Barry Fey’s Backstage Past

When industry figures publish their memoirs, it’s not unusual for their onetime colleagues to skip the table of contents and head for the index to see if they are included.

At least some readers of legendary Denver concert promoter Barry Fey’s tome, “Backstage Past,” might skip that step and see if they are included in the entry entitled “Pricks.”

It’s not necessarily a term of endearment. But the term should not necessarily be taken as an epithet, either, Fey told Pollstar.

Photo: Dan Fong
With The Who’s Roger Daltrey in an undated photo.

“Yes, there’s a ‘pricks’ list,” Fey said with a chuckle. “Be that as it may, they weren’t necessarily pricks to me, but they were pricks anyway.” The list of 24 includes industry people, radio execs, musicians and even a U.S. attorney. But don’t ask Fey what earned each a spot on his list. He’s not telling. In fact, he’s a bit, um, pricklish about the subject.

“I’m not going to say why people are pricks. That was written for them. They know. They know they’re pricks. They might want to fool everyone but they know. And some of them weren’t pricks to me, but they’re pricks. Otherwise it would take three or four chapters to explain why they’re pricks. But the important thing is that if you want to believe they’re pricks, that’s fine. But they know they’re pricks.

“If I was a young act, and I thought I was good and played good music, and was looking for representation, where do you think I would go?” Fey rhetorically asked. “I would ask Howard Rose to be my agent and Howard Kaufman to be my manager. Because they’re the best. And being on the pricks list isn’t necessarily bad. It’s derogatory, but they’re good at their jobs.”

And yes, those two names are on the list. As are Bill Graham, Robert Sillerman, Marshall Tucker Band, Chuck Berry, John Bonham, Peter Grant, Jimmy Buffett, Miles Davis and even Charlie Sheen, among others.

Not on the list: Irving Azoff, who once famously told a Pollstar Awards crowd he’d screwed everyone in the room at least once.

“I’m sure a lot of people are going to say Irving Azoff’s a prick. I don’t think so,” Fey said. “He might appear that way but he always kept his word. His word is gold. He has a funny way of going about things, but he never screwed me.”

He says he wrote “Backstage Past” not to settle old scores, but for the people of Denver. He believes it’s “a good book about a wonderful business.” Every word is true, he insists, “at least from my standpoint.”

Fey’s memoir is chock full of colorful stories about larger-than-life people, including himself. He came to Denver after military service, a nice Jewish kid from Ohio, and got hooked on the business after promoting his first concert with Baby Huey & The Babysitters.

He would move on to found Feyline, produce the Denver Pop Festival two months before Woodstock, and become one of the best known promoters in the country, along with Graham – whom he would come to loathe. And loathe enough to ask an associate to arrange a hit on the San Francisco promoter.

In one of the two most shocking passages in “Backstage Past,” Fey recounts meeting with a bookie he believed had New York mob connections to have Graham killed.

“He was a professional bookmaker and was highly connected somewhere,” Fey said. “I think his connection was Carmine Galante, who eventually was killed but had clout.

“I’d had enough. I just couldn’t take it anymore. You have no idea how much it hurt someone like me to have to do this. And then [the bookie] said, ‘You introduced me to Bill and I kind of liked him so I have to turn you down.’”

“I hated [Graham] so much. He turned me into a snitch. I went to the IRS. I didn’t know what else to do. He was a very bad guy. The guy slept in my house; I thought we were so friendly, but we weren’t.”

Axl Rose is another figure Fey wasn’t always friendly with. One chapter describes his power of persuasion to get the Guns N’ Roses frontman back on stage after he’d stormed off during a performance and was preparing to leave the Mile High Stadium concert site mid-show.

“I didn’t know what to do, so I went to my car and got my .357 and stuck it in my back pocket,” Fey writes. Rose was quickly convinced to return to the stage.

Of course, Fey’s career has not been merely a procession of “pricks” and recalcitrant rock stars. He recounts his relationships with Bono, who personally visited Fey during a hospitalization and U2, which played a special St. Patrick’s Day show in Denver in addition to the historic “Under A Blood Red Sky” shows at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on the heels of the 1983 US Festival in California, also produced by Fey.

Fey produced the second and last US Festival, after Graham staged the first a year earlier at then-Glen Helen Regional Park near San Bernardino, Calif. Bankrolled by Apple’s Steve Wozniak, newly rich in the heady days following the introduction of the personal computer, the concerts sported theme days with lineups of the biggest acts of the time – or at least on Woz’s personal wish list.

“I remember telling Steve Wozniak after the show, ‘Gee, you lost $10 million or $12 million on this,’ and he said, ‘Gee, I guess I’ll have to quit after 40 more.’ But that was the last one he did. Most expensive backstage pass in history.”

Fey knows about expensive. A well-documented fondness for the ponies and extraordinary handicapping abilities at the racetrack landed him in hot water with the FBI, including an indictment in the early 1970s. But it wasn’t betting at the track that cost Fey the most; it was betting on the stock market.

“I lost a lot of bets, but the bets I won were bigger bets,” Fey explained. “My downfall was gambling on the stock market. Oh, my God. If I could show you the stack of worthless stock certificates. It was a fortune.”

And he doesn’t bet on the racehorses any more. He stopped after the death of a gambling friend, considering it a “message from God.”

“It’s a shame, too. If you read that letter from the FBI, I was real good at it. I had to stop,” Fey said. “The last thing you want to do is die and leave your sons a racing form. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do and I stopped.”

The FBI investigation and indictment, Fey believes, were the result of his inclusion on former President Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.” He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit interstate gambling, having been lumped in with more notorious figures in organized crime.

“I was told by the FBI I was on Nixon’s enemies list,” Fey said. “There were three concert promoters: Bill Graham, Howard Stein and Barry Fey.” He believes his inclusion was the result of an anti-war march he organized in Denver in the wake of the Kent State shootings in 1970.

“Nixon should have been on the pricks list. Why didn’t I think of that? I guess it would have been a little redundant.”

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