Rock 'n' Goal Music

Anyone rooting for the underdog on October 27, 1999, was treated to a particularly wretched lesson in public humiliation. The last game of the World Series found the New York Yankees once again making pennant purée out of the Atlanta Braves. The game itself wasn't any more ignoble than the three lose-a-thons that preceded it, except there would be no hope of turning the taunting around after tonight. Compounding Atlanta's anguish was chorus after cruel chorus of Queen's "We Are the Champions," looped in a perpetual mock. In actual minutes, it was probably more like nine or 10, but a prime-time eternity for those trying to maintain a Braves face every time the TV cameras zoomed in for another "no time for losers" reaction shot.

Scorning an opponent with music is hardly a new innovation to sports. The Romans probably had some suitably smug horn fugues at the ready just before a gladiator got his head handed to him in the ring. Who knows, maybe a misplaced mouthpiece at one of these exhibitions inadvertently led to the invention of the air horn.

This much we do know -- credit for merging rock music and sports should go to the Chicago White Sox, whose stadium organist began playing Steam's 1969 hit "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" to work the crowd at appropriately intimidating intervals.

Mark Iralson, games operation manager for the Phoenix Coyotes, originally hails from the Windy City. Mention the old Chicago Stadium, which had the reputation in NHL circles as being "the loudest rink in the world," and he'll regale you with reminiscences about the Barton organ and its massive roar. While the organ was moved to the new home of the Chicago Blackhawks and Bulls, the impersonal United Center, the organ pipes embedded in Chicago Stadium were lost to the wrecking ball.

"The center of the ceiling had these shutters which would move," he enthuses. "They would play that organ and the sound would shoot right through you. None of the new stadiums do that anymore. And it's too bad."

While one can mourn the move from historic sports palaces to new sterile sports complexes, there is one bright spot for music lovers: never having to hear organists' ironic and sorry attempts at playing stadium rock. If you've ever heard Yankee Stadium organist Eddie Layton rallying the Bronx Bombers fans with his Phantom of the Opera rendition of "Beat It," you know that's more cheese than you'd ever want on your nachos.

Consequently, the job of a stadium kaiser of the keys has diversified. In addition to playing all the familiar crowd-pumping prompts on digital keyboards, there is the procurement and programming of all prerecorded rock music at each event. What the stadiums lost in chest-rumbling organ notes, they more than made up for in jukebox versatility. When players are banished to the penalty boxes, the maestro can decide in a split second whether to play the ska version of "Why Can't We Be Friends" or the punk version of "I Fought the Law."

Where once rock music was once an afterthought at sporting events, it's now an integral part of the entire package.

"It's all part of the game," remarks Iralson before a recent Pittsburgh Penguins-Coyotes game. "People pay so much money now that it's not just a hockey game. It's entertainment."

With tickets in the $80 to $200 price range for premium seating, people demand a distraction-packed show. The floating Coke bottle and Dodge Durango balloons, the Bud Ice beer blimps, Zambonis, fireworks, TelePrompTers and movie clips are all formidable eye spackle, to be sure.

It's Iralson's job to coordinate all the above diversions through his headset, mediating between the sound engineer, the folks in the video room, the matrix room, the interns around the ice and the woman who, according to his estimation, is "the key to this whole thing. She makes everything happen. People dance around, the kids dance around, everyone's having a good time."

Throughout the summers, she's a full-time hairdresser, but for 42 home games plus preseason and playoffs, Erin Ruiz serves as "music director and keyboard operator" for the Phoenix Coyotes. As for the second half of her job handle, let's get one thing straight -- the lady doesn't operate the keyboard, she plays it. In 12-second bursts, usually, with one hand on a drum machine and one foot stomping a kick drum pedal that triggers a mechanical Neanderthal thud.

No life experience quite prepares one for this exclusive job. Ruiz paid her dues in a classic rock band when she was still in high school, an experience that gave her considerably more jitters than playing for 16,000 people.

"I had to sing, too," Ruiz says, blushing. "That ups the potential for embarrassment. I don't mind being heard, obviously," she says, gesturing to the panorama of a still-empty arena, "but more than anything I prefer not to be seen in front of everybody."

