Zero Dark Forty: Celebrating 40 Years of Sobriety

September 14, 1976.

We had just gotten through a very red, white, and blue summer, as we celebrated the country’s bicentennial. Jimmy Carter was in office, “Charlie’s Angels” ruled TV, and Boston’s debut album had just come out, so “More Than a Feeling” was all over the radio. There was no cable TV, cell phones, VCRs or, perhaps most shocking, light beer. Coors was the closest thing to that and it was just arriving on the scene.

For us – that is, me and my little juvenile delinquent friends – it was all about Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine, Schlitz Tall Boys, and bourbon and coke… along with weed that was only $10 to $20 per “lid,” rationed out in joints rolled in tasty strawberry rolling paper. (Aahhh… those endless days, in a constant haze.)

I was also smoking Marlboro reds (.60 per pack) and even those little Winchester “cigars” which looked more like cigarettes, except darker. They tasted like dogshit, but only cost .29 per pack! In more desperate times, I would steal my father’s Pall Mall Gold 100s, or one of my grandfather’s King Edward cigars… which I actually inhaled. Great idea for young lungs.

kingedward2
The “King Edward” Kid. (Good God…)

Half of my wardrobe consisted of Black Sabbath T-shirts; the other half were weed-inspired gems featuring captions like Smoke the Best, Smoke Columbian or Acapulco Gold Forever. I always wore these shirts with corduroy pants, Earth shoes, and a roach clip that had a small cross attached to it, permanently hanging from my belt. Meanwhile, my bedroom was wall-to-wall blacklight posters, as a red sparkle Rogers drum kit sat in the corner with a pot leaf sticker affixed to one of the toms. And on the record player was a constant rotation of bands like Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Black Oak Arkansas, Kiss, Ted Nugent, Mahogany Rush, Santana, Robin Trower, UFO, Johnny Winter, Blue Oyster Cult, Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin, early Rush, and most often, the aforementioned Black Sabbath.

columbian
Typical wardrobe marketing message…
although in reality, we could seldom afford the “good shit.”

My friends and I jammed together almost every day after school, smoking weed on the walk home. At night, we had a special affinity for sneaking out of our respective homes and vandalizing shit; paint on cars, eggs on houses, piss on door mats. Don’t ask me why. It was just our thing: being fucking punks.

But all good things must come to an end, as they say. And with only a few weeks into fall semester, things weren’t looking so good. I was already getting into constant trouble at school, and shit was really starting to come off the rails at home. I was also feeling sick to my stomach and depressed all the time and didn’t know why. So one of my best friends who I’ll call TC – no doubt one of the most notorious problem children in the history of the Houston Independent School District – actually suggested that I go to a rehab program. It was called the Palmer Drug Abuse Program, PDAP for short, and he said that if I went there with my parents, the counselors would chill them out, and we could still keep getting high on the side. That was the master plan. I was 13. And that brings us back to…

September 14, 1976.

My parents knew I had been “experimenting” with cigarettes and alcohol, even though all kinds of domestic warfare would break out on the rare occasion they caught me. They didn’t know to what extent I was indulging, and they had no idea I was smoking weed almost every day, as well. So one afternoon as I returned home from school with yet another special note from the principal, I bit the bullet and told my mom that I thought I “needed some help” (part of the scam), and then mentioned PDAP as a possible solution. My poor mother, shocked by this revelation, went to the White Pages right away and booked an appointment with some PDAP counselors for the very next day: September 14, 1976. Of course, I had already gotten fucked-up earlier that morning before school, but I figured I should refrain prior to the appointment on the 14th. Little did I know at the time that I would never have another drop of alcohol, or any kind of weed or drugs, from that moment forward. Ever.

Meet the Counselors

The particular branch, or “satellite,” of PDAP that was closest to us was called Memorial Drive. I got out of school (just like it was a doctor’s appointment!) and went with both my parents to meet the counselors. The woman’s name was Betty (although Sandy Zimmerman would turn out to be the longer-term co-counselor there). The man…. well, I will never forget this character: his name was Joe Peddie. Also, coincidentally, the founder of PDAP, Bob Meehan, just happened to be hanging at Memorial Drive that day, so we met him, too. (Another character I will never forget!)

memdrive
Where it all began: Memorial Drive Presbyterian.
Most PDAP satellites were based
out of churches, although
the program itself was without a specific
religious orientation.

They took my parents into a separate office so they could talk to me alone. They asked if I smoked, then offered me a cigarette. (Criminal these days, but no biggie back then.) They asked questions about my drug/alcohol usage. I told them what I had been up to. I also told them I had shot up some opium the week prior. This was an exaggeration. (I had actually smoked some, while an older kid from the hood shot it. I was terrified of needles.) I guess I felt like I needed to bolster my “stoner resume” a bit for some extra street cred, since I didn’t think what I was really doing was a problem.

At any rate, Joe, taking the lead, was organically persuasive and Serpico-cool. He told me where the path I was on would lead and offered me a new group of “running buddies” to hang with. Then he said something I will never forget:

“Give this program an honest shot for 30 days: go to the meetings, hang with the kids on the weekends, and stay clean. If at the end of the 30 days you decide this isn’t for you, come and see me and I’ll buy you a bag of dope.”

And that is pretty much a direct quote, because I clearly recall he said “bag of dope,” and I wondered how he defined dope: Weed? Pills? Powder? Nonetheless, the wheels were turning as he was making me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

And then, the cherry on top.

“I’ll tell ya what. I see you like to smoke,” he said.

“Sure,” I responded.

“Well how about this? You promise to give me an honest 30 days, and I’ll see to it that your parents allow you to smoke in front of them… no more hiding!”

Impossible, I thought. But if this motherfucker could pull off that hat trick, I’m in.

Sure enough, he left the room to go and talk to my parents. I was thinking, Man, this fool ain’t gonna convince them to let me smoke… especially my dad. But, he returned about 15 minutes later and nonchalantly said, “Okay, you’re in. You can now smoke in front of your parents. We have a deal, right?” he said, extending his hand for a shake.

“Yes,” I replied, and we shook hands; hippy-style, of course.

The third and final critical component to my decision was this: my drumming mentor, Cole Newbury – the kid who actually got me interested in playing drums, and who I always considered my “older brother from another mother” – had been attending PDAP meetings for several months at this point, as well. Of course, Cole had inadvertently gotten me interested in cigarettes, weed, and alcohol in addition to drumming. So to see that he, too, was giving this thing a shot, well… how could I say no at this point?

_______________________

Day One

The first meeting I attended was a couple days later on a ‪Saturday morning. Man, was it ever a trip; a charming assemblage of degenerates, in the 13 to 16-year old range, all openly affectionate with one another. Guys hugging guys, girls hugging girls, guys and girls kissing each other hello and goodbye… this was like nothing I had ever seen before. And none of this was done in any kind of creepy, cultish sort of way. It was way more family-like… almost like an extension of a 60’s flower children kind of vibe. We were clearly all in this together, and I could see how many of these kids regarded this group as their extended family.

When it came time for the actual meeting, we all sat in a large circle, with virtually everyone in the room smoking cigarettes. I distinctly remember a thick haze of white smoke quickly developing in the room, just hanging there like San Francisco fog. (For the few kids in the room who didn’t smoke, they might as well have.) I believe the topic of this first meeting was gratitude, and I was actually called on to “share.” It was pure agony, speaking in front of that many people. But the puke never made it past the back of my throat, thankfully. And in that moment, that’s what I was most “grateful” for!

