Somebody had to do it. Who else but Charlie Hernandez?
A menacing rainstorm in Rio de Janeiro flooded the Formula 1 racing field where the next insane episode of the Guns N’ Roses tour of South America was going down. A delay in getting Guns N’ Roses on stage was nothing new, though this time the weather was not helping. Unwisely, the local promoter let the crowd onto the field during load in. Hernandez and associate Lori Tierney were above in the announcer tower, surveying the mayhem. “Charlie and I were looking out on this seething crowd when [Dale] “Opie” [Skjerseth] comes in and announces that we still needed to run the snake from the stage to FOH. I looked down at that riot, and I said, ‘are you kidding me?’”Then a wide-eyed grinning Hernandez chirped: “I’ll do it!”
“His face lit up,” she says laughing. “It was like the best news he could get. So he and Opie run down to the stage, grab the snake and jump into that ocean of humanity.” They lived to tell about it, and later regaled stories of beer and even a punch or two being thrown at them.
“When he came back, it was like the best thing he ever did,” Tierney says. “If it’s hard or impossible, Charlie wants to do it.”
Hernandez’s envious career in live concert production went from Billy Squier to Sting. For all this, Hernandez will receive the industry’s highest honor, the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award Oct. 20 at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
Hernandez is especially touched because “Rick [‘Parnelli’] O’Brien taught me how to be a human being when we were out on the road with Queen and Billy Squier together,” he says. “He taught me how to use humor. He knew how to take the work seriously, but not yourself too seriously.”
“He is always a very honorable person,” says Robin Shaw of Upstaging, who has known Hernandez since his days with Squier. “Humble, funny…he’s a large guy who lives life large with a big heart.”
“He was site coordinator for me on the Stones, and he was great to work with, always someone I can rely on,” says Jake Berry, production manager and a Parnelli Lifetime honoree. “He came through this industry from the bottom, and you don’t stick around if you’re not good at your job.”
Long Island Beginnings
Hernandez was born in New York City in 1957. His father was an officer in the merchant marines, and the young boy would do a stint in Brazil. In 1967 he returned to New York, ending up in Island Park on Long Island, near a rock club called the Action House. “Cream, Jethro Tull, Winter Brothers — everybody would play the club,” he says. At 11 p.m., he’d slip out of his house and into the night to try to sneak into the club. This was “fairly difficult, as there were always guys with no necks with last names that ended in vowels” guarding the door. He’d hang outside anyway, keeping eyes on the cars, ears catching the music as it spilled out the door. This eventually got him moved indoors, where he’d restock the bar. “Hearing that kind of music really got under my skin.”
A few years down the road, he’d break his parents’ hearts by saying no to medical school. (“Later on, I bought them a house, so it’s okay,” he laughs.) Instead of scrubs, it was odd jobs for smaller clubs, driving the van for no-name bands. Then, in 1975, he hitched a ride to Los Angeles with a buddy. They had $68 between them.
Hernandez wandered into Studio Instrument Rentals (SIR). The timing was good, as the owners had just invested in Screen Gem Studios. Later, he would get in on the ground floor of “this thing called MTV… I would go there and deliver equipment, set up… whatever was needed.”
He next went to work for SIR’s New York office, working with the bands that performed on Saturday Night Live. Then, in 1978, he met Billy Squier. When Squier asked Hernandez to go out on tour with him, he jumped at the chance. “We did our first show opening for Jefferson Starship in 1980 in Washington DC,” he recalls. “Billy worked hard and put together a great band. After opening for the Alice Cooper’s Flush the Fashion tour, he had made a name for himself.”
The 1980s were good to Squier, who was savvy enough to see the importance of video, which put him in the stratosphere. “We opened for Pat Benatar, Foreigner, Journey … then in 1983, with his Emotions in Emotion album, we opened for a Queen tour.”
That tour would be game-changer for the young kid from Long Island. “That’s the first time I realized how a tour should be. [Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Honoree] Gerry Stickells was running it, and that’s when I met Rick ‘Parnelli’ O’Brien … I was the kid with the opening act, and I learned a lot in those five months.”
Skjerseth met Hernandez in 1984. “There’s never any tension when Charlie is around,” he says. “He was made for the job. He can take over and be in charge. He has the personality to run a tour.”
South America and Beyond
Next, Hernandez went out on Def Leppard’s Hysteria tour. The in-the-round configuration featured a complicated design with trussing that wouldn’t obscure sidelines, yet could handle 86,000 pounds of light and sound gear on it. “We changed the paradigm with that,” Hernandez says. “The stage was on hydraulics, with a drum riser that rotated. We basically hung two full PA systems.” At the time, it was one of the highest-grossing tours in history.
