By Daniela Stolfi-Tow – Today marks the one-year anniversary of the day legendary rock promoter Barry Fey, known as the Rockfather, committed suicide.
Barry Fey was best known for shaping the careers of people like U2, Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, the Police, the Who, Led Zeppelin and many more. He produced U2s Under a Blood Red Sky and put Red Rocks on the map among other things.
As his long time assistant, I wanted to share my story about what it was like to leave Hawaii at 17 to work for the notorious tyrant.
Barry told me his “tell all” book Backstage Past was therapeutic for him and that I should write one about my experiences someday. Well Barry, I am not prepared to write a book yet but in honor of the memorial of your death, this is for you.
I was barely 17 when I left Hawaii for college. I loved music and wanted to work in the industry. I chose Denver because of Barry Fey. He was the man everyone wanted to work for. This was before I had access to the internet so I had no idea he was famous for being…..loud. Had I known what I was in store for, I probably would have moved to Utah.
My first 2 years of college, I continued to apply for a job at his office. Persistence paid off, as I was eventually hired as a runner. A runner basically did exactly that; ran around town for the office and the artists and in some cases, quite literally ran for your life.
My job included everything from picking up tickets and deliveries to venues, to buying lunch, to placing bets at the local sports book for Barry. When it was show days, I did airport runs, errands for the artists, and pretty much anything I was asked to do to make sure everything went smoothly.
I had backstage passes for every venue in town and a cell phone back when they were the size of bricks and would actually burn your ear. I could go to any show I wanted.
It was my first real job. Looking back, I admit I was completely unprepared for working in the music business and even more unprepared for Barry Fey. I was 19, from Hawaii and had no idea what I was in store for.
My first few months were relatively uneventful. I hardly saw Barry. I wasn’t sure he even knew who I was. He called me Margo for the first 6 months and only talked to me long enough to give me orders. But that didn’t last long.
Barry was a large man, and his presence was even larger. You would know he was in the office the minute you walked in the front door, simply because of his presence. He would literally suck the air out of the room. And oh boy, when he yelled….you never saw anything like it. People would be running, office supplies would be flying, it was like one giant dysfunctional abusive kingdom with Barry Fey sitting on the throne, and all of us scurrying about at his feet, there to serve. And serve him we did.
I remember when the movie Devil Wears Prada came out. I completely identified with that. It was my life. A never ending barrage of ridiculous requests, panic induced errands, middle of the night calls, cut throat people, and feeling like I never got anything right.
After a couple of years, I was promoted to be his assistant. In the real world, being promoted is a good thing, a sign of respect and a way of saying “nice job”. I found out later his former assistant had to fill the position so she could move on to PR and no one else wanted the job because they already knew that a couple of his former assistants ended up in a mental institution. Of course, no one immediately volunteered that information. I think I even thanked the person who recommended me.
I am pretty sure everyone was “high fiving” behind closed doors after I agreed to take the job.
My life went from truly absurd to utter insanity – over night. Now I was around Barry all the time, even after work taking care of his house and traveling with him and doing his personal errands. I not only had to deal with Barry’s insane life, but dysfunctional nasty people in the office who had it in for me.
The problem was that Barry liked me. You wouldn’t have known it by the way he yelled at me but he really did. I actually used to wonder about that for a long time and years later he told me it was because I was loyal to him and he knew I wasn’t a user. And it is never a good thing when the boss likes you too much. It makes you a target.
Pam Moore, his right hand person also from Hawaii, had the most fun making my life miserable and she was really good at it. She had worked for Ken Rosene prior and was also 19 when she started with Barry, so I assumed I had at least one ally.
Boy was I wrong.
She turned out to teach me a lesson about the kind of woman I never wanted to be, which was the kind of women who tear other women down.
I seriously could say something like, “That is a nice shirt Pam.” And she would fire back, “of course its nice, I don’t wear ugly shirts!”
There was a time I worked as a Production Assistant for the Prince shows at the Blaisdell. The Midweek did an article on me. It was a “Local girl does good” kind of article. It was a small article they didn’t even spell my name right. No big deal, and it gave publicity to the show. I even mentioned Pam and how she was my mentor because I just knew somehow that was going to blow up in my face. And that is exactly what happened. She went around the office, and to her local contacts upset about why they were talking about me when SHE was a local girl and I was a nobody, and it should have been about her. She had her assistant copy the article and post it all over the office to embarrass me.
That is when she got her assistant Paige, the biggest troublemaker on the planet, to go after me.
Let me tell you this girl was evil the one co-worker that everyone dreads. She would do horrible stuff to people like leave deodorant and soap on a co-workers desk, or put photos on the office fridge of fat people as a jab at someone she thought was overweight.