That night, a kid named Frank Pietrowski had a party at his house. It was a 60’s themed gathering where everyone was supposed to dress up like we were going to Woodstock. What? A party where no one’s getting fucked-up? What will they do? This I have to see! So I went and had a great time. In many ways, it was just like any rowdy kegger you might imagine, minus the drugs and alcohol. It was a raucous, fun, and loud affair … until ‪10:30 rolled around and this new show called “‪Saturday Night Live” came on. Then everyone crowded around the home’s lone TV set and got quiet as John Belushi and co. did their thing. During the commercials, everyone would carry on and raise hell, then quiet back down when the show came back on. I remember thinking, Holy shit… this is like a giant family.

After the show, I was talking to a kid named Kevin McCarthy. I admitted that I was interested in the “30-Day challenge” that Joe had proposed, but I still had four joints in a plastic baggie back home and I wasn’t sure what I should do with them.

“Flush that shit down the toilet,” he said without hesitation.

“What the hell?” I responded.

“Flush that shit, brother. You don’t need it anymore, and you definitely don’t need it hanging over your head while you’re trying to get sober.”

I nodded and actually considered it. Then, later that night when I got home, I woke my sister Pam up and had her follow me into the bathroom. I opened up the baggie and watched those four joints tumble into the toilet water, then spiral down the can with a single flush. It felt like I was watching an old way of living go down the toilet. And I was. I guess I just needed a witness.

Tough Transition

So I diligently started catching every meeting – Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings. PDAP is a 12-step program, very similar to AA, but with a few variations. So I asked Kevin McCarthy to be my “sponsor” – kind of a mentor/advisor; another AA concept – and I really tried to work the steps. The second step had to do with associating exclusively with “winners,” aka kids who didn’t get high. But this would be in direct conflict with the original game plan. TC and I were close friends and in a band together. Certainly I could make an exception here… even as I tried in earnest to stay clean for 30 days. Certainly TC would understand that I really wanted to give this sobriety thing a shot, right?

Wrong.

Man, this motherfucker was relentless. For those last couple weeks in September, as we tried to carry on as we had been with our after school jams and weeknight hangs, he was just not having it. I dealt with a constant barrage of poking and prodding.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he would yell. “I didn’t mean for you to really go straight!”

Then he would blow superchargers at me (where you put the lit end of a doobie in your mouth and blow smoke in someone’s face). Great. Thanks for the support, bro. I would turn my head in protest and stumble away, arms flailing around to divert the smoke. Sure, it was kind of playful… but not really. He was not happy about this and, soon enough, we had to go our separate ways.

The good news was, I had a boatload of supportive new friends I was seeing every week, and I joined a new band within a month, made up of guys from PDAP, of course: Gary Pinkstaff on bass, and Bryan Hearn on guitar. We basically only played Black Sabbath songs, which was fine by me.

trioedit
My first real band, with Bryan Hearn (left) and
Gary Pinkstaff (center). Look at these little thugs!

A Life Anew

I went to at least two meetings a week and was an active member of the group for a solid four years. About 10 months in, somewhere around my 14th birthday, I was asked to be on the Steering Committee, which meant that I would actually be involved with leading some of the “breakaway” meetings on Wednesdays. It also involved a deeper dive into one’s internal psyche, as we would all meet twice a month for a more intense “purpose” meeting amongst ourselves and the counselors.

Around this time was also my first foray into public speaking. Occasionally, a few of us would accompany one of our counselors to an area junior high or high school and speak before an assembly. We would tell our personal story and make a case for the sober lifestyle. (I would go on to do a number of these kind of talks through the years.)

In retrospect, being that heavily involved in PDAP was a rare opportunity for accelerated personal growth, the likes of which is almost unexplainable… unless you were actually there. I mean, this was the 70s, the apex of the personal development movement, where we were evolving beyond the pseudo-hippy, Eastern-tinged philosophies of the 60s, and now into a more streamlined stew of spirituality, psychology, and self-help that was rocketing into the mainstream. And here we all were, at fucking 14, 15, and 16 years of age, really and truly entrenched in this material for real; challenging ourselves and each other to walk the talk, to live these philosophies; to journal, meditate, seek deeper spiritual understandings; to commune with the Divine in ways that defied some of the rigid religious precepts most of us had grown up with; and even to try and forgive – an especially tough challenge for some of the members who had really fucked-up home lives.

buddyronnie
Sober now, with Crazy Buddy and Big Ronnie, kickin’ it
in my room… still covered in blacklight posters.

Certainly, there were flaws, inconsistencies, and things that probably needed to be tweaked with the program. And I’m sure, at times, some of what we were all bantering around was homogenized, bumper-sticker soundbites that were more “recovery vernacular” than true wisdom. (But again, most of us didn’t even have driver’s licenses at this point.) Still… regardless of what any of us old-school PDAPers could say in the rear-view about what could have been different, what was probably a bit extreme and, perhaps, what never should have been, I personally wouldn’t trade it for the world. I always felt like the PDAP experience gave me a unique education on life and elevated living that, quite frankly, most adults would not have been privy to.

A New Kind of Party Culture

While the meeting and “content” part of the program was all based around positive, personal development stuff, let’s not forget: we were still a bunch of rowdy, misfit kids looking to have fun and raise holy hell. And that we did. It seemed like there was constantly something going on: parties at different kid’s houses, PDAP-sponsored dances, functions, and various shindigs, weekend beach retreats and occasional camping excursions, and the constant late-night cruising of coffee shops and pizza joints… particularly after weeknight meetings. And because we were all clean and sober, it seemed like many of us enjoyed an unusual leniency from our parents.

origtrio
My main band through the years, playing one of many PDAP parties:
(L to R) Dr. Watson Davis (guitar), Gary Pinkstaff (bass), Yours Truly

 

trioagain
Here we are some 30+ years later, playing at a PDAP reunion.
And yes, this is the same Dr. Watson who I do my annual writer’s retreat with…
(Pic by Andrea Guerin Stinson)

Hell, at 15, I remember very specifically that my school night curfew was ‪3:00 AM, and my weekend curfew was ‪5:00 AM. This gave us all plenty of time to get into trouble. Some nights, we would “street surf” around quiet neighborhoods. This is where you jump on the back of someone’s car – feet on the bumper and hands gripping the luggage rack on top – then have them speed through neighborhoods at 60 to 70 mph with the headlights off, so as not to draw attention to what we were doing. Of course, any kind of collision or even a sharp swerve would have likely ended things for us “surfers” pretty quickly. But hey, who’s sweating those kind of details? (If only GoPros would have been around back then!)

The ‪5:00 AM curfew also meant that me and my gang of young hoodlums would usually come storming into the crib around ‪4:55 AM on any given Friday or ‪Saturday night. My folks would wake up a few hours later and find motherfuckers crashed all over the house, on couches and floors, like it was a Salvation Army shelter. Then my mom would fix us all breakfast. (Aahhh… the joys of cool parents.)

