On the Beat

Tim ‘Skully’ Quinlan, roadie to the stars, passes on

Tim “Skully” Quinlan in 2001. Photo courtesy of Greg Howard.
Tim “Skully” Quinlan in 2001. Photo courtesy of Greg Howard.

The performers onstage get all the glory, but the show wouldn’t go on without the efforts of throngs of support people. For the past quarter-century, one of the best in the business was Raleigh resident Tim Quinlan - better-known as Skully - who died of a heart attack on Friday.

Skully left behind a wife and two young children. He would have turned 52 years old on April 20, the day his former employer Pearl Jam is scheduled to play Raleigh’s PNC Arena.

“Yeah, that was his birthday,” said Quinlan’s friend and onetime fellow roadie Jimmy Shoaf. “I’d just called him last week, we were gonna meet that day for lunch and go hang out with the crew. It’s a complete shock.”

Skully was the first roadie Pearl Jam ever hired and worked as a drum and guitar tech during the Seattle grunge band’s initial breakout period, when they went from nightclubs to stadiums almost overnight. He went on to work for other bands including Hootie & the Blowfish. In recent years, he worked for Live Nation at shows throughout the Carolinas.

Friday, Quinlan was at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheater when he began suffering chest pains and called 911. But it was too late.

That night, Pearl Jam was in Florida playing the opening date of their North American tour. The band paid onstage tribute to Skully during one of the encores, with frontman Eddie Vedder talking about Skully’s efforts on the band’s behalf during “the first half, the tougher half.”

That served as an introduction to the elegiac “Light Years”:

I undeciphered tricks at the bar

But now you’re gone, I haven’t figured out why

I’ve come up with riddles and jokes about war

I’ve figured out numbers and what they’re for

I’ve understood feelings and i’ve understood words

But how could you be taken away?...

Watch that here; the tribute part is the first three minutes or so. And below is a piece I wrote about Skully and Shoaf at the height of Pearl Jam mania in 1993.

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By David Menconi, N&O -- 10/24/1993

The rock concert business has changed a lot over the past quarter-century. But it has yet to outgrow the need for strong backs to haul stuff from place to place, put it together, tear it apart, then go on to the next place and do it all again.

That’s where roadies come in -- the guys you see bustling around before the show, taping wires to the stage and repeatedly saying “Check” into microphones. Every large touring act has roadies, and they usually work harder than the band.

If roadies stick with the same act long enough, they can wind up with a degree of minor celebrity (take Neil Young’s longtime guitar technician, Larry Cragg). Sometimes they even wind up as the inspiration for songs (Motorhead’s “We Are the Roadcrew,” Jackson Browne’s “The Load-Out”). And sometimes, if their band hits it big, the roadies get to go along for a pretty good ride.

Meaning that Raleigh residents Tim “Skully” Quinlan and Jimmy Shoaf are riding pretty high these days.

If you’ve gone to see shows by Danzig, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees or Corrosion of Conformity over the past few years, it’s possible you’ve seen Skully and Shoaf toiling away. Now they work for Pearl Jam.

Pearl Jam is as big as any band in the world now, which has its advantages from a roadie’s standpoint. The seven-person road crew gets to stay in the same plush accommodations as the band, which beats riding in a bus (or, worse, a van) all night. The itinerary is exciting. The pay and benefits are good. And as instrument techs (Skully works for rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, Shoaf for drummer Dave Abbruzzese), the hours are decent as roadie schedules go.

But there’s a down side, too, in that the crew is under many of the same pressures as the band.

“There are just so many expectations with a band like Pearl Jam,” says Skully, the first roadie Pearl Jam hired. “The record company is always breathing down our backs. They don’t meddle, but they’re always freaking out, especially when we’re doing something like ‘Saturday Night Live’ or the MTV Awards: ‘Everything’s gonna be OK, right? Because, you know, [Sony president] Tommy Motolla’s gonna be in the audience tonight.’

“I try my best to keep a good attitude about it. Who knows? In two years Pearl Jam could be in the gutter and then I’ll be back where I started. The only thing permanent about this business is that nothing’s permanent.”

