If you think, you stink."
That, according to lead singer Sebastian Bach, is the motto that Skid Row tries to live by. But even though heavy metal is not a genre noted for heavy thinking, there's no shortage of interesting information one can learn from the boys in this band. In fact, Skid Row's ferociously powerful opening sets for Guns n' Roses this summer were veritable heavy-metal seminars, full of useful information for the young, headbanging mind.
Consider, for example, some of the hard-rockin' tidbits one could have picked up during the band's show at the Pacific Amphitheater, in Costa Mesa, California, in late July:
There, Bach explained that the song "Psycho Love," from Slave to the Grind, the group's latest album, is about "something I fuckin' love to do – tying people up and saying, 'Tie me up, tie me down, whip me, suck me, fuck me!' " Of course, the man who actually wrote the song, bassist and chief songwriter Rachel Bolan – the guy with the girl's name and the nose chain, for those not in the know – offers a slightly different interpretation. For him, the song is about a prostitute who likes to kill her johns before servicing them.
Bach – a man who looks and sounds as though he has been genetically engineered to be the ultimate hard-rock frontman – is also very concerned about foreign affairs. He made no bones about his hatred of "fuckin' war," in the abstract, and "Saddam Fuckin' Insane," in particular. But world affairs wasn't the only subject he explored; during an audience-participation segment, there was also a little applied math, as Bach led the crowd in a chant of "One, two, fuck you!"
You could also come to understand that Skid Row is a group that's not above criticism, both from itself and others. In introducing the controversial groupie-bashing number "Get the Fuck Out," Bach said: "This is a song about someone like me. Someone who comes over to your house and ends up fuckin' puking on your carpet and pissing on your dog. You know the type: Instant Asshole – just add alcohol." The song itself is an over-the-top piece of insensitive songwriting, featuring the deathless lines "Well I puke, I stink, bitch get me a drink/'Cause I'm paying for the room/I ain't buying you breakfast/So keep your mouth busy and wrap your lips/All around my attitude."
And should you want to know more about their attitude, you can gain valuable insight into the manner in which the members of Skid Row like to spend their free time. Throughout the show, Bach warmly acknowledged those in the audience who were smoking "some motherfuckin' nature." And as he left the stage, he said, "I'm gonna go backstage, light up a big fuckin' doobie, drink a Jack and Coke and watch some fuckin' Guns n' Roses." And damned if that is not exactly what he did.
What ultimately separates Skid Row from some of the competition – the worthless hair bands and other hard-rock poseurs – is that this is a band that's exactly what it seems to be. In a world where other rockers rush offstage to an emergency board meeting with their accountants, Skid Row is the real deal, a band of surprisingly sweet and sincere twentysomething guys who could hardly be happier with their chosen line of work.
"I've always said that the only difference between us and our fans is the stage," says guitarist Dave "the Snake" Sabo.
"We're pretty much the same punks that we always were," adds Bolan.
So if someone in Skid Row says that he's going to get fucked up backstage, by all means believe him. Not that anyone in the band wants to encourage you to do the same. "I only advocate drug use for me and my band, dude," says Bach, before breaking into his howling laugh and offering one of his trademark violent hand slaps.
Call it definitive proof of the Theory of Hard-Rock Relativity: While the members of Guns n' Roses were busy making all the headlines this summer, their similarly rowdy tour mates in Skid Row were coming off like angels by comparison. And they were selling lots of albums along the way – more than 1.5 million copies of Slave to the Grind thus far.
With its new album, Skid Row has become a band of hard-rock heroes worth taking seriously. Heavier and more ambitious than the band's quadruple-platinum 1989 debut effort, Skid Row, the new album entered the Billboard chart at Number One, a remarkable feat for a solid piece of grunge rock that makes few concessions to the power-ballad-hungry market-place of the early Nineties. The album confidently establishes Skid Row as more than just another slick metal act like Poison or Winger – a false impression that the more user-friendly debut may have helped to create. The second time around, Skid Row has served up a wonderfully rude announcement that this is a band that's in it for the long run.
"For us, it's not just that we want to sell another four million records," says Sabo. "What we want to do is stay around awhile, like Aerosmith. We'd trade some sales for some respect, because we're serious about the music."
"We'd like to be like one of the incredibly cool bands we grew up on, whether it was the Sex Pistols or Kiss," says Bolan. "We'd like to be great, you know?"
