The story is pure Stardust. Three hard cases in cat clothes and pipeline pompadours set forth from the provinces to seek stardom in a celebrated music capital. It is a dreary period. In the White House, an aged Republican president presides over an entrenched recession. A cold war is heating up. And on the radio, popular music has grown sleek and overstuffed. The hard cases have a more raucous vision — rockabilly. They record their primitive sounds in a small studio with a noted rockabilly booster producing. Their records sweep the charts. Soon, young people start turning up at their concerts wearing cat clothes — puff skirts, bowling shirts, the whole panoply of bagged-out, ducktail cool — and living to the considerable din of a single guitar, an upright bass and a bare-bones drum kit. Television spreads the word. Official notice is taken. Newsweek proclaims a “Rockabilly Revolution.” The hard cases have conquered the world.
It is 1982.
Such is the Stray Cats’ saga — if the history of a band that’s barely three years old can be called that. Wizened fogies from the Fifties may be forgiven a certain semi-irked amusement at this wholesale appropriation of another era’s musical and sartorial vocabulary — the quaint drape clothes, the bop-cat rhythms, all trotted out anew to goose up the graying airwaves. “Revolution?” Sha Na Na with chops is more like it. Who are these kids kidding?
Brian Setzer, the Stray Cats’ singer and guitarist, has returned to his roots in Massapequa, New York. The town is about an hour’s drive east from Manhattan and down into the suburban clutter of Long Island’s South Shore. Lacking Setzer’s exact address, one might as easily locate him by homing in on the ferocious backbeat booming out from his recently acquired town house. Where the din grows loudest, there’s a driveway; in it is parked a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. Cool wheels. Setzer is huddled in the back seat, fiddling with some minute decorative detail. As he ducks out of the gleaming black-and-yellow bomb, one notes the dancing letters on the back of his black leather jacket, which spell out REAL WILD CAT. It is late afternoon in suburban Massapequa; when Setzer stops the music, the silence that suddenly gathers over the trim lawns and neat, lookalike town houses nearby seems a mute reproach.
“I know they’re havin’ meetings,” Setzer says in his cheery New York honk, indicating the unseen neighbors. “You know: ‘What’re we gonna do about that guy?’ ” He laughs, but not meanly, at the thought of shaking up the straights.
Inside, there’s a chatty tour. The house is typical rent-a-pad: tan carpeting, burgundy drapes, undistinguished furniture. But Setzer has imposed his own style in no uncertain terms — here a pinball machine, there a gum-ball dispenser, everywhere rare, framed photographs of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent. Atop a modestly stocked cabinet of records — Vincent, Holly, Frankie Lymon — leans a lone photo of Setzer himself, yukking it up with Keith Richards.
Upstairs, in the music room, are more treasures. A small collection of vintage guitars — including the ancient hollow-body Gretsch that is his main stage instrument — stands along one wall. A Gibson banjo and a recently acquired Hawaiian slide guitar attest to his expanding musical interests. There are two tiny amps, assorted posters and souvenirs, stacks of Archie comics and Fifties hot-rod magazines. It’s like another world. And Setzer is the least aged object in it.
He is twenty-three, which is to say he was born in 1959 — the year Buddy Holly died, the year before Eddie Cochran released his last single, “Three Steps to Heaven,” and then cashed in his chips in a London taxi crackup. Gene Vincent’s glory days were over by 1959, and Elvis Presley was still in the army. Plopped on a sofa with a jug of Gatorade, a wall full of gold and silver Stray Cats records rising behind him, Setzer, with his piled-up pompadour, his gaudily tattooed arms, his Fifties memorabilia, seems the out-of-time incarnation of some dim, dead passion.
“I missed all this the first time around,” he says with a sigh. He’s certainly caught up on all the old news, though. It’s a brief enough tale: rockabilly was born in 1954, in the Sun Studios of Memphis, where Elvis Presley and guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black invented the rocking hillbilly blues. It was then propagated by such fiery evangels as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, the crippled Gene Vincent and the Burnette brothers, Johnny and Dorsey. One could go on. But by decade’s end, the music had virtually disappeared, withered by death and personal disasters and commercially minded career detours. Rockabilly was gone before it ever really had a chance to go anywhere. But its legacy of power, pose and rock-cat style was never completely extinguished. Bands like the Beatles and Creedence. Clearwater Revival tended the flame in the Sixties; such revivalists as Robert Gordon, the Cramps and England’s Matchbox appeared in the Seventies; and as recently as 1980, the British art-rock group Queen scored a hit with a stripped-down rockabilly cop titled “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Now, the jitterbug ethos is twitching again. Because whenever rock seems played out and ready for pasture, rockabilly is always there to remind a new generation of the music’s still-marvelous possibilities.