Pearl Jam isn’t the first roadie job for either Skully or Shoaf. Skully (who picked up his nickname doing a reggae show on East Carolina University’s radio station, after one of reggae man Peter Tosh’s backup musicians) got his first roadie job eight years ago for the Triangle band Three Hits. He also worked for the Woods, and as a runner and stagehand for Cellar Door Concerts.

Shoaf, 26, also picked up his initial roadie experience with local bands, most notably selling T-shirts for Corrosion of Conformity. He was pressed into emergency service one night when drummer Reed Mullin was running late and Shoaf (who played drums in the band Confessor while in high school) had to set up his drum kit.

“Reed came in and asked, ‘Who set this up? It’s perfect! You’re hired!’” Shoaf says. “Then there was another night when the lights were really bad. I had looked at the board and told the band I thought I could do it. So I started doing lights and drums both.”

Skully, 29, also wound up working as a guitar and bass tech on a series of COC tours. Both left the band for bigger things in 1990 after COC played a triple bill tour with Danzig and Soundgarden. Shoaf continued on with Soundgarden, the platinum-selling Seattle grunge band, while Skully hooked up with Danzig.

As the Danzig tour was winding down in late 1990, Skully got a call from the tour manager for a new band from Seattle. The album wouldn’t be out for several months, but the band, Pearl Jam, wanted to start touring clubs and needed an instrument tech to handle drums and guitars. Skully took the gig.

“I think the biggest crowd we had that tour was maybe 100 people,” Skully recalls. “And sometimes it was as few as 15 people.”

Pearl Jam crisscrossed the country playing clubs (including Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle in the fall of 1991), then joined on as opening act for the Red Hot Chili Peppers/Smashing Pumpkins tour. After an eight-week tour of Europe in early 1992, the “Alive” single started lighting up the radio and the “Ten” album began to sell.

Shoaf was hired in June 1992 -- just in time for Lollapalooza, which made Pearl Jam superstars. There were also appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and “MTV Unplugged,” as well as the “Jeremy” video, which swept the major categories at last month’s MTV Music Awards. By the time Pearl Jam finished all the tours, “Ten” had sold 5 million copies and the band and its crew had been on the road for almost 18 months straight.

“At the end of the tour, the band took everybody to Hawaii,” says Skully. “They gave us two weeks there, all expenses paid, and flew in everybody’s wives and girlfriends. We all needed it.”

With a new album in the stores, Pearl Jam embarks on another massive tour that commences Wednesday in Santa Cruz, Calif. Japan, Australia, Asia and Europe are all on the itinerary.

The tour should last more than two years but is broken up into manageable six-week chunks with breaks worked in. That’s because the pressure on the band is incredibly intense, especially on mercurial singer/lyricist Eddie Vedder (whom the crew refers to as Satan Pulag behind his back).

“I wouldn’t want to be Eddie for anything right now,” says Skully. “It’s just been a rocket ride. The poor guy can’t do anything or go anywhere without being recognized. He has a condo and a house in Seattle, and every day there are at least 20 people in front of both looking for him. They want to tell him why his writing kept them from committing suicide -- or why it’s making them want to commit suicide.

“I give Eddie five years, tops, and then he’ll quit. Everything goes on him. He’s the focal point of all the attention, and it’s just too much.”

Skully says he expects he’ll hang it up when Pearl Jam does. It would be hard to go back to touring with a small band in a van, especially since he and Shoaf have relatively cushy gigs as instrument techs. Skully even calls what they do “the country club set,” because they’re the last ones to arrive for the gig and the first ones to leave afterward.

Typically, the lighting and sound crew have to start loading in and setting up equipment early in the morning. The instrument techs generally get up about noon and don’t start working until after lunch, Skully says.

“We get the stagehands to set up the gear and amps,” he says. “Then we string some guitars, tune everything up and get it sounding pretty. Then the band comes for sound check, and after that it’s show time. After the show, we tear everything down. Band gear is the first thing on the truck, so we’re done early. The lights and PA stuff take longer to tear down, so that goes on last.”

