Tom Dunne: Spinal Tap and the bittersweet truth about touring America 

The great Tony Hendra died last week, leaving behind memories of a tour manager character that was one of the great comic creations 
Tom Dunne: Spinal Tap and the bittersweet truth about touring America 

Tony Hendra and Christopher Guest in This Is Spinal Tap.

The actor, Tony Hendra, who played the enigmatic Tour Manager in Spinal Tap, passed away this week. Sadly his life was more complicated than one that can be neatly encapsulated in a brief ‘fitting tribute'. But what can be said, what must be said, is that the character he played in that film, Ian Faith, was the of the great comic creations.

Ian’s was essentially the straight character in a world gone mad. He was all that stood between miniature Stonehenge monuments, dancing dwarfs, exploding drummers and the alternative: real craziness. He approached this world armed with a cricket bat, a good stout piece of wood, as any sane man would.

There is no one who has ever been in a band who doesn’t identify to some degree with the portrait of a band on tour as portrayed in Tap. It is unnervingly close to the bone. Stay in a band long enough and all of their craziness will appear utterly rational to you. As The Edge said having watched it, “I didn’t laugh, I wept”.

I have walked onstage and said “Hello Cleveland!” three times. I have failed to find the stage (The Bridge Waterford). I have been locked in a bathroom during a gig. I have bungee jumped on live radio. I have pretended to be someone else so a blind relative of that person wouldn’t be disappointed.

Most of the ‘craziness’ happens offstage but that is understandable. In the average week you are onstage for 5% of the time. The rest of the time you are idle hands inquiring of every new devil you meet if there might be any work going?

But even onstage there is scant relief. When we tried to ‘Tap into America', the gigs turned into a long succession of what seemed like very disappointing birthday parties. Every night we dressed up and hoped. Every night we were let down. The guests didn’t show up and we were left, sitting alone, amidst the decorations, the miniature sandwiches and the unopened bottles.

We had a vague sense that somehow, despite all our efforts and astute filling in of CAO forms, we were not going to be offered the course we wanted. We were eventually proven correct.

But not before I was left behind in Davis, CA, while the band drove to San Diego. Our guitar player, with whom I shared a room, didn’t notice me missing. Every time I called they told me to stop messing and hung up. And I had the guitar tech with me. Two of us, and one of them the lead singer, from a ten man crew, and no one noticed.

We were also once supported by a puppet show. ‘Something Happens + Puppet Show’ the poster said. “I’ll bet they get the bigger dressing room,” we quipped. But we got off lightly. On a Canadian tour, before White Ladder changed the billing, David Gray arrived to see a huge sign proclaiming: 'All You Can Eat Barbeque + David Gray.’ It was men like Ian who were tasked with keeping your chin up in these situations. We had many Tour Managers (TMs) but only came across one genuinely gnarly old timer. Having cut his teeth tour managing LA metal bands he met us at the airport with the immortal line, “If you guys need sex or drugs you come to me. Don’t try and get them yourself. I need you guys onstage, not in prison.” Prior to this you could buy our utter compliance with crisps, teabags and macaroon bars.

We left him behind at a pit stop one night, barefoot and with no wallet at about 3am. We didn’t know we’d left him until we were overtaken by the blue lights of a police car. We pulled over.

“Is this man with you?” the police asked.

“Yes, he’s ours,” we all said.

This particular TM claimed to also know the “truth behind” the OJ Simpson case. You could learn the truth by joining him for a drink in his room. It was nothing untoward, it was just endless. We never got to find out.

But even he had seen Tap. One night after the show he’d pointed at the bus and said, “Time to go. Next stop Berkley, Ca,” before adding, “It’s a day off though. The gig’s been pulled.” He saw our heads drop and jumped in quickly to say, “It’s not a problem though. Berkley isn’t a college town.” How we laughed.

More in this section

Scene & Heard

Music, film art, culture, books and more from Munster and beyond.......curated weekly by the Irish Examiner Arts Editor.

Sign up