Backstage Passport

by Dan Heaton

19 April 2009

The eight installments offer childish mayhem but reveal surprising heart amid the chaos.
cover art


Backstage Passport

(Fat Wreck Chords)
US DVD: 17 Mar 2009

After playing to nearly 10,000 fans in Indonesia, NOFX’s manager Kent Jamieson faces off with shady promoter Torkis about their pay. With flowing back hair and an extremely nervous demeanor, Torkis screams “con artist” from the start.  Kent gives his best shot, but the band ends up receiving no money.  Torkis also lies about booking a show in Jakarta, forcing them to find a concert in a single day. Amazingly, they actually find a gig and play before a large crowd, then are stiffed by another club owner. This is not your typical concert tour. 

Forming in Los Angeles in 1983, NOFX has built a strong fan base with their unique blend of hard-hitting punk rock, social conscience and juvenile humor. They’ve outlasted numerous imitators and are still going strong 25 years later.  Singer/bassist “Fat” Mike Burkett, guitarist Eric Melvin and drummer Erik “Smelly” Sandin have been around since the early days, with Aaron “El Hefe” Abeyta joining in 1991. After touring the United States and Europe countless times, they embark on a much different venture.

This “sketchy tour” will take them around the world to cities they’ve never played. NOFX: Backstage Pass chronicles this crazy adventure in a highly enjoyable series. Originally airing on the Fuse Network, the eight installments offer childish mayhem but reveal surprising heart amid the chaos.

The tour’s problems begin right away in South America, with unexpected obstacles facing nearly every show. Melvin’s guitar stops working in Brazil, which kills the show’s momentum, and Chile’s crazy crowds take over the stage constantly. It gets worse in Peru, where promoter Yolanda’s incompetence leads to a cancellation. The police arrive and lock the gates, trapping the crew and enraging the largely teenage crowd.

But this disaster leads to a wonderful moment outside the band’s hotel. After fans storm the entrance, Burkett steps out and performs a few acoustic tunes.  Seeing the throng belting out every word to “Franco un-American” as he plays is amazing. It’s the perfect reason for NOFX to take this crazy tour, which delivers wonderfully unpredictable events.

Torkis and Yolanda may be shady, but they don’t hold a candle to the Chinese promoters. Promising a “bigger crowd than Springsteen”, the young shysters draw a giant crowd then claim serious losses. Even though NOFX is the first US punk band to play Beijing, they receive no money. The hefty Jamieson fights each bad promoter, and the stress leads to alcohol. An all-night drinking binge on a Russian train is ridiculous, but it’s not the first time. The drunken silliness from the band and crew happens everywhere, capped by drug use in Signapore. Inspired by the country’s strict drug laws, the guys battle “the green dragon” and declare victory.

Each concert involves plenty of mayhem, including fights, spitting from the crowd and unintentional religious insults.  There’s rarely a dull moment during and after the performances.

What makes Backstage Passport more than just a fun reality series are the little personal moments. Every member of the band is married, and taking such an extended tour can be difficult on their relationships. Burkett’s sadness in Israel about missing his daughter’s birthday is a touching moment. Abeyta’s joy over his Kenny Rogers Roasters chicken meal is classic, even though he’s late for the concert. While visiting the Great Wall, Melvin’s disbelief in actually being there is infectious.

The crew also receive considerable screen time, which increases the familial atmosphere.  Even when they disagree, the respect beneath the surface is clear.  We’re not in Some Kind of Monster or Dig! territory here.

This two-disc set includes more than two hours of extra footage and a full-color booklet. The bonus disc contains 16 extra scenes that offer extended takes of the key moments. Along with several of Kent’s craziest drunken escapades, we see lots of absurdity. The highlight is the “Boat People” entry, which provides honest background on Sandin’s heroin addiction and Abeyta’s choice to join NOFX. Sandin doesn’t overstate his plight and speaks candidly about kicking the habit.  These conversations remind us these are mature guys who aren’t so juvenile.  I would have enjoyed some live performances, but it’s hard to complain too much about hours of background material.

I own some NOFX CDs and have seen them live a few times, but I’m not a diehard fan. Watching Backstage Passport has convinced me to give their music a closer look. I wasn’t surprised by the energetic performances but didn’t expect such engaging guys. Burkett is the series’ lead figure, and he consistently reveals depth beyond the punk rock persona.  His best moment occurs at Red Square late at night after an excellent Moscow show. Strolling past the landmark and reflecting on his career, Burkett’s pure joy is catching. The sketchy tour faces serious conflicts but is worth the strife, bringing enjoyment and understanding to NOFX and their crew.

Backstage Passport


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