One of the coolest things about rock and roll music is it has the ability to make you feel bigger and better than you actually are. Listen to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” with its chaka-chaka jungle beat and you’re Mick Jagger in his Pony dance, purse-lipped prime.
If you’re a Rhodes Scholar you might end up slumming with Skid Row while you listen to “I Remember You”. If you’re really delusional like I was, Pat Benatar could hit you with her best shot and make you believe you’re one band away from becoming a rock star.
She ruled radio in the early 80s. When I watched her on MTV with that pixie haircut and spandex outfit, I thought yeah. Me too. A Rock star. Cool. What I should have been thinking about was finding a vocal coach or more importantly the odds against me. But no. Rock and roll juju made me believe I was her.
I bought the “Crimes Of Passion” album from a used record shop and played it until the grooves turned white. Not the whole album though. Only one song reached out and touched the rock star in me: “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”.
It's less than three minutes long and has maybe four or five chords. Yet with every play it cast such a spell on me I couldn’t help but believe I was going to be a rock star like Benatar.
First you need to understand something. Deep down I’m a shy person, not one to reveal my innermost self to anyone, let alone do it in front of an audience. Oh yeah, I can’t sing either. I can carry a tune, but interpret melodies and stay-on-pitch sing? Not a chance. That didn’t stop me though.
I’d like to think of that era in my life as the tender, naive years, but reality won’t let me. The truth is I was doing some heavy duty partying back then and I was in a blind stupor almost every day. Based on that and my inability to accept my true self at the time, the rock star period of my life is now officially dubbed the days of delusion.
So, how does a delusional, alcoholic, twenty-something closeted songwriter with no previous band or singing experience become a rock star in 1980s Southern California? Rock and roll wish-craft.
One day I was talking to my friend Chubb, an overweight heavy metal lead guitar player whose breath was so bad you didn't want to face him when he spoke. He also had body odor that fell somewhere between the early stages of decomposition and the smell of rolling out of bed with yesterday's clothes on.
We talked about starting a band and becoming mega rock stars. We mused over what we'd wear, where we'd play, the millions of dollars we were going to rake in. When Chubb mentioned a rhythm guitar man and bass player who were looking to start a band I knew my rock and roll wish had been granted.
Chubb and I met with No Hand Gonzalez once or twice for introductions sake and shop talk. Dude was a Santana wannabe only his style wasn't even close to Santana's. In fact, he didn't have a style. He just kajunk-ajunked his way through riffs. Slink, the geeky bass player with thick glasses, had a short fuse but his skills were well up to par.
At first they weren't too keen on me being the lead singer because I had never actually sung in front of an audience. Slink had the most experience and No Hand was in second place. Chubb was neutral on the subject because he knew I'd blow a gasket if he went against me.
The solution? Well, our house had a huge playroom that could be used as a rehearsal space. There was nowhere else to practice so if they wanted the band to happen they had to let me be the lead singer.
Physically I was pretty much a mess. About a week before our first rehearsal I had orthoscopic surgery on my knee. I tore ligaments and meniscus during high school basketball practice several years prior and it was never really the same. I brought my own version of a painkiller to help me through only it wasn't used to kill physical pain.
Alcohol was my magic elixir and it numbed a spiritual pain that only sobriety could heal. I was at the height of my fatal attraction with booze. Besides the heavy duty partying I was doing, the doctor gave me some heavy duty painkillers. So, naturally I added them to the mix.
Daddy's playroom was the perfect place for us to rehearse. There was one small problem though. Daddy didn't want white folks’ music played in his house. He was a Black Nationalist born in the late 1920s. In his mind there were black folks and there were white folks. There was black folks stuff and there was white folks stuff. That was that.
Because I was his only daughter and learned years before how to work him, I used my sweetest daddy's girl voice to explain how famous I was going to be and he eventually gave in-- on the following conditions: 1) we enter and exit the playroom using the outside door 2) the guys were not allowed to come in the house or use the restroom.
Rehearsal day my knee was stiff as a board and bandaged up like a mummy. The microphone and stand must have belonged to one of the guys because I was too broke to buy gear. This would be the first time I heard my voice filtered through an amplifier. I was so excited--and loaded--and in pain I could hardly stand up.
Chubb showed up first because he lived a short distance away and as ordered, he entered from the outside gate. Slink and No Hand followed shortly after. My body was present but the overall package was a steaming hot mess.
Unsteady and full of ego, my onstage accoutrements consisted of a grungy t-shirt and raggedy goldenrod colored gym trunks that dangled from my hips because they were so tattered and torn. I think I even did the Steven Tyler scarf on the microphone thing.
We spent the first fifteen minutes arguing over what to play until I slurred yet another reminder about the rehearsal space. The Benatar song won out of course. The next fifteen to twenty minutes were spent figuring out the arrangement. I already knew the words so I played Miss Bossypants until they got so irritated they had to shut me up.
Finally the axe players were set. I tried very hard to focus and No Hand counted us in. I wish I could say “and the rest is history”, but that would be far from the truth. After about ten bars of something so horrific a deaf person wouldn't want to feel the vibrations, No Hand waved us to a stop.
“This sucks,” Slink hissed.
Never in the history of American wannabe garage bands has a group of so-called musicians so single handedly massacred a tune the way we did Benatar’s. Maybe it was the drummer. Oh yeah, we didn’t have one. Not because we were stupid enough to believe we could ever do gigs without one. We figured we’d eventually work him in when the time was right.
Remember what I said about my not owning any real singing talent? Well, that characteristic, doused with alcohol and painkillers do not a singer make. Yeah, it was bad. In my eagerness to achieve rock superstardom I neglected the obvious. Rock and roll convinced me I was Benatar, but it forgot to tell me I needed to have talent--singing talent. Real talent.
I slurred my way through less than fifteen bars of a song that was more than half a beat off. Don’t ask about my pitch. Simon Cowell would have murdered me and the vocal if he heard it. It was my best shot but I couldn’t hit it if I stood 12 inches away.
Like I said, I could carry a tune. That’s different from singing with a band though. Yes, I knew the lyrics and the melody when Benatar sang it. It was a whole different story when I stepped up to the mic.
Having a basic talent for music like playing the flute in fourth grade and knowing how to read music is one thing. Being the lead singer of a rock band is another.
No Hand complained about how bad we sucked and Slinked joined in. “Hey, why don’t we come up with a name,” I offered.
“Yeah,” Slink said.
Rock divas first, “How about Steel Wagon?”
“Sounds great if you’re Dolly Parton’s backup band,” Chubb dead panned.
“We should call ourselves Rock Of Ages,” Mr. Santana said.
How about Black Stone Band,” Slink pitched.
“That sucks,” I mumbled. And so it went. With each round every member of our nameless band came up with a name more wrong than the other. No Hand finally got so pissed off he quit. Then Slink.
They loaded out and split. Me and Chubb stayed and tried to hit the tune with our best shot, but we didn’t get far.
Perhaps it’s the anarchy, the rebellion, the endorphin rush who knows. Rock and roll music changed my life and continues to do so. My first and only band broke up before we could agree on a name and I never became a famous rock star. For one or two hours, through alcohol addiction, a serious lack of singing talent, and sheer delusion I was a rock star.
I was Mick Jagger in his purse-lipped prime; Sebastian Bach at his best. I was Benatar. No matter how delusional, no matter how drunk, I was a rock star who, if only for a handful of moments, lived the dream.
Man was it worth it.
© 2008 Renée Westbrook