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Too Old To Rock, Too Young To Die 

The shady life and uncertain future of a legendary roadie

Thursday, Mar 11 2004
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Photos courtesy Tony Byner

I. The Load Out

For most of his life, Jef Hickey has taken rock ’n’ roll’s loudest, dumbest, truest and most irresistible messages to heart, perfecting the art of life as a never-ending Kiss chorus. Sure, many people pledge themselves to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, but few have done so with the self-destructive verve of the former Studio City resident. Three spiked rings decorate his dick like medals of valor. He’s contracted gonorrhea (six times), crabs (four times), syphilis (three times) and herpes. For more than a decade and a half, with lab-rat consistency, Hickey carpet-bombed his cortex with enough pills to stock a hypochondriac’s medicine cabinet. At 15, he established himself as Boston’s hardest-working rock serf, unloading equipment for bands like Motorhead and Twisted Sister at almost every club in town. At 17, he lived a louder, crueler, dramatically less uplifting version of Cameron Crowe’s rock ’n’ roll heartwarmer Almost Famous, joining Megadeth on tour as a roadie and discovering the thorny allure of hard drugs and anal sex with Canadian strippers.

But now he’s 35 and just paroled from a three-year stint in a Sheridan, Oregon, federal prison where he shared an 8-by-12-foot cell with another inmate and a broken-tailed cat that never purred and constantly brawled with the prison’s two other feline residents. Even if drug issues and parole restrictions weren’t clouding his future employment prospects, well, the rock ’n’ roll road life that seems like an adventure in your 20s can become a grind in your 30s. How do you grow old in rock ’n’ roll when you’re not actually a rock star? Jef Hickey hasn’t really figured out an answer for that one yet, but he’s going to find out soon enough.

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Despite his advancing years, Jef Hickey continues to project a slouchy, fidgety, teenage charm. His civilian wardrobe consists of jeans and more than 700 concert T-shirts, all of them black. In prison, he cut his hair short and kept it its natural brown, but in the past it has been blue, magenta and various other neon hues. His pale skin blazes with color too: He’s got a naked female werewolf tattooed on his right arm; his ex-wife as a vampire spread-eagled across his chest; a giant vagina with hammer-like pistons coming out of it on his left forearm. His deep-set green eyes change from messianic to catatonic, depending on the chemical weather inside his brain. The changes are less pronounced now that he’s no longer doing drugs, but even completely sober, he’s still a mercurial personality, full of amped-up enthusiasms one day, crashing hard the next. He’s a disarmingly candid, funny, nonstop talker, and a fan of bold gestures. While in prison, Hickey had the word LIBERTINE emblazoned across his stomach to remind himself of his former existence: the pinballing from groupie to stripper to hooker, the chronic prowl for pills and dope, his perpetual disdain for convention.

Fit for a king: Hickey marries a porn star in Vegas. Elvis bogarts the fried chicken.

That tattoo is his 17th. He got his first one, a 4-inch blue spider on his neck, in 1984, when he was 15, the same year he started working for free at a Boston rock club called the Channel. By then, he was already a regular there, where he’d camp out in the parking lot in the afternoons waiting for musicians to arrive so he could ask them for autographs. Then one day, a lazy roadie asked him if he wanted to help set up that evening’s show. “Next thing I know, I’m unloading Motorhead’s gear,” says Hickey. “And just when I think it can’t get any better, someone hands me a backstage pass so I can stay and load the truck after the show. It was like someone handed me a skeleton key to the world of rock!”

Hickey liked that world much better than his day-to-day existence. At school, he was a misfit — a good student who wore spiked belts and heavy metal T-shirts while his classmates favored suede moccasins and classic rock. In his own family, Hickey was something of an outsider too. Unlike his younger brother and sister, he was adopted, which, he says, “left me with latent abandonment issues I’ve been dealing with for the last few decades.” When he was 12, his adoptive parents divorced. Two years later, his adoptive mother remarried, and Hickey clashed with his new stepfather. “I refused to wear a tuxedo at the wedding,” he says. “Instead, I wore a Judas Priest T-shirt. Things kind of went downhill from there.”

At Boston’s rock clubs, however, Hickey felt completely at home. After that first Motorhead concert, he started taking the 45-minute train ride into the city three or four days a week to help bands set up their equipment in the afternoons and load it in their trucks again after they finished playing. Afterward, usually at 2 or 3 in the morning, he’d walk to Boston’s South Station, where the last evening train had already departed and the first morning one didn’t leave until 5 a.m. “I’d sit in this vestibule with some of Boston’s smelliest bums,” Hickey recalls. “I’d be jacked up on adrenaline from the show, and scared shitless of getting mugged or beaten up, so I never slept. Sometimes I did my homework.”

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