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In the back of music clubs, there often lurks a testy, unpredictable beast who only rises at night. In various music scenes, this "animal" is called the sound engineer or just "sound guy." Indeed, Detroit sports a crew of these technicians who populate our favorite holes and halls with all the cuts and scrapes from years of dealing with petulant musician assholes, smarmy club owners and soused patrons. So if some of these folks have a chip on their shoulder, who can blame 'em?
One such guy, famous for occasionally wielding a giant shoulder chip, is "Cool" Chris Panackia. With his stocky, intimidating frame, shiny bald lid and kempt goatee, Panackia looks like a cross between Telly Savalas and ... well, the devil. His personality reflects his physical stature; in one instance, he's capable of biting your head off; on the other, he can give you a killer hug.
But with 31 years behind the boards, he's kinda earned rights to his moods. This is the guy who, after all, befriended and then began managing and running sound for drug-addled and ever-unpredictable Johnny Thunders. He did that at the ripe old age of 18.
"Thunders told me that he trusted me because I didn't do drugs, and everybody else was fucked out of their minds back then," Panackia says of his first encounter with the then-Heartbreaker and former New York Doll.
"That first night, Johnny handed me his guitar and said, 'Bring it back to me tomorrow,' he recalls. It was obviously a test of trust. "I took the guitar, went back to my hotel room and just stared at the thing. I couldn't believe it. The next day, I met up with Thunders, guitar in hand, and he looked at me and said, 'So, you want a job?'"
At the same time — besides running Thunders' sound on tours — Panackia mixed at such Detroit clubs as Bookies (even did then-unknowns the Police during their first-ever Midwest show) and Nitro (where he did sound for another unknown band called U2). He was also basically the man at the original Clutch Cargos, St. Andrew's Hall and the Magic Stick, all leading up to his current gig at the Crofoot in Pontiac. In other words, he's been doing this for three decades. It'd be spot-on to say he has earned some cred. And the stories he has to tell! Such as rubbing elbows with Bowie one night at Studio 54. Or hanging with Iggy or Sid Vicious, whom he saw shooting up backstage at Max's Kansas City in Manhattan.
Panackia ain't the only old dog twiddling knobs in Detroit. Local native Bill Kozy and the Magic Bag's Terry Cox have been doing sound for a combined 43 years.
Besides the occasional gig at Small's in Hamtramck, Kozy has spent much of his time on the road, manning the boards for such locals as the Electric Six and Hi-Fi Handgrenades. His real claim is doing house sound for Cheap Trick for the past seven years. "I get to mix 'Surrender' every night, so things could be worse." he laughs.
But beyond having to keep all of Rick Nielsen's zany guitars sounding top-shelf, Kozy understands how to be an ace soundman and how to deal with hardships and road snobs: Kill 'em with kindness.
"You never have to be a dick," Kozy says. "Worrying about putting somebody in their place is a waste of time and energy, even when the band just doesn't realize that there are set times and some degree of protocol — whether you're playing the Painted Lady or the Palace."
The 58-year-old Cox, meanwhile, is another of Detroit's sound wranglers, with 28 years of service. Perhaps most famous for his to-the-butt mullet — which, alas, he no longer has ("My hair was getting a bit thin on top and I didn't want a big spot up there, with it still hanging down my back," he says laughing) — Cox got his start at the now-closed Palladium on Gratiot. From there, he went on to the Majestic Theatre, and then to the Magic Stick, where he reigned for seven years. In 2002, Cox was hired by the Magic Bag, where he's working today.
Of that latter gig, Cox says he's "extremely happy there. I love it, in fact. It's one of the best venues in town with one of the best in-house sound systems. And they are great people to work for."
A 2006 car accident nearly derailed Cox. A drunk driver hit him — his wife and son were also in the car — while driving to breakfast on Thanksgiving, which happened to fall on his birthday. Though he walks with the assistance of a cane, Cox continues to create sonic gold in club situations.
"I love going to work," the soundman says. "I think it's my attitude that's made me successful. It's not really about me or the bands, though. It's about the people who pay to come into the venue to see the show. They are the ones you have to make happy."
Panackia, Kozy and Cox are colorful, experienced, and reliable sound engineers, but there's also a new, younger breed of technicians in town, following in their footsteps. And while the aforementioned mixers have played in bands, newer sound dudes such as the Magic Stick's Royce Nunley and Saint Andrew's Erik Maluchnik have earned stripes making din as well as mixing it.
Nunley spent time on the road playing bass for Warped Tour vets the Suicide Machines, joining them in 1994. Since quitting in '02, Nunley got his Magic Stick gig after a stint as a studio engineer.
Did Nunley's onstage time make him a better sound engineer?
"I thought that when I first started doing sound, I would 'get it' better than people that have never been on the other side of it," he says. "But I was wrong. Doing sound is something completely different. Every sound engineer seems to do things a little differently, but in my opinion, the best are the ones with experience — the ones who've been doing it long enough to know more about doing sound rather then just moving faders up and down."
Meanwhile, Maluchnik, who now plays guitar in both Shadiamond Le Freedom and Jarrod Champion Sleeps Till Dusk, gained sound knowledge through observation — enough to know "what not to do."
"I remember all the times I've played shows that have been ruined by the sound guy's inadequacies or their attitude," Maluchnik says. "If anything, it makes me more patient with bands I work for. I know what it feels like when the sound onstage is so bad you can't hear the vocals or the drums. You have to watch the hands of the other musicians just to know where you are in the song, and you look up and the sound guy is at the bar, or worse, you can't see him at all."
It's hard not to wonder if, 30 years from now, night after night of dealing with petulant band punks, hauling gear, and running sound for 14-band local rap-metal shows will take a toll or ruin hearing on these young dudes.
But for Panackia — who just turned 50 this year — it came down to tempering one's self and knowing when to say enough. "It was all fun and games for the first 10 years," he says, "and sometimes I do wish I would've just gone to school so I could get out and just 'buy' myself a career. But, ultimately, it just wasn't for me. Sometimes, I look at these bands today as a hurdle that I have to jump over all day so I can go home and do what I want to do — which is watch TV! But still, even at 17 years old, I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
Ryan Allen is a freelance writer and a member of a few local bands. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.