That's a mighty tall order for this young New Jersey-based group. Until now, the band has received less attention for its music than for the various people it has managed to piss off. That list includes early benefactor and mentor Jon Bon Jovi, whom Bach publicly took to task for exploiting Skid Row when he took a large portion of its publishing proceeds in exchange for his early support. It also includes assorted nonhomophobes, whom Bach outraged by donning a T-shirt bearing the slogan AIDS KILLS FAGS DEAD. And perhaps most seriously, it includes assorted law-enforcement officials who've charged Bach on numerous occasions with onstage obscenity, and who arrested him after a Springfield, Massachusetts, concert during which he tried to throw a bottle back at an audience member who'd struck him and instead hit an innocent bystander. Currently, Bach – or Bas, as he is often called – is on probation for three years, and his lawyers have come to a substantial settlement with the woman he accidentally hit. "I basically gave them everything I'd earned," he says with a shrug.
It is almost miraculous, then, that with Slave to the Grind and the opening stint for Guns n' Roses, Skid Row is showing genuine signs of growth, heavy-metal style. Whether it's because of all the heat the band has taken, or in spite of it, Skid Row actually seems to be on the verge of turning into the great hard-rock band its members so desperately want to be. Theirs may be a goofy sort of greatness, but it is a greatness nonetheless.
Two days after the Costa Mesa concert, the members of Skid Row are in Chicago. The last time they were here, they discovered that their show with Guns n' Roses had been canceled in the wake of the much-publicized riot in St. Louis. This time around, Skid Row is shooting some performance footage for a video of "Slave to the Grind," the second single from the new album. Mostly, however, the group and its dedicated manager Scott McGhee – a former professional-football player and the brother of Bon Jovi manager Doc McGhee – are hanging out in a huge warehouse down the road from the meeting hall of Local 100 of the Beef Boners and Sausage Makers Union, awaiting instructions from a local video-production company.
In between shots, the band and McGhee amuse themselves by engaging in a charming little exercise called Do You Mind If I Do This All Day Long? The game is quite simple: One band member repeatedly violates the personal space of another in some horrifically annoying way, all the time chanting the phrase "Do you mind if I do this all day long?" A particularly popular violation is the Ear Fuck, in which a finger is thrust into the aural cavity of the victim. "Anything to pass some fuckin' time, dude," says guitarist Scotti Hill.
There are other activities, like that beloved band pastime of ragging on the drummer, which Rob Affuso handles with impressive grace. Then there's Stump the Manager, in which Sabo tries to catch McGhee on toughies like "What's our royalty rate in Malaysia?" Finally, there's that old favorite of coming up with vivid nicknames for the band members' "old ladies." One Skidster who requests – nay, demands – anonymity repeatedly refers to his own beloved as the Harvester of Sorrow, after a Metallica song.
The entire entourage rallies when bassist Bolan is filmed playing inside a metal cage that's being flown around the warehouse by a large hydraulic lift. Bach, a 23-year-old who is very much in touch with the child within, looks at his band mate playing behind bars and shouts: "This is so cool! This is so fuckin' cool. Let me in there." Later, the thrill is gone, and he entertains himself by smoking a few in a nearby Winnebago, searching local erotic shops for a pair of rubber pants like the ones he left in California, and ripping the head off a Vanilla Ice doll. As the shoot drags on, there is also plenty of time for sober – or mostly sober – reflection on where Skid Row comes from and where it wants to go.
Founding members Bolan and Sabo come from the Jersey Shore; Snake, in fact, grew up just blocks away from Jon Bon Jovi, in Sayreville. The two met sometime in the mid-Eighties, at the Garden State Music Store, where Sabo was punching a clock. Snake remembers Rachel coming into the store to buy strings: "He used to come in all the time, and he just had this aura, or whatever you call it, about him."
Instead of telling Bolan to take his aura and get the hell out of the store, the friendly Sabo developed a rapport with the bassist. At the time, Rachel – whose first name is real, his parents' tribute to a Portuguese grandfather of the same name, and whose last name is his own tribute to Marc Bolan of T. Rex, an early hero – was playing with a club band called Godsend, which also featured Scotti Hill. Bolan had been writing songs on his own for a year, but in Snake – so nicknamed in part for the Frank Zappa film Baby Snakes, as well as some best-unmentioned bodily hair irregularities – he found a collaborator.