Truthfully, there were times when we got a little carried away with the hell-raising. This was especially true of a small group of us who would routinely go over-the-top, led by me and my primary co-conspirator, Kevin Mathis. (Love ya, bro!) It was largely just a phase we went through, and I deeply regret some of the debauchery we wound up getting into, especially to the extent that we damaged other people’s property. However, the flipside was this: as we would take new kids with us on some of these adventures, they would usually become die-hard members of the program and the sober life, saying things like, “Wow! We weren’t doing this kind of crazy shit when we were getting fucked up! This is cool!” Eventually, though, police and parents got involved, so we all had to dial it back a bit, thankfully.

By the end of my sophomore year of high school, I was always out so late fucking around somewhere, that it became increasingly difficult to wake up in time for school. No problem. The vice principal knew I was sober, took a special liking to me, and would occasionally have me counsel certain students who were dealing with drug issues. In return, I could show up to school at virtually any time in the late morning or early afternoon, go directly to his office, and he would write me a pass, no questions asked. Life was sweet!

fist
In 10th grade, with a PDAP Absolutely Free T-shirt and my ever-present monkey’s fist
necklace; the iconic PDAP symbol of sobriety (awarded to members after 30-days clean).
We would also tie additional knots in them to denote each successive month of sobriety.

 

octoplus
Rockin’ a Peter Criss-inspired Pearl octoplus-vibe at one of the
infamous “Willie’s Jam” parties.

Of course, all of these absences, along with my general apathy towards school, would catch up with me. And since I figured I was going to be a rock star anyway and didn’t need school, I wound up dropping out of 10th grade about a month before the end of the spring semester. My folks said that if I didn’t want to go to school, then I had to get a real job… which I did: doing manual labor in a warehouse for an insulation company all summer. A hot-ass Houston, Texas summer, I might add.

Needless to say, by the time fall rolled around, I was ready to go back to school. I had to bust some extra ass and spend the following summer in summer school, but I was able to rejoin my original class and graduate on time.

The “Rise and Fall”

During my first three years in the program, PDAP – which was founded in Houston – was growing like mad and beginning to expand into different cities. And then it happened; in 1979, Carol Burnett’s daughter, Carrie Hamilton, traveled east from LA to Houston to join the program and get sober. And that she did.

Carrie was super cool and a great singer/keyboardist, and our band became her back-up band for a bit… which was big news for me, Gary, and at this time, Mike Wheeler on guitar. Her People magazine cover story – which she shot with her mom – broke things wide open on a national level for our small but mighty Texas-based drug abuse program.

peoplecover
The cover story that would bring
PDAP to the national spotlight

Next thing you knew, Carrie, Carol, and various “higher-ups” from the program were doing the national talk show circuit, and PDAP became a media phenomenon for a minute. Attendance exploded at the various satellites. Affiliate rehab hospitals were raging with new patients who would transition into meetings as part of their recovery. Guys and gals were flying and driving in from all around the country to various PDAP cities – particularly Houston – to crash on people’s couches and attend meetings. It was an exciting, intense time, and somewhat validating, for all of us die-hards.

But then, with all of this media attention came an uncommon level of scrutiny on the program. It all seemed to be spearheaded by some suspect admin shit that had been going on… some shady financial dealings between some of our big wigs and some of the rehab hospitals associated with PDAP. This cast quite a shadow on the program for a minute and caused quite a ruckus among the staff… especially after founder Meehan was let go. It was high drama stuff for awhile, but eventually, things returned to a relative normal in PDAP-land.

_______________________

Moving On

As a senior in high school, I started devoting even more time to practicing the drums, so I gradually faded away from the meetings. I didn’t really need to go anymore, frankly. And by the time I went off to the Berklee College of Music in Boston the following year, I had a rock-solid five years of sobriety.

Since first joining the program, I never really looked back. I’ve never seriously considered using again. I guess I “reinvented” myself so thoroughly, early on, that I’ve never personally identified with being someone who would EVER, under any circumstances, drink, smoke weed, or do drugs. I’m sure I’ll take this way of being to my grave… along with my veganism.

message2
Done a lot of this kind of stuff through the years…
Love it.

Even with more than 30 years in the music biz now – while I’ve certainly seen a lot of “using” going on – ironically, I’ve always managed to wind up in professional situations where alcohol and drug use was either minimal or virtually non-existent. Strange how it kind of worked out that way. It’s not like I “hand-picked” all the gigs I wound up in.

lifestyle
_______________________

smashesFound a number of these kind of articles in the “vault.”

Making a Case for the Lucid Life

I’ve never been one to proselytize about my sober way of living. It’s not my style. That said, I have done my fair share of speaking engagements through the years on the subject. I’ve also typically gone out of my way to mention my clean living approach at the hundreds of drumming workshops I’ve done through the years, given the radical misconceptions young musicians have about the partying lifestyle associated with the music business. Yes, it’s prevalent to some degree. But the deeper truth is, being heavily into dope or alcohol is a huge liability for anyone looking to “make it” in the biz. No one has time for that shit; fellow musicians, management, industry peeps, etc. And it doesn’t matter how great you play. I’ve seen it a hundred times; folks will typically pass on the “better player” who has issues with drinking or drugs, for the more reliable one who doesn’t.

Beyond that – and speaking from the perspective of my personal journey – being sober has been the single most critical game-changer for me. Why? Because without the distraction of partying through the years, I have naturally focused all of my turbo-charged addictive-personality energy into more positive pursuits: serious amounts of practice, weight-training and running, a healthy diet, lots of reading, and other activities that have played a key role in my personal evolution. I just don’t know how you can effectively engage in a lot of these kind of things while getting blitzed all the time… especially in the meditation/self-reflection realm.

blazing
“…an evening of positive messages and blazing drum solos!”
That’s what the fuck I’m talking about, people!  🙂

On that note, I guess I would have to mention this idea that, indeed, “the mind is a terrible thing to waste.” It is, quite literally, your most valuable asset. So why would we want to fry all of those brain cells and jumble up all of those precious neural connections? I mean, if we watched someone at a dojo or boxing gym regularly spar without headgear, and observed them taking blow after blow to the head, we would wonder what the fuck their problem was. Why are you taking all of those senseless shots to the head in training? Protect yourself, idiot! And yet, to some degree, this is what we are doing with long-term use of drugs and alcohol.

The same could be said for the body. Man, I’ve led a life of serious physical exertion. The training, the touring, the toils of road living… often on minimal sleep and whacked traveling conditions. Again, I don’t see how this happens when you’re ingesting a lot of toxins.

The Ecstasy of Agony; the Sweetness of “Super-Clarity”

I’ve also observed that many people tend to reach for weed, alcohol, or drugs when they’re nervous or uptight about something. But to me, that adrenaline surge, elevated heart rate, or even the sense that you are about to “shit yourself” from fear, is what makes us feel alive. I say, embrace it! Live it. Breathe deeply through it. Feel the heart pound, the mouth go dry, the sweat bead up on your forehead, the natural chemicals rush through your bloodstream. It’s okay. It’s part of life. Why try and cover that shit up with chemicals?

And finally, perhaps the main upside to the sober life that I would tell someone who asked me is this: I love being lucid at all times. I prefer to experience all aspects of life through a sharp, clear filter of perception. I like recalling events of the past through this same crystal-clear filter, and with a memory that has remained scary-sharp and ultra-detailed as a result of my clean living. It’s just my preference.

