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Inside the world of rock & roll bodyguards

Michael Jackson, bodyguards, photographers

Michael Jackson At The Helmsley Palace, February 8th, 1984

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As a member of Michael Jackson’s elite bodyguard corps, Anthony “A.D.” Davis thought he had seen it all — the fans who sneaked into hotels, the uncontrollable morons who wreaked havoc at concerts, the royal families who wanted to rub elbows with the singer. But nothing prepared A.D. for that day in Sydney, Australia, when Jackson and his guardians found themselves facing hostile aborigines.

Visiting a day-care center in Sydney’s notorious Redfern slum during his Bad tour, Jackson was playing with a group of young children when a crowd began gathering on the street. Composed largely of a couple of hundred curiosity seekers at first, it soon mushroomed to a mob of 2000, surrounding the eight-man bodyguard team and Jackson’s four vans.

Provoked by rabble-rousers, the crowd grew increasingly unruly, screaming obscenities and ripping radio antennas and windshield wipers off the vans. One old woman demanded money from Davis and then punched him in the chest. The van drivers were petrified and refused to come out and help, and even the police — who consider the area dangerous — wouldn’t provide assistance. For Jackson, whose every public appearance is perfectly choreographed, it was a catastrophe. But he was eventually escorted safely from the school building and avoided injury in the melee.

“It was a savage situation,” says A.D., who doesn’t look like a guy that anyone — especially an old lady — could knock over easily. A former college football player who stands six feet two and weighs 250 pounds, A.D. entered the bodyguard trade after a knee injury scotched his pro-ball ambitions. Starting out as a nightclub doorman and doing occasional concert-security work in Los Angeles to support himself during school, he went into the rock & roll protection business full time about a decade ago and has since shielded Billy Idol, Van Halen and Morris Day in addition to Jackson.

Although he seems strong enough to bend a crowbar with his teeth — he bench-presses 310 pounds — A.D. rarely uses brute strength to settle altercations. “It hurts to fight,” he says, claiming the best defense is a nonviolent offense. “It hurts to hit, and it hurts to get hit. So it’s best that you basically bullshit your way through it. I’ve had success just telling people I’ll kick their ass if they do something wrong.”

Only twenty-nine years old, A.D. represents the new generation of rock’s guardian angels, far removed from the days when security meant skinny theater ushers, retired cops or the Hells Angels. Many performers, including Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting, rarely, if ever, use bodyguards when they’re not attending events like concerts or charity dinners, but others view security as a necessary evil. And that has transformed bodyguarding — like everything else in the staging of concerts — into a big business requiring professionals.

Although there are groups that still insist upon using friends to maintain order at concerts, using amateurs has become increasingly dangerous as the logistics of mounting shows become more and more complex. Run-D.M.C., for example, had a friend helping out as a bodyguard who was convicted in 1988 for killing a concertgoer trying to crash backstage. Garfield Brown, sentenced to four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, was found guilty of throwing twenty-one-year-old fan Alex Baldwin to the floor and kicking him during a fight at a 1986 Fresno, California, show. Baldwin died of head injuries two weeks later.

“Brown wasn’t a bodyguard, he was a knucklehead,” says one member of Run-D.M.C.’s touring staff, who describes the band protector as one of “a bunch of friends from back home who come on tour.”

But this is more the exception than the rule for top acts. “Security people nowadays are needed more for crowd control and planning movements so an artist can move freely from point A to point B,” says Bob Bender, a veteran bodyguard who’s worked with the Rolling Stones and the Amnesty International tour. “If you don’t do the advance work, there are problems.”

Some rockers spend an estimated $500,000 every year for personal security while on tour. A bodyguard working on a major concert tour can earn between $750 and $1250 a week, with specialists who provide full-time home security and other services raking in much more.

The security expert with the world’s highest-profile client is Bill Bray, Michael Jackson’s top bodyguard, as well as one of his closest confidants. A retired Los Angeles Police Department officer, Bray has been with the singer since the days of the Jackson Five, taking him to the doctor when ill, advising him on important business deals and overseeing all safety procedures. Those near Jackson say that Bray is his alter ego and surrogate father and that Bray has become involved in every part of the singer’s life. Jackson’s real father, Joe, even complained to a reporter that Bray denied him access to Michael. Bray declined to be interviewed for this story.

