Dennis Sheehan - 2008 Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

in Features

Dennis Sheehan has had a backstage pass to rock and roll history. For a quarter of a century he has shepherded U2 to the four corners of the globe and back again. Prior to that, he assisted Led Zeppelin on their historic tours. The one-time professional guitarist has also served a host of acts including Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Siouxie and the Banshees and members of the Sex Pistols, among many others.

“Dennis is a great, hardworking and loyal tour manager who always has everyone’s best interest at heart all the time,” says production manager Jake Berry. “I think it’s his enthusiasm and love of the industry that has enabled him to maintain the breakneck speed that the job requires for all these years. And he’s maintained his enthusiasm for 40 years! It’s very hard to put into words why he’s so great at his job.”

“Dennis is basically a saint,” adds Sam O’Sullivan, U2’s drum tech and studio manager. “I’ve seen him drag bags around airports and run to the stage with a late set list — still things he does today! The industry is a better place having Dennis Sheehan being part of it.”

“Dennis Sheehan is a wise and trusted colleague and the best tour manager in the world,” Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, says.    

Mutual Respect

Sheehan’s career is a case study of not only showing respect, but also receiving it. “You do a job you like, you do it well, and you should be given respect,” he said. “A lot of artists would pay highly for a good tour manager, but the respect didn’t come with it. Money is important, but so is respect. I’d never let anyone treat me badly.”

Sheehan was born in 1946 in Wolverhampton, England, where his parents had gone to work during World War II. Six months later, the family, originally from Ireland, returned to the costal shipping town of Dungarvan, Ireland. “The people of the town weren’t wealthy by any means, and I don’t ever remember seeing a car,” Sheehan says of his early years. “But music was around me all the time.” At age 10, Sheehan returned to England with his family. There, a science teacher who practiced the art of finger picking the guitar inspired the young Sheehan. “Everyone was a huge Burl Ives fan and I was fascinated by his playing,” Sheehan says, adding with a laugh: “I believed in three months I could play as well!”

He must have gotten fairly close, because a few years later he was in a group and performing professionally throughout Europe, eventually playing more blues-oriented music. “On the U.S. Army bases we would play “House of the Rising Sun” and they would just throw money on the stage,” he laughs. “We’d play it a half a dozen times a night! It was good fun.”

From Architecture to Touring

By the time he was 19 he was still playing but was mostly trying to focus on being an apprentice architect. He was less than enthused by where that road was headed, and when the opportunity came up to travel with a band, he grabbed it. That band was Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, which was one of the biggest soul bands in the 1960s. When the original tour manager landed in the U.K., he had to return to the band’s homeland of Jamaica, and Sheehan was called into action. “I had driven my own band around, and at that point I knew I wasn’t going to miss playing very much.”

The methods were primitive by today’s standard, but Sheehan moved the eight-piece group around Europe competently. “It was pretty basic,” he laughs, shaking his hand. “It was me and a roadie. And we’d play seven nights a week, twice on Saturday, and in some clubs the audience was as many as 1,500 people.”


Discovering America

Despite the grueling schedule, the young Sheehan managed to show up for regular soccer games at a park in London on Sunday mornings. The pick up game involved a lot of the people from the burgeoning live event industry, and next thing he knew he was working for the Scottish act Cartoone, managed by Peter Grant and Mark London. The band was on the way to America.

“I had never been to America, and I was looking forward to it,” he says. “And we were one of a whole series of acts on that tour, back when you’d do a 45 minute set and get off stage. We didn’t have an extra roadie at the time so it was up to me to get them on, get the mics up and take care of the equipment.”

The bills had a wide variety of acts; Sun Ra, Led Zeppelin, MC5, Spirit, Everly Brothers — all appearing together. “All these different musicians playing together in these big clubs. And we didn’t have separate dressing rooms. You each just took your own section. It was a great time with great shows.” The tour lasted a mere five weeks but it cemented Sheehan’s passion for the live event industry.


Witness to Tragedy

Back in England, he would work for the band Stone the Crows, which led him to witness an tragedy that has become a case study in the importance of proper electrical grounding in the live production industry.

