Wednesday, August 19, 2015

They're the Top. They're the Mona Lisa.

In 1977, a guy at a major music publishing firm said that if I put together a band, he could put it on the road in Canada. I’d never glimpsed Sasketchewan (as I still haven’t (bucket list!)), and so put together The Pits, named after my wonderfully wry answer to Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” You’re the pits, stripes and polka dots with plaid. No one else’s vibes are half as bad. I was going to play keyboards, adding little bits of melodic interest here and there, but the singer on whom I’d been counting turned out to be maddeningly unreliable, so I impulsive as ever, decided I’d be the front man myself, and surrounded myself with three very good musicians.

Richard, the 28-year-old bassist, whom I liked hugely from the get-go, though it took me a while to realize what a good player he was, had been in an early version of The Motels. I knew within four bars that I wanted the 20-year-old drummer, Len, who, at his tender age, had already performed at the hallowed Whisky a-Go-Go, with Randy California. He was a very nice kid, and swung like mad. Everyone in Los Angeles was all, “Eddie Van Halen this,” and, “Eddie Van Halen that,” so I recruited Pete, a 23-year-old guitarist widely acknowledged as one of the hottest of all local hotshots.

Pete drew a line in the sand at our first rehearsal, plugging into his Marshall amplifier and going ker-rang from Bar 1. Insofar as guitar solos were concerned, George Harrison had always suited me just fine — four bars of restating the vocal melody, four bars of a very slight variation on said melody, and let’s have lunch. But times had changed. Following Van Halen, Los Angeles guitarists’ playing seemed to say, “I didn’t spend those millions of hours in my bedroom practicing until my fingertips bled so I could restate the fucking melody, pal.” In my view, Pete very often overplayed. I recognized that he was a superior musician, though — his rhythm playing was impeccable — and convinced myself that we sounded a little bit like Cheap Trick, whose guitar player wasn’t exactly distortion-averse, with him in the group. Maybe, I thought, I’d be able to get him to play fewer 32nd-note triplet blues licks.

I was pretty iffy about his (or Len’s) very long hair. The Sex Pistols had recently emerged in England, and my intuition was that long hair was soon going to be the province of the same sort of person who had clung to his greasy DA a year after The Beatles. But I held my tongue.

From L: te blogger, Richard, Len, and Pete
Socially,  Pete and Iidn't connectd. When the group met extracurricularly, as at my 30th birthday party, it was always Len, Richard, and I, with another mutual friend where Pete should have been. When said mutual friend made a video to advertise his own services as a recording artist, Len, Richard, and I appeared in it while Pete demurred.

Thirty-eight years and five weeks ago, we made our big live debut at the reasonably prestigious Starwood club. I noticed between sets that Pete was surrounded in our dressing room by generic LA rock star types with hair even longer than his own. When our engagement was over, he resigned from The Pits to try his luck with them. Len, Richard, and I auditioned a succession of prospective replacements, found no one we liked, and drove up to San Francisco to perform at the famous punk venue Mabuhay Gardens, with Len’s hotshot cousin filling in condescendingly. The sparse audience thought we were hippies, and loathed us.

Len, saying that it was the hardest decision he’d ever had to make, left me and Richard to join his hotshot cousin in a can’t-miss l band of young hotshots that wound up missing. We lost touch in around 1980. Given the nine-year gap between our ages, I’d never felt that we had an awful lot in common. To a 21-year-old man, a 30-year-old seems inconceivably ancient. I understood him to have played later in last-gasp versions of Iron Butterfly and Badfinger, and in a Major Label-signed band that Eddie Van Halen assembled and produced, and which opened for Van Halen in many Major Venues, not least Madison Square Garden.

Pete, meanwhile, played in a succession of hair bands with ex- and future members of Iron Maiden, Quiet Riot, and Whitesnake, among many others. I didn’t speak to him between the day of his resignation from The Pits and his emailing me early in the 21st century to protest how I’d characterized him in my 1995 autobiography, I, Caramba.

Richard and I, meanwhile, had remained close (I thought) friends until around 2002, whereupon he seemed to lose interest in our friendship and withdrew from it without explanation.

In 2013, I hadn’t spoken to Len in 33 years, or to Pete, except by email, in 36. I’d formed a band, one that was having a devil of a time finding a lead guitarist. I thought there was about as much chance of Duane Eddy wanting to be involved as Pete, but damned if he didn’t agree to come up from south of LAX with his guitar and countless dozens of stompboxes, and damned if he didn’t find what we were doing amusing and join the band, which came to be called The Romanovs. As whose guitarist he was unrecognizable from the late-70s version of himself. He was uniformly good-natured, patient, nonjudgmental (not once has he said to me, even with his eyes, “After all the great drummers I’ve played with, now I’m playing with you?”), scrupulously punctual, and a pleasure to work with — a diamond geezer, as the Brits would say.

As he approaches 60, Len, with whom I only recently realized I share a penchant for despair, remains one of the nicest people drawing breath. He’s as sensitive as I, very bright, and very funny, drily, and has  joined Pete among my favorite people. Meanwhile, Richard and I have spoken exactly once since I relocated back to Los Angeles at the dawn of 2013. I phoned to shoot the breeze, as in the old days, but made the mistake of beginning the conversaton with a technical question  about the music software we both use, and he snarled at me as he might have at someone who’d stolen his girlfriend and drunk his likker from an old fruit jar.

Funny how things turn out.

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