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Here's to the memories

Graffiti saw its share of bad-boy behavior, surprise guests and hot hot shows

Friday, March 24, 2000

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

It probably didn't seem like such a big deal at the time. Some upstart grunge band from Seattle gets into a dispute with a promoter and sets an old couch on fire. But a couple months later Nirvana would be the biggest band in the world, and a couple years later the tortured singer would pull a trigger and put himself in the history books as one of rock's most legendary martyrs.

The day that Kurt Cobain came to town and threw a fit tops the list of the most memorable episodes in the life of Graffiti.

Smells like . . . fire

Nirvana arrived in the fall of '91 right as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was about to blow the lid off the music industry. The ferocity of the band's performance in front of a sold-out crowd would later spill into the post-show settlement. Promoter Mike Elko says one of the band's crew, who happened to be bassist Krist Novoselic's girlfriend, was trying to cheat the venue out of its percentage of the T-shirt sales. Tony DiNardo says, "The band was downstairs partying after the show to get some fun out of the day," as some unkind words were being exchanged between Elko and the woman.

The band was outnumbered and not up to a fight so Cobain took his frustration out on the couch by sparking it with a pack of matches. The couch either just smoldered or flamed up and caught other things on fire, depending on whom you ask. It was big enough for the fire marshal to arrive and arrest the road manager. DiNardo decided not to press charges, allowing the band to go on to bigger and (temporarily) better things. Unfortunately, the couch, which could probably be sold at auction today, didn't survive.

Chili Peppers get hot

It's a good thing the Red Hot Chili Peppers became superstars because they were banned from Graffiti, too. The trouble started, DiNardo says, when bare-chested singer Anthony Kiedis started "using the mike as a drum stick." DiNardo's message to the stage that "Hey, that's not what it's used for" was ignored and the microphone was destroyed. When the club tried to collect the 90 bucks after the show, the Chili Peppers and Fishbone ransacked the dressing room, smashing mirrors, kicking the door in, throwing food and urinating in all the wrong places. When Kiedis told DiNardo "the wind did it," he grabbed the singer by the collar (he was actually wearing a shirt!) and pulled him out of the tour bus. The road manager eventually gave the club $200 for the damages. DiNardo say the Chili Peppers would later diss Graffiti from the Star Lake Amphitheatre stage.

Case of the Cramps

This one's a classic. DiNardo had special visitors the night Lux Interior of The Cramps decided to show his posterior, and everything else. The singer was in typically maniacal form, leading his band of hooligans through a reckless set of shockabilly. As the show went on, Interior's clothes came off, until finally he was wearing only pumps and a pair of pink panties -- on his head! "The coincidence was," DiNardo says, "as he was doing this, my mum and dad from Italy, who don't even speak English, had come in and were in the audience. I had tolerated nudity before. But here my parents thought I'm running a reputable business and they come in and see that." We can only imagine why DiNardo thought a Cramps show would be a good time for his parents to drop in.

Paying the Toll

Columbus rock band The Toll was known more for singer Brad Cercone's stage excesses than for their music. One night at Graffiti he learned his lesson. The spotlight was following Cercone as he leaped around on the balconies and climbed on lighting trusses. In the end, DiNardo says, "I guess the spirit took him to places he couldn't go. Ultimately, he thought he could fly" and jumped off the center balcony, breaking his ankle in three places. DiNardo says "when he limped back to the stage, you could see he was hurting." Fortunately, it was the last song, and his next trip was to the hospital.

Special effects

In the early days of Graffiti, when it was still a little rough around the edges, the roof used to leak. Like, really leak. The inventive Arlo Guthrie solved the problem by sending his manager out for his big cowboy hat. When the white-robed African poet Mutabaruka played, promoter Pat McArdle recalls "a big storm came over and the water started coming from the roof. People were so entranced by him they thought it was part of the show, that he made it rain or something. It was so amazing."

Shabba security

The security goons traveling with controversial dancehall artist Shabba Ranks were just itching for a fight. So when a middle-aged fan jumped up on stage and started groovin' with Ranks' dancing girls, security dragged him out, and actually threw a table at him as he was walking down the stairs. Elko says the irate fan crossed the street and came back shooting at the door, sending a crowd of latecomers still in line diving to the floor. Happily, his aim wasn't true.