One day Paige dug through my trash to find incorrect spreadsheets that I had already corrected, and went around replacing the right ones with the ones that contained an error.
Once she went as far as to reverse the numbers on a Gloria Estefan show so that my numbers would be off by several thousand, causing the show to undersell which I discovered after I found her white out project in the copy room trash.
At that time Universal Concerts had put a Controller in the office, something Barry hated. I remember being relieved because I had a manager to go to. But it turns out Paige was one of the first people in his office gossiping.
A good manager would have known what was going on. Unfortunately he bought right into it. When everyone FINALLY got computers, he gave everyone one but me, the one person who actually knew how to use one.
Think about that. I was the executive assistant to the President, who was the worlds most impatient man. And I was left rifling through a manual Rolodex the size of a tire and having to manually draw spreadsheets with a ruler and calculate tickets counts?
Then shake his head at me when I was getting yelled at for being too slow to find something.
That was the kind of stuff I was dealing with on a daily basis.
The really great part of all that was that I never had to explain any of it to Barry. Barry was NO dummy. It was really the only reason I stayed in that job because he knew. People would come to him about whatever issue they created to get me in trouble and he would be like “thanks for telling me” then wink at me when they turned around. He had a great way of acting clueless, but he new everything that was going on and in the end, he always sided with me.
In fact, the more people treated me bad the better he treated me, and it ended up being the one thing that changed our relationship. As they got meaner, he got nicer.
Which is why Paige got fired.
Another part of the job was dealing with Barry’s son Tyler. Now let me start by saying that Tyler turned into an amazing, polite, respectful guy, I like him a lot now. But as a kid, wow…he was mini Barry and I used to joke that he was going to take over the world someday. I had never met a kid that intelligent and with a presence that was actually intimidating.
Six years old, he would walk in with his dad and they had the same intimidating look. And you couldn’t talk to the kid about kid things. I asked him once about a movie, and he gave me a look like I was an idiot and started talking about the politics of the Vietnam War.
Once I over heard him talking to Steve Van Zandt about politics. He was talking about stuff no kid or even young adult was talking about.
But when dad was working and he got bored….that is when things got interesting. He would dump the contents of my purse off the 3rd floor balcony into the duck pond. Or duck tape me to my chair or shoot staples at me. (I still have a scar from that) Once he pulled a loaded hand gun out of the console of his dads car when I picked him up from school and made me chase him around the car a few times to get it back.
People always ask why I put up with that for so many years, why I stuck around long after even when he retired and couldn’t pay me. Fair question.
I genuinely cared for and loved that man. There was something about him. It’s that unexplainable thing that some people just have . A presence. That something that destine them to live an extraordinary life. It’s what makes perfect strangers love him. And its what made me stick by him to the end, after everyone else had long gone when he had nothing left to offer them anymore.
Over the years we got really close. It went from me being a scared employee to best friend. When he got cancer I moved in with him to take care of him. He was across from the campus and would wait for me to come home from class so we could watch reality shows and eat dinner. I really enjoyed those days and am thankful we spent that time together and for 10 more years we continued to grow closer and I got a chance to talk about all the things that went on during those years. He even apologized to me. It was such a positive experience for me.
When he came to my wedding, he walked up to my husband and said, “I hope Daniela will be as special to you as she was to me.”
In his final years Barry was lonely. He just wanted people around. He was becoming aware of the painful reality, that most of the people who were in his life had only been there when he had something to offer. He talked about it to me a lot. I saw him change and knew something was different. I think it was early stages of dementia. He became gentle, vulnerable and almost child like. The man who barely stayed on the phone for 5 minutes was now chatting for a hour talking about his day and telling you how much loved you. He was really happy I got married and moved home to Hawaii but there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t ask if he could come stay with me or when I was coming back to see him.
Weeks leading up to his death, I knew something went very wrong. He knew it too. He had a rough hip surgery with an even rougher recovery and it changed something. We were all watching him spiral down.
A few days before he passed, he called to thank me for being there, wanted me to know how much he cared about me and that he loved me. He said “I know I always didn’t make good choices in my life. But I made the right choice when I chose you. You are good friend. And proof that I can still pick a winner from time to time.”
I told him I loved him too and to quit being silly. I thought he was just a little depressed and he would come around. But I now know he was saying goodbye.
I am grateful I had that chance to hear those things from him and tell him I loved him.
I will always feel the need to take care if him. That job probably will never end for me. I have seen and done things that most can only dream of. He allowed me to be part of a legendary experience and even better, witness to his legendary life.
I am a lucky girl.
I love you Barry, thanks for the ride.