I understand that a case can be made for blurring that filter with drugs and alcohol and enjoying the party train of nightly indulgences, especially when touring with a rock band. I get it. And I’ve also noticed how the public loves to read about such exploits in so many of the various rock and roll memoirs out there. But to me, touring with a rock band is when you would NOT want to blur that filter. It has often been like a three-ring circus out there on tour: the things you see, the experiences you have, the people you meet… it’s like no other lifestyle imaginable. So to me, I want to remember all of those things, recall all of those people, and assimilate all of that life experience in as clear and accurate a way as I can. And I don’t believe you can do that when the ol’ filter is tainted with drugs and/or alcohol.

Just my take on things…

mohegandrumsblogOn a certain level, I guess not much has changed
in the past 40 years: still love to hit the drums!

 

litalivela
With Marty O’Brien, Lita Ford and Patrick Kennison.
Been hittin’ with Lita and the gang for nearly four years now:
Non-stop touring… just the way we like it!
(pic by Shovelhead Studios)

I know my journey might appear to be unusual, but really, I’ve just lived the “excessive musician’s” story arc in an unusual order. Most successful musicians manage to carve out a decent career for themselves, but then wind up going into rehab at some point. I went into rehab first, and then wound up carving out a decent career.

Wouldn’t have had things any other way…

_______________________

I will close now with a special shout out, first to my PDAP sponsors from way back in the day: Kevin McCarthy, Matt Feehery, and Brian Blessing. And second, to the majority of my closest, inner-circle peeps who, just like me, share the same unwavering credo – not one fucking drop; not one fucking hit. Ever.

 

 

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My “Richest” Possession, and the Eternal Discontent

In today’s entry, we return to the “Land of Enlightenment” in another excerpt from my book, Zentauria: My Season in the Warrior Utopia. As described in the first chapter, part of the conditions of my extended stay there involved integrating into their society and contributing something – which, in my case, centered largely around my drumming skills and knowledge. Cool… until you start questioning if what you have to offer will be deemed worthy in such a high-vibrational environment.

In addition to putting on a concert, I would be on the hook for a weekly “Observation Period” presentation, which is essentially an informal preview of your work, open to a respectful, curious, and highly-supportive public. So… what do I do? What do I play? What do I discuss? What do I really have to offer?

If it’s true that, subjectively speaking, we all have something special to contribute because our specific experience is unique unto ourselves… well… let’s hope it’s slammin’ so they don’t run my ass out of there!

ZentauriaKindle

Into the Arena (My First Observation Period)

Day 20 – 11:53 PM (Krishna’s Pantry)

Just had my first observation period yesterday afternoon, and it was a blast. I’ll tell ya, I’ve done close to 900 drumming clinic/exhibitions in my life, under every possible condition imaginable, in front of every kind of crowd, big and small, and in a number of different venues around the world. Still, I had no idea what to expect today. At about fifteen minutes before start-time, they started showing up. By five after, we had an overflow crowd, and people were squeezing more chairs into the room. It’s always nice when that happens.

Corny as this might sound, I’ve always likened that pre-show, adrenalin-charged rush of walking down a corridor and into a darkened arena to that of an old Roman gladiator being led into the coliseum to face a challenger… or a lion. The metaphors are too obvious, I know, but here’s the thing: those pre-show flutters are basically the same, no matter what the venue. They might vary in intensity, but the essence of it is similar. About the only time I’ve managed to completely shake that feeling is well into a long tour, where everything starts running together, and every possible X-factor seems to be eliminated. But such was definitely not the case today. In fact, the X-factors ran abnormally high, and I had no idea how things would unfold.

It was supposed to be a loose format where I could basically do whatever I wanted, ranging from just practicing or improvising for an hour, to taking questions, to demonstrating things, to philosophizing about life, or whatever. It was simply an opportunity for the community to see what I do and how I do it. So with a respectful nod of acknowledgment to the full house, I sat down behind the drums and started tinkering around a bit. Surprisingly, I felt comfortable within minutes. There was such a feeling of support and camaraderie in the room.

As expected, pretty much every drummer in Zentauria was there, and they seemed to be especially fascinated with the twenty-six drums that comprised my kit and the ten different foot pedals that my feet dance about to create various grooves, fills, and solo ideas. So I tried to demonstrate a few things that utilized the multi-pedal setup, after I took a few minutes to explain some of the different ideas. And fortunately, this was the kind of crowd that applauded wildly after every demonstration, which is always welcome!

One of the first questions I got was about the creative impetus behind such an elaborate pedal set-up. I didn’t hesitate. “I stole the idea from Terry Bozzio.” All the musicians busted out laughing.

“No, I’m serious,” I continued. “But there’s a deeper subtext to the story. Something really heavy happened in my personal life some years back, and I wasn’t sure if I was even going to play again. At that time, I only knew Terry as an acquaintance. But having heard what happened, he really reached out and befriended me during this period, and it was right around the time when he started doing those solo drum performances on a massive, multi-pedal kit. Up to that point, some of us were experimenting with cowbell pedals and an extra hi-hat or two, but nothing like what Terry was doing. So seeing him do his thing, on that kind of kit, at that time in my life, was really pivotal for me. It made me want to jump back into it. Naturally, I’ve always tried to do my own thing with both my drum and pedal setup. But Terry was definitely the inspiration behind it all.”

A hand shot up.

“So you actually know Terry Bozzio?” this kid asked.

Then it hit me. When would any of these drummers have had the chance to meet any other well-known players? They wouldn’t. They all seemed very familiar with the names, playing styles, key riffs, band affiliations, and so forth, having diligently studied so many recordings and videos. But none of these guys had ever seen any of the greats play live, let alone interact with them. So now it seemed that I was their exclusive liaison to an entire generation of drumming greats.

“Yes, I know Terry. I even have his cell number on my auto-dial!” I joked. They all got a kick out of that. “Great guy and, of course, an artist beyond compare.”

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Mr. Bozzio: We drummers will always be chasing this guy…
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alphaMy latest solo set-up: The Alphabet Kit
Just a mere 38 drums…

From there, it was a free-for-all. Drummers, guitarists, and bassists were all excitedly blurting out names of their faves, hoping I knew them personally. Fortunately, I had some kind of cool anecdote for pretty much every name they called out. And when an older drummer asked about jazz legend Buddy Rich, I had several stories for them, mainly concerning all the times I went to see him play before he passed in 1987.

“You actually saw him in person?” the guy asked.

“Hell yes, at least a dozen times.”

“What was it like?”

“It was like going to church. He was a true freak of nature,” I assured them.

“Did you ever get to meet him?”

“Yes, several times.”

Everyone seemed impressed with this.

“What was that like?” the guy asked.

“I only met him briefly on a few occasions, but he was always cordial,” I said. “In fact, I had found this rare old album he did with Louie Bellson, at a used record shop in Boston in the early eighties, and I wound up having both Buddy and Louie sign it.”

I could tell by the raised eyebrows and smiles, these people knew the magnitude of what I just said: a record in existence with Buddy and Louie dueling it out, and I got each of them to sign it? Smokin’!

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One of my prized possessions…

At some point during the first half-hour, Samson dropped in with a couple of guys from the dojo. We’ve all been training together for this past week or so, and I’m clearly the low man on the totem pole there in terms of skill and experience. But here… behind the kit, I’m in my element. And when I heard Samson was a novice drummer, I had invited him to drop by my observation period and was glad to see he made it.

