A rollicking account of a paralyzed Gen Xer coming of age in the oft-times sordid Hollywood rock scene of the 1980’s
The outstanding Ian Gillian, of Deep Purple fame, banded together with Black Sabbath to put out a kick-ass metal record, Born Again. A few weeks into 1984, Mike and me went to enjoy that evil shit live at the Long Beach Arena. While waiting at the elevator, we ran into Mike’s buddy and fellow vocalist, Vinni Stiletto, owner of a louder-than-life New York rock ‘n’ roll attitude. He had a laminate or looked like he belonged, so instead of going up in that elevator, we got a security escort all the way down to the front row. My first arena show viewed from that vantage point.
Minutes after we arrived at the high-dollar seats, amidst eerie keyboard tones emanating from a stage engulfed in prop smoke and horror-movie lighting, Sabbath kicked me in the face with the booming thunder of “Neon Knights.” While Tony Iommi shredded, Geezer Butler thumped in time with Bev Bevan slamming. Soon after the sonic onslaught began, Ian Gillan, hidden in hair, got to wailing like a magnificent metal siren. After my decade of frenzied and flamboyant air-guitar accompaniment to iconic metal tunes such as “Into the Void,” I was almost dumbfounded by Iommi’s feet welded to the stage behind his effect pedals. Despite that boringness, he rocked a great show, and I would gladly watch that dude play for hours on end. After four songs up front, I escaped to my usual seats upstairs to enjoy a better stage view and superior sound mix.
A month later, I went to see Shire at Troubadour. And because Stryper played right before them, the place was packed, with even more fans lined up outside. I went mainly to see Izzy, but Shire had a new bass player. Just like Izzy before him, the new bassist, Mick, was the only band member who wasn’t affixed to a singular spot on the stage. Plus, he was a charismatic, solid player, and a blast-to-drink-with, boisterous, fun-loving dude. When I asked what happened to Izzy, Dave said, “He quit, told me he ‘hates playing bass,’” and was “playing guitar in some punk rock band.” It turned out Izzy’s band, Rose, were sharing Shire’s drummer, Johnny. Best news of all, those two bands had a gig together in the coming weeks.
That Shire and Rose gig happened on the downstairs stage at Madame Wong’s West in Santa Monica, California. Upstairs, on the main stage, was the Sandy West band, featuring one of the best chic drummers of all time and former member of legendary band, The Runaways. I helped Shire truck some gear, so I could go to sound check and hopefully persuade Ms. West to fall deeply in love with me for a few hours. When I ran into Izzy, we chatted a bit, and then he introduced me to his singer, Axl. Izzy then departed for the stage, a small two-inch riser no more than twelve feet wide and eight feet deep.
As Axl thanked me for coming down, our small talk got interrupted when his band began the cacophony racket common to early stages of sound check. Axl then got busy breaking apart a microphone stand. Once done, all that remained was the upper portion’s three-foot length of chrome pipe with a clip on the end, on which he secured microphone and cable with black duct tape. With the task complete, Axl nodded a ready-to-go. Izzy then waved an arm, signaling the boys to cease their din. But Johnny pounded away until Axl halted him with a yell through the PA. The band that night was just plain Rose, no Hollywood nothing. Axl Rose up front, Izzy Stradlin on guitar, Chris Webber second guitar, Johnny Kreis on drums, and the baby-faced, constantly smiling Andre Troxx on bass.
Axl took hold of the reconfigured microphone stand with clenched fists as Johnny clicked sticks to count them in. At four, a tidal wave of sound crashed off the walls, engulfing the empty showroom in a sonic sea. For a moment, I sat slack-jawed, mesmerized by the frenetic action occurring before my very eyes. Ten feet away from me, upon the stage, Axl crouch-leaned backward while drawing a deep breath, muscles tensed like a big cat readying to pounce, then began wailing lungs full of lyrics stacked together tighter than Mother Superior’s bunghole. The power and soulful passion with which he spat out those lines was like nothing I had ever heard. Not even the spawn of Tina Turner, Dan McCafferty, and Satan’s torrid three-way could have topped those pipes. Unable to remain still, I rocked out and headbanged along with Rose while trying to absorb every watt of energy the band sent crunching forth. A song and a half later, it was over, and the guys were headed off to get dressed, poof up their hair, and pre-buzz for the show.
When it was Shire’s turn to sound check, Mike and me headed for the liquor store. I told the guy behind the counter, “Give me a fifth of Yukon, Jack,” and then brought it back to the club. A perk of disability is the ability to bring bottles into secure areas. “Drinks for all my friends.” Rose went on early, maybe even before nine, but I was buzzing real good when they hit the stage. Their energetic forcefulness picked up right where it abruptly ceased at sound check. Counting me and a few of their friends, there were maybe ten people in that room.
