Rocklahoma: Still Hair Metal After All These Years

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That goes for us in the crowd, too. I loved all these bands twenty years ago; I used to watch Dial MTV every afternoon to see them. It was a teen revolt against everything safe and dull and respectable about Eighties rock. The hair-metal explosion was all color and commotion, drums mixed loud, hair teased wild. Everybody knows what happened next — Nirvana came along in 1991 and wiped all these bands off the map. But at Rocklahoma, the moment never died and neither did the fans. "All the Eighties hair bands — see, people think we all got together one day, shot ourselves in the head and fell off a cliff," says Bang Tango's singer, Joe LeSté. "But we didn't."

So what's left of that glorious moment? That's what we all came to Rocklahoma to see, including the bands themselves. Like all rock & roll, only more so, glam was not built to last. That was what was great about it: Who cares about tomorrow? Tonight let's terrorize the principal and steal the old man's Ford. The lyrics came right out and screamed the fantasy out loud: up all night, sleep all day, nothing but a good time, talk dirty to me. It was hilarious, idiotic, garish, indefensible, a triumph of scandal over taste and common sense. It pissed off everybody who didn't like it — if you weren't a true fan, you didn't have a prayer of telling the bands apart, and we liked it that way.

So how do you fit this music into a real life, the kind where you hold down a job and watch your blood pressure? Is there any such thing as a hair-metal adulthood? What does that look like? All rockers who try to keep going have to wrestle with these questions. But it's different here: These performers have to stay in love with their moment, even when it's gone — they have to wear the moment all over their face, not to mention their hair, and they either wear it proudly or quit. (Nobody goes bald and proud. Everybody's rocking their latest hairstyle or replacement, ranging from stylish weaves to cheap wigs.) So how do they do it? That's what we're here to see — it's why we made this crazy pilgrimage. We're just chasing that Eighties rock & roll dream. We're asking the same old question Axl once asked that sweet child of his, who must be pushing forty by now: Where do we go? Where do we go now?

Right before Quiet Riot play on Friday night, singer Kevin DuBrow greets the crowd over the Jumbotron. Someone asks if he's glad to be here. "Glad to be anywhere!" he crows. "Glad to be still alive and still banging my head!" It's a glorious moment, too good to last. In a few months, Kevin DuBrow will be dead in his Las Vegas apartment and his body won't be found for nearly a week, and I will be flashing back to the bizarre sensation of being with 30,000 of my fellow Riot fans, for the first and last time ever.

Friday's lineup is packed: Slaughter (I forgot how awful "Fly to the Angels" was), Ratt, Poison. But for me, the stars are the Riot, who invented this shit if anyone did. All the kids loved Quiet Riot in 1983: rock kids, pop kids, disco kids. They were fun. They had zero interest in metal classicism, no cosmic guitar solos, no dungeons or dragons — they were just the boyz who made the noize. I was a New Wave kid, but I loved the Riot because they were (as Def Leppard's guitarist once said of his own band) "more Duran Duran than Black Sabbath." I remember when things got bad for the Riot: DuBrow lost his money in the Nineties, got hit with tax liens and lawsuits, went to jail. He had to move in with his mom. Nobody wanted that. Nobody needs reminders about how ephemeral rock dreams are or how harsh reality can be, least of all Quiet Riot fans. He walks past me backstage, about twice as tall as I pictured him, great skin, huge hair, and my heart does a somersault. This is the badass Kevin DuBrow I was hoping for; I had no idea I cared so much, but I do.

The Riot go on as the sun sets, and the crowd is rooting for them. DuBrow yells, "In case you haven't heard, we're Quiet Riot! We play old-school rock & roll!" They do some boring blues covers and some Quiet Riot oldies. "Who remembers 1983?" DuBrow asks. I cheer — everybody cheers. "Well, you're all a bunch of fucking liars! Because I don't remember a fucking thing!"

Their live skills are rusty — they flub the chords to "Cum On Feel the Noize" — but nobody cares. The Riot end the set with "Metal Health (Bang Your Head)." The crowd gives a strangely moving cheer when DuBrow sings the line "I'm not a loser, and I ain't no weeper."

Everybody at Rocklahoma knows the dirty secret at the heart of rock & roll, which is the way time changes on you and screws you over. It's a fantasy that artists should have long, productive careers. William Wordsworth invented modern poetry in one ten-year bang, 1797 to 1807, but then he was cashed out, although he lived to write utter crap for another forty-three years. Walt Whitman wrote all his great works from 1855 to 1865, and then sucked for the next twenty years. T.S. Eliot? Spent the twentieth century dining out on poems from his 1915-25 hot spell. Rock stars did not invent burning out. They just do it louder.

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