As it turned out, these guys came into the room just as I was working on a fairly intricate new multi-pedal, four-way independence soloing exercise. I nodded hello to them as I continued to play. Two of them grabbed seats in the back, but Samson, looking a little perplexed, squeezed through the crowd and took a chair directly to my left so he could have a better view of my feet and all those foot pedals. He seemed particularly interested in where some of these other sound sources were coming from.

A few minutes later, I paused for a moment and made a quick point about something I had just played, to one of the students. I then turned to Samson, held out my fist for a bump, and said, “What’s up, Holmes?”

He lightly bumped fists with me and said, in his best Pulp Fiction era Samuel Jackson, “Goddamn, my Negro!”

We all laughed.

“What in the hell were you just doing?” he asked.

I demonstrated the origins of this rudimental pattern with the double-pedal on the bass drum, and then showed how I brought in additional rhythms with other sound sources by placing each foot halfway between two different pedals.

Samson shot a look over to his friends and then, with his classic, wide-eyed Ali impersonation, he said, “You a baaad maaaan, Bobby Rock!” Again, the room fell out.

From there, we wound up stepping into something of a role reversal of what had just gone on at the dojo last week. So instead of him referencing the great fighters at the heavy bag, per my request, I was referencing the great drummers from behind the kit, per his request.

This included an Ian Paice-on-steroids demonstration of the verse sections of Deep Purple’s “Burn”; classic Tommy Aldridge double-bass work, sped up and expanded around my entire kit; signature Buddy Rich snare improv with tom-tom crossovers and hi-hat tricks at ultra-brisk tempos; and a barrage of Billy Cobham snare-tom excursions, rifled off between various multi-hi-hat funk grooves.

With each demonstration, Samson was over-the-top exuberant, laughing, whistling, standing up, raising his fists in the air, sitting back down, rocking back and forth in his chair. This was unbridled, unedited joy, expressed without restraint, like a hyperactive kid unwrapping birthday gifts. He really is a drummer at heart.

I continued on to more examples: Terry Bozzio-esque solo ostinatos, Vinnie Caliauta-style polyrhythmic modulations, and then a few of my own hybrid groove and solo concepts. It was a pretty thorough display of my skill-set as a drummer. But it wasn’t all just showing off, trying to impress Samson and the others (well… maybe a little bit!). It was a celebration of a life dedicated to the art form. And it was about feeling like I was earning my keep around here… like I have something of value artistically to bring to the table in this community.

So on that level, it was a great experience. With a towel around my neck and my T-shirt sticking to my back from all the sweat, I said goodbye to Samson and all the others who had gathered over the past hour. The audience seemed to be uplifted by what they had just seen. But after everyone split, I had to hold a more critical eye on what just went down. On the one hand, sure, I stepped into a flow; it felt good, and I thought I played well. On the other hand, much of what I played stemmed from a deep bag of tricks—a signature vocabulary—that I have amassed through the years, and I sometimes have mixed feelings about this… about relying so heavily on the old standby material, especially the “improvisational sequences.”

This led to a reoccurring contemplation I’ve had: at what point does one’s signature vocabulary transition from powerful to predictable? At what point do we go from recreating our authentic, heartfelt content anew, to regurgitating it in ways that simply parrot what we’ve already done? I’ve personally struggled with this through the years, and I’ve also observed the many subjective shades of this argument in the work of tons of other creative people, not just musicians. I know speakers, writers, comedians, filmmakers, even painters can all walk that razor-thin line between presenting the ever-expanding, inspired version of their original content and personal style, versus the same-old-shit, auto-pilot version of it that comes across more like shtick or even parody, God forbid.

Sure, many artists fall into that comfort zone of finding familiar, even predictable, ways to present their signature vocabulary. Even my main man, Buddy Rich, did a lot of that in many of his later-day solos, most notably when he was on The Tonight Show. Is this the end of the world? Probably not. I don’t think anyone is expected to come up with radically new content for every performance (unless total improvisation happens to be intrinsic to your particular medium). But I guess the overriding feeling for me… the main takeaway in the aftermath of today’s presentation, was this: being around these people makes me want to be better, to reach higher, to push myself to new heights. Period.

I thought for a moment about all the greatness I’d been exposed to since I got to Zentauria, and how readily everyone embraced “the next level” just because, without any obvious reward. I thought about the hours a day of training for Samson, the hours a day of writing for Rhone, and how even the simplest craftsperson around here takes his work seriously… like every day could be the last day to express it. I suddenly felt a surge of inspiration. I really want to reach for my next level and put together something extraordinary for my solo concert here. It’s time to expand, to advance, to reinvent. And at this stage of my development, it has to be done one step at a time… which seems to be the Zentaurian way.

There is a reverence for the minutia around here, to the small increments of improvement awarded to the finest attention to detail. We often look at the added extras someone might go through and feel like it’s not worth it… that it won’t matter that much in the end, so why bother? Well, let me tell you, people bother with the increments around here. As they should; as we all should. Because the difference between good and great doesn’t always come down to huge differences in preparation. Sometimes just working toward being a little better will do the trick. If a baseball player consistently gets two hits out of ten at-bats, he won’t make the big leagues. But if he can just squeeze out one more and consistently get three hits out of ten, he’ll be among the best of them. And if he can make it four out of ten, he will be immortalized.

I know this is all starting to sound a bit rah-rah motivational, but here’s another clichéd notion to think about: in the Olympics, the difference between gold and silver often gets down to a tenth of a point, or a one-hundredth of a second. At this level, it’s the minutia of effort, of preparation, and of training, that will determine whether you reflect back on your experience in elation or agony.

And I’ve had enough agony…

_____________________________

Check out the Bobby Rock Store here to grab your autographed copy of Zentauria.

Paperback and Kindle versions are also available direct from Amazon. Just click the link below:

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30 Days in April: A Drummer’s Perspective on the Halestorm/Lita Ford/Dorothy Tour

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Gillioz Theater – Springfield, MO
(pic by Gary Brown for Shovelhead Studios)

In April of 2016, we were back in the bus and on arena and theater stages around the country with the Halestorm/Lita Ford/Dorothy tour. By all accounts, it was a hell of a show; three female-fronted bands, each with their own special vibe, and in their own unique place on their journey. Halestorm – currently on top of the hard rock heap – headlined, as they anchored a solid draw and delivered an enthralling, high-energy show nightly. We (Lita Ford) took the middle slot featuring L.F.F. as the iconic trailblazer, with her band of “veteran arena rockers,” I suppose. And ass-kicking newcomers, Dorothy, opened with a bang every night, featuring (as I heard someone say) an “Etta James fronting Black Sabbath” kind of flavor.

All in all, it was a great night of rock music, performed with a rare conviction by a cast of real-deal players. It was also an exceedingly harmonious endeavor, thanks mainly to the generous and professional tone set by the Halestorm camp. It didn’t take long for all three bands to merge as one nomadic pack of highway wanderers, with buses, trucks, and trailers rolling across the country like the Ringling Brothers on ritalin. We even got in a groove of doing a little “special guesting” during each others sets. (More on that shortly.)

Gotta love the road… especially when business is brisk, shit is selling out, and audiences are walking away happy. So let’s get behind the scenes, from this drummer’s perspective, and check out the highly-dense, uptempo slice of reality that is road life:

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My partners in crime, L to R: Patrick Kennison, Lita Fucking Ford, and Marty O’Brien
(pic by Gary Brown for Shovelhead Studios)
johnsoncitypic by Kevin R Hatfield
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pic by Gary Brown for Shovelhead Studios

 

The Cub-Man in the House!