"Something just snapped in my head," says Bolan. "It was like 'Wow, we can actually do something good together.' And from there, you know, it was basically a matter of finding the right other people to do it with."
The first version of the group came together in 1986. "We thought up the name when we were driving down the Garden State Parkway," Sabo recalls. "We were on our way to practice, trying to think of what to call ourselves, and we saw tire marks on the road from an accident. I think I said, 'Skid Marks,' and Rachel said, 'Skid Row.' " That name was better than the others they considered. "For a while we thought of calling ourselves Darkness, after an Aerosmith song," says Sabo. "Can you imagine calling ourselves Darkness? Why not just go all the way and call ourselves Dorkness, you know?"
Within a matter of weeks, they recruited Hill and Affuso. Guitarist Hill had moved from Middletown, New York, to play on the Jersey Shore scene, while Affuso was a New York University graduate from Wallkill, New York, who'd played drums with a Rush tribute band called Minstrel.
Finding the right singer proved more of a struggle. The person initially enlisted for the job wasn't as committed as the band wanted. But the need for a replacement took on new urgency when – through the intervention of Jon Bon Jovi – heavyweight metal manager Doc McGhee expressed an interest in working with the group but insisted they needed a different vocalist. The band members spent nearly eight months running its own seemingly fruitless star search. They already had most of the songs that would end up on their debut album, including such state-of-the-charts hard rockers as "Youth Gone Wild," "18 and Life" and the pull-out-your-lighter ladies' choice "I Remember You."
"We had the songs," says Bolan. "We just needed somebody who could sing them." In their frustration, they even formed an informal group to blow off steam by playing Ramones and Sex Pistols covers. They called the band This Blows.
And then came Sebastian.
Sebastian Bierk was born in the Bahamas. He grew up there, as well as in Humboldt County, California, and Peterborough, Ontario. There, he was a self-described "straight-A bully" at an exclusive private school also attended by Prince Andrew ("He was a fucking asshole," the singer recalls fondly of the royal). Sebastian's father, David Bierk – an accomplished painter and successful gallery founder who created the Slave to the Grind cover – recalls that his son was "a pretty normal, smart, creative, sensitive, sweet kid."
But around eighth grade, Bierk continues, "the rock & roll thing hit him, and it kind of took over. It wasn't like he wanted to do it. It was like he had to do it." Bierk remembers telling his son that if he wanted to be a professional musician, he should go to Juilliard to study: "He told me, 'Dad, that's not the way it works.' "
And so it was that at the age of 15, Sebastian – named after John Sebastian, of the Lovin' Spoonful – moved on his own to Toronto. He changed his name to Bach, he says, because Bierk rhymed with jerk and because it had recently been the 300th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. "I figured I could get free press every time he had a birthday," he says.
Taking advantage of the fact that, at six feet three, he looked older than he actually was, Bach began sneaking into clubs and singing with bands. Then, at a jam session following the wedding of a rock photographer, Bach was noticed by a guest, David Feld, who was an acquaintance of Skid Row's (and who is now an A&R representative for the band's label, Atlantic). Feld told the band about Bach. Soon, tapes were exchanged, and a plane ticket was sent to bring Sebastian from the Great White North to the Garden State.
After picking Bach up at the airport, the band headed to a seedy club called Mingles, in South Amboy. "That night we got shit-faced and decided to jam," Sabo recalls. "We had so much fun onstage together. It was a mess, but it was great. Then on the way out, we walked up the stairs and somebody called Bas 'faggot,' so he just started swinging. We'd just met the guy, and all of a sudden we're in our first fistfight. It was like instant bonding."
In a band of equals, Bach soon became more equal. He is, as Sabo has put it, both the beauty and the beast. These days, one more often sees the beauty. Even within the competitive frontman category, Bach is more than just another pretty face. He sings like a dream, and though he only weighs 145 pounds, he is capable of inflicting serious harm. "He'd surprise you," says his bodyguard, Val Bichekas. "When the guy's pissed, he's like a fucking gladiator."
Of course, having such a strong frontman not only helps sell a group to the public, it also can cause plenty of tension within the band. Still, all the members of Skid Row insist they have no problem with Sebastian's prominence. "Obviously, Bas is up front for a reason," says Sabo. "He's good at being up there. It's like he was born to be there or something."
