Hansen: A roadie’s life: turning famous into family
He has partied with an impressive list of music icons from the 1970s and ‘80s, but what he is most proud of is getting sober with Kris Kristofferson.
James “Jimmer” Coombs, 75, has been a roadie all his life, seen more than his fair share, and along the way cultivated a family that he never had growing up.
He was a foster kid as early as he can remember, which forced him to become his own man by age 6. He spent time on a farm outside St. Louis milking cows, then bounced around until he went into the Navy in 1957.
“That’s how I discovered Laguna Beach,” Coombs said. “I was down in San Diego. A friend had a car and we just started coming up this way. One day I was standing on Diamond Street in Woods Cove, looking down on the beach seeing nude blonde bodies laying on the beach.
“I turned around to my friends and said, ‘Man, when I get out of the military, this is where I’m going to live.’”
And it was. Laguna became home base in a life on the road with some of the biggest stars of the day: Arlo Guthrie, Three Dog Night, Rod Stewart, Dave Mason, Willie Nelson, The Pointer Sisters, A.J. Croce, Chaka Khan, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Criss of KISS, Lee Rocker and others.
But perhaps his longest and most meaningful gig was with Kristofferson.
“I spent 17 years with Kris, taking care of him and doing his stuff,” said Coombs, recalling the good and the bad.
It was 1979 and things were not going well. Immersed in a drug culture that was starting to take a toll, both Kristofferson and Coombs decided to quit.
“A lot of these guys were trying to kick habits that were really heavy, man. It’s hard, you gotta work with it,” Coombs said. “When I cleaned myself up, I never did dog them. I always left it out there but it was an easier thing. You try to live accordingly. Be an inspiration.”
Now, Coombs rents a small room overlooking Bluebird Canyon with a beautiful ocean view. A former bodybuilder, he surrounds himself with exercise equipment and a few rock ‘n’ roll mementos.
He points proudly to a photo that he took of a smiling Kristofferson and Muhammad Ali.
“We got a lot of famous people who wanted to meet Kris. Ali liked Kris and came up to a show we were doing in Sarasota Falls. So that’s where I took that.”
Coombs pulls out a photo album and talks about the many tours around the world, including Europe and Russia.
He has lost track of everywhere he’s been, but chances are, if you throw out a name in rock history, he will have some personal connection.
It’s those connections that have kept him working, even as an actor. He is officially listed in movie credits on IMDb. With Kristofferson, he drove the star around during “A Star is Born.” He’s done extra work on several movies, including “Songwriter,” where he was close with Willie Nelson.
“I became really good friends with Willie,” he said. “I got introduced to a lot of people. It was a good life.”
When Coombs tells stories now, they are like a patchwork of moments. The dates are fuzzy, and the details run together.
But in those days, there wasn’t an electronic chronology of your every move. You didn’t post real-time on Facebook or do Instagram selfies.
It was real life, sometimes tedious, like sitting on a bus for hours across vast stretches of desert. You had private conversations with guys who became like brothers.
“I always took my people really personal,” he said. “In this business, it’s like a family. Like with Kris, he felt responsible for everyone.”
This sense of responsibility became the fabric of Coombs’ many roles: bodyguard, driver, confidant, adviser. He was all things at all times, yet forever behind the scenes. But if things went bad, he was the first to step forward.
“Being on the road you just see so much — so much crazy stuff. When you’re stopping off at truck stops with a bus full of musicians, it gets pretty nuts. They scatter like little kids when you open the door. They got a pocketful of money and want to spend it.”
But for Coombs, it wasn’t about the power or fame. It was about the kinship and honor.
“I never really did it for the money. If I went out and worked for somebody, I had to really like their music and I had to have respect. A lot of them are just out there to make the buck.”
Coombs still works security at the Sawdust Festival every year and other local events.
In his mind, he is still the self-reliant foster kid bouncing around life, making friends and cherishing the moments.
“It’s how I live my life. I live by my ABCs: Always Be Cool.”
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.