Recently I had the opportunity to speak with the extremely well-traveled and talented stage manager Jolly Roger, who has toured with everyone from KISS to Ministry. Not only is he a very busy at his career, but he also has celiac and must follow a strict gluten-free diet. He was able to spend some time with me and tell me a little bit about how he discovered he has celiac, and how it impacts his busy lifestyle.
How did you get into the music industry?
I always loved music, I can remember being 16, living in New York City, and reading about The Beatles’ first trip to America, in Parade magazine, so I waited at the airport for them to arrive and then when I saw them I thought they were punks with their short hair, and didn’t listen to them until the White Album. I was more into the Rolling Stones, I was going to see the Stones play when there were only seven guys on tour with them.
I always wanted to be in rock ‘n roll and in 1972 I got into the business full-time in NYC. Later I moved to Madison, WI and my first big tour was with Cheap Trick for three years and about 1,000 shows.
Since then I have worked with Cheap Trick, Kansas, Styx, Ozzy Osbourne, The Cure, Pixies, KMFDM, Ministry, Los Lobos, The BoDeans, The Smithereens, and many more that I know I am forgetting.
What do you do now?
I have worked with Jam Productions for 30 years. I have worked as crew, head electrician, rigger and lighting design. I have designed the lights at the Metro, the Vic, Park West, and the Riviera.
I have an electronic background from Vietnam, then I became really interested in lighting design and just learned as I went along, lighting is very subjective.
When did you first realize you had a problem with gluten?
My symptoms first started seven years ago at the age 55. I believe it affected me a long, long time, but I didn’t realize I was feeling different than I was supposed to be. I would drink lots of beer and eat lots of bread. I would do things in excess, clean up, do things in excess again. Someone once gave me a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, I ate the whole thing and I was sick for days.
Working with Cheap Trick from 2002-2004, I thought I had colon cancer, or something really bad, my brother told me he was lactose intolerant, and as I was drinking milk and eating cheese daily, I cut out dairy and felt better. But in 2-3 weeks I started feeling bad again. A friend told me about celiac disease, so I quit eating gluten, and now it is all good.
I bought The Gluten-Free Bible when I came across it at Whole Foods, and learned that lactose intolerance can be brought on by gluten-intolerance. So now I continue to stay away from dairy. I dropped 175 pounds after I cut out gluten and dairy.
My daughter Val Capone (her roller derby name), on the Manic Attackers with the Windy City Rollers, also has celiac, in addition to her Crohn’s disease. My other daughter Justine, who just received her PhD in chemistry from Northwestern, has so signs of the disease.
How did you handle it, before realizing you had celiac, when you didn’t feel well?
I would only eat graham crackers for a while, which I later discovered fed it all. Then I went on a pure meat diet, which helped.
Have you been diagnosed by a doctor?
No, because I know what makes me feel better, plus I am not big on doctors. In the rock ‘n roll business, you have eight months of the year where you can afford to pay premiums for insurance and have money coming in, but for the other four months it is not always possible. Some bands provide healthcare if you start and stay with them for a while, but most music people don’t have healthcare.
What do you miss most about being able to eat gluten?
I miss White Castle, but if I eat it, it will bother me for days.
Do you feel caterers, on tour, are more aware these days with the gluten-free diet?
Caterers are becoming more aware, some are better than others.
What do you do when you travel internationally?
I stopped touring internationally before I was diagnosed, so I am lucky that way. When I did tour, I traveled to 49 states and 38 countries. My favorite countries are Australia and Canada.
What snacks do you make sure you have on hand during your busy work days?
I like Glutino apple and blueberry bars and Stonyfield O’Soy yogurt. I also like Vienna beef hotdogs and Wellshire hot dogs with corn tortillas and Dinty Moore beef stew.
What do you drink when you want a real drink?
I drink red wine, whiskey and Red Bridge beer.
Where do you like to eat out in Chicago?
What do you do at formal dinners or family gatherings?
If at a function with a buffet, I will bring my own food, because even if I see something I like that seems safe and have a small bit, I will get sick. Or I will say I am not hungry and say ‘thanks anyway’.
At family gatherings, I will spend time in the kitchen with my gluten-free beer.
And last question, how did you get the name Jolly Roger?
I was given the name Jolly in the 9th grade for being tall like the Jolly Green Giant, I am 6’8”. While touring with KISS in 1976 Gene Simmons told me I needed a second name, he told me that I was a nice fella, but not cool enough to carry one name, so he gave me the second name, Roger, and since then I have been going by Jolly Roger.
Jolly can currently be seen working gigs at venues around Chicago, and recently worked Air, Stone Temple Pilots, Spoon, Vampire Weekend, Matt Kearney and will be working this weekend’s much anticipated Atoms for Peace (Radiohead’s Thome Yorke’s side project).