Although Bray is a special case, other guards say it’s not unusual for artists to develop strong personal bonds with their paid protectors. “You gotta do it all,” says Eddie Anderson, a longtime rock bodyguard and David Lee Roth’s right-hand man. “You find sometimes you do things that are unrelated to security. You’ve got to know the guy you work for — the kind of cigarette he smokes, what he likes to drink, his preference in women, what he likes to eat, the kind of candy he likes.”

Anderson says his most unusual experience was accompanying Roth on a trip to Haiti to witness a voodoo ceremony celebrating the devil’s birthday.

“This guy had a machete in one hand and a chicken in the other,” says Anderson. “He started hitting the chicken on the head with the flat side of the machete to knock it unconscious before sticking its head in his mouth. The first high priestess put its body in her mouth, and they each pulled, ripping its head apart. It was pretty gory.”

Most duties aren’t anywhere near that exotic, though. But bodyguarding does require constant companionship. “A bodyguard’s job is to be a friend, a professional buddy,” says Bradly Nye, a minister’s son who worked with Van Halen and Hall and Oates before forming his own reggae-rock-funk group in Chicago called Dick Holliday and the Bamboo Gang.

Nye says a successful bodyguard is a jack-of-all-trades: “At times, you’re also an assistant tour manager or valet. You’re reconfirming limousines, hotels, jets and getting lobster-salad croissants. When I was on the road with Hall and Oates, I had to call the finest health club in each town and set up a tennis court for John Oates and myself; I was his traveling tennis pro.”

According to Nye, keeping up a stream of snappy one-liners is also crucial. “You’ve got to have jokes if they’re going to pay you top dollar to live with them,” he says.

There was no shortage of laughs when Nye, A.D. and about ten others worked for Van Halen during the David Lee Roth era. Apart from mundane chores like grueling sixteen-hour dressing-room watches and making sure Roth got his usual 4:00 a.m. cheese-burgers, there was no end to the debauchery. For Alex Van Halen’s Fellini-like bachelor party aboard a yacht, strippers roamed the deck while one of the band’s midget security guards was dangled overboard by his ankles. And at the mammoth 1983 Us Festival concert, the band members held court on a Dionysian compound, amusing themselves with booze, video games and women.

Some bodyguards are also required to pimp for their bosses, fetching females for their bands’ postconcert high jinks. With Van Halen, Roth devised a special onstage code so he could signal to his boys exactly which women in the audience should be offered backstage passes. Most guards claim they resist joining in, saying they have to stay alert on the job.

“There’s obviously no drinking or partying while you’re on tour,” says Warren Kay, a personable, burly fellow who’s worked extensively with John Cougar Mellencamp and on Amnesty International’s recent Human Rights Now! trek. “If you have your head in the right place and have a professional attitude, you’re not tempted.”

“A security person that parties loses a lot of credibility,” says teetotaler Doug Goldstein, a former guard for numerous hard-rock acts, including Black Sabbath. “People who get caught up in those vices don’t last very long.”

Goldstein, the cocky, twenty-seven-year-old son of a San Diego cop, left the bodyguard business recently to comanage Guns n’ Roses, but he still holds fond memories of his knockabout days in the trade. A macho jock in high school who looks more like a soap-opera hunk than an incredible hulk, Goldstein landed his first major job with the schmaltzy pop group Air Supply, telling grandmotherly types to “pull the thorns off the roses before throwing them onstage.” Goldstein, however, has less-than-fond memories of a brief stint with the Rolling Stones.

“That [1981] Stones tour was a son of a bitch,” Goldstein says, fiddling with a silver ring shaped like a great white shark. He recalls one girl who stuck a metal hook through his shoulder, leading him to grab her head and twist it “in kind of an Exorcist position” until the police arrested her.