Although her work station is located in a seating area, there are no spotlights on Ruiz, no obligation to perform for the crowd, which frees her up to keep a watchful eye on the game. Until it's snack 'n' pee time, the other spectators are focused on the ice, unaware that the greatest concentration of power in America West Arena isn't the 10 guys with unpronounceable names bashing each other against Plexiglas, it's this quiet but steadfast woman with the headset, digital recorder and 88 keys.

Fans arriving for the Penguins game are being mood regulated by Ruiz from the moment they amble through the turnstiles 'til the clock is stopped. And it's a task she performs with all the anonymity of an air-traffic controller.

There are occupational hazards. After two parched years, beer has been splashed on the mixing board in recent weeks.

"A fight broke out," Ruiz says. "Somebody threw a beer at somebody and it all came up here."

Sound engineer Derrick Wilson had to do some quick mopping up. "Nothing got into the faders, fortunately," he says.

But even if another suds downpour were to short-circuit the board, another mixing board awaits, secure under a nearby tarp.

"We're redundant about everything," Wilson adds. "If the board dies, I can run it off this. If our speakers blow up, I got those backups," he says, gesturing to the ceiling.

But what if Ruiz suddenly gets food poisoning? Clearly someone has already considered that emergency scenario, which is why Ruiz was recording some of her keyboard prompts earlier in the day. It's a precaution no one believes or hopes they'll ever have to exercise.

"She's always here," Wilson says, smiling. "We don't want anything to happen to her."

Perhaps a stomach pump is also at the ready.

Iralson admits that Ruiz and her gear would be a lot more secure under glass, but reckons "this still works out the best. Because when you're in an enclosed room . . . and hearing everything through a speaker, you really don't feel the game, don't know what's going on. Here she's in the middle of everything. She can make suggestions and know where we should go."

Ruiz's view of the ice can be obscured if all the seats in front of her are filled to capacity and people stand up (although this is Phoenix, a city whose motto could be: "We take our entertainment sitting down"). To fill the blind spots, she is kept well informed by Iralson and others who don headsets. Constant chatter occupies her left ear throughout the night while her right must monitor what she plays on a tiny speaker set off to the side.

"Some nights it's kind of tough when I'm not feeling so secure about the playing. One little mistake and everybody hears it," she says, grimacing. "It's kind of stressful. The first couple of games were especially rough because there's a significant delay in what I play and what goes out there. I wasn't prepared for that. The guy that trained me said, 'Oh that's nothing.'"

Ruiz was fortunate enough to know the previous "music director and keyboard operator" before landing his vacated slot (he now plays for the L.A. Kings).

"It takes a while to fall into the rhythm of this job. It's a learned skill."

And her attitude toward hockey?

"I'm Canadian and I'm kind of born with it. But I've lived here for a long time and for a long time we didn't have any hockey here. I was a big Kings fan for a long time. That's about all we could get on TV.

"I thought I knew a lot about hockey until I started working here. I was just used to sitting back as a spectator waiting 'til the ref tells you what the penalty is. On this end, we've got to know what it is before they tell everybody. You can't doze off at all. You have to be ready to jump on a situation. All of the sudden there's a penalty coming up and we drop everything we had ready and play something like 'Breakin' the Law.'"

While some stadiums use prerecorded keyboard prompts such as "Charge!," which require the minimum amount of piano technique, the human touch provides crucial timing.

"It's NHL policy that we have to cut out of whatever we're doing when the puck drops," says Ruiz. "If I wanna get in a 'Charge!' or something, and I can see they're gonna drop it quick, then I can speed up so we get it all in. If it's a recording, we can't control the speed of it."

"Charge!," which is substituted with a "Howl!" for Coyote purposes, is just one of a dozen such impromptu selections designed to goose the fans. Songs passed down from the ages that everyone knows by heart yet nobody seems to know by name. Even a glance at the set list taped to her electric keyboard can still leave you mystified.

"We kind of named these things ourselves," Ruiz says as she breaks into a spontaneous rendition of a little something called "Steps." It consists of four notes, a high G plus the three notes in the scale leading up to it. She plays it repeatedly, quickening the pace each time it jumps a key. DUM-da-da-da DUM! DUM-da-da-da DUM! Trust me. You know this.