Once Bach was enlisted, the group formalized its deal with McGhee Entertainment. As Bolan says, "I still remember when we were over at Jon's talking with Doc, and he says, 'And when you're signed with me,' and I'm looking at Snake, and he's freaking out 'cause it hit us that this thing is really going to happen."
The band signed with Atlantic after finding a devoted fan in A&R man Jason Flom. "They just blew me away," he recalls. "I felt like I was having a religious experience." It wasn't long before lots of other people shared Flom's feeling for Skid Row. But the band also had lots of help along the way. "We're definitely aware that there was a large element of luck in our story," says drummer Affuso. "We're good, but there are a lot of good bands that never get a break."
Skid Row got plenty of breaks: Atlantic got behind the debut album and confidently released a strong initial shipment of 150,000 copies. With the support of Doc McGhee and Jon Bon Jovi, Skid Row was tapped for the highly desirable gig of opening up for Bon Jovi on the New Jersey tour, both here and abroad. MTV jumped on the band's first video, for "Youth Gone Wild," and has supported the group ever since.
But with the good luck came the controversies. While the bottle-throwing incident most directly threatened the future of Skid Row, Bach's public criticism of Jon Bon Jovi had the potential for being extremely explosive – especially since the members of the two bands had been friends and their business affairs were being handled by brothers under the same management umbrella.
In return for his early and obviously key support of the band in its developmental stages, the business-savvy Bon Jovi got the lion's share of the group's publishing income. (Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, who also participated in the profits, gave up his claim to the Skid Row publishing money early on – a move that Snake describes as "very classy.")
When Skid Row finally got off the road and took a look at its royalty statements, Bach started talking to the press about the problem. Even Sabo, the band member closest to Bon Jovi, says that Sebastian was not out of line: "Listen, Bas has his own way of expressing himself, but it wasn't like he was saying things the rest of us hadn't felt." Bon Jovi himself sounded philosophical when asked about the tensions by RIP magazine: "How many days in your life do you have to hear, 'You're only there because Jon put you there'? How many times can you have that beaten in your head? No matter who you are, you're gonna turn around and say, 'Fuck him.' It's only human nature."
Today, a state of glasnost exists between the camps. "Me and Jonny have had some great times together," says Sabo. "So has Jonny and everybody in the band, including Bas. But we hit a rough spot. A really rough spot. But things are a lot better."
Not long ago, a deal was cut that in effect makes Bon Jovi the group's copublisher. "We did the best we could in the situation," says Scott McGhee. "And I think it worked out great."
A more common problem was how to follow up such a successful debut. Veteran metal producer Michael Wagener, who was at the helm for the first album, was again enlisted for Slave to the Grind. The band members also decided to "have some fun," says Sabo. Instead of recording in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where they made Skid Row, they worked in two capitals of distraction, Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles. "And we have an appetite for distraction," Bolan notes.
Of course, it all worked out fine. "I thought this album would enter the charts at like Number 100, not Number One," says Bach, who remembers hearing the news that his band had knocked N.W.A out of the top spot while en route to a gig at the Philadelphia Spectrum. "I felt...strange," he says. "I felt like I was walking a fuckin' tightrope or something."
"Here we are in the land of the crossed arms," says Bolan, as he makes his way through the backstage entrance of the Los Angeles Forum. The Harvester of Sorrow is present. So, too, are Skid Row's other significant others, a rather attractive bunch whom the boys in the band actually seem altogether thrilled to see. The members of Skid Row seem fully domesticated in this atmosphere, as befits a bunch of upwardly mobile guys who've recently bought houses in New Jersey. Bach is accompanied not only by his longtime girlfriend Maria, but also by his three-year-old son Paris, who was born on his father's 20th birthday and whose existence only recently became public knowledge. Asked if such a revelation could hurt his image as an available heavy-metal stud, the proud papa says, "Who the fuck cares!" The group is back in California for a series of shows that will bring an end to the American leg of its tour with Guns n' Roses. The tour has been a thrill, the band members say, not only because they've been treated well by the audience, and by the Gunners, but also because it's been, in the words of Bolan, "a blast to be out on the road with a bunch of guys our own age."
Other than a sense of nervousness about facing what historically is a hard-to-impress L.A. audience, the atmosphere backstage seems like some wonderfully delayed adolescent dreamscape. Beautiful young women and assorted industry types wander around freely, as do a couple of the Gunners' pet dogs.