Here come the Reds

Elko says he was out mowing his lawn and listening to a Pirates game tied in the 9th inning when he got the call from the dugout. They didn't want him to pitch -- the player representative for the visiting Cincinnati Reds just wanted to make sure that Deion Sanders, Reggie Sanders and Barry Larkin could secure a private area to see Morris Day and the Time that night.

Woody and Dale

While the Reds came and kept to themselves, the stars of "Kingpin" were in the heart of the action. When Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid were in town filming the Farrelly brothers comedy in October of '95, they couldn't pass up seeing surf guitar king Dick Dale. Overtaken by the spirit, Harrelson was moved to jump up on stage to sing "Jailhouse Rock" and then do the only kind of surfing we can do in Pittsburgh -- body surfing.

R.E.M. jam

Sometimes the surprise guests end up being actual musicians. When promoter Pat McArdle brought R.E.M. to Pittsburgh for the first time in 1985, the band turned up at an after-party, where guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills got up with the Cynics for ecstatic versions of "Gloria" and "Roadrunner." "We told Peter that no one in Pittsburgh believed they were fans of ours," says former Cynics singer Michael Kastelic. "They showed up to prove it."

His name is Kid

Running a rock club has required DiNardo to be a handyman, janitor, negotiator, bartender and bouncer. But when Kid Rock came to town in April '99 just before Woodstock '99 made him a star, DiNardo had a whole new assignment. Fearing that his liquor license was in jeopardy DiNardo and a staff member had to position themselves on either side of the stage and send a message to the girls -- keep your shirts on!

Root of the Challenge

They are the biggest-selling band out of Pittsburgh, but Rusted Root were losers -- not once, but twice -- at the Graffiti Rock Challenge. In 1990 they played their first gig ever there as a four-piece band that would actually change personnel -- switching to bassist Patrick Norman -- for the finals a few weeks later. They lost to Illuminatus and went down the next year to Shiloh, later reformed as the Gathering Field. Singer Mike Glabicki told the Press at the time: "I call it primal bass-acoustic music. We're tribal. And people are calling it a spiritual sound. I'm not sure what they mean," he said with a laugh.

More Challenges

Other unforgettable Rock Challenge moments include angry fans kicking in the window of the car dealer downstairs when their band didn't win in the late '80s (leading to a policy change of announcing the winner on the radio the next day); State College band Out of the Blue coming out of nowhere to sweep the Challenge; and the Kelly Affair's Jon Bechtol, in the ultimate act of showmanship, dripping hot wax on his body, and much DiNardo's dismay, burning holes in the dance floor.

Short takes

According to John Rinaldo, Irish punk band Murphy's Law, who like their Jagermeister, would not go on stage until they had a box of Triscuits ... Molly Hatchett singer Danny Joe Brown, says Elko, had a little too much Jim Beam after the show and fell down the steps breaking his ankle ...T he always rowdy Mojo Nixon, barely walking straight after the show, misheard the sales figure and was demanding $12,000 (not $1,200) even though there were only 100 people at the show, according to Rinaldo ... Members of the biker gang the Pagans, a little overexcited during a David Allen Coe show, suspended manager Rob Allen over the balcony by his ankles ... Hysterical female fans filled the stage with hundreds of roses for country star Clint Black ... A classy Bonnie Raitt, already way too big for the room in '86, kept it together and waited it out when the sound system faltered in the middle of her set ... Not so for hotshot country singer Dwight Yoakam, who, unhappy with the sound and everything else, cursed promoter Pat McArdle from the stage. "I took him around all day and he was Mr. Enthusiasm, and then he turned on me," McArdle says. "He was a baby."

The rain dance

Through the years there have been some amazing shows at Graffiti: The Replacements, Husker Du, Richard Thompson, Steve Earle, Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, the list goes on and on. One that stands out to DiNardo above all was the night that Little Feat came in on their reunion tour. It was during a summer drought in '89 and Graffiti went way over capacity with more than 900 people. It was also way more than the air-conditioning could handle. DiNardo says it was so hot "it was raining inside the building. That's how much humidity there was. We had to cover the soundboard, but they kept sweating and dancing. We left reality for two or three hours."

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