Drunken Raz lacked what little impulse control he normally had, so rocked out much more ferociously. While Rose hopped, bopped, and bounced around that diminutive stage like a bunch of Mexican jumping beans on crank, the sonic ass-kicking transformed me into an atomic drunk tearing up the dance floor at stage’s edge. I spun in tight circles, banged my head, and rocked my chair side to side, lifting wheels off the ground in time with the music.
All the while, other club goers acted cool with some sporadic yet earnest toe-tapping.
Two tunes in, Axl seemed frustrated by the lack of love from the sparse crowd and gestured toward me while taunting spectators, “C’mon! Let’s get into it; like this guy!”
When Rose was done, I was literally spent and don’t think I could have taken a kilowatt more rock ‘n’ roll. Oh wait, always more.
The next day, I told Dave and Mike, “That dude, Axl, in Izzy’s band is great.”
They laughed at me and then took turns mocking Axl’s vocals by shrieking, “Back off, back off, bitch.”
I didn’t argue with them, as to not bruise their singer’s egos by pointing out that Axl clearly possessed more talent in his baby fingernail than both of them combined on their best days. During the previous few years, I saw nearly every big rock band playing L.A., as well as scores more club bands, and I knew that Axl was as good as or better than any singer rocking the mic. I remain puzzled how they missed that fact.
The tracks Shire recorded, with Don Dokken at the controls, turned out surprisingly good. Of the two brothers, Dave was leaps and bounds the better singer and also willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve goals. His strong, Halford-esque vocals and talented band made some decent heavy metal. Respectable, but a little too polished and melodic for my tastes. Maybe if they dressed up like hobbits? Never mind. Nonetheless, Shire made a video for a tune off their demo-turned-EP that was eventually released on Enigma Records. All I remember from their video was some raw footage, shot high atop a Malibu hilltop on the grounds of a classically inspired estate. There they were, instruments in hand, lip-syncing while going through stiff rocker moves, when a swarm of angry bees broke up their pantomime jam. Without warning, spandex-clad pretty boys began frantically slapping at bees before fleeing from the lens’ view. For some strange reason, that footage didn’t make the final cut.
After a night of clubbing around Hollywood, several of my friends would end up at the Rainbow Bar and Grill’s parking lot amongst the coke whores and hair farmers spilling out from the bar and looking for the next party. That place is so rock ‘n’ roll, Richie Blackmore named his band Rainbow after it. Weekend nights inside was usually packed booty to booty with scantily clad, super fine under-drinking-aged girls. Although they were pretty strict on checking dudes’ IDs, which makes infinite sense to me. An eighteen-year-old girl with a fake ID gets drunk and then there’s high probability of the lass heading out on an undercover dick mission. But dudes get drunk and want to fight. I wonder if it’s opposite at gay bars. What is the first rule of fuck club?
A block from the Rainbow was an after-hours restaurant, Café L.A., that brought a complimentary plate of “garlic balls” to every table as soon as someone arrived. Those walnut-sized bread rolls, drenched in garlic and olive oil, were absolutely fucking delicious while taking the edge off a booze-filled stomach. The eatery was also kind enough to stack bottles of wine within plain reach of underage thieves. “Yes, I’ll have the free food and a bottle of wine to go, please.” One night, Mike and I went in there to meet up with friends and grab a few bottles of wine for an afterhours party. On the way in, Mike ran into a schoolmate and introduced us. Driving home, Mike told me the dude I just met, Slash, bested Tracii in a guitar-playing competition at Fairfax High School a few years earlier. The funny thing was they both lost to another guy that Mike described as “just an alright classical guitarist.”
Hollywood was changing. The country’s economy was booming, forcing old shit to make way for new crap. On a prime piece of real estate, in a beyond-cool Googie-style building on the corner of La Brea and Sunset, sat Tiny Naylor’s restaurant. For decades, the place did a steady business, until the owners realized that multiples more money would be made by selling the land beneath the iconic eatery. So it was goodbye to Hollywood. That joint was packed 24/7 for its last few weeks in existence. Probably because the 1964 prices instituted to thank their loyals meant that a burger, fries, and a chocolate shake cost under a buck. On their final weekend, I rented a hotel room right across the street and partied in Hollywood while eating on the cheap. It almost made up for the strip mall with crappy parking they built on that site, but the Hoy’s Wok in that mall was pretty kicks-ass.
