ABB Tour Mystic Kirk West, From Songwriters to Soundmen, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cleveland, OH- 5/17
John Patrick Gatta
Wearing a paisley-patterned shirt and comfortable barley-colored jeans, Kirk West walked on to the Rock Hall’s Fourth Floor Theater stage as part of the Rock Hall’s “From Songwriters to Soundmen” series. His gray hair pulled forward and reaching his chest with an equally gray beard that stopped to a point five inches from his chin framed his round wire-rimmed glasses.
West, Allman Brothers Band “tour mystic” for over a decade, didn’t present an imposing figure, but as he explained during his “From Songwriters to Soundmen” session he doesn’t have to. Being around the “family” that’s developed around the Allmans has allowed him to gain the trust among its membership as well as the knowledge of what needs to be done and how to get it that way with as little hassle as possible, especially for the musicians.
As he put it, “The job of a tour manager is to tend to everybody’s needs, to see how they’re gonna work, to anticipate, to know how to get the best out of [the musicians]. In the course of an evening if all they have to think about is the next note they’re playing, then my job’s been success. If they’re not worried about towels or soap for the showers or meals or whether their guests are getting their passes and stuff…if they’re not thinking of any of that crap and only thinking about how to do that solo, that’s my goal. Some days you’re not going to win that battle no matter what you do.”
In his introduction, Rock Hall Vice President of Education Warren Zanes, who toured as a member of the alt-rock act The Del Fuegos, offered the view that “a good road manager makes life livable for the performers who are both accustomed to the road but are sick of living that life. They want the comforts of home. They want something to feel grounded. They want a human anchor, and a good road manager finds a way to give them that without seeming like they’re about to have a nervous breakdown.”
While West initially described his work as a “babysitter, excuse maker and excuse listener,” he immediately countered that by saying that that any artist is single-minded when it comes to creating versus real life. “So, they’re unbalanced by nature, self-important, insecure…and charming.”
His story mimics that of the late Dick Latvala and his placement within the Grateful Dead organization; from being a fan to working for the band. A self-described “hippie living in a van,” West left his home in Iowa for Chicago. There, he discovered ABB playing in a small club “that looked like us, muttonchops, tie-dyes and long hair.” But the volume level caused the experience not to stick with him. A short time later, he heard the band’s debut at a friends and it changed his life. He caught 17 shows before Duane Allman died, making money on the road as a “counterculture entrepreneur” selling tie-dye shirts, trinkets and ‘imported goods.’ Eventually, his interest in photography led him to be the band’s tour photographer, which was followed by assistant tour manager and then tour manager.
His love affair with the music of the Allman Brothers Band moved to another level when West and his wife bought and moved into The Big House, the rehearsal and living space for the band from 1970-73. The 6,000 square foot residence houses the largest collection of ABB memorabilia in what he described as a “stealth museum.” After more than 12 years of hosting fans who make the trek to the Macon, Georgia site, West is in the process of making the whole place a museum dedicated to the band via a non-profit 501C3 foundation. Plans are to make the first floor and part of the second a museum with at least two rooms laid out to look like they did when the band members’ inhabited the dwelling.
“There’ll be a lot of interactive stuff. We’re digitizing everything, thousands and thousands of hours of videotape, audiotape, 45,000 photographs.”
He also revealed that a documentary focusing on the years spent in the Big House called Please Call Home is in the final editing stage. It will raise funds for the museum.
“It’s about the relationships, the heartbreak, the love, the crew, the women. It’s the story of the folks that lived in this house.”
The interesting thing about West, and one that signifies how his low-key personality works in sync with the band, its entourage of family and friends and fans, is that he’s a great storyteller without giving away too much information. There are little details such as after a show Warren Haynes hangs out on the bus ‘til the late hours or that the band leaves the venue immediately after a meal, but nothing too personal that exposes too much of the Allmans inner world.
When the audience question-and-answer portion brought up a query on Dickey Betts’ departure, West paused, seemed pained for a second, and then responded, “It was a 30 year marriage that ended in divorce. And it was a four-way marriage, so that’s even tougher. It’s miraculous that it lasted as long as it did. People live the lives they live. I love Dickey. I miss Dickey. And Dickey’s doing what he wants to do and the Brothers are doing what they want to do.
“Some of the greatest times of my life have been with Dickey Betts. I promise you that…and some of the worst, as it turned out,” he concluded, punctuating the statement with laughter.
He managed the same shaded sense of detail when recalling his first day as assistant tour manager, a brief tenure that lasted until a leg of the tour ended and the band could fire its then tour manager who had a taskmaster approach. It, too, dealt with a Betts situation – hotel furniture being tossed around, a long knife, West keeping hotel security away and then cooling down the infuriated guitarist.
Because he’s still a fan of the work, West endures the occasional flare up. Listening to it every night has become the greatest job. “I’m there because of the music, not because of the guys who created it. If I was there because of the guys who created it, I would have quit about 15 years ago.”