Goodbye J.C.: Fleetwood Mac Loses One of Its Own
“Ladies and gentlemen. Would you please give a warm welcome…. to Fleetwood Mac.”
It was a line repeated nightly to introduce the world’s biggest band. It was more of a declaratory set of words than a question. There was a slight pause in the phrasing before the last three words whose enunciation would enthrall thousands nightly. And they belonged to one person–John Courage, the band’s longtime road manager who passed away earlier this Fall.
The voice heard by millions of fans during the Rumours and Tusk era, is permanently enshrined on Fleetwood Mac Live. When I heard the news and saw a picture of the younger Courage, they were the first words that came to me, permanently ingrained from the heydey of some of the most exciting live shows I’ve ever seen.
I can’t say I knew John Courage but it felt like I did. Like many who crossed his path, I had a run-in of sorts with him, the tour director notoriously referred to as “The Colonel” and “J.C.” to Fleetwood Mac’s inner circle.
It was a cold Sunday October night in New York City in October 1975 when Fleetwood Mac was playing at the Beacon Theater. It was nearing the end of the debut tour of the band with their new guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks. The band was getting ready to head to California. I arrived at the show early and walking down the block behind the theater, I noticed a door was ajar. I quickly realized it was the backstage door and instinctively opened it. I took a few steps inside and realized I was approaching the stage. I recognized John McVie who was onstage tuning up his bass guitar. I approached him and after a few minutes, he invited me up to his dressing room to chat. I was about to do my first interview.
McVie was gracious and told me of his life story. The conversation was going well. Christine McVie dropped in to say hello and others began arriving. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blond haired man with steely eyes pacing outside. He stuck his head in to see what was going on and then walked away only to come back again. This time he stared into the room making it clear that someone had done something wrong.
There was something in his swagger. It said he was in charge. I realized I was in his domain and began to have the feeling I did not belong. Then, as he paced away, I got confirmation. I heard what sounded like an explosion.
“I said, “No interviews in New York!”
It wasn’t clear who he was yelling at. Was it me? Was it someone on the road crew? Maybe himself or just the situation. But the message came through clear (and loud).
“I’m sure he yelled at you,” Fleetwood Mac producer and engineer Ken Caillat told me amusedly years later when I shared the story. “That’s what he did then.”
I learned he was John Courage, the Belfast-born son of an army captain and a descendant of the family of the Courage Brewing Company. When Courage was seventeen, he saw a quartet of Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer during 1967, the year that Fleetwood Mac was born. He made his way into the music business as a roadie for the British blues band Savoy Brown but Fleetwood Mac later lured him away to work for them.
“John was tough” were the first words that came to Live Nation concert promoter Jim Koplik when I asked him about Courage. Koplik, who brought Fleetwood Mac to Connecticut numerous times in the years after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac, ranked Courage in the top tier of road managers. “He was subject to their whims,” he observed. “Fleetwood Mac was very demanding as they were one of the biggest bands in the world and they had to be treated that way. That was part of what John made sure of and his very tough attitude was helpful in getting whatever they needed.”
When I asked Stu Cohen, the former Senior Vice President of Radio Promotion at Warner Brothers, how Courage got his nickname, he shot back: “Well his reputation was well earned, wasn’t it?” Cohen saw Courage function more like a drill sergeant in all of the chaos of the road. He saw him cut from the mold of Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin’s legendary manager.
“There was so much going on,” Cohen said of seeing the band on promotional tours, visiting radio stations, being backstage and at parties and in the studio. “John was always with them day to day. That’s how they wanted it. He was the gatekeeper for access to the band for press, radio, record company, etc… And he was very hands on. A good road manager had to protect his band from all that and keep them focused on their job, which was the music and their performance. John was tougher than the rest and didn’t have the patience to be nice.”
When Courage stood beside Fleetwood Mac’s private jet during the Tusk tour, he commandeered an operation that ABC News estimated cost $25,000 a day to keep on the road. (Adjusted for inflation that’s close to $100,000 in today’s dollars). But the success and extravagances weren’t always that way. As Mick Fleetwood wrote in his book Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures In Fleetwood Mac, in the band’s earlier days, they would buy eight airline tickets and Courage would check twenty pieces of equipment as luggage. Courage would go down to the tarmac to personally supervise the airline staff. “C’mon lads. You can get it in there,” he’d say. It went on for years, said Fleetwood, but eventually came to a stop when airplane security got tighter.
Courage also endured the darkest chapter in the band’s history when the band’s manager Clifford Davies put a fake band on the road, claiming he owned the rights to the name Fleetwood Mac. Courage, who was trying to pay off a personal debt, felt forced to stay but couldn’t take it. Guitarist Bob Welch told him to hold on and Courage left the tour after just two shows.
The incident only served to make Courage more fiercely protective in the ensuing years when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks made Fleetwood Mac the world’s biggest band. Courage would transcend his role as road manager to become the master of ceremonies. As showtime came close, he’d begin the nightly ten-minute countdown, parading through the dressing room yelling out commands to each of the band’s five musicians, a ritual brought to life in Carol Harris’ book Storms: My Life With Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac.
“Ten minutes, everybody ten minutes.!”
“Nine minutes! Christine are you OK dear?”
“Seven minutes! Mick, you have a question?”
“Five minutes! Stevie, are you okay?”
And so he would countdown to one minute before giving the command. “Let’s go!”
