In my career, I’ve probably learned more from the most outrageous people with whom I have worked, rather than the sensible ones. They teach you that you can never underestimate the value of pushing the boundaries and getting a bit wild.
When I think back, there are a few people I’ve worked with who really stand out. I had the pleasure to work with one guy who was absolutely unforgettable. While he passed away a while ago, he made an indelible impression on me (and a lot of others) that no one could ever forget.
During my days as a touring musician, I was in a band called Lois Lane that was based in Chicago. We played all-original rock music and toured throughout the U.S. and Canada. There were certainly no wallflowers in the band. In fact, we were all bound and determined to lay it on the line every show and hold nothing back — even if it meant taking on some big risks to entertain the crowds. That’s why my friend and former band–mate Bill Gent comes to mind.
We’ve all seen Gene Simmons from KISS spitting fire, drummers playing their solos on spinning platforms and Keith Emerson with his piano going end-to-end while playing a solo. But unless you saw Lois Lane, you never saw an entire drum kit go up in flames.
Bill was a drummer who wasn’t technically perfect. Keith Moon from The Who comes to mind as a comparison. Like Keith, Bill was a wild man and always entertaining. He would always be the guy who threw us a curve ball in the middle of the show and kept us all on our toes. And he had a smile that would always make you wonder what he was up to.
As for “ducking the fire,” that’s exactly what I did every show. As was typical in the day, the rest of us took a short break while Bill did his drum solo. He would solo for about five minutes or so and I would come back on stage early, in the dark, to do a few support things.
Our crew would drench Bill’s drum kit with lighter fluid, then light his sticks on fire. As he hit each drum and cymbal with his flaming sticks, it was my job to trigger the big boom sound effects on my modular Moog synthesizer that would shake the house. Because I had a large stack of keyboards between Bill and me, I would duck when he ignited his drum kit. Some might think that it was just a trick, but it was an extremely hot burst of flames that could singe your eyebrows off. I can only imagine how hot it was where Bill was sitting. So I would “duck the fire” behind my keyboard stack as every drum or cymbal in his large kit was ignited.
After the fire extinguishers put out the last of the fire, I’d follow up with my best DJ voice saying, “Ladies and Gentleman, the Phenomenal Billy Gent!” (Crowd roar…)