Where do prompts such as "Steps" and this little bit of tango business Ruiz likes to call "Kalinka" come from, anyway?

"I have no idea," Ruiz says, shrugging. "The guy that was here before taught them to me."

Until there's a 10-part series on PBS where Ken Burns definitively traces the lineage of "Charge!" to Custer's last stand, we might never know.

Running down the hits for all you classical music kids, Ruiz has got "The Lone Ranger Theme," which will not ride on this night, since Clayton Moore's still-recent death might turn the Purple Palace blue. Just below it, she notices the "Green Acres Theme," which is almost never used.

"That would be just for filler. Sometimes we have a really rough game where they blow the whistle over and over and we're running dry and we don't want to use everything we brought in," she explains.

Next up are the international items that galvanize people of all races into spontaneous clapping. "The Mexican Hat Dance." "Zorba the Greek." "Hava Nagila." Not officially on the set list taped to her electric piano but always in the air is the ubiquitous "Nya Nya Nya-Nya Nya" song.

After briskly playing the five-note ditty with one finger, she turns a surprised look.

"You know what? We haven't used that this season. We used it last season, when the other team had to go into the penalty box. We try not to be nasty. We wait 'til there's a legitimate penalty."

Ditto for the rock classics she and Iralson select for every game. Once they decide to add a newly released song, they go directly to the record label to get the sanitized radio-edits versions.

"It's the only way we can play a lot of stuff, when there's profanity," Ruiz says. "Like I said, we strive to not offend. We're a family sport. Lots of kids."

This attention to questionable language for impressionable people is rather endearing, since colorful jargon flows freely from the fans.

"You suck," and all its immediate rhyming variations, spring to mind. Television cameras actually zoom in on cussing players and give many a youth their first lip-reading lesson. No matter. Even if radio stations don't catch every "motherfucker" embedded in Rage Against the Machine recordings but sometimes bleep out a real weenie of a word like "dick," rest assured none of those action words will pass through the Coyotes' careful screening process.

Player-injury music is a sensitive matter. Someone sprawled out on the ice might not appreciate a song like "I Wanna Be Sedated" with its nods to wheelchairs and damaged nerve endings. Not to mention "D.O.A."

Iralson says the job's only discernible downside: "It ruins you on listening to music, really. Because we're always listening to songs for some reference to hockey."

Considering the substantial crowd reaction that rock music generates at sporting events, it's puzzling why record companies don't court sport franchises in the same way they kowtow to radio. Perhaps the overriding logic is that the songs that get played at sporting events are already proven hits. "Untrue!" as Howard Cosell used to blurt. Ruiz has spun such local bands as Jesus Chrysler Supercar in regular rotation, and when her husband worked for Universal Music, he was providing Coyotes fans with lots of new, untested music.

"Everything that was on their labels he was pitching to me," she says. "Record companies haven't tapped into the sports market. They probably should."

To make the final cut, a song must have a rousing intro, since it won't generally play beyond 30 seconds, anyway. Despite the limited listening time, people pay close attention to what music is played, which necessitates changing the set list every game to keep things fresh.

"People definitely remember the songs you play. Even if you played it three games ago, it's like it was last game," says Iralson.

As if to demonstrate this point, before tonight's game, a season-ticket holder comes up to ask Ruiz, "Are you the deejay? There's one intro you play, which is wonderful and I can't find out what it is. You've played it in the first quarter sometimes and it goes like this: da da-da da-da-da-da . . ."

After patiently listening to what almost sounds like a vocal rendition of "Steps," Ruiz surmises the patron is referring to "Flagpole Sitta" by Harvey Danger, and gives the necessary record-shopping tips. Does that sort of thing happen very often?

"Not a whole lot," she says. "Just occasionally, people ask who does that 'I wanna ride a Zamboni' song. And I don't know who does it."