When they hit the stage a short warm-up jam to get the band loose and limber, a segway to Courage’s signature phrasing of words that were heard around the world:
“Ladies and gentlemen….“
Courage, in a multitude of roles, as coach, psychologist, butler and nanny, shepherded the band through all of the tensions and dramas resulting from the onetime romances of paramours of Buckingham and Nicks and the McVies, helping to turn it all into real-life theater. If Courage was not the sixth member of Fleetwood Mac, he left his imprimatur on every show.
I asked Stu Cohen what he thought it meant to Courage to say those words every night. Cohen thinks it was something Courage may have borrowed from concert promoter Bill Graham who always introduced the bands at the Fillmore West and East. “I think he was very proud of doing that. That’s what made Bill Graham so beloved. Bill would personally introduce the bands, and that made him part of the show. It was very warm and fuzzy and inclusive. And if Bill liked the band, he was even more effusive. It made the fans feel closer to the act, and in some way made Bill/John part of the show, like a ringleader at a circus.”
Courage may have been tyrannical to the outside world but he also maintained a firm hand on the band and crew. When drummer Mick Fleetwood developed a fear of flying, he told Fleetwood’s assistant and later manager Dennis Dunston that if he didn’t get Fleetwood on the plane he’d be fired. When the band came home to Los Angeles for the last two nights of the Tusk tour, he ordered the band not to leave L’Ermitage Hotel. (Perhaps he remembered the time Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer went for a walk outside and was abducted by the Children of God.)
But the band had their own way with him. On his birthday Courage came into his hotel room at the Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco, only to find there were chickens and roosters everywhere. “Birds were perching in the middle of J.C.’s suitcase,” Harris recalled in her book, “on the television, on chairs and tables and cackling happily on the straw covering the expensive carpet.” Soon they escaped, wandering the halls and into the elevators. In the bathtub was a stoned Dennis Wilson. The band was told by the hotel not to come back.
Courage would become a scapegoat when the Tusk tour failed to make any money. He’d leave for Hawaii but came back for the Mirage tour. The last time I saw John Courage was when I was at Christine McVie’s house interviewing she and Mick Fleetwood on the eve of their Tango In The Night tour. By then Courage had become Christine McVie’s personal manager and one of the “Gang of Four” as the band’s managerial circle became known.
A few days before, Lindsey Buckingham had a tense confrontation with the rest of the band about his reluctance to go out on tour. Both Courage and Fleetwood’s manager Dennis Dunstan had to pull Buckingham off of Stevie Nicks after a physical altercation. The drama wouldn’t become known to the world for a while. After my interview and as I was getting ready to leave, I saw Courage coming down the staircase. I recognized the stride and pace. I told him about the night back in New York and we had a few laughs. Courage was getting ready to hit the road, working the phones to take a new version of Fleetwood Mac on the road.
Time hasn’t always been kind to the Fleetwood Mac family. Over the years they have lost Robin Anderson, Stevie’s vocal therapist and closest friend. Judy Wong, a friend from the early days in England and the lovely Judy of the song “Jewel Eyed Judy,” passed away. She’d run the band’s Penguin office and introduced the band to Bob Welch, the wonderful guitarist who passed away in 2012. (Guitarist Bob Weston also died the same year.) Welch provided a bridge between the original blues band to the Buckingham Nicks era and then had solo success beginning with a new version of “Sentimental Lady,” the song he originally sang on Bare Trees. Shortly after the news of Courage’s passing came word that Welch’s widow Wendy is no longer with us.
In the days when word got out about Courage’s death, those who knew him were effusive in their praise. Todd Sharp played guitar in Bob Welch’s band and recalled how supportive Courage was to him. Sharp joined Christine McVie’s band and served as best man at Courage’s wedding. He wrote on Facebook about a funny afternoon when when McVie’s band had the day off the day and went to the opening of the film Spinal Tap.
“The entire band went. I think we were in Dallas on a day off,” he remembered. “J.C. sat on the end of the aisle. The entire aisle would turn and look at him throughout the film and it was freaky because if you knew JC and you’ve seen Spinal Tap – well then I need say no more.”
There were some advertisements about talks Courage gave in England a few years back of his days with Fleetwood Mac. I am sure there were stories to be told. Sharp mentioned that Courage had thought about coming back to America and riding around the country in a camper and writing a book about his adventures.
Instead Courage found himself in hospice care after a long illness.
“Miss you, John-Boy,” wrote Gabi Zinke, Courage’s sidekick from the Penguin office. “We had the world by the tail for a while. What a ride it was.”
Death always seems like it comes too soon and it seemed unjust if not cruel to derail someone who was such a force of energy and life.
In these last days, Courage was blessed to be looked after by his neighbors who watched over and provided comfort over a period of four months, “We fussed around him, made him food and watched films together and talked for hours,” Helen James shared. “He had amazing stories and had his humour right up until the end. We really miss him.”
Her husband Steve James became very close with J.C. and was with him to the very end, often driving several hours when he got moved to different hospitals. His wife said he arranged for him to have the best room overlooking a lake in a nursing home where he spent his final weeks. Together they hung Fleetwood Mac posters on the walls. Perhaps looking at them he could relive the memories and feel the adrenuline and rush when he said the words every night that were heard around the world a few times over–and felt on some nights like it was the greatest show on earth.
His grin betrayed something. There was warmth that not even the Colonel could conceal.