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Rocklahoma: Still Hair Metal After All These Years

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But it's tougher for rock stars, especially when they hit the road to celebrate the old days, which means playing their old songs forever. It's too easy to point to career artists like the Stones or Dylan, who are the exceptions to every rule, and too easy to forget that classic rock & rollers like the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las and Chuck Berry were already playing oldies package tours within just a few years of hitting the charts. That's the way showbiz works, whether you're Walt Whitman or Skid Row — you grab hold of a hit or two, then you milk it forever.

Rather die young and be a lamented boy genius? Fine. There are no boy geniuses here at Rocklahoma. That's kind of the point, really. Everybody here has faced the decision to keep putting their ass out there onstage or to crawl off and cry. Everybody here made the same decision, and that's what we're here to celebrate. Rocklahoma is the only festival I've ever seen where literally nobody is here for the money. We're all here for love, whether it's love of a memory or love of a riff, a chance to show your kids and your wife and that smug new brat in your band what your love is.

And there's plenty of love to go around. Rocklahoma has an impressively on-point lineup: glam and only glam. Queensrÿche are the only ringers, subbing for W.A.S.P., who dropped out at the last minute. If your band name was a color plus an animal, you're probably on the bill. If Stewart wore your T-shirt on Beavis & Butt-Head, you're probably on the bill. If your first hit was a fast song about bad girls rockin' bad boys, and your second hit was a slow song about a sweet devil bleedin' your gypsy heart, and your third hit doesn't exist, you're definitely on the bill. Only a few notables are missing, like Def Leppard. ("They're trying to make the Bon Jovi transition," one of the performers sneers. "They want to be a classic-rock band. But nobody except Bon Jovi has ever made the Bon Jovi transition. So they're touring with Journey and Bryan Adams, and all the hard-rock fans are here.")

The bands call themselves "glam," "hard rock" or (even better) "real rock," but they take a defensive pride in uttering the once-dreaded term "hair metal." Like "goth," "queer" or "Trekkie," it's a former term of abuse turned badge of honor. "Call us hair metal, cock rock, whatever you want to call it," Joe LeSté says. "But if we gotta be hair metal, we're gonna have the biggest hair. And if we gotta be cock rock, we're gonna be the biggest cock on the block."

There are many different versions of these bands. There are two White Lions: Rocklahoma got the one with the singer, not the one with the guitarist. They booked the guitarist's Faster Pussycat, then switched to the singer's. (Taime Downe, not one to be gracious in victory, says onstage he hopes the guitarist dies of cancer.) There's an L.A. Guns without Tracii Guns. But a Skid Row without Sebastian Bach? Warrant without Jani Lane? Singer Stephen Pearcy had his own Ratt for a while, but now he's back in guitarist Warren DeMartini's Ratt. No big deal — nobody expects the cast of Annie to be real orphans, so why should anyone care if any of the Ratt guys actually played on Out of the Cellar?

It's funny to hear these bands dismiss today's stars as "posers," "trendies," "commercial corporate rock" — all the things people used to call them. (Everyone picks on Fall Out Boy. They all seem surprised when I tell them Fall Out Boy take the stage to "Livin' on a Prayer.")

The late Eighties was a time when the kids wanted Tiffany and G n' R, but the airwaves were clogged with adult schlock like Steve Winwood's "Roll With It," which happened to be the Number One hit of 1988. Hating that song was fun. Hair metal was fun, just like hip-hop and house were fun. They were the revolution, and they were winning. The kids knew where it was at. Sure, like every other pop craze in history, it fizzled, turning into crap like Mr. Big and Firehouse. But at Rocklahoma, the decline phase never happened. Taste the cherry pie — it goes down smooth.

For almost everybody here, Rocklahoma is the biggest crowd they've seen in a long time. "Our usual show is a club gig — 150 to 300 people," Tracii Guns tells me, with an admirable lack of rock-star ego bullshit. "L.A. Guns, we had a couple hits, then a couple kinda obscure hits, then a bunch of songs we just like, so it's no trouble coming up with a set list. My other band, Brides of Destruction, we had a semihit, so we do that with L.A. Guns. Here we play for 50,000 people. The next day, we're back to the clubs."

Guns is a jovial metal lifer who has seen the gold rush come and go. He was there for the early days (he was the "Guns" in "Guns n' Roses"), and he's still at it. He's well-connected and well-respected, and he helped the festival organizers convince the bands this was for real. He and LeSté opened the festivities, playing a casual hippie blues jam for the early arrivers. He's been in and out of bands with everybody here — Nikki Sixx was in the Brides of Destruction, and John Corabi from Ratt played guitar — and his latest version of L.A. Guns is full of guys he's known for years. Although his new bassist looks young enough to be his kid. (Jeremy Guns — hey, wait a minute.)

"The magic stopped in the Nineties," Guns says. "People just added a little distortion, a little imitation Sonic Youth, and called it 'alternative,' but it was all these hit songs, with no careers behind them. There were no heroes. Like, can you name anybody in Puddle of Mudd?"

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