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Rocklahoma: Still Hair Metal After All These Years

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Backstage during Jackyl's soundcheck, there is exactly one hot young blond thing hanging out, so she's getting a lot of attention. Casey Haggard is a communications major ("and bikini model!") with braces, from down the road in Jay, Oklahoma. "There's no excitement there at all," she tells me. "Nothing but me!" If you don't remember Jackyl, they were the only band that did chain-saw solos, which means their roadies are testing mike levels for a giant chain saw. Warrant's ex-singer Jani Lane stands around — he may no longer be the frontman, but where else would he be this weekend? His low-slung pants are giving a classic plumber's smile. "What's up with rock stars and ass cleavage?" Casey asks.

According to Casey's ID, she's twenty-one, which means she was born in between G n' R's Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide and Appetite for Destruction. But she doesn't look a day over Use Your Illusion. She brought her mom, Shelby, who was on the scene here in 1986 and has funny stories about partying with Ratt and Poison when they came through Oklahoma back in the day. "They were much more sociable back then," Shelby says.

Steelheart guitarist Chris Risola comes over. Steelheart are the one band here I've never heard of, but Risola turns out to be a font of dad humor — explaining his youthful appearance, he quips, "I diet... and I dye it!" (He adds, "Fuckin' A! But I'd rather fuck a B — it has more holes!") After Steelheart, he moved onto a houseboat and became a guitar teacher in Boca Raton, Florida. "I make a shitload more now than I did when I was a rock star," he says. "Sixty bucks an hour — that's a dollar a minute!" But for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion he spent thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to be here, buying a wardrobe, shipping his guitars. He offers to sign the new Steelheart EP, Just a Taste, for Casey. She coquettishly suggests that he should lean on her back while he signs it, but he misunderstands and tries to autograph her back. The instant the Sharpie hits skin, Casey lets out a shriek of pure horror. She even drowns out Jackyl's chain saw.

Steelheart go on Sunday afternoon at 1:30, not a prime time slot, but nobody had a harder time getting here. They were playing a gig on Halloween 1992, opening for Slaughter, when a lighting truss fell on singer Miljenko Matijevic and crushed him in front of 13,000 fans. He nearly died onstage, suffering traumatic brain injuries. While he was learning to walk and talk again, the music world forgot Steelheart. Onstage, Matijevic has the true-believer intensity of a vet returning to the battlefield. Afterward, back in his trailer, he has a faraway look in his eyes. "This gig is really important to me, man," he tells me. "I came here to feel alive again."

He hands me a copy of Just a Taste. Even after such a meaningful set, his voice is full of hurt. "The people who run this business say nobody gives a fuck. You have any idea how that feels? To be told nobody gives a fuck? Then I look out into the crowd, and I can see into their souls. They feel the music." Matijevic closes his eyes. "They are free. I am free." He and his fiancée open the Jack Daniels in their trailer and share a toast, "to new beginnings." Before I leave, she tosses me a Steelheart T-shirt. It says I AM FREE.

He's not the only one. L.A. Guns go on later Sunday afternoon, and they're the no-bullshit hard-rock triumph of the festival. Tracii Guns holds a guitar he had built for this gig, with "TFG" emblazoned on the neck. (The "F" stands for "Fuckin'," obviously.) He's still cradling it in his arms hours later, collapsed on a couch in his trailer with the biggest smile I've seen all weekend. His son passes him the pipe. "It's a hippie vibe," Guns says. "I wanted to go on stoned, but I figured I'd wait till after the set." He smiles up at the sky. "Sorry, Jerry!"

Paul Black, L.A. Guns' original singer, is still quaking. "I've never been on a stage this big," he explains. "It was a workout. I kept running back and forth between mikes — it was, like, ten feet!" Black missed the band's arena years. "I was out of the band by 1987. I was doing a lot of drugs. I wrote songs for the first couple of records, but my name got taken off. There were lawsuits, a lot of hard feelings. We had lawyers encouraging us to litigate, but while we were wasting time in court, our whole genre died. The lawyers made money — we didn't." The Nineties were rough on him — he looks like a ravaged version of Alice Cooper — but he and Guns made peace a couple of years ago. "Tracii called me and we realized we were grown up. We had to learn how to do it all over again, how to do a club show, how to work a crowd. It was all new to us."

It's not just about the women," Bang Tango's LeSté proclaims. "It's about the naked women." His wife, Jessica, about six inches away, cracks up. Joe is a mammoth-hearted rock gent who's used to being the center of attention. Right now, he's on a tour bus in the parking lot drinking shots with some fans he just met. He raises his glass. "To the Eighties ladies!" A crew of Eighties ladies and their men are delighted to drink to that.

Bang Tango's big hit, by the way, was "Someone Like You." The little hit was "Untied and True" — my jam. Dancin' on Coals was the album, with a groovy gothic maiden on the cover, and I bought it in the summer of '91. Unlike a lot of singers here, Joe managed to successfully reinvent himself when the times changed, scoring a few hits with his Ozzfest band, Beautiful Creatures ("I was dressing like Johnny Marr, with shag hair — nobody was doing that in 1999"). Either way, Joe has kept touring through thick and thin for two decades. "I'm forty-two and under­rated!" he says proudly.

Joe and Jessica have been together six years. She's a shy, sweet Italian angel who sells real estate; she hates the road but came out to see her husband on the biggest stage he's rocked in a while. They live in Phoenix with their four dogs, a cute little normal professional couple, with a few heavy-metal skeletons in the closet. Joe and Jessica met at a dinner party in L.A.; she liked the way he kept his cool when his date puked on him. She'd never heard of Bang Tango. "He still gets soooo upset about that!" she admits. "I liked Eighties music — I liked Poison and Vain. But he's still pissed I didn't know Bang Tango. He keeps telling me, 'We were much bigger than Vain!'" We watch Enuff Z'Nuff's set from the side of the stage; they've invited Joe to come on and sing G n' R's "Reckless Life," with Adler on drums. Right before his cue, Joe says, "Keep an eye on my wife." But alas, the band gets the plug pulled before the big moment. That's rock & roll.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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