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My long-time drum tech, Cubby Hubschmitt, has done virtually every major tour I’ve done over the past 28 years – including the majority of my 900-plus drum clinics. He tried a “semi-retirement” up in Oregon for the past few years, but decided he wanted a bit more punishment. It was a pleasure to have my “main motherfucker” back on board for this tour. He remains one of the best in the business… and a loyal, lifelong friend.

Home

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Our home away from home; The Bus
(pic from the Marty O’Brien Collection)

Buses are a strange thing to call home, but you get used to it. And you better get used to sleeping on them, as well. We would usually travel through the night to the next city, so getting some sleep was imperative… especially since my daily training regimen would usually kick in sometime in the late morning. (More on that in a sec…)

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Kickin’ it in the rear lounge… with black socks

Zenning

A time-honored tradition I’ve established with virtually every band I’ve played with over the past 25 years is a pre-show ritual we call “Zenning.” This is simply a matter of getting everyone together about 5 minutes before showtime and taking a few seconds to let go of all mental clutter and get centered into the present.  (Almost like a brief, group meditation.)  It also gives all the bandmembers a chance to energetically “align” with one another right before hitting the stage, since we don’t always see much of each other during the day, and everyone is usually engaged in their own independent pre-show ritual every night.

We almost always do this in the privacy of our dressing room.  However, we are sometimes forced to do a “quick zen” on the side of the stage, which the following photo captures. This is one of the only pics I’ve ever seen of “Zenning,” so I figured I would share it here:

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Inaction – in action.

I Love Arenas

There are certain attributes about every kind of venue – from various sized clubs, to old school theaters, to pristine casino showrooms, to performing arts centers, to outdoor festivals, to cavernous hockey or basketball arenas – that make each one a unique playing experience. I love ’em all, actually… but I really love playing arenas. These are the venues where I probably feel most in my “natural environment,” as our bassist, Marty O’Brien, often jokes. Whenever I walk across one of those spacious stages before soundcheck, Marty says (with the tone and cadence of a narrator on one of those National Geographic specials): “Here we see Bobby Rock in his natural environment – the arena – getting ready to play his ass off tonight.” Pretty funny shit… but true. The vibe, the energy, the space, the sonics… and my long history with these venues, both as a young concert goer and longtime performer, all make them a sentimental fave. Fortunately, we had occasion to hit some cool arenas on this run. Always a blast.

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Freedom Hall Civic Center – Johnson City, TN

No matter the venue, though, I’ve gotten in a habit of documenting many of the places we play with a “drummer’s perspective” pic, shot from behind the drums, usually during soundcheck, but sometimes during the show.  Here are a few “perspectives” for you:

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Santander Arena – Reading, PA
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Later that night during “Close My Eyes Forever,” with smartphones ablaze
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Taft Theater – Cincinnati, OH
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Exchange Park Fairgrounds – Ladson, SC
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Hard Rock Live – Biloxi, MS
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Club Brady – Tulsa, OK
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Mark C. Smith Concert Hall – Huntsville, AL
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Fargo Civic Center – Fargo, ND
(Soundcheck and show perspectives)

Sometimes, just to be “cute,” I would take a showtime perspective shot during the drum solo, while playing some sort of double-bass/double hi-hat pattern with my feet. This prompted some folks to ask if I’m actually taking a photo, or just raising my iPhone for dramatic effect.  Say what?  Of course I’m taking a photo!

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Snapping a shot during the drum solo
(The Egyptian Room – Indianapolis, IN)
Here’s a solo I played in Cincinnati that includes an example of such a photo opp, plus the special benefits of having a custom rack, held together by chains:
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Heavy chains = rough handling of rack!

 

Drum Solos R Us!

Speaking of drumming and drum solos, this was a great tour for drummers. Dorothy’s drummer, Zac Morris, would give his kit a sound thrashing every night to get things going, as he laid down a heavy pocket with their set. Then I would do my thing with Lita, which would always include a solo spot.  Then Arejay Hale would play his ass off during the Halestorm set, while keeping “the art of the drum solo” alive for a new generation of drummers with a show-stopping, super-entertaining solo every night.

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With Arejay Hale, my “little brother from another mother”

One gratifying, reoccurring theme of this tour was running into various drummers who had been affected by some of my earlier educational work (books, vids, drum clinics), namely my first book/vid, “Metalmorphosis.” I did that project untold years ago, but it’s really nice to see that the residual effects of the work have reverberated through a generation (or two!) of drummers since. To my surprise, it turns out that a young Arejay Hale was influenced by “Metalmorphosis” way back in the early days of his development, and he always made a big fuss about it to everyone – audiences included! – which I thought was extremely gracious of him.

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Arejay and me with Stuart Whitten, who showed up in Johnson City with an original edition of
“The Metalmorphosis Workbook,” which was released with the video way back in the day

Around show #3, Arejay asked if I wanted to join him for a “duet” during his solo. Well, of course I did! So we got together at soundcheck and Arejay suggested a basic solo structure that we would work from every night, starting with him on the marching tenors and me on his kit, then him joining me on the kit to “double-drum” it. So we just ran it down a couple times that afternoon, then never really discussed it again; I would just show up during his solo every night for the rest of the tour and we would let that shit unfold.  We had a blast playing together, and the audiences seemed to really dig it, as well.

Here’s a clip of our duet from the Fargo, ND show:

Honorable mention must go to Zac Morris, drummer for Dorothy.  This guy can really fucking play, and it was always cool to catch some of the Dorothy set. In fact, Arejay even invited Zac to join us in our drum solo segment for the last week-and-a-half of the tour. He slayed it.

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Dorothy’s Zac Morris had a tendency to bust open a knuckle or two
some nights, which turned his kit into a scene out of
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” That’s rock, people!

All in the Family

I spoke earlier about the indelible bond between all the bands that took place during this tour. So in addition to Zac and I joining Arejay during his solo, and Dorothy Martin joining Halestorm for a version of the classic “I Just Wanna Make Love To You,” Lita brought both Dorothy Martin and Lzzy Hale to the stage with us during several shows to jam. We would usually do The Runaways’ classic, “Cherry Bomb,” with both of the girls. And then Lzzy would throw on her double-neck and do “Close My Eyes Forever” with us, handling Ozzy’s vocal part. Epic shit!

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Lzzy and Lita: The double, double-neck effect!
(pic courtesy of Livewire)
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Lzzy Hale, Lita Ford, and Dorothy Martin, throwin’ that shit down
(pic courtesy of Livewire)

Here’s a clip from Webster Hall in New York of all of us jamming on “Cherry Bomb.”