“Women will fuck with you,” he says. “If you’re trying to throw their boyfriend out, they’ll bite you in the back. Shit like that goes on all the time.” Bender — who has also worked with the Who, the Eagles and Judas Priest — agrees with Goldstein. One of his worst experiences took place when a woman sank her teeth into his arm during a Tom Petty concert in Philadelphia.

“It was at the end of a set,” he says, “and some chick — not a big crazy mama but a regular-looking twenty-year-old — jumped onstage and was hanging on Tom’s neck. I went to grab her kind of gently and she wouldn’t let go, so I pulled her and she bit me. She latched on so hard I could feel the tendons separating. My arm was black-and-blue from my wrist to my elbow for about two weeks.”

Bender, who also got sulfuric acid thrown in his face at a 1975 Stones show, downplays the rough-and-tumble aspects of bodyguarding and explains that most of his work is really about logistics — arranging smooth entrances and departures at public events.

“People sometimes have these false impressions that security men are arm breakers or goons,” he says. “I don’t think that bodyguards who follow rock stars everywhere, including the bathroom, are used very often.” Perhaps no one personified the image of the old school of rock bodyguards more in recent years than Charles “Big Chick” Huntsberry, the forty-eight-year-old former bodyguard for Prince who incited nearly as much controversy as his flamboyant boss.

The six-foot-six, 350-pound Huntsberry left his job in 1985, a victim of both bad press and a $1000-a-week cocaine habit. “Prince and me were really good friends, man,” he says from his suburban home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I still love the guy like a son. Prince never did drugs, I’ll tell you that right now, man. He was against them. But drugs became my whole life. I was so hooked that nothing else mattered, and eventually I told Prince that I didn’t want the job anymore because all I wanted was to stay high.”

Huntsberry, who guarded evangelists, dope dealers, oil men and diamond salesmen before joining AC/DC and then Prince, says he turned last year from coke to Christ. Although he occasionally still gives bodyguard lessons, he stays busy these days thumping Bibles instead of heads. As the founder of Big Chick Ministries, Huntsberry visits prisons and schools, where he speaks out against “drugs, suicide and hard-rock songs that deal with dirty sex and devil-worship stuff.” In his former line of work, the Brobdingnagian sentry was well known for carrying Prince in his arms and walking through large crowds (“That was the quickest way to get through places with him”). He was much more notorious, however, for his roughhouse antics, hurling innocent people out of public bathrooms so Prince could go in, pounding on hecklers and harassing photographers. But it wasn’t until he left Prince’s employ that he committed the cardinal sin of the bodyguard brotherhood, selling information about his former boss to the National Enquirer.

While other bodyguards slam Big Chick’s flashy, aggressive style, the enormous preacher man maintains he was the best at what he did. “Whatever Prince wanted, I got for him,” he says. “For three and a half years no one ever touched him, and hardly anyone got pictures of him. I really got close to the guy.”

Big Chick continues to hold a warm place in his heart for Prince, and his TV room downstairs is chockablock with framed newspaper clippings, gold albums, huge oil portraits and other memorabilia connected to his glory days. Huntsberry’s six children are also proud of their dad’s work. His daughter Melissa admits she and her siblings got “lots of attention” in school around the time of her father’s “neat” exploits. “When my friends, especially guys, would first see him, they’d be scared,” she says. “Then they’d meet him and think he was really cool, because he’s really a puppy dog.”

Boasting a full beard, scraggly white mane, sixty-six-inch chest and twenty-four-inch biceps, Big Chick resembles a professional wrestler more than a bodyguard. But with the diversity of security forces used by musicians these days, there’s no single accurate persona or physique. Some sport the trim, CIA-agent look, while others are sheer Schwarzeneggeresque. There are nondescript fellows and plain ugly motherfuckers. Recently a few women, like Sherry McGregor, the 1982-83 U.S. Open lightweight karate champion, have started to filter into the industry.

At least one man — Douglas Collins — fits the familiar archetype from all of those Hollywood Rat Pack movies. You know the sort — a tough guy with a craggy mug, dressed in a tuxedo or a black turtleneck under a dark blazer. It’s appropriate that Collins looks like a character actor, because he routinely guards Lotusland’s aristocracy, including Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Paul Newman. Television and film celebrities are his forte, but he’s also worked with David Bowie and Madonna. In addition, he’s covered political functions, once collaring a deranged man near Senator Ted Kennedy who claimed he could electronically tap the universe for votes.