For easy access, Ruiz has about 16 hours of music programmed into a digital recorder and assigned a three-digit number. There's a whole row of "fight music," things like "Keep 'em Separated," "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," "Bad to the Bone," "Born to Be Wild," "Jailhouse Rock." Rush's "Tom Sawyer" is also in that row, but Ruiz explains "we have certain player themes. We had a player who was a fighter and his last name was Sawyer [right wing Kevin Sawyer], so we used to play it. You know, 'meet Tom Sawyer he's a mean, mean guy' or something." She pauses, remembering that this compulsive penalty collector was sent down to the minor league. "Guess we don't need that one anymore."

Which brings us to the next row of buttons, dedicated to those kill penalty melodies. The new "Mission: Impossible Theme," the old "James Bond Theme," the new Moby remake of the old "James Bond Theme," the new "Theme From the Saint," "I Fought the Law," "The Authority Song," "Peter Gunn," "Breakin' the Law," and the sound effect of a creaking door which promptly gets slammed shut when an opposing player goes into the box. Then there's the Beatles' "I'm a Loser."

"We almost never use that," she says, laughing. "That's saved for Detroit games. You want to ignore the visiting teams musically unless it's poking fun. When the Florida Panthers come, sometimes we play the 'Pink Panther Theme' if they get a penalty. When Nashville comes and they get a penalty, we play 'Friends in Low Places.'"

The only constants on an ever-rotating set list include every wedding combo's favorite song, Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," if there's a win; Bush's "Machine Head" when the Coyotes come back on the ice; the "Let's Go Coyotes" theme, written by whammy bar guitar virtuoso Gary Hoey; and Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" whenever the team scores. Not only are the Coyotes the only team to use a recorded howl instead of an air horn when it scores a goal, but it's the only team to use a Warren Zevon song instead of the familiar Gary Glitter jingle when it scores a goal. Ruiz says this decision not to play Glitter's "Rock 'n' Roll Part Two" doesn't stem from any reluctance to enriching Gary Glitter, a convicted kiddy porn collector.

"We try not to use something you hear everywhere else. We're in a market with a lot of different teams, so we try to keep it fresh for Coyotes games."

Every fan seems to have a comment and is determined to make it.

"That's why we post a security person here," stresses Ruiz. "If we let anyone up here, they'd be here the whole game. And we don't take requests. The only request they ever want is 'Welcome to the Jungle.'"

"'Welcome to the Jungle,' that's our 'make noise song,'" says Iralson. "So if we wanna get the crowd going or we're down a goal in the third period, we'll say, 'Let's go with Guns n' Roses the next whistle,' and the place goes nuts."

It's 6 p.m. and the arena is coming to life. Ruiz starts up a mini-disc of "walk-in" music. The first number is the same kind of innocuous orchestral music a cineplex feature presentation reel would use. This tells the arena workers the doors are open, look sharp. It's followed by popular rock songs, nothing too hard, just enough to drown out the scuffling of busy feet entering the hall.

"We use this music to build up to the game," says Iralson. "We're constantly building up so at the end you're at the highest peak. When you come out of here, you're excited, even if you lose."

This attention to detail is most awe-inspiring, not unlike that obsessive friend who tapes every second of music for parties and labels the tapes "wind down sounds" and "food music."

Iralson and Ruiz seem candid about their informal method of selecting music by what sounds good, but one wonders if there are some manipulative operations managers out there who've done scientific studies and are now playing "Crazy Train" because it induces laboratory mice to drink more Miller Genuine Draft.

The players are on the ice warming up to "Higher Ground" as redone by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In every instance, the funkier or more "urban" version of a hit is supplanted for the louder, cockier one, a clear lesson in knowing your demographic. The Suns can have the Stevie Wonder version, this is white rock country, where guitars win out over grooves every time and only a teeth-gnashing song by such black rock coalitionists as Living Colour or Jimi Hendrix will break the color sound barrier. Somehow anything less than a bashing, graceless 4/4 beat would make the action of the ice seem like Torvill and Dean.

After warming up, the players exit the ice and return minutes later in a cloak of darkness and groovy ice projections to the accompaniment of that Gary Hoey "Let's Go Coyotes" theme song. Unfortunately, team songs don't have words you can sing anymore like "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" or "Ballad of the Green Berets," so it's unlikely you'll be hearing it in a shower near you very soon.

