First thing you learn at Rocklahoma: All these glam-metal bands gossip like high school girls. Especially where hair is concerned. The bitchiest story I hear backstage, no doubt a vicious and evil lie, concerns a member of Britny Fox who was playing “Girlschool” when his wig popped off — it was attached with an elastic chin strap, like a party hat. The most outlandish story comes from a guitarist who shall remain nameless, who tells me about the dude from another band getting out of the shower and discovering a groupie’s dog had eaten his hairpiece.
These guys know their hair. They have to. Growing up in rock & roll is tough for anybody, a little like trying to stay sixteen your entire life, but it’s really a bitch for the hair-metal guys. Other kinds of rock stars can age discreetly, one step at time, trimming their thinning hair, wearing baggy clothes or suits to hide their paunch, but not these bands. These are the stars who hit it big in the Eighties with Marshall stacks and Aqua Net coiffures. Bands who sang cheddar-splendent three-chord anthems about partying all night, sleeping all day and refusing to grow up. And after twenty years, they’re all here, at the first annual Rocklahoma, the first festival ever dedicated to the celebration of glam in all its spandex glory.
Over the course of a mid-July weekend, 100,000 fans will gather in a giant field on the outskirts of Pryor, Oklahoma. We are here to rock with our Sunset Strip sleaze-metal guitar heroes. We shall feel the noize of Ratt, Poison, Quiet Riot, Slaughter — and that’s just the first day. Saturday night’s headliner is a solo set from Vince Neil; Sunday night it’s Twisted Sister in what could be their absolute final farewell full-makeup performance. We will party with Skid Row, Winger, Warrant, Bang Tango, Britny Fox, L.A. Guns and Faster Pussycat, whose lead singer, Taime Downe, is still capable of dispensing decadent ontology, like “When I die, take my ashes to the strip bar and throw them on the biggest pair of tits you see.” Whitesnake didn’t show, but White Lion are here, and so are Great White. Right now, Pryor is the hub of the glam galaxy. This is definitely where the down boys go — even if they’re down men by now.
Some of the bands have still got it; others don’t. Some have the original lineups; most don’t. But everybody is here to celebrate the same thing. It’s the only rock festival I’ve ever seen where most of the bands are hanging out the whole weekend, even checking out one another’s sets. Guy after guy tells me the same thing: “It’s like a high school reunion.” Old friends are catching up. Everybody brought wives and kids. L.A. Guns vocalist Paul Black says, “All these bands — we hated each other when we were competing in the clubs. But now, if we don’t support each other, take care of each other, who will?” So the glam tribes have gathered to show solidarity in the face of a cold, cruel world. Like Skid Row’s guitarist says, “Everybody who thought this music was dead gets their asses kicked this weekend.” Everybody’s in the same boat. Slaughter, Ratt and Skid Row are in the same boat, literally — they’re on board with Vince Neil’s Motley Cruise, which sets sail in January.
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.
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?”
Guns is not surprised people are jonesing for glam again. “I think when the country gets depressed, the music gets happy. The government was fucked up in the Eighties, and now it’s fucked again, with Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby. So we’re back in the fun business.” For him, the fun business isn’t an escape from real life; it is real life, a job where he works his ass off with some buddies and his kid (“Damn, your bassist must have a beautiful mama,” a guy in another band yells), playing music he can stand to listen to.
One of the strange things about Rocklahoma is that the bands aren’t trying to act younger than they are — these are all men who had to face the passage of time. Nobody came here expecting the star treatment. (A popular T-shirt among the crew says “I Don’t Care Who You Used To Be.”) All the sensitive egos crawled away years ago. Only the lifers are left. LeSté says, “Bang Tango’s gone from being a big band to a little band to a cult-level band. That’s my favorite spot to be at. I’m addicted to the flat beer and smelly clubs. That shit builds character.”
Nobody is less excited to be here than Vince Neil. “A gig is a gig,” he shrugs a few hours before he goes on and tells the crowd, “Hello, Montana!” I’m ushered into his private sanctum, where Vince sits poring over a new translation of Virgil’s Eclogues. Nah, just kidding — he’s basking in the sun with a couple of leathery blondes. Not a bad day to be Vince Neil. Vince seems bemused by Rocklahoma. “People call it ‘hair metal,'” he says. “But there are always goofy new bands, you know? And they all have hair, right?” Point taken! “All these goofy bands grew up listening to us anyway.” He talks about his upcoming Motley Cruise tour. (Just Vince, not the band.) “It’s weird, I don’t get a lot of respect, and this genre doesn’t get a lot of respect. But listen to that,” he says, waving royally toward the field, where the crowd is screaming for Skid Row. “People didn’t stop listening.”