When it came to hard-rock bands, there was no doubt that throughout the first half of the 1980s, Van Halen was “king of the hill, top of the heap.” During those years, if you wanted to go see a popular band’s concert, you had to line up and wait until tickets went on sale, all the while praying to the rock gods the show didn’t sell out, thus leaving you at the mercy of scalpers. To be safe, I arrived four hours early to Music Plus’ Ticketmaster counter to be tenth in line for Van Halen tickets. They hadn’t figured out the wristband shit yet, and by the time tickets went on sale, I was at least forty people deep. But I still scored some nosebleed seats, only because a second show got added. I was outraged my tickets cost fourteen bucks after they tacked on the buck-fifty ass-rape service charge. So as reparations for skyrocketing concert costs, making me wait in line, and not protecting the integrity of my place, I helped myself to a 1980 Castle Donington Monsters of Rock cassette. Check out YouTube and listen to Riot‘s “Road Racin’” from that show. You’re welcome.
I took my Casa buddy Joe along to the Van Halen 1984 concert. My actual seat location really didn’t matter, because I always sat in the same spot at the Fabulous Forum, in my wheelchair far up and way back in a straight line to center stage. It was a horrible letdown of a concert, mostly because of an uninspiring performance by a beloved band merely going through the motions. For years, I had heard countless stories of colorful, dynamic frontman David Lee Roth’s acrobatics, humor, unequaled presence, and legendary command of the audience. Maybe I expected too much? Then, when Eddie Van Halen set his axe aside for keyboards on “Jump,” my boredom turned to disgust.
Driving away that night, I unspooled my 1984 cassette, and as the tape swirled in the wind trailing my car, I was heard bitching, “I didn’t pay fifteen bucks to see the world’s greatest guitarist play the fucking piano.” Everyone’s life experience is a different reality. Joe absolutely loved the show, y corriendo con el diablo. I swear he must have thanked me a thousand times for bringing him along and not ever trying to hump even one of his super-cute sisters.
A few days later, Mike and me went to the amusement park, Magic Mountain, to see Cheap Trick play. They let gimps in free, so Mike split off to sneak in and meet me at the venue. While he sat in the park’s detention room, waiting for the L.A. County Sheriffs to come pick him up, I was in the front row (actually in front of front row) because the amphitheater was all stairs. I watched the show from stage right, mere feet from Rick Nielsen. Thinking Cheap Trick a bubblegum pop band, I wasn’t expecting much that day. It turned out opposite of my Van Halen experience. Cheap Trick rocked so fucking hard, while putting on an incredible, incendiary performance of great songs, it left me beyond impressed and wanting more. I don’t know about it being a top-ten favorite concert, because I never actually wrote up a list, but it’s for sure teetering real close to the cutoff. I still listen to Live at Budokan quite often, and believe it is probably one of the best “live” albums out there. It’s no Live at Folsom Prison, but what is?
It wasn’t even two weeks later when Pyrrhus ceased being a band, right after Tracii fired Mike for refusing to bleach his hair, and he was an asshole. I was a Mötley Crüe fan, often getting some quality headbang-wail-along going when they were on the radio. Still, I couldn’t understand why Tracii was patterning his every move after Crüe. I thought he smoked Mick Mars on guitar and needed to blaze his own trail. Undeterred by being kicked to the curb, Mike set out to audition for other bands and wrote a few songs with musician friends. It was all halfhearted, and nothing came of it. He was confident that Tracii would soon realize his error then come a-calling, and Pyrrhus would rock again. That band never did, because by springtime, Tracii had formed a new band called Guns.
I screeched up to Mike’s house one late afternoon, and there, parked three houses up the street, was a red Mercedes 450 SL with plates reading “Dio 2.” So Mike and me took our pot-smoking to the sidewalk and waited for our hero to show up. Not quite twenty minutes later, Mr. Ronnie James Dio himself, with Vivian Campbell at his side, came strolling down the sidewalk toward us. When he got to his car, I grinned and hit him with one of my favorite phrases: “What’s the Dio, Ronnie James?” Those two mega rock stars couldn’t have been nicer, answering questions and offering autographs, but Dio and Campbell thought I was kidding around when I said, “No thanks.” So I ended up with a few autographs that I have no idea what happened to.
We chatted for at least ten minutes, and Dio encouraged Mike to pursue his dream of being a singer. When Mike told Dio about me expecting a substantial windfall in the near future, Dio looked at me and basically told me, “Don’t live for pleasure. Make life your treasure.” I was sorry that I ever mentioned my lawsuit to Mike, because he told everyone business I had hoped to keep mostly to myself. The only way for two people to keep a secret is for one of them to be dead.