“It was my first tour of that magnitude as a designer and mixer,” says audio engineer Robert Scovill. “It was an ambitious undertaking from a technical and logistical perspective. It was a big tour that clearly required big personalities to make it a reality, and Charlie certainly fit that bill. He had that rare ability to create a scale of camaraderie, motivation and accountability between everyone — management, band and crew — to a level that I have rarely experienced since.”
It was also significant because drummer Rick Allen had just survived a life-threatening car accident that severed his left arm. Allen showed remarkable courage, and with the band’s support, worked with electronic drum maker Simmons to create a unique but complicated drum kit that allowed him to stay with the band. “The amount of innovation and technology on every aspect of that tour took the industry a giant leap forward,” Hernandez says.
Touring with Def Leppard took Hernandez around the world several times, and he would spend the rest of the 1980s and early 1990s handling the heavy-hitters of heavy metal, including Ratt, Poison, and Cinderella.
Lori Tierney met Hernandez in 1986 when his Ratt/Poison tour came through Denver, where she was a promoter. “I had never repped an arena show before,” she recalls. “We had to do a pre-rig of these giant lighting pods — big octagon things, and I walked in not knowing anything!”
She says being a woman typically meant getting attitude, “but Charlie was wonderful. He was a good mentor. He walked me through the whole thing without ever making me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing.
“But the greatest thing he taught me was how to manipulate the system.” At that show, the pre-rig was supposed to be hung so it was out of camera shot for an NBA game that night, and she could see it couldn’t be done. “He went up to the building manager and just starts charming her, telling her jokes, totally distracting her. That night, on their opening shot, you could totally see those Ratt pods, but he got what he wanted.”
On shows at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which has notoriously difficult truck access, he’d again do seemingly-impossible things.
“At Red Rocks, the biggest show would only push four or maybe five trucks up there. But when Charlie was doing Kiss there, he declared he’d get seven up there,” Tierney says. “He got in the sound truck and made the driver go up there, that poor guy was just sweating to death. Charlie physically makes things happen. Like the trim height isn’t tall enough? With Charlie, suddenly it is. There’s no production problem that is too big for him.”
A New Kind of Art Form
In the 1990s, Hernandez followed Gerry Stickells’ lead and started successfully getting bands into South America. “I started doing site coordinating, which was kind of a new art form,” he says. “You go in early and get it as right as you can. You go onto some non-descript soccer field in Venezuela and get it all organized.” Having spent some early years in Brazil helped, as does the fact he speaks seven languages. He paved the way for a lot of acts, including the infamous Metallica and Guns N’ Roses tour of 1992.
Tierney was with him for that. “It was insanity from start to finish. The gear got caught up in a military coup in Venezuela, a Bogotá rain storm collapsed a stage roof, some of these promoters were drug dealers … we would not have made it out without Charlie!”
Next, Hernandez was PM for Prince’s European tour. “That was a lot of fun,” he says. “He’s one of those guys whose attention to detail and precision takes you to another level of your game.” He also did some work with Michael Jackson’s Dangerous tour.
In working with a notoriously challenging artist, Hernandez is blunt: “You have to remember, you don’t get to be the biggest whatever by being nice to everybody. But then you’re doing something like taking Guns N’ Roses at their height into places like Bogotá, and you can’t help but step back and go, ‘Yes things can get a little weird, but look what we’re doing!’”
Then, with Tierney, Skjerseth and Berry, Hernandez formed Production Alliance in 1994. Their first client? The Rolling Stones. “This was for the Voodoo Lounge tour, and the paradigm of how big tours moved was changed,” Hernandez says.
The company was successful, but had run its course by 2002. Then came work with David Bowie. Hernandez would also work with Aerosmith for five years and on a handful of Ozzfests. In 2007, another important relationship was formed by happenstance.
“I was walking out of the Sunset Marquis to meet with Sharon [Osbourne], when I ran into [road manager] Billy Francis sitting at a café table with Sting. I sit with them ,and when Sting walks away for a few minutes, he leans over to me and tells me the Police are going to have a reunion tour. I say, ‘f*** off!’” But Hernandez believed it when he got hired as production manager. It was a huge, complicated tour — and also among the highest-grossing tours at that time. “The band was a real treat, and with Sting, you have a gentleman who talks the talk and walks the walk.”
Of Hernandez, Skjerseth says, “He puts all his heart into everything he does, he’s very passionate about his work and puts all his game into it. What excites Charlie the most is the beginning, the putting together the tour.”
Robin Shaw of Upstaging has also seen him at work on many a complicated tour. “He’s smart and organized,” she says, noting his ability to make everybody part of the team. Shaw also credits Hernandez for his ability to handle himself in a manner where “you’ll do anything for him.” Plus, like other stellar production managers, he likes to hire smart and wants to hear opinions.