Lots of musicians are hanging out this weekend, not just the ones on the bill. Steven Adler, the original G n’ R drummer, turned up. He’s just here for the good times: shaking hands, getting recognized, breathing it all in. Everybody’s buzzed to see him, blond curls still blazing. He tells everybody who’ll listen how Axl needs to cut the bullshit and get the band back together. He also discusses his G n’ R tribute band, Adler’s Appetite. The guy presents a shaky argument for the “I used to do a little, but the little wouldn’t do it” metal lifestyle — in all candor, he may not necessarily be in peak physical condition. But he’s a friendly mess, sprawled on the couch in Enuff Z’nuff’s trailer. He and Chip Z’Nuff pound a few early-afternoon beers and smoke some hand-rolled goodies. Enuff Z’Nuff — you remember, the Chicago power-pop boys who hit in 1989 with “New Thing” and decorated their albums with Day-Glo peace signs — just got offstage, and bassist Chip’s in fine spirits. “We’re underground now,” he says. “You know what underground means. Playing fuckin’ dives. But the real rock is coming back.”
“Oh, it’s back,” Adler says, cracking a beer. “Like the Journey song on TV.”
Z’Nuff launches into one of his spiels about the rock life. The Bulletboys’ Marq Torien pops in and does a double take to see his old L.A. buddy Adler. He gives him a bearhug and plops on the couch. “There are two types of people at this place,” Torien says. “NAS and IAS. ‘Not a Star’ and ‘Is a Star.’ There are a lot of N’s here, but not many I’s. It’s like, don’t go into that trailer! Too many N’s!”
“Right now, we’ve got three I’s on this couch,” Z’Nuff says. Adler asks about a mutual friend. “He couldn’t make it this weekend,” Torien says. “Rehab.”
“Rehab,” Adler nods. “I’ve been there.”
“We’ve all been there,” Z’Nuff says.
“Well, he’s trying to make some changes in his life,” Torien says, before Z’Nuff cuts him off. “Oh, he’s not trying. He’s fucking doing it. Just like you were fucking doing it out there on the stage.” Torien beams at the praise. He mumbles something apologetic about his time slot. “Oh, no, my friend. You showed them what a real rock star is. You didn’t come to the picnic with an empty box! You brought the sandwiches and the Fritos and shit!”
Naturally, they chat about their dogs. Each one shows off cell-phone photos and gushes about how cute his dog is. “Look at my pug!” Adler cries, waving his phone. “Isn’t she pretty? She’s got the prettiest face.” He giggles and begins to sing a Mötley Crüe song everybody knows. “She’s got the loooks that kiiiiiilll!“
Z’Nuff starts another rant about real rock (it’s coming back). Adler keeps singing to the picture of his pug, switching to Cheap Trick’s “Big Eyes.” This leads the three men to a long argument over whether “Big Eyes” counts as one of Cheap Trick’s “hits.” It’s music-geek talk, but it’s music to my ears. It takes me back in time. I know Guns n’ Roses used to sing, “Yesterday’s got nothin’ for me,” but the Gunners hadn’t seen a lot of yesterdays back then. Sometimes you’re in the mood for one.
The only people having a bad time at Rocklahoma? The serious metal dudes, easily identified by their Testament T-shirts, disgusted expressions and horny-looking wives. Everybody else is riding the night train all weekend — middle-aged campers reliving their youth, local kids who would be here anyway for the monster-truck rallies or tractor pulls. There are military recruiters, so you can join the Army to “Slave to the Grind.” There’s a mechanical bull ride, a make-your-own-DVD karaoke trailer, a booth where you can get your photo taken with Playboy model (and former Fear Factor contestant) Kelly Hopper. The local band in the beer tent is grinding out a medley of “Night Train,” “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
The tribute band Kiss Army hang around all weekend in full makeup, posing for fan photos. The Ace Frehley guy, Douglas Gery, is a Nashville guitarist who makes his living from ad jingles. “I’m not even a huge Kiss fan,” he says. “I’m more of a Southern-rock guy.” When he’s not Ace, he’s on the road with his Eagles tribute band, Tequila Sunrise. (He’s Don Felder.) The Gene Simmons guy goes for a smoke behind a trailer but won’t let me watch. “Sorry,” he says as if explaining to a child. “Gene doesn’t smoke.”
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.
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.”