Rocklahoma: Still Hair Metal After All These Years

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We roam through the crowd: Joe's not the kind of famous where he needs to hide backstage, but he's the kind of famous where he still gets a kick out of being recognized. As Winger go on, Joe dances around and improvises new lyrics: "She was only seventeen/But now she's forty-three!" We meet up with the guys from Zendozer, a local band that snagged a Friday warm-up spot. "You wrote 'Don't Count Me Out!'" Paula, the guitarist's wife, is telling Joe. "That's my MySpace profile song!" They're from Tahlequah, a few hours down the road, where they get asked to turn it down when they play, but here they are at a metal festival. (Zendozer planned to end the set with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — but wisely chickened out.) A few Winger songs later, we're on their bus, where the drummer has whipped up some cocktails. He discreetly grabs his phone and whispers, "Get the ladies. We have Joe LeSté here!"

By the time we all stagger back to the music, Dokken are onstage, which is bad news for the girls. (Any band with bass solos is dude-centric. "I guess I'm not rockin' with Dokken," Paula sighs.) So we end up in the beer tent, where a local bar band called 36 Inches is knocking out the metal covers. 36 Inches cannot believe their luck when they spot an actual rock star in their presence. It doesn't take a lot of begging to get him onstage. LeSté leads them through "Back in Black," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and Beautiful Creatures' "Ride." Poor Dokken — up there on the main stage, sweating over their bass solos, yet utterly unable to compete with the action deep in the crowd. Last thing I remember, LeSté is leading the whole tent in the timeless party chant "Well, I'm baaa-yaack! Yes, I'm baaa-yaaack!"

The next time I see a Rocklahoma program, it's on the coffee table at Jessica and Joe LeSté's house, next to one of their wedding photos. They have a small, clay ranch house in the heart of Phoenix's artsy historic district. It's right beside an exit ramp on I-10 — you can hear the interstate traffic rushing by — in a sunbaked row of other ranch houses. Inside, the home is clean and bright — definitely a woman's touch is present. The only signs of heavy metal are a few plaques in the den: BANG TANGO: UNDERGROUND BREAKER OF THE MONTH, WHVY-103.1 FM, JUNE 1991 and BANG TANGO: CAREER ACHIEVEMENT AWARD, THE ROCKIES, ROCK CITY AWARDS 2006.

There are a few pictures of Joe onstage, mixed in with family photos. The refrigerator has pictures of dogs and Joe's little daughter, Hannah, who lives in Texas with his ex-wife. Joe's daughter just made him a pillow with purple letters proclaiming I [HEART] ROCK & ROLL.

The back yard is Joe's turf: the pool, the grill, the guest cottage and four insane dogs: Dexter, Maggie, Rosy and Nelly. "Show your trick," Joe commands Dexter. He sings "Someone Like You," and Dexter rears back on his hind legs to howl along. We stroll through the neighborhood, and Joe is gloriously out of place, waving to his elderly neighbors in his red bandanna and his shades.

Joe and Jessica have been here a few years; they drove out from L.A., loved what they saw and never left. He just got back from Vegas, where he had licensing meetings. "This company wants to market a line of hair-metal slot machines," Joe says. "You put in a buck, hear Warrant sing, 'She's my cherry...,' and of course you're gonna put in another buck to hear them sing, 'pie!' It's just another way for these Eighties guys to get laid. 'Hey, babe, do you remember my song? No? Well, do you realize I'm on a slot machine?'"

He spends 200 days a year on the road. "I tour with Bang Tango, then if there's nothing going on there, I switch gears to Beautiful Creatures. The past year was all Bang Tango, next year is all Creatures. We've played theaters, outdoor-festival stuff, the House of Blues. Mainly we play clubs, where we get up close to the crowd, then we end up on the floor of their houses in the morning, going, 'What's your name again?'" What are the paydays like? "It varies. We'll take a grand for some shows. It goes as low as $500, then sometimes we'll play forty-five minutes and get paid $15,000. We're not going out and buying houses in Malibu."

He continues to hold forth on the rock & roll roller coaster over brews at the Bikini Lounge around the block. "They don't prepare the younger bands," he says. "Yesterday it's Winger, today it's Fall Out Boy, but they're going to the same parties, dating the same actresses. They're just like I was. You make all your money, spend it on your model girlfriend, then the next album doesn't sell, and your money's gone, and she leaves you. And you're not on Cribs anymore — you're back at that apartment in North Hollywood."

For him, the low point came in the summer of 2000, when Beautiful Creatures were on the Ozzfest tour. They got dropped the day their album came out. The label suggested they should try to sound more like Linkin Park. LeSté was thirty-five and at a crossroads. "At the same time, I was going through a heavy divorce. It was probably all my fault, but that was very painful. It was reality. OK, what do I do now? Do I quit or keep going? I kept going. We're a self-sufficient band. You can't rely on a record company. You can't sit around crying and bitching — you have to get up off your ass and find something to do. I've known people who have hung themselves when their career didn't go right. I've known people who turned to drugs and killed themselves that way. Some of them became lawyers!"

Bang Tango keep making records (From the Hip), but touring is where the work is. LeSté's a headbanger of a certain age — "My knees are killing me, my back is fucked up" — but he can't knock the hustle. "If you're making a living at music, then you're in the top one percent. If you're making money like Linkin Park or Maroon 5, then you're in the top one percent of the one percent. I never made it to the one percent of the one percent club! But I've always been on a label. Now it's an indie label. Everybody in our band is also in other bands. You just keep working. We're a bunch of guys in a van. I never had to get a real job, and I don't want to. I came from a blue-collar background, and I grew up knowing I didn't want to live that way."

Where will it end? "Jessica says, 'Baby, when it all ends and you gotta retire, we gotta find a town in Mexico where you can be the local Jimmy Buffett. You can just sit down on the corner with a guitar and tell your stories.'"

The consummate rock & roll host, Joe takes me on a tour of the local hangouts. We start at the Candy Store, a strip bar Joe calls "my Cheers," and everybody really does know his name, especially if everybody is named Kitty or Isis. We end up at a biker bar called Hard Tailz, which I'm warned is a Hells Angels hangout. As soon as we walk in, the manager greets LeSté with a hug and serves us some badly needed burgers. There are about a dozen bikers in the joint, what's left of the after-midnight crowd, watching a cover band play ZZ Top and Rush oldies. We're starved, drunk, exhausted, ready to call it a night. But when LeSté sees the mike onstage, he can't sit still. He leaves his burger untouched and bluffs his way onstage, leading the band through AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie." "Thank you very much!" he says into the mike. "We used to be medium-size rock stars, but now that we're really big, we only play private parties. And that means you!"

The bar is down to stragglers. But LeSté gives it everything he's got, busting out his arena moves. Whether or not they know who Bang Tango are, they're glad to have this guy here.

"Normally, I perform in front of 10,000 people," he tells the cheering bikers. "But normally, it's 1987."

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