What a Roadie Can Do
Like many, Hernandez was deeply moved by the suffering unleashed by the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in late 2004. He spearheaded an effort to raise millions of dollars in relief funds. He started by picking up the phone and calling industry friends, including Tierney. Quickly they realized that the skills, knowledge, and talents they and others in their sphere of influence have been amassing all these years could be used for some real good — to save lives.
At the time, he was working on a Grand Prix Event that had been planned for Kuala Lumpur that March. He called Barry Dane, then CEO of db Sound and co-producer of the Grand Prix event, and said, “This is crazy; we should do something about this.” They put together the Force of Nature benefit concert in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, raising over $8 million for relief efforts.
While it was successful, something about that concert didn’t sit well with Hernandez. Considering the excesses that big concerts typically are associated with, he decided rock shows weren’t the answer. “We move cities every day and leave nothing behind,” he says. “We’re roadies, and we do it all the time.” So the group sought out the support and encouragement of all the vendors and friends we have worked with throughout his career. Originally called Roadie Relief, the name would evolve to Justabunchofroadies.org.
Hernandez’s new group would face its biggest task after the Haiti earthquake in early 2010. “I saw news coverage of [former presidents] Bill Clinton and George W. Bush about take a flight to assess the damage.” The news report showed the two walking past a plane owned by Rock-It Cargo as they boarded a 757 owned by founders of Yahoo. (The former presidents were originally going to take the Rock-It plane, but secret service determined the entourage needed a larger aircraft.)
Hernandez phoned Rock-It owner David Bernstein, saying, “I see you have an empty airplane.” Joking that it was like his days as a teenager, when you’d talk a buddy into lending you his car if you paid for gas — but on a much larger level, as a tank-full cost about $50,000 — Bernstein quickly said yes. Next on Hernandez’ list was getting Upstaging and ShowMotion trucking on board.
“When he wanted to do something about Haiti, he moved quickly,” Tierney says. “He got a plane from Rock-it. I got medical supplies. He needed people at a certain spot to load up trucks.” Haiti got relief, roadie style. “And that would never have happened without Charlie.”
The Hernandez-led crew quickly figured out how to provide people and supplies where they were needed most. The plane was loaded and flown into Haiti. Only allowed a two-hour window, Hernandez managed to arrange things so that the doctors and medical supplies were swiftly transported to the hospital (and away from the black market) — using only one hour of the allotted window, giving other relief organizations more time to speed aid to the needy.
Communications also proved vital. A relief worker in Haiti got word to her parents in Minneapolis that there was no formula for babies under her care. The parents somehow got the email to Hernandez’ group, who bought in a load of formula — all wrapped in “roadie red” gaffer tape, of course. They rotated in and out of Haiti four times, ferrying supplies, doctors and nurses. “After the fourth rotation, we knew we weren’t coming back, having done all we could, and we were very silent,” Hernandez recalls. “One of the nurses comes over to me and said she was the one who received that formula, and told me she saved eight babies the day before because of what was wrapped in that red gaffer tape. And then I just lost it. That’s when I looked around and said, ‘This is what we do now.’”
Continuing the Work
The work continues. Along with Haiti, Just a Bunch of Roadies got 120,000 pounds of food (60,000 meals) to the hungry in Pakistan after that country saw crops devastated by flooding in 2010. “We even took soccer balls for the kids to have something to do and keep out of trouble.” They have roadies everywhere collecting shampoo or whatever is thrown away after hotel stays, putting them in a box, and getting them to a women’s shelter somewhere. “It’s as simple as somebody getting us a box of T-Shirts for people in need.”
Recently, Hernandez got a few minutes with former president Bill Clinton at his Global Initiative conference after Sting told Clinton about Just a Bunch of Roadies. “I told him nobody could do this more efficiently than us. Waving a pen, I said, ‘Mr. President, I can put this anywhere on the earth in 72 hours.’” Clinton was impressed enough to have his chief of staff reach out to the group.
Hernandez continues with his “message of shared values.” He does it with the support of his wife, Andrea, and son, Charlie, a sound tech for Clair Bros.
“Because of the economy, a lot of people have fallen off the edge,” notes Tierney. “There was a small food bank in Minneapolis where he had family, but wasn’t open all the time. Charlie found this out and went in and met with the people. He told them to do it like rock ‘n’ roll catering, and set it up like a big rock show, showing them all the ways they could make it work. They were able to increase the people they serve by 35 percent, and now they want to use it as a model for other food banks.”
Tierney also says another aspect to Hernandez that sets him apart is his thirst for knowledge. “He is one of the most educated persons I’ve ever met in the business,” she says. “He knows history, art, jazz and politics. He’s such a well-read, articulate person that, after a conversation with him, you need to go look something up! That’s my favorite part of Charlie. That, and that he brings the same attitude and work ethic to his humanitarian work as he does to production.”
Hernandez will be honored at the Parnelli Awards in Las Vegas Oct. 20 2012. For more information, please visit www.parnelliawards.com.