I noticed a wrecking ball being taken to the Philadelphia Spectrum on cable news the other day. For a moment I started turning the pages of my life back in time to 1979, and the day I was booted out of the country—hours before our concert at the Spectrum. Pittsburg had been hit with snow pretty good. Yet, as was most always the case, the show went on that Saturday night.
The next morning I was having breakfast with brother Joe, both of us ravished. I was murdering my vegetable omelet, my nose entirely too close to my plate, as I lifted my eyes and noticed two rather stout, expressionless gentleman dressed in dark trench coats, marching our way. Somehow I had a strange feeling these boys weren’t autograph hunting. “Mr. Vannelli?” one man asked. The other followed with, “Mr.. . .Gino Vannelli?” “Mmm—mmm?” I answered cautiously, with my mouth full. “Is this your brother, Joseph Vannelli?“ I waited for Joe to speak for himself but suddenly found myself to be his reticent advocate. “Yes”, I managed to enunciate, swallowing a rather big sliver of my omelet at the same time.“You’re both in the country illegally, sir. We’ll have to ask you both to come with us.”
“Where might that be?” I posed.“The airport—or county jail—your preference, boys”, mumbled the other narrow-lipped man, like a ventriloquist. Just when I couldn’t figure what had gone wrong, I remembered the minor snag two days earlier at the Montreal airport, our first point of departure. Management, as we were told, had pursued all the necessary visas and docs needed for us two Canadians to go play in Pittsburg and Philadelphia that weekend. But it being a Saturday morning, and management nowhere within reach, Joe and I couldn’t be absolutely sure all the legalities were in order at Customs and Immigration. In light of discretion being the better part of valor, we elected to tip-toe our way through, keep as tight-lipped as possible, hoping the officer would have our papers in hand; and if not the case, then try to act normal and skate through as visitors, trusting the visas would somehow catch up to us en route. Well, of course, it being the pre cell phone, instant message or twitter age, we never got a word back on the matter—that is, until the moment the two men in black showed up at the coffee shop in Philly. So, there we were, now 3pm, on a plane back to Canada, actually being deported, feeling a little like extradited wise guys, wondering how in the hell we would ever make it to Philadelphia in time for the Spectrum show that night.“So,” croaked the Customs officer at the Montreal airport,” It’s the infamous Vannelli brothers!” Joe and I immediately put on our best lamb-led-to-the-slaughter faces, trying to squirm our way back into good standing with the Man.“Here!” barked the officer, ”here are your dam docs—we had ‘em here all along!”“Well then, what’s the problem, officer; why won’t you let us through?” I pleaded.“You lied!” he snapped.“You said you were visiting, when you weren’t!” Having once argued over a small technicality with a cop regarding a ‘rolling stop’, knowing very well that mounting even the most watertight defense would only fuel the fire, I said, “Sir,” in the calmest voice I could fake, “ Our sincerest apologies, we never meant to deceive you or anyone…we were just trying to make the concerts and not leave investors, promoters, ten musicians, fifteen crewmen, not to mention over twenty thousand fans in a lurch, ” I said, hoping I hadn’t left any vital piece of information out that could prop our case. While the officer stroked his forehead, shook his head and groaned, debating thumbs up or down, I tried to keep a lid on acute visions of plucking the eyebrows clean off of my manager for having left Joe and I in such a fix. “Get out o’ here!” he blurted out, “but I’m not guaranteeing what they’re gonna do to you in Philly—you’re on your own now.”It was now 7pm. Let alone having missed sound check (the eight deadly sin), the grim likelihood of not making the concert was finally beginning to dawn on me. There were no more commercial flights out that Sunday—least none that would get us to Philly. The only option left was to charter one. It was about 8:30 when the turbo prop we had been lucky enough to snag was about a hundred miles from the Philadelphia airport. “Three-fifty, she’s going, three-fifty!” we’ll be there in a few, guys”, shouted the pilot, while we bucked and shuddered trying to keep our nose above the storm clouds. It was almost 9pm when we hit the tarmac. Whacked, low on blood sugar, and three thousand bucks broker, my last plea to the hefty, black-mustached Customs-Immigration officer in Philly was, “ Sir, I see by your badge that you’re probably Italian.“What does bein’ Italian have anyting to do wit your problem?” he answered, with his big head cocked to one side.“Do you know that there are over ten thousand people waiting to see my brother and I at the Spectrum.”“Your point being. . .”“Well, Lou. . . if I may. . . the last Italian to have accomplished that was Frank Sinatra. Don’t you have any sense of how important this is, not only to Joe and me personally, but to a whole bunch of our proud paesans?” After a moment or two of careful reflection, the silence brought to an overboil, Officer Lou waved his hand and said, “Ahh, get the f. . .out o’ here you damned dagos. . .oh and by-de-way, have a good one!” he added, as Joe and I ran, tripping over our feet down the empty halls, juggling our bags, while scrambling for a taxi stand. After a record fast shave and shower, hair wet, strips of TP plastered here and there on my neck and face, wiggling into my stage clothes in the back seat, we finally arrived at the Spectrum. I dashed onto the steps leading to the stage. It was 9:20. “What the hell, Gino! You’ve almost given me a heart attack! Where in the blazes have you and Joe been? Don’t you know it’s a 9 o’clock show!?” hollered the road manager over the rumble of stomping feet in the crowd. “Ready,” I said.<