During the Forum shows, Billy Idol, Cher, Lenny Kravitz, Johnny Depp and other dignitaries drop by to pay their respects. The two bands mix things up in the Jam Room, with Bach joining some of the Gunners for wonderfully loose workouts on "Whole Lotta Love" and "Suffragette City."
Skid Row noshes in its dressing room and checks out the evening news that's filled with details of the Moscow summit and Pee-wee Herman's recent bust. Most of the band seems more interested in the latter story, but Sabo watches as Dan Rather addresses the former. "Apparently, it's a real power summit," Sabo says with a wide grin. "Supposedly, Hulk Hogan is there." Across the hall, Bach is doing his regular preshow vocal warmup, a ritual that finds him singing everything from Seals and Crofts's "Summer Breeze" to Judas Priest's "Beyond the Realms of Death."
Bach and the band are in peak form when they hit the stage. After the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)," a sort of musical call to arms, blasts from the PA, Skid Row delivers an almost punkish, no-frills set that concentrates on the prime rockers from both albums, with "I Remember You" the only ballad in the bunch. At times, Bach seems almost possessed by some hard-rock spirit, his eyes taking on a Village of the Damned glaze. Before launching into the crowd-pleasing anthem "18 and Life," Bas launches into some topical commentary. "Did you hear about Pee-wee Her-man?" he asks the cheering crowd in the packed arena. "They caught him jerking off in this theater. And they say rock & roll corrupts. I could jerk off in a movie theater, and you people would fuckin' love it, wouldn't you?"
Based on the reaction, he's apparently correct.
The emotional highlight of the Forum shows comes after the second night, when Sebastian brings out Paris for one of the encores. The chip off the hard-rock block – wearing a tiny Skid Row jacket – runs straight for the mike. In the end, despite their fears, the members of Skid Row are received by the Forum crowd like the headliners they soon will be.
Later, Bach – still buzzed from the show and offering his hand slaps from hell to various passersby – takes time in a bathroom near the Guns n' Roses dressing area to chat. He's asked about the T-shirt he wore that suggested the extermination of homosexuals. "People hand me shirts all the time," he says. "I didn't realize then that anybody gave a shit about what it says on my chest. Now I know. I'm sorry. But the truth is that I don't understand homosexuality – I just don't get it. But that's me. I don't fuckin' hate anyone for what they do at all."
As for the squabble with Bon Jovi, Bach says, "We've talked, and we realize that if you want to punch someone out, you don't fuckin' say it to the press." He also expresses regret about the bottle incident. "Listen, it made me think," he says, "because you hurt someone you love – because I fuckin' love anyone who listens to our music and enjoys it, and apparently the girl was a fan of ours. I never want to hurt anyone like that again. But when some asshole throws a bottle at my head, it's a different story."
And though he admits he got into a squabble as recently as two nights before, and has trashed a dressing room since then, Bach says he's trying to control his temper: "I've been told, 'If you get busted for fuckin' fighting one more time, anywhere in the United States, you go directly to jail. You do not collect $2 million.' So fuck that shit." That's easier said than done. "See, I was always a bully," he says. "Why? Because I'm big. Because it was easy." Asked if he thinks he's burned too many bridges with his behavior, Bach says, "I guess so, but I really won't know until I try to cross back on them."
At times, it almost sounds like Bach is maturing, if not mellowing. Lately, he's even made a concerted effort not to put down other musical acts, succeeding except for the occasional Nelson crack – and this from a man who used to expound, at great length, on his hatred for "New Kids on My Cock." "Well, I'm not trying to mature." he says. "I mean, I didn't take as much drugs a few years ago as I do now, and that's the truth, motherfucker. I don't try to do anything except for fuckin' singing. That's what I've figured out is the best part of what I do. And I'm in this for 20 – if I can do that I'll die a happy man."
Bach even has an idea about how to turn his frontman role into a family business – an idea he shares with great reluctance. According to his plan, he will secretly relinquish his job to Paris when he turns 40. "I'll put my kid out front on the mike," he says. "That way people will look at him and say, 'Hey, man, Sebastian fucking worked out a lot over the summer, didn't he?'
"Now that's rock & roll," says Sebastian Bach, as he breaks out into the biggest laugh of all.