Speaking of the unsingable, you can see why the first unaccompanied Coyote howls of the night find their way over Mary Gilbert's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." But Iralson has figured out what's generally been missing from the national anthem since it rolled off Francis Scott Key's pen. Rockets' red glare. Right on schedule, glaring red rockets are dispatched and the song merits standing up for again.

The first period is scoreless. Ruiz leads the first "Charge!" of the night, and the crowd gives back the obligatory howl, but little more. They need warming up, and 70 percent of the songs selected for tonight's music list are shuffled around or dropped entirely. "This Is a Call" is moved up and, in an ironic twist, "Master of Puppets" is dispatched when some crowd manipulation is needed for the noise meter. But these unwitting puppets can't get it past "8." Although some arenas just put up an animated video graphic that automatically goes up to 10 after a little struggle, Iralson is quick to interject that "Ours is legit. It's really nothing scientific. We have someone manually working it. So it's his call."

Keith Tkachuk collects a penalty against Penguin goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin, who's horizontal on the ice for about a minute. During this time, Ruiz plays nothing until it's determined he's milking it for camera time.

"You can tell he wasn't really hurt," she says. "They like to make it dramatic. We keep it quiet, kind of a respect thing if somebody's really hurt. But if somebody's whimpering, we have the 'ER Theme.' That's when we want to poke fun at them."

The first period ends in a hail of boos since what looked like a goal suddenly isn't.

"Smooth" by Santana is on the list for the break, but suddenly disappears.

"We recently decided not to play it for a while because it's kind of been spent," Ruiz says.

Beneath PA announcements, she plays "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Shimmer." Nothing too loud and rowdy the announcer must scream over. Besides, why waste the testosterone-churning material on anesthetized men watching the Zamboni go around?

What is it about this hypnowheel on ice? Grown men seem unable to pull their eyes away from it. It can't be the way it takes scuffs out of the ice or looks like a 12-pack of Bud Ice. It can't even be the women who win the contests to ride the thing so they'll be noticed during this time-out trance. While toddlers with their scaled-down hockey sticks pretend they're Rick Tocchet, their minders are fantasizing what it'd be like to drive this carbuncle. After asking a few patrons, the only thing we can come up with is that "Zamboni" is one of an elite group of words that for one reason or another people love saying. Like "Buttafuoco."

With both teams scoring in the second period, things move along at a quicker clip with fewer songs and more kill penalty music. Obstructions, interferences, tripping, slashing, nearly the whole row of bad boy standby tunes is exhausted. Ruiz herself has a few hairy moments where she might've given herself a penalty. Because of a miscalculation, one rousing prompt of "Charge!" had to cut it off at two "howls" instead of the customary three, and there was a moment of regret when she sighs, "I just tried something tonight that didn't work, 'Dizzy Up the Girl' by the Goo Goo Dolls. It just wasn't right for the situation. Sometimes we just don't call it right and you know it the second you press the button. That song just kind of sat there."

There's no messing about in the third period -- all the stops are pulled out. "Steps." "Kalinka." Ruiz attaches a healthy three-howl "Charge!" to a stealthy "Zorba the Greek." No "Welcome to the Jungle," but its nearest equivalent -- "Been Caught Stealing" with the dog barks already built in -- comes off the bench and registers a 9.5 on the noise meter. Finally, people are standing. Okay, some of them are leaving to beat the parking exodus, but the rest of them are genuinely standing. And howling. And clapping, acquiescing to every cue. Ruiz shoots them back "You're Unbelievable." And they are. It's their enthusiasm that reinvigorates the Coyotes, who went into this game 0-6-2 against Eastern Conference teams. The Coyotes score back-to-back plays of "Werewolves of London," winning this game 3 to 1.

And Ruiz's subtle musical prodding provided some inspiration.

But instead of taking bows, she's smiling to herself and already unplugging the patch cords to her keyboard to the strains of "Celebration." She'll be back to do it again Saturday night. You probably won't even think to look for her, but you won't be able to ignore her, either.

Instead, you can turn your attention to the Coyotes, the balloons, the Zambonis and Warren Zevon, who'll be on hand to sing the national anthem. It's . . . uh, all right. But it's no "Werewolves of London."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic