Michael Reed
Michael Reed

“I hang lighting and sound and scenery for concerts, movies, and trade shows. I don’t do the lighting or the video or the sound. I get it safely up in the air. I used to be a lighting designer, and we had a saying that without lights, it’s just radio. My saying is: without rigging, it’s just a nightclub.

“I grew up in Oak Park. In high school I did lighting for plays, but I have a short attention span, and I couldn’t wait 30 minutes between cues. So I found music. I went on tour with Barry Manilow when I was 18. I had a job at Grand Stage Lighting in downtown Chicago, and Barry Manilow’s crew came to rent some equipment.

“I was there loading the truck, and they said, ‘Do you want a job?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ which was true. They said, ‘Can you drive this truck?” And I said “Yes,” which was not true. They said, ‘We’ll be back in two weeks to pick you up.’ I rented a Ryder truck and lurched around a parking lot until I figured out how to shift.

“Barry was an asshole, I’m going to tell you right now. If I hear ‘Mandy’ one more time, I’m going to throw up.

“I came home and became a stagehand at the Aragon. It was a rough place. I worked Joe Cocker. He was really fucked up, and I was in a place backstage where I didn’t think anybody could see me, and Joe Cocker lurched offstage and threw up five feet from where I was standing and lurched back on. It wasn’t anything like Oak Park.

I became the house lighting director at the Park West from ’78 to ’82—the most amazing time for live music in Chicago ever. Van Morrison, $12.50 a ticket. Tom Waits. James Brown. The Stones. Prince. U2. They don’t do it like that anymore, you know?

“I was itching to get back on the road, so I went on tour for the rest of the 80s. I did a world tour with Michael Jackson, the Bad tour. Michael only spoke to two people: Nelson or Benny. One night we were in the middle of the show. Michael’s singing, ‘I’m bad,’ and the fuse blows. The entire stage goes black, but the PA is still on, so Michael keeps singing: ‘I’m bad! I’m bad! Nelson! Benny! I’m bad! I’m bad!’ That was all he knew to do.

“I love heights. The highest I’ve ever climbed for a show was when I went to rig U2 in Mexico City, in the stadium they built for the 1968 Olympics. I was way, way up high on a beam, about 150 feet, and I remember seeing an owl flying below me. It caught a pigeon, and it took the pigeon over to a beam and started to eat it.

“I’ve never fallen. Now we wear a full-body harness with a lanyard, but in the 70s we didn’t wear any protection at all. We just went walking out on the beam. We used to have this graffiti we wrote on the wall wherever we went: ‘Keep a tight grip, and don’t step back to admire your work.’ It’s pretty amazing that I’m still here.

—As told to Anne Ford

“Barry was an asshole, I’m going to tell you right now. If I hear ‘Mandy’ one more time, I’m going to throw up.” —Michael Reed