Because of his high-profile clients, Collins has been called “bodyguard of the rich and famous” by The Wall Street Journal, while Britain’s notorious tabloid The Star dubbed him “Dirty Doug, the Hollywood hit man.” Laughing off the latter characterization, he nevertheless keeps up his mystique by refusing to talk about his former stint in government during the Sixties.

One of his first posts in the private sector was keeping watch over an Alice Cooper snake-judging contest in 1973. The following year he graduated to personal bodyguard for Barbra Streisand, and when John Lennon was killed in 1980, Collins immediately took an assignment to protect Ringo Start and his family around-the-clock.

Now heading his own security agency, Collins employs about fifty part- and full-time sentinels — recruited from college fraternities — who each earn between fifteen and twenty-five dollars an hour. “You don’t need a 400-pound goon to control a crowd,” he says. “You need a guy who can think and relate and communicate. The smart thing to me is to get guys in the same peer group as the fans. The job itself is learned through osmosis. They know before they go in about touching people and what they legally can and cannot do, but on the job they live it and they see it and they respond.”

Collins obviously relishes his work. Watching him in action directing his frat boys at the Southern California opening of U2’s Rattle and Hum, where the band appeared and sang in front of 1500 people, is like observing a sly chess expert moving pieces around the board. But no matter how much preplanning he does, Collins remains pragmatic about his ability to completely protect his clients.

“If they really want to get you, they’ll get you,” he says dryly. “Whenever anybody says they’ve provided total security, they’re a liar. Security is a deterrent. All you’re trying to do is set up the most obstacles that will deter someone from doing something they shouldn’t do. But if you’re dealing with someone who’s just as determined, then you’ve got a problem.”

There’s a big difference between overzealous fans who want to hug their favorite rock star and truly sick people who believe the star should die for not returning their love. Hate mail and death threats are all treated seriously, and bodyguards usually turn over such material to the local police and the FBI immediately. One private security expert who specializes in dangerous liaisons between mentally ill fans and their superstar targets is Gavin De Becker.

De Becker, who calls himself a “threat assessor” rather than a bodyguard, specializes in the analysis of demented fan mail for more than fifty clients, including Tina Turner, Cher and Brooke Shields. Keeping constant tabs on the authors of the letters, the boyish-looking thirty-four-year-old also negotiates with mental hospitals and jails in order to keep tabs on known star stalkers.

Ironically enough, De Becker believes obsessive love letters often portend more danger than straight-ahead declarations of violence. “Death threats aren’t what people think they are,” he says, relaxing in his command post, complete with beeping wall-panel gizmos, closed-circuit surveillance monitors and a shrine to President Ronald Reagan. He speaks passionately about the plight of the mentally ill in this country, then punches up a program on his computer to show how he’s separated more than 200,000 letters into different categories.

De Becker scans the complex grid, which has been cross-referenced by object, subject, affect, menace and intensity. Just enter a term like blood or a client’s code name into the computer, and within seconds up comes a litany of threats connected to the password.

De Becker has broken down disturbed fans into approximately a dozen classifications. There’s “special powers” (the fan believes he’s directed by God), “religious obsession” (the fan believes he is God), “science fiction” (the fan believes aliens have landed), “debt owed” (the fan believes he wrote a hit song and deserves royalties) and “out of control,” or “outcon” (the fan believes his movements are directed by a radio transmitter implanted in his brain).

Perhaps De Becker’s most famous case involved a severe psychotic from Louisiana who was enamored of Olivia Newton-John’s performance in the film Xanadu. A year after writing her, the man escaped from a mental hospital and traveled 1500 miles to visit the singer in Malibu, but his efforts were stymied. The disturbed young man later killed his parents and three other relatives and was apprehended in Washington, D.C., where he was believed to be plotting the murder of Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Other lethal schemes are unearthed in De Becker’s back office, a nerve center where mail is thoroughly analyzed and cataloged. The room includes three computers, stacks of reference books, including Biblical tomes and UFO journals, and overhead shelves crammed with boxes stuffed with fan letters, some over a thousand pages long. Besides the numerous notes, there are many packages received by clients containing an assortment of body fluids, contaminated food, hair, animal parts and garbage.

