truth. Howard is gifted in that department. Bring you to tears with his humor.
Give me just one example of a good story from Howard
Geddy: My favorite is when he worked as tour manager for us when we opened for Blue Oyster Cult. We had a problem getting all of the money owed us. So, he said he went into their dressing rooms with his beloved pet ferret. What was his name Al?
Alex: Slinky. He kept this thing on a leash and walked it every day for Christ's...er I mean Pete's Sake.
Geddy: Yeah. Well anyway. He went into their dressing room with Slinky and put him in Buck Dharma's pants. He said if he didn't get the money he was gonna tell slinky to bite his cod off. We got paid, but I doubt that story is true.
Alex: I dunno Ged. We only lasted two shows with them after that, then Kiss came into the equation. No great loss, but I think it played a hand somehow.
Nice. Loyalty is a quality God admires. Tell me another...these are great.
Alex: There's the "Big Gulp" incident at Rochester. I couldn't believe that one.
Geddy: Well, Rochester was the worst horror story. When we played there at the auditorium and the show was about to start. As Howard called the house lights and the place went dark, a huge Big Gulp came over in the air, flipped upside down and doused the complete lighting board and we had to do the whole show that night with just spot lights only because all of Howard's consoles, including the back-up, were flooded with ignorance and a Big Gulp. After that show, he started to do things a bit differently. For ten years he had that ferret on a leash, sniffing out trouble before it happened.
Alex: Nothing but spotlights that night. I still think it was Howard's Big Gulp though.
Geddy: But, the show was one of our best shows. Howard even came on stage to help sing Limelight.
Alex: He's got a really good voice. Surprising. He performed a miracle that night. Literally turned water in to wine. I'm sure you're familiar with that exp<b></b>ression. Right Frank?
Oh yes. One of my favorite stories. So, where's the ferret now? Is it dead?
Alex: Oh yeah, long gone. I think Slinky's been stuffed and is on Howard's tour bus for good luck.
Geddy: Been working like a charm I must say.
Wow. Yukon Blade Grinder readers will love that one. Tell me the other thing you love most about Howard?
Alex: The other thing is that no one, and I mean no one, can get a room full of people drunker, quicker than Howard Ungerleider.
Geddy: Amen to that.
Alex: He is a mixology expert. He can mix drinks with the best of them
Geddy: An alchemist in every sense of the word. My favorite is "Photo-bomb". That'll kick you in the rump
Alex: That's a good one. Though when I reflect on the crew party after the Clockwork Angels tour he made these drinks called "Jesus, Joseph, and Mary"...three levels of awesome sauce right there.
It fills my heart with joy to hear such things. Beautiful. In closing, when Howard reads this edition of the Blade Grinder, what would you like him to know about how you feel about him? Your career is coming to a close...what would you like to say?
Alex: Thanks so much for being there Howard. All of this happened because you were a part of the team. We learned so much together, and been through so much life. Good times and bad. You really are the 4th member of the band. We love you.
Geddy: Howard. Herns my man. You're the best. Come live in Toronto so I don't have to see Alex so much. I need an excuse to get away sometimes.
Touching. Very touching to hear those words. I remember flying back to the Vatican with my head swimming about this story. How could I wrap up a story such as this with a fitting tribute to the best lighting director the planet has ever seen? Well Howard, it's been said that when God was making our world the first thing he did was create light. However, I have a feeling if God was tired that day, or was otherwise occupied and needed someone to step in and make light a reality---he would've called you.
Thank you my good man...from all Rush fans!
"Sermon on Mt. Nerd"
Edited by Tombstone Mountain, 16 July 2015 - 07:19 PM.