‘The Music Never Stops’ Review: It’s Always Show Time
Peter Shapiro watched U2’s frontman eat a salad with his bare hands and Bill Murray sweep up backstage after a Grateful Dead show.
By Dave Shiflett
Sept. 1, 2022 6:12 pm ET
The reopening of America’s concert halls sparks unsolicited memories. My own include my first Grateful Dead show—on Sept. 11, 1973, in Williamsburg, Va. Tickets ran from $4 to $6, and social distancing was a trip too weird to contemplate. Also in the audience at that show, it turns out, was a teenage Bruce Hornsby, the nimble pianist who would later perform some 100 concerts with the Grateful Dead, including a string of 50th-anniversary performances in July 2015 billed as the band’s “farewell.”
In “The Music Never Stops,” we learn that Peter Shapiro was the promotional mastermind behind those 2015 performances. He mentions that general-admission tickets for the Dead’s farewell tour peaked at $199.50. (At the time Billboard reported that, on the secondary market, some were going for a nifty $116,000.) The tickets sold briskly despite the absence of legendary bandleader Jerry Garcia, who had died in 1995. Devoted fans attributed the appearance of a rainbow at one performance to Garcia’s postmortem machinations, while others credited Mr. Shapiro, though he assures us that conjuring rainbows isn’t in his skill set.
But he does take pride in having promoted 10,000 (and counting) performances by acts as varied as the Disco Biscuits, Jono Manson (of Joey Miserable and the Worms), U2, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Bob Dylan and several surviving Grateful Dead members. For his memoir, he focuses on 50 of these events, offering an entertaining and often amusing look into the music business and a portrait of his own busy, entrepreneurial life.
Mr. Shapiro developed his promotional chops following his 1997 purchase of Wetlands Preserve, a New York City music venue that doubled as a political activism center. It could also do a fair imitation of a money pit: One lightly attended show featuring former Jefferson Airplane vocalist Marty Balin lost Mr. Shapiro, he says, “ten percent of my bank account.” He rallied and showed a knack for improvising that echoed the experimentation of his favorite musicians. One of his innovations combined live music with bowling; another paired the work of celebrity chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, with acts such as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. His annual Lockn’ Festival in rural Virginia remains a warm home for bands dedicated to keeping alive the San Francisco vibe despite the sometimes discordant accompaniment of gathering years.
Mr. Shapiro (with assistance from co-author Dean Budnick) comes across as a mellow fellow with a story to charm even those who might prefer Wayne Newton to crooners with more psychedelic predilections. Alongside the famous and semi-famous, his world is populated by bands named Jiggle the Handle, the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. Acts of nearly supernatural kindness are also fairly common, as when Mr. Shapiro bought tequila shots for 600 customers to celebrate the opening of a concert series. He arranged a benefit show for a regular customer who had suffered cosmic-level bad luck: He “was asleep in a hotel in Portland, Oregon, when an errant taxi crashed into his room and ran him over.”
Along the way Mr. Shapiro has watched U2 frontman and international publicity hound Bono eat a salad with his bare hands and Bill Murray sweep up backstage after a Dead farewell show. In the guest book at his Capitol Theatre (in Port Chester, N.Y.), he finds a new way of posing the “does size matter?” question: “I think Brian Wilson’s signature was the smallest while Bob Dylan’s was the largest—make of that whatever you will.” Those given to pondering what musicians think about while performing may find illumination in guitarist Bob Weir’s post-gig comment: “Did you see the University of Georgia flag out there? Nice flag.”
While Mr. Shapiro often swims in heterodox currents, he has a deeply traditional streak. “Getting married helped me to toe the line,” he writes, “and what really helped was being a parent.” He goes out of his way to be an involved father—sometimes way out of the way. He mentions working Friday and Saturday in London, flying to Las Vegas Saturday night and departing Sunday midnight on the red-eye to New York to ensure that he arrives in time to drive his children to school on Monday morning.
His business ethic might also serve as a guide to evolving entrepreneurs. “There’s a quote I really like: ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get.’ ” Similarly, “You can do it fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. You can do it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap.” He illustrates a part of this maxim with a vignette about booking former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant for a midnight-club appearance. After handing Mr. Plant a paper bag containing $50,000, he said he’d give him an additional $50,000 when he played the show. Mr. Plant’s response: “Is there any paperwork?” “Nope.” Mission accomplished. Mr. Shapiro cites the noted folk philosopher B.B. King: “If you really want something, you bring cash.”
Some of the advice may strike a sour note. “The decision to return home after college had enabled me to avoid paying living expenses and keep my options open. I encourage interns to do the same, whenever possible.” Should his own children move into his basement for an extended bout of post-graduate chilling, perhaps he’ll rethink that position.
For now, Mr. Shapiro keeps on trucking. After doctors discovered a potential widowmaker heart attack waiting in his wings, he throttled back on booze and steaks. But his talent for innovation is undimmed, including hopes of teaming up with legendary Vegas crooner Wayne Newton, known to perform in a tuxedo and eat his salads with a fork.
Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com.
Appeared in the September 2, 2022, print edition as 'It’s Always Show Time'.