“They were a great and hugely popular band. One night they were supposed to play at a university in Wales, but at the last minute, due to a demand on tickets, they moved the band to a bigger ballroom to accommodate more people,” Sheehan recalls. It was May of 1972, and as was typical of the times, Sheehan did double duty as the tour manager and soundman. Guitarist Les Howard touched an unearthed microphone with wet hands, and the ungrounded power source electrocuted him. Sheehan himself would get thrown back 10 feet when he touched the soundboard. “I ran and pulled all the plugs as quickly as I could, and an ambulance was called … but Les would be declared D.O.A.”


Stairway to Zeppelin

Grant and London had had also started managing Led Zeppelin, and Sheehan would get his next big break — assisting on the 1975 and 1977 tours. “We had our own 727 and had a lot of people on the road, including a few undesirables.” That tour would come to a “grinding halt” on the tragic news that Robert Plant’s six-year-old son, Karac, died of respiratory failure.

He would be called back to work with the 1979 concerts and he proved himself ably enough to secure his future as a top tier tour manager. He would also gain plenty of story-telling fodder to regale and delight all those who would be fortunate enough to find themselves in his company for years to come.

“Arista Records were having problems in communicating with their new acts, especially one in particular,” he says of one of his more interesting assignments, Patti Smith. “Patti had just released Easter, and so they asked if I would work as artist liaison and local record label manager on a European tour. They were always trying to get these types of acts to talk to the commercial press for obvious reasons, but all people like Patti were interested in was talking to the underground magazines. Patti didn’t want to talk at all to commercial press.”


Acts of Kindness

But Sheehan won her over by acts of kindness. “At one point, we had met Nico (a.k.a. Christa Päffgen, singer/songwriter/actress/model) in Paris, and Patti was taken by her even though at the time she was heavily dependent on drugs.”

Later while she was out walking with Dennis, Patti saw this little Harmonium in an antique shop and commented that Nico would love it. At that point, the tour had done well and as usual, Sheehan had expertly handled the budget so he didn’t hesitate picking it up for Patti to give to Nico. “I told Patti, ‘You know what she’ll do with it? She’ll play it for a few minutes then sell it for drugs.’ And Patti said, ‘I know, Dennis, but these things are so important. She misses her music. We still love these artists and must honor their contribution.’”

During this period he also had a run in with a club manager in Arkansas who not so subtly threatened him when he was working with The Professionals. “I was trying to get our fair share of the door that night based on a guarantee against percentage, not just our minimum,” he tells with a twinkle in his eye. “I kept telling him that there were a lot of people there that night, well over the agreed number, and we deserved extra money. He disagreed and when he opened his briefcase filled with cash there was a gun on top of it. Then he ‘assured’ me that we had just the right amount of people and I wasn’t getting a penny more than the guarantee. Well, you don’t argue with stuff like that!”


The “Perfect” Tour Manager

“In 1982 I was looking for the perfect tour manager for U2,” McGuinness recalls. “We’d had a couple of duds. It was before the band was successful but we were touring constantly. I arranged to meet Robbie McGrath who had been the tour manager and sound engineer for the Boomtown Rats. The meeting was arranged for the Portobello Hotel in Notting Hill, U2’s home away from home for most of the 1980s.

“But Robbie didn’t show up. He got a better offer or changed his mind. He sent Dennis Sheehan along instead. I was a bit annoyed with Robbie but I didn’t take it out on Dennis. I hired him on the spot. That was 25 years ago. He's the best in the world. I can’t imagine the last 25 years without him. He has been absolutely fundamental to U2’s success.

Cementing a Bond

“Of course 25 years ago, he had been working in England for a few years for some other groups, and he had picked up a bit of an English accent. That was the first thing that had to go ... along with his mohawk. Now he looks and sounds as if he never left Dungarvan!”

Sheehan confirms that he immediately gelled with McGuiness and the band. “We developed mutual respect for each other,” he says. McGuiness, then as now, had a business resemblance to Peter Grant as a great manager. “They are incredibly hard working, and they go to extreme lengths to achieve what they want. You think you get to a peak with them, but you don’t. With U2 they are always still climbing the mountain.”

Looking back on that first tour he did with them, he says it seems positively pedestrian by today’s standards of the band. “This was the pre War album and tour, and we had a scrim, a couple of aluminum poles with white flags, a wind machine, a red carpet, a drum riser and that’s it!” he laughs. But at McGuinness’ request, Sheehan put his budgetary prowess to work immediately. “He asked me to look at expenses on touring, and I did. They had a crew bus and a band bus, and I got rid of both drivers. I drove the band and made the crew drive themselves. That saved £40,000 on the European tour!”