As the tech for Gossard, who co-writes most of the band’s songs with Vedder, Skully’s primary responsibility is to set different guitars in the odd tunings that have baffled legions of amateur guitarists trying to figure out the anthemic riffs behind Pearl Jam hits like “Alive” and “Even Flow.”

As drum tech, Shoaf’s main responsibility after setting up and tuning the drum kit is to keep Abbruzzese supplied with water and cigarettes onstage, and to “hope nothing goes wrong.” On the Seattle date of Lollapalooza last year, Abbruzzese broke his kick-drum pedal at a most inopportune time -- during the first notes of “Alive, “ leaving Shoaf frantically trying to replace it as he played on.

“That’s the sort of thing that there’s just no fixing,” Shoaf says. “You’ve gotta yank it out and replace it, which is why I carry a spare.”

Skully and Shoaf decline to say how much they make, but six-figure salaries are not unheard of for valued instrument techs who stay with the same act for decades. Pearl Jam’s employees even get benefits.

“We’ve got health insurance,” Skully says. “Full coverage, which isn’t common at all. They probably wouldn’t want to admit it, but Pearl Jam modeled their operation after the Grateful Dead, who have the best reputation as a good band to work for.”

Shoaf and Skully say one perk neither they or the band indulge in is groupies. Yes, even in the age of AIDS, groupies are still out there. But the consensus is they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

“Nobody wants to be that rock star cliche anymore,” says Skully. “All the guys in the band are in their late 20s and early 30s, and they’re just not into the groupie-party thing anymore.”

Still, they all have to fight the simultaneous tension and tedium of the road somehow. So everyone indulges in lots of practical jokes and pranks.

A couple stand out in Skully’s mind from his days with Danzig, the quasi-satanic band fronted by acid-voiced singer Glenn Danzig. Skully calls Danzig’s shtick a gimmick for teenagers fascinated by the occult.

“The punters love it,” he says.

But Warrior Soul, a funk-metal band that opened a Danzig tour and lived to regret it, came out of the experience convinced that Danzig and crew were indeed instruments of Satan. Skully says they mercilessly tormented Warrior Soul at every opportunity, like the night in Atlanta when the roadies put a whole chicken in Warrior Soul’s dressing room and garnished it with lighted candles, upside-down crosses, a circle of salt and fake blood.

“Another time in Texas, we duct-taped their van and trailer from top to bottom, “ Skully says. “The windows, the tires, the mirrors, the windshield wipers -- everything completely covered. They came off the stage from playing, and it took them 45 minutes to get it all off.”

Both he and Shoaf have been on the receiving end of pranks with Pearl Jam. When Shoaf turned 25, the other techs taped him into a chair at the Detroit Lollapalooza date, blindfolded him, took him onstage and hit him in the face with a pie. Then they led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday.”

But he had his revenge on Skully earlier this year while working with Pearl Jam on the new album.

“I called the studio one day to talk to Jimmy,” recounts Skully, who at the time was out on a short tour with the band Gutterball. “Then Dave [Abbruzzese], who I used to work for before Jimmy was hired, got on the phone and started acting weird: ‘Man, Skully, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say, but there might be a change coming.’

“He asked if I’d talked to Stone and said, ‘Man, he should be the one to tell you this, but you know how he’s always putting things off’ -- just talking in circles. Finally, Dave said, ‘Stone has been working with this other guy in the studio and wants to take him on the road.’

“My jaw was dropping, my day was ruined. My life is flashing before my eyes and I’m wondering if I can catch a bus up there. And Dave says, ‘Say, Skully, you noticed what day it is?’ I looked at my watch and it was April 1. April fool. I started screaming.

“Then they all got on the phone one by one, told me they loved me and that nothing like that would ever happen. Yeah, sure.”

“It was a cruel thing to do,” admits Shoaf, “especially since it’s so easy to lose track of time on the road. But hey, it’s gotta be done. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. What else am I gonna do? Pump gas?”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi