Monday, September 1, 2008

The Kids are Still All Right

The passageway to the stage at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, is narrow and hidden, deep amongst a maze of staircases leading away from the bar at stage right. You know you’re headed in the right direction, because there is a big sign on the door that says, “Artists ONLY Beyond this Point.” There, in a crowded fog-filled hallway, we tap our feet and make nervous little Spinal Tap jokes, our collective hearts pounding like jukeboxes, as we wait to play for a packed house.

These are the final hours, and final day, in fact,of Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp’s “On Tour Summer 2008” event. From the end of July to the end of August, the camp’s sleek silver tour bus traveled fromcoast to coast through 15 cities; from Boston to Chicago, to Nashville, across the South and the Midwest to Vegas, San Francisco, and finally the campus of UCLA to teach ordinary, non-rock star people to rock with the best of them.

Unlike the usual week-long Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp sessions, today’s will be one day and one day only. It’s meet your bandmates and counselor at 10 a.m., head off to rehearsal rooms to learn three songs (!), name your band, eat lunch, take a master class, jam a litle, rehearse some more, and be ready to leave for the House of Blues at 4 p.m.

This summer’s staff is a impressive lineup of working rock musicians who’ve sold mcjillions of records among themselves. There’s Gilby Clarke of Guns ‘n’ Roses, Elliot Easton of the Cars, Earl Slick, guitarist for John Lennon and David Bowie; Glenn Hughes, of Deep Purple, and 90s big hair band survivors Mark Slaughter of Slaughter, and Kip Winger of the band of the same name. Acting as head counselor is mega-producer Mark Hudson, who by himself has been responsible for the sale of nearly 50 million records (Sure, a lot of them were by Celine Dion, but a lot of them were by Aerosmith, so there.)

The camp was created by New York entrepreneuer David Fishof, who also masterminded the successful 1986 Monkees reunion tour, as well as creating Ringo Starr and his All Star Band, and too many more successful projects to name here. Over the years, nearly every rock band or musician you can think of, has gotten involved in the fantasy camp, from Slash to Roger Daltrey to Jane Weidlin, to George Thorogood to Bill Wyman to Robin Zander to Brian Wilson, and far more than you or I can think of at the moment.

Since we’re in LA, there are of, course, a host of working actors who’ve plunked down $1999.00 for their one-day rock and roll dream cum laude. In Kip Winger’s band is Angus Jones, the kid from “Two and a Half Men,” Brandon Barash, from “General Hospital,” is the lead singer in our band, led by Mark Hudson. Other cast members from CBS’ “Cold Case,” and Showtime’s “Californication” take up seats in class.

Kristin Coleman, a Los Angeles event planner, is in a cold sweat. At breakfast, she confesses she can barely play the guitar, and can barely sing. While most of the campers come to the camp with plenty of talent, just not enough cool, Coleman is in safe hands. Despite the popular notion about rock and roll attitude, each of the counselors is supportive and sympathetic, and the bonding among band mates and their leaders is nearly instantaneous.

Let’s get to rehearsal. We’re packed into several floors of the dorms at UCLA’s De Neve Plaza during Family Orientation Day, and I can only imagine the fine impression we’re giving the parents, as wave after wave of loud rock music wafts across the campus from the un-insulated rooms.

The 40 campers (plus me, ssssh) will be broken up into five bands. We’ve been given a list of songs to know before arriving, most of them tunes any self-respecting rock fan would know in a heartbeat.There is a quick discussion of butterflies and nerves, and someone describes a physical feeling too graphic to describe in a family newspaper.

“That’s called a ‘taint,’” someone a little too knowledgeable, offers.

Hudson says, “Hey, great band name!” With that out of the way, he puts The Taint to work right away.

“Okay,” he says, “This is ‘All Over Now,’ by the Stones. Everyone knows it, right? OK. I need someone to give me that Chuck Berry rhythm.”

I am so there.
He looks at me and smiles, “Yeah, you do that.”

He turns to the rest of the band members and begins handing out parts. He explains, “Guitarists, you can’t all just play the same thing, or it will be a sludge fest.” To the guitarist on the other side of the room, he says, “You do the ‘chink chink’ thing with the drummer’s beat.” The other guitarist on my left is struggling with the three chords necessary to put the song across.
But he is three chords ahead of the female singer, who is a bundle of nerves at the moment. (Names are withheld to protect the guilty.) She is clearly in over her head, but she is a trouper. She sings willfully, if nervously, and it will have to do.

Alongside me, Earl Slick, he of David Bowie fame, is cooly taking it all it in. Given his part, he sprays bursts of Excellent Loud Rock Guitar® in delicate layers all over the tune. We’re starting to sound like a band, and it’s only past 11.Hudson comes up with a spoken breakdown for the middle of the song with a chance for the singers to do a little “acting” with the band as foils. It works perfectly in rehearsal, but...

With Earl Slick playing alongside me all morning, I’m secretly hoping we’ll play “Rebel Rebel.” As it turns out, what else would we play?

He begins to play the tune’s distinctive opening riff, the drummer kicks in, the bass player does that little thing at the opening, and we sound like the radio.

Instinctively, I sing a harmony line over the bridge, and Hudson notices right away. On the next one, he is right there with me. Okay, the guy who actually played on the record is on my left, Ringo Starr’s producer is sharing my mike, and this is what the commercials and advertisements for the Fantasy Camp are all about. It’s actually kinda thrilling, and no one is even watching. Yet.

Former Monkee Mickey Dolenz visits the camp at lunchtime and tells a few rock and roll war stories, that I frankly hoped would be better, or at least funnier.

Like regular summer camp, a few of counselors get up and tell stories, only these have nothing to do with bears and a guy with a hook terrorizing young lovers in the Eastern Sierras. These are mostly about girls on the road, and stories I could never tell my kids when I was a summer counselor. (Well, maybe the one where Hudson saved Ozzy Osbourne’s life with the Heimlich Manueuver.)

Following lunch, campers have a choice of master classes in guitar, bass, drums, songwriting or producing, or a jam with Gilby Clarke.

You know where I went. As if I don’t have enough chances to play my guitar loud at home, I jump at the chance to play with a new band. This group is actually far more talented than me, and I hang on for dear life, until we get to “Bang a Gong,” something your mother should know. I was all over that one, playing the ending chorus again and again, just south of delirious.
Returning to rehearsal, Mark Hudson is just finishing his producing class.
“Remember, it’s the song first, the writer second, and the band last,” he reminds the campers. Makes sense to me.
We have one hour to learn the last tune, “Wild Thing,” before we have to pack up for the show. Hudson adds a little trick to the song, we hammer it down, and it’s time to head east on Sunset.

And there I am in that narrow little crowded hallway with my band mates, one of whom is wearing pajamas. I gotta respect that. The show is sold out, there are TV news crews in the photo pit with the shooters, and everyone in the balcony is standing. I remember once thinking about how the only way I can get into a club like this is by being in the band, and start to admire the view.

There are five bands, we go on second, and we roar like jets once we launch the set. No one makes an obvious mistake, the audience cheers after every song, girls are smiling, and I remember why anyone is in a rock and roll band.

And everything went by too fast. Like every good thing. Rock on, per se.

Rock ‘n’Roll Fantasy Camp. 1-888-762-BAND

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