Halestorm always delivered the goods with their set. I also liked how they changed their setlist around nightly. This is one smokin’-ass band…

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Joe Hottinger (gtr), Lzzy, Arejay, and Josh Smith (bass)

Killer Crew

We had a world-class crew with us on this run, that’s for damn sure. In addition to the Cub – as mentioned at the top of this post – we had Tom Winch taking care of both tour manager and soundman duties, and the incomparable Takumi Suetsugu handling guitars and bass. A killer crew, indeed…

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Lita with our fearless ringleader, Tom Winch
(pic by Gary Brown for Shovelhead Studios)
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Takumi, with Lita’s babies, Churrito (left) and Rascal (right)
(pic from the Marty O’Brien Collection)
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Churrito, filling in for our regular driver, Big James Cooper…

A Bit More About the Drums

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Most of the touring I’ve done with Lita Ford over the past few years has been what we call “fly dates.” This means we fly into a given city for a show and rely on gear provided for us by the promoter, based on a meticulously detailed rider. It’s part of the new economics of touring these days and, generally, it works out okay.

However, when you’re back on a bus, that means you get to drag all of your own shit around the country and play on your own gear every night. This is preferred! And this also warranted a new kit from my longtime friends and colleagues at DW. Basic black and chrome badness, with a custom rack reinforced with cold, steel chains.

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My custom “chain-drive” rack system enabled me to knock over various sections of the kit at will…
without my precious drums actually having to face injury from high-velocity stage contact!

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This tour also warranted a new touring set of Sabian cymbals, as this year marks my 30th anniversary as an endorser for the world’s greatest cymbal manufacturer. We topped things off with fresh rounds of heads from the gang at Aquarian, and plenty of Bobby Rock model sticks from my friends at Pro Mark. I proudly have well over 25 years with both of those companies, as well. (More details about the drums and cymbals in a future “gear-head” post.)

Training on the Road

My workout regimen changes very little when I’m touring. I basically train every day, grabbing the occasional day off when unfavorable logistics win out, or if I feel like my body can use a rest day…

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Hittin’ the weights with Arejay by day, so we can pound some drums at night…

Contrary to the way it was back in the old days, many musicians actually try to stay in shape on the road these days. This was certainly the case for some of my Halestorm/Dorothy tour-mates. Candice Rukes (Dorothy’s tour manager) would scout out – and get us passes to – a good place to train near the venue, then she would text us the details. Then, depending on everyone’s schedule that day, we might train together, or separately.  Either way, a good workout was generally “right around the corner.”

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Post workout with the gang
L to R: Candice Rukes (Dorothy TM); DJ Black (Dorothy gtr.); Arejay; me;
Gregg Cash (Dorothy bassist); and club host, Big Jay Eaton

I also love to run, especially on tour. We so often get in a rut of airport-hotel-venue-hotel-airport, or in the case of a bus tour, this venue-to that venue. Going on a local run gives you a chance to experience other aspects of a city, and I almost always “run across” cool shit wherever we go.  Trails, public parks, riverfront paths, or even interesting residential or downtown areas… there’s a lot of beauty out there. And the double-whammy of cardio conditioning and fresh-air head-clearing that running offers is essential in keeping both your mind and body together while touring. (Each run is usually between five and seven miles… which is plenty long to scope out a bunch of cool shit.)

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Two sides of Tulsa, near the gig:
Riverfront trails and old school streets…

Eating on the Road

I’ve been vegan since the early-90s, so people are always wondering how I fare on the road with such a “limited” eating regimen.  As usual, I say, “no problemo.”  While avoiding all animal products (yes, this also means no fish, dairy or eggs) can be a bit of a challenge at times, with a little advanced planning, it’s never an issue.

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Stocking up before an extended tour

When you’re away from home for a solid month, you’ve gotta stock up on the killer vegan food and supplement rations. Of special note here are the four canisters of “custom blend” nutritional powder, which I tap into twice daily: 2 scoops in the AM with my morning fruit smoothie; then 1 scoop with various fruits and vegetables after the show…. all blended together with my trusty NutriBullet. (My Vita-Mix at home is still the preferred tool for this kind of thing, but these NutriBullets do the trick very well on the road.)

Supps include digestive enzymes, multi-antioxidant tabs, and a big bag of spirulina pills. (Can’t get too much of that super-green power.) The rice and soup are for throw-together meals, and the vegan jerky is for a little extra protein when there’s not much else around but vegetables and rice or pasta.

The variety of Cliff bars, whole-grain cereal, and trail mix round things out for snacks throughout the day. Fresh fruits and veggies, of course, are provided at the gig every day. And in most cases, a very generous and talented chef will prepare a special vegan meal for me at the gig. This is always appreciated! Otherwise, there is usually some kind of pasta, rice, or bean-based dish in catering that I can have for dinner.

And because people ask me all the time, let me say this: you cannot only maintain muscle mass and enjoy peak performance capability with this regimen, but you can make gains, as well. Been doing things this way since 1993. The only catch? Make sure you get enough calories to support the desired bodyweight. No need for protein from animal sources. Your body will absolutely thrive from a plant-based diet, if you do it right…

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A welcomed site on tour! Time to stock up…

In Closing

Wow… this has been one long-ass post! Just imagine what it was like out there – in it – every day. Life on the road offers an unparalleled density, as so much happens in such a compressed period of time. Can’t wait for the next bus tour. Until then, it’s time to fly…

For the record, here was our itinerary for the month:

Halestorm /Lita Ford/Dorothy Tour

Apr 1 – Reading, PA – Santander Arena

Apr 2 – Hampton Beach, NH – Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom

Apr 3 – Hampton Beach, NH – Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom (*2nd show added)

Apr 5 – Huntington, WV – Big Sandy Superstore Arena

Apr 6 – Lexington, KY – Singletary Center for the Arts

Apr 7 – Raleigh, NC – Ritz Raleigh

Apr 9 – Biloxi, MS – Hard Rock Live Biloxi

Apr 11 – Springfield, MO – Gillioz Theatre

Apr 12 – Tulsa, OK – Club Brady

Apr 13 – Wichita, KS – Cotillion Ballroom

Apr 15 – Fargo, ND – Fargo Civic Center

Apr 16 – Sioux City, IA – Hard Rock Live ‘Sioux City’

Apr 17 – Dubuque, IA – Diamond Jo Casino

Apr 19 – Huntsville, AL – Mark C. Smith Concert Hall

Apr 20 – Spartanburg, SC -Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium

Apr 21 – Johnson City, TN – Freedom Hall Civic Center Freedom Hall Civic Center

Apr 23 – St Petersburg, FL at State Theatre

Apr 24 – Ladson, SC at Exchange Park Fairgrounds (WYBB RockFest – Breaking Benjamin, Halestorm and many others…)

Apr 25 – Norfolk, VA at NorVa Theatre

Apr 27 – New York, NY at Webster Hall

Apr 29 – Cincinnati, OH at Taft Theatre

Apr 30 – Indianapolis, IN at The Egyptian Room

A Few More Shots…

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Hittin’
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Sunset in Tennessee, behind the arena
(pic from the Marty O’Brien Collection)
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Full house in Springfield
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pic by Gary Brown for Shovelhead Studios
13062050_10153658123982992_2829272212471686056_nSaying good night…
Posted in Beautiful Drum Music, Exercise, The Artist Realm, Veganism/Animal Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

In Pursuit of Virtuosity

I have nothing against DJs, turntables, programmed music, or hip-hop culture. I recognize these are legitimate modes of creative expression, and there are many men and women out there doing great things within each of these modalities. That said, I do hope that the sacred reverence for truly mastering traditional instruments in various genres remains a priority for our future generations, as well. True, there are many young musicians out there right now, carrying a torch for this very notion. The challenge – as I see it – is that there is an increasingly smaller “market” out there for audiences who will appreciate and support this kind of musicianship, and also that the music industry itself is in the middle of a crucial reinvention in terms of how musicians can actually earn any kind of a living.