De Becker’s fascination with celebrity security started in 1963, when, as a youngster, he was galvanized by the effect of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He remembers being more curious about how the murder could have been avoided than about who was responsible for the crime. By his late teens, he was working as a gofer for comic Stan Freberg, Dean Martin’s ex-wife and Elizabeth Taylor, observing their protection arrangements at close range. Soon he began his own security company, and in 1980 he was named director of the special-services group for Reagan’s inaugural, primarily covering celebrity guests.

There are others in the trade who deride De Becker’s methods, joking about how he and his team of operatives are “fascists” who talk into cuff-link microphones and play secret agent. One security pro says, “Everybody in town is laughing their ass off at this guy,” while another claims that De Becker’s methods pump up clients paranoia, therefore increasing his fees. But De Becker denies such charges, putting down the rock & roll bodyguard business as a “shit industry” that lacks imagination. He says proudly, “No one seeks out our services to get a buddy to go with them on some trip somewhere.”

The “buddy” aspect of bodyguard work may not suit de Becker’s style, but in a lot of cases rock stars really need a professional friend, someone to protect them from their own self-destructive nature.

Some bodyguards are specifically contracted to keep drugged-out musicians from overdosing or killing themselves in an alcoholic haze. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, for example, went through numerous men hired primarily to help him kick dope. One guardian says he could have gotten rich off the drugs he flushed down the toilet. But he was fortunate — Tyler whipped his addictions and lived. Richard “Smokey” Wendell wasn’t quite so lucky. A former Secret Service agent who once shielded President Nixon, Wendell was respected as a “drug enforcer” who helped guitarist Joe Walsh get clean. In early 1980 he went to work for John Belushi, but chasing the comic twenty-four hours a day was both physically and mentally exhausting, and Wendell resigned in 1981. Rehired in March of the following year, he was ready to fly to Los Angeles when word came of Belushi’s drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont hotel. Because of his closeness with the family, Wendell handled funeral arrangements.

Doug Goldstein once successfully kept Black Sabbath’s Glenn Hughes away from nasty influences and, more recently, helped deter drug dealers from hanging around Guns n’ Roses. Goldstein now hires security to safeguard the Gunners from overzealous fans, but he points out that often it’s the public that needs to be rescued from the artists.

“We have to protect people from the band. Abso-fucking-lutely,” he says. “You get situations, particularly with Slash, when he’s intoxicated. He likes to have fun, and he’ll go after people. He’ll get in their face, and he’s a strong person.” Bob Bender, the veteran bodyguard who “made sure the wrong people weren’t around” Keith Richards when Bender protected the Rolling Stones in the Seventies, believes that — aside from flexibility — there’s really no profound secret to his job.

“It’s not a perfect science,” he says. “There are a hundred different approaches. None of them are correct, and none of them are wrong. The thing that makes it work is a willingness to think on your feet and make a decision.”

Whether they view themselves as highly trained professionals or glorified baby sitters, bodyguards find that they have an undeniable passion for the excitement of the rock & roll lifestyle that just doesn’t exist for them in other jobs. Doug Goldstein became a successful title-insurance salesman for nine months, but says he was “miserable.” Bender, who runs a neighborhood ice-cream and sandwich shop called Pudgies in Florida when he’s not protecting Springsteen or the Stones, says there’s an intoxicating buzz when he’s on the road.

“I do it because of the amount of energy put out at a show,” he says. “The heightened emotions, the anticipation, the noise level — the whole thing just gives you a sensation that most people in this world just never get to feel, and that’s one of the reasons I keep doing it. It’s quite a rush, quite a rush. When the last note is struck and you’re leaving the building, it’s a sense of accomplishment. We came here, we made it happen, we’re all part of the team.”

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