A Group of Individuals

While huge financial success for the band was still a few years off, Sheehan was at least able to turn things around so the bills were paid and they were mostly debt-free.

But he stresses that even in the early days he was only just a part of an otherwise terrific organization. “They had a really formative team of people including Joe O’Herlihy, Mark Fisher, Willie Williams, Steve Iredale, Bob Koch, Jake Berry, good security, good accounting… These people were all necessary to what we were building. I just tried to keep a step ahead.”

Sheehan also studied the band’s lifestyles. “They are individuals who make up a group, and it’s obvious that they all have different needs.”

While he’s been with them more than a quarter of a century, Sheehan maintains that every tour is different and he has to approach it all with fresh eyes. Just now starting a world tour, he’s been scheming and planning all spring and summer. “I sit down and I look at renting houses for Bono and Edge as they both have large families, and like spending break times with them. They need to be in private houses. Larry [Mullens Jr] and Adam [Clayton] are more hotel guys.”


Covering the Basics

Everything is taken into consideration and scrutinized. The rock and roll lifestyle lends itself to late hours and less-than-perfect eating habits, so he works to make sure the band eats well by hiring good caterers. Also, a fitness professional is on hand to keep the rigors of the road from deteriorating their health.

Travel is always challenging. These days the band has 26 people on staff traveling with them. Sometimes, given personal considerations like in 2005 when a family member was quite ill, Sheehan finds himself managing the comings and goings of not only the Airbus 320 the band typically flies in, but also the two small jets that shuttles band mates to and from Dublin.

With stars of this caliber security is always an issue. Reflecting on how things have changed, Sheehan notes that back in his days with Zeppelin, “brute force” was used by bouncers that were called to duty. “But today security is more in tune with using the head rather than the hand.”


An Agenda for Fun

Fun also needs to put in the itinerary. “Because the band members are so close to each other, we all go out together occasionally. Sometimes we go out on a boat and enjoy the day off, and sometimes it’s the band that will organize something for all of us to do.”

Locations for any event need to be scouted. When they stayed in Morocco to do some recording last spring, Sheehan went on a fact-finding mission to scout out suitable housing. “I spent four days looking at 38 properties, from real crappy small places to palaces.” And the secret ingredient to making nearly a month’s stay by the world’s biggest rock group comfortable? “Lots of cash,” he laughs. “You walk into those situations with a pocket full of money and half the time you don’t know where it goes!”

In addition to the mammoth success of the band and its comings and goings related to music, Sheehan has also been called in to assist in the high-profile activities of Bono and the rest of the group. Whether they go to Africa, New Orleans, or to appear before Congress to raise awareness for a cause, you can bet it was Sheehan who worked out the tricky details necessary to get them there. Of course that has perks. Sheehan stayed at the White House when Bono was invited by Bill and Hillary Clinton for the Millennium.

A Great Storyteller

Along the way, Sheehan has become an integral U2 family member, and one with wonderful tales to tell. And while it’s questionable how much that helped him succeed, it sure has made working with him more entertaining. “He’s one of the world’s greatest storytellers,” Berry says. His stories of the 1970s certainly entertained U2 — so much so that on one of Sheehan’s birthdays the band dressed up like members of Led Zeppelin for him. “It was [fricking] hilarious,” Barry recalls.

Recently the band brought Sheehan up on stage for the first time at a Las Vegas gig in honor of his birthday. “Later at a party for me in a club I was presented by a big cake by two busty girls — it was the crowning glory!”

Today, he’s working hard for the new tour, and not slowing down.

“I wish I could retire,” jokes the 67-year-old. “My youngest will be 14 and I have to see him through college. But more than anything, I enjoy working. I have a nice balance between being on tour and being off and getting a chance to relax.”

“Dennis is a hard working, loyal and talented tour manager who always has everyone’s best interest at heart all the time,” says Berry. “He always has a smile on his face.”

“I never drank until I was 30, I never did drugs and I was always honest,” Sheehan says of his success. “I think people knew my history at the time, and knew I was straight and had a sense of responsibility. I always got the job done regardless.”