Backstage with Ron Onesti:
The ‘link’ between Arnold and Alice
Thanks to Arnold and Alice, I got a rock ‘n’ roll golf lesson. The recent passing of golf legend Arnold Palmer made me get out on the greens, in his honor, which doubled the amount of times I have been out all year. It’s the end of September, and we finally did it! My brother Rich and I finally went out and played a round of golf. It’s a pastime that I am hardly good at, but truly love, just for the serenity of it all.
Among the craziness of entertainer negotiations, ever-changing marketing strategies and separating the green M&M’s from the rest of the other colors, being on the green is an extremely liberating exercise. And doing so, I recalled my time with Alice Cooper on the golf course.
As I was masterfully sinking one of my infamous four-putts, I got to thinking how the sport of golf was in many ways, connected to music and to musicians. Structurally, the precision of golf mirrors the specificity of music. If your swing is off just one degree, it can affect the entire performance of the shot, and ultimately, the game. And we have all experienced that vocalist who blew one note in a song, causing the entire performance to sink to a lower level, causing scrunched-faces and shaking heads.
Just as a musical piece relies on harmonies to create the essence of its sound, there are many elements within the sport of golf that also must be harmonious with each other. Focus, practice, the linking of all the elements that make up the performance — you could easily be talking about either golf or music. Just as a musical piece must be connected in such a way as to flow smoothly, a golfer’s swing must follow through with the smoothness of a knife through whipped cream.
More and more entertainers, specifically “rock stars,” are getting into this game that was once thought of, ironically, as strictly a representation of “the establishment” and its platform based on social conformity. Rock stars have rarely been accused of being part of a “high browed,” socially responsible culture. But today, it is nothing to see a tattooed Tommy Lee of the heavy-metal rock band Motley Crue playing 18 holes with his accountant and a potential corporate sponsor.
My first connection between golf and entertainment came way before I began playing the game. Sunday night television exposed me to Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason — all entertainers we grew up with who identified themselves as golfers on TV when they weren’t actually “acting.” Bob and Bing would host their shows with putter in hand. Jackie Gleason and Art Carney would “address the ball” by saying, “Helloooo ball,” and even Johnny Carson opened his show every night with his signature golf swing. So as a young TV fan, I was brought up on the notion that golf and entertainers went hand-in-golf-glove.
As far as rock stars go, probably the most famous to be linked to the game of “Links” (a Scottish word referring to a certain high-level golf course) would probably be Alice Cooper.
The first time I worked with Vince Furnier (his real name) was in October 2000. It was an exciting day because I had not met “the man” yet, a moment I had looked forward to for many years. While waiting for us to get set up for his sound check, Alice emerged from his giant black tour bus with a pitching wedge and handful of golf balls. He commenced practicing his chip shot, and I have to admit, his yellow cotton pants and white polo shirt took me a bit by surprise because he wasn’t the black-eyed, top hat wearing, snake-around-his-neck, leather-clad demonic performer I was expecting.
Without realizing just how into golf he was at the time, I made one of those brash comments that we all wish we could take back. “C’mon, you don’t play golf, do you?” I asked. “Yeah man, I do, a little bit!” he responded. “Seriously?” I retorted. To this day, I still believe I must have sounded like an uninformed wannabe fan, since he is one of the best golfers in rock.
But it was at that moment that golf became cool for me, and I continue to play to this day because of the “School’s Out” singer. If it was cool for Alice, it was cool for me!
The show was in Greenville, South Carolina, and his tour manager said he might want to play golf earlier in the day. I thought, “How cool was I, playing golf with Alice Cooper!” I got the tee time, rented clubs, cart, VIP service … I was ready! Then his tour manager showed up, and HE took my spot! I wound up caddying — for the tour manager! Yep, I’m a pretty important guy.
A couple days later, I did a Halloween show with Alice in the infield of Hawthorne Racecourse in Cicero. The stage was set up like an automobile accident scene, complete with smashed automobile and a lighting truss that was positioned as if it was going to fall off the roof onto the crowd at any moment. There were other accoutrements of disaster, including boa constrictor snakes, beheaded corpses and a working guillotine. Hardly a representation of a typical, plaid-stockinged country club member.
I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Ringo Starr last year, and Alice was there! He (and his daughter) came up to me, pointed and said, “Hey Chicago!” We talked about that day, and he laughed. He promised to golf with me one day … we’ll see!
It turns out Alice redirected his addictive personality from drugs and alcohol to the game of golf. He was on the path of personal destruction and decided to go “all in” on the game in the early 1980s, saving himself from an early and certain death. That was a story I will never forget.
More recently, as we at the Arcada Theatre have been hosting a regular roster of superstars, we have been asked frequently to coordinate tee times for the celebs. Robby Kreiger, guitarist for legendary band the Doors, was a recent player at Pheasant Run Resort while waiting for his sound check. Vince Gill hit the driving range before his Time Jumpers show, and we even had this band from Scotland called the Red Hot Chilli Pipers (rock ‘n’ roll bagpipe players) play an entire round. They invited me to play, but when I realized this band was made up of strong young Scotsman from the country that invented golf, I decided to wimp out, much to my present regret.
Back to my recent experience on the golf course. As I approached the 18th green, finishing a most reflective day on the golf course, I took a deep breath and made my last shot. It was a 24-foot putt that bounced in and out of a divot, ricocheted off a dried leaf, crossed a shadow and somehow dropped squarely into the hole. The plop of the ball into the cup was truly music to my ears, and I bowed to the applause of the imaginary thousands who witnessed my symphonic golf shot finale.
It took me 18 holes to get my “golf groove” on, and a pity that this was my first time playing this year, and with it being the beginning of October, it will probably be my last, at least for this season. But just as I get excited when I hear those first few notes of a tune I am very familiar with, I get equally excited when I hear the ball bouncing into the cup. The hollow “plop” in the cup sounds as good to me as the opening of “Stairway To Heaven,” just not as long.
Looks like it’s time to put the golf bag in the garage for the rest of the year. Probably a good thing because my golf game is best when my clubs are left in the garage …
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.