Billy Sheehan: my best and worst gigs ever

The bass virtuoso recalls onstage highs and lows

If you've played as many shows as Billy Sheehan has – during his career, he's logged thousands of gigs with his own late '70s/early '80s band Talas, as a member of David Lee Roth's first group and, of course, with the successful pop-rock outfit Mr. Big, whom he co-founded – chances are some nights stand out as unqualified triumphs, while others... not so much.

The bass superstar recalls an early '90s festival gig in Santos Beach, Brazil, outside of Sao Paulo, as being a particular highlight. The lineup was Mr. Big, the Rollins Band, The Lemonheads and a pair of local acts who served as warm-ups. "On the surface, it was kind of an odd bill," Sheehan remembers, "but it actually worked."

Before the show, the crowd was decent sized, but throughout the day and into the night, Sheehan would look out from behind the stage and could see that a steady stream of people kept filtering in. "The audience was getting bigger and bigger," he says. "You always want that; you want there to be a nice crowd for when you go on. But I couldn't believe how many fans were getting in. 'What the fuck is that all about?' I asked somebody. It was becoming a really big show."

After the local bands, The Lemonheads performed their set. "They were really, really good," Sheehan says, "The audience liked them; they gave the band a polite but not ridiculously huge reception." Next up was the Rollins band. "The first thing Henry did was jump up in the air," Sheehan says, "but as he did he brought his knee up too high and accidentally hit himself in the nose. You could tell he didn't mean to do that – he just got over-excited – and within seconds, there was blood gushing from his nose."

Rather than stop the show, Rollins forged ahead. Sheehan says that the adrenaline from the injury seemed to have had an energizing effect on the bare-chested frontman. "Henry put on a hell of a show," he raves. "He didn't miss a beat and gave it everything he had. I loved it."

By the time Mr. Big were about to take the stage, the audience had swelled beyond capacity, and it was then that the band members discovered the reason for the sell-out numbers: "We were told that our music had been played on a Brazilian soap opera," Sheehan says. "We had no idea that this had been happening, but because of it, everybody at the show knew our tunes and was dying to see us play."

Once on stage, the bassist had what he describes as something of an out-of-body experience. "I don't know what happened to me, but I lost all sense of feeling," he says, "It's like I wasn't even myself up there – the fans pushed so much adulation at us. The show practically played itself. So I just pulled out every stop. Nothing I did failed, and everything I did worked. We were all on fire. It was truly the best show ever and one I'll always remember. It was a terrific introduction to the people of Brazil."

In stark contrast, Sheehan cites a particular night in Athens, Greece, in 1983, as one he'd rather forget. He had accepted an invitation by the British heavy metal band UFO to fill in for founding bassist Pete Way, who had quit the group just before it was about to hit the road. "It wasn't a long tour," he says, "which was good, because right from the start things were rough."

As Sheehan remembers it, the band's singer, Phil Mogg, "a lovely guy, most of the time," had been drinking more than usual, and things came to a head when the band got to its Athens hotel. "The promoter had given us each a gift of a huge bottle of Metaxa Greek brandy," Sheehan says, "This was in the beginning of the day, and about an hour after we got there, I saw Phil's bottle was sitting outside of his room, and it had already been emptied. 'Oh, boy,' I thought."

The gig that night was a hard slog for Sheehan, made worse by Mogg's inebriation. "Phil was pretty hammered," he says, "and I was trying to sing some of the lyrics to cover – he had his mic kind of down at his side a lot. I was already thinking, 'Thank God this is the last night."

Out of nowhere, an M-80 went off by the side of the stage. The loud interruption put Mogg in a darker mood, and Sheehan retreated to his amps. "I could see people throwing stuff," he says. "The whole situation was deteriorating. At one point, Phil came to me and shouted in my ear, 'If we go to the front of the stage, we can get 'em.' He thought we could win the crowd back over. I knew 'no way,' but I did."

While attempting to turn the night around, Sheehan was nailed in the head by a crushed beer can thrown by an audience member. "It was like a hockey puck came at me full force, " he says. "It nearly put my lights out."

Dazed, Sheehan returned to his amps. He called out to the crew and asked if he was bleeding "They looked at one another like, 'Should we tell him?'" he says, laughing. "As it turned out, blood was pouring down my head. I managed to finish the show with my brain kind of rattled."

Back at the hotel, Sheehan packed up quickly and bolted. He grabbed a taxi cab and made off for the airport. "I was in such a bad mood," he says. "We got stuck in some traffic, and I just sat there looking out the window and thinking, 'If I miss this flight, I'm gonna kill someone!'"

Shortly afterwards, the bassist got a call from UFO, asking him if he'd be interested in doing another tour. "I think I said something like, 'I don't know. Let me check my schedule,' Sheehan says. "But I never did. I think they got another bass player for that tour, and then that was the end of the band for many years."


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