Me? I come from a different era. And for all I love about modern technology and the way things are now… I would not – under any circumstances – trade my experiences “back in the good ol’ days” for what we have now. Again, no offense to the present.  I love so much about how things are these days.  It’s just that… man! The 70s and 80s were such a primo time to be a music lover and a young musician.There was a profound simplicity to our process of experiencing music. Driving to the record store; filing through all those albums before finally selecting one or two; heading back home; tearing off the plastic; sliding that shiny vinyl out of the jacket before placing it on the turntable; easing the stylus onto the record and listening as the crackle of the needle to wax merges into the opening song; then reading every word and devouring every photo on the album cover and inner sleeve. Damn! It was always an experience.

And for that matter, so was closing the door to the inner-universe of the practice room and practicing all those hours. Headphones nearby, perhaps a drum book or two, the ever-present metronome, a gallon of water and a towel… and all of those uninterrupted hours of monotonous woodshedding.  No one calling or texting (no cell phones back then!). No 800 channels on the tele or world-wide web beckoning. Just endless hours of time to devote to your craft. Ahhh, the good ol’ days, indeed.

To this very day, I still love the idea that a great player of any instrument can spontaneously create a performance that actually raises the vibration of all who experience it. This is the essence of great art… that we are, in at least some small way, forever affected, inspired, and uplifted by something created by another… as a direct result of the crazy amount of hours, life experience, and due diligence they have invested in their craft. To me, it is a noble, altruistic, and worthwhile notion… this idea of dedicating a big part of your life to such a thing.

My latest book, Zentauria: My Season in the Warrior Utopia, explores this notion in many of the journal entries that comprise the book. Zentauria is essentially a detailed journey into the mind, body, and soul of an enlightened society, where music, art, and all forms of such creative expression hold as high a place in their world as anything else. Today’s excerpt features an extensive interaction with one of the world’s most gifted musicians… as many of my influences and inspirations are revealed in the process.

All hail the virtuoso!

ZentauriaKindle

Virtuoso

Day 30 – 3:13 AM (Guest Quarters)

Entry Preface: It was the early eighties at a crowded nightclub in Houston, and I was slouched down in my chair in stunned silence. As my father paid the tab and the rest of the crowd slowly shuffled out of the smoky joint, I was attempting to digest what I had just witnessed. From an aerial view in the balcony, we had just been treated to the great Buddy Rich and his orchestra, and I had watched every move he made on that modest set of white pearl Ludwigs. The hummingbird left hand, fluttering about the snare; the liquid right hand, a blur on the ride cymbal; the jackhammer bass drum pedal, the dancing hi-hat foot, the exploding crashes… the thundering toms, the swinging grooves, the Zen-like effortlessness… all reverberating in my mind’s eye with crystal clarity. I had just been to the mountaintop.

BuddyBW
The main man… Buddy Rich

It was a quiet ride home because, after all, what can you say in the aftermath of an experience that would have such a profound, long-lasting effect? I was trying to process that unique combination of furious inspiration and hopeless discouragement. Depending on what side of the fence you’re on, you either want to practice eight hours a day or pick up another instrument. I chose the former.

There was no doubt that the Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple triumvirate got me into the practice room and behind the drums. But it would be an elite cast of virtuosos who would keep me there for hours at a time. This love affair with the practice room led me to this observation:

There is an old cliché that is centered around having something about your life that
makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. I say, there should be
something about your life that keeps you from getting to bed at night…

* * * * * * * *

This afternoon, I witnessed one of the single most impressive musicians I have ever seen. Her name is Bella Musashi, and she is just ridiculous. Here’s the quick rundown.

My first week here, I was walking by a small café off of 7th Avenue one evening, when some of the craziest contemporary solo classical piano imaginable came spilling out onto the street. I stepped in and asked the first person I saw, “Who in the hell is this?”

Some guy explained that it was Bella Musashi, one of Zentauria’s most celebrated artists, and that they were listening to her latest release. He then told me where and when her observation periods were and encouraged me to go and check her out. “To see her play this stuff live, my friend,” this guy said, “…it’s unreal.” I didn’t doubt it.

So finally, after running into her around the Drexel several times now, I navigated my way through a maze of hallways, practice rooms, and offices to eventually find Bella Musashi seated on a small stage behind a massive black grand piano, holding court in her studio with three dozen music students seated around her.

With classic Japanese features and a petite build, her shimmering black hair spilled down to her waist. She was dressed casually in jeans and a plain orange T-shirt, already in the middle of a piece when I grabbed a chair in the back of the room. Her spidery hands were pummeling the keys with such blunt force, blinding speed, and emotional fire that it was almost shocking to hear such a wall of fury coming out of such a fragile physical presence. The stuff she was playing was so advanced, both harmonically and rhythmically, it was difficult to discern at times what key or time signature she was in. Both hands seemed fully independent from the other, creating the illusion that, quite literally, two people were wailing away at that piano simultaneously, each playing a different song.

And yet, it was far from atonal or free-form. There was a searing musicality to all that she played, and several repeated motifs throughout the piece ensured it was a composition with a fairly standard form. But the trippy thing was, she looked mildly possessed as she played, with her eyes either crinkled shut or transfixed on something against the back wall the whole time, not even watching her hands.

Afterward, everyone politely applauded, but I stood up in the back, shaking my head, clapping loudly.

She looked over at me and said, “Oh, Bobby Rock! So nice of you to drop by.” The students all turned around with smiles and nods.

“Wow… what you just played was crazy!” I said, taking my seat.

“Thank you,” she said with a clasp of her hands in front of her chest and a subtle bow. “Make yourself comfortable here.”

She proceeded to answer questions from the audience and, when appropriate, demonstrated things at the big daddy Bösendorfer. Her voice was calm and clear as she spoke textbook English with perfect enunciation.

Boesendorfer_crop
photo by Rüdiger Wölk

Then, when a student asked about how her early jazz influences affected her approach today, she talked a bit about legendary jazz pianists Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, and then launched into a blistering version of the Charlie Parker classic, “Scrapple From the Apple.” She played most of the head in octaves before kicking into a few choruses of left-handed walking bass and right-handed soloing. It was killer! I was immediately transported thirty years prior to my own time as a college student, watching a young virtuoso Japanese pianist burn down the house at the Berklee Performance Center a few times per semester. I just had to know something.

I raised my hand. “Bella, I’m sure this is a long shot, but did you ever know of a Japanese pianist named Makoto Ozone?”

Her eyes widened. “You know about Makoto?”

“Yes! We both went to the same conservatory for a time, but he was a few years older. You know him?”

“Oh, my God!” she said, spinning around on her stool to face me. “Makoto was a legend! One of my early teachers used to visit the east coast of America every year, and he would return with cassette tapes of Makoto playing at Berklee!”

“No way! I was probably at some of those shows!”

I then asked her about a particular concert he did in a duo format with an upright bassist, and made reference to their scorching version of the classic Dizzy Gillespie tune, “Salt Peanuts.”

Again, her eyes widened, “Wow, Bobby, I can’t believe you know that!” Then she spun back around on her stool, stormed through the head, then began playing the piano solo—as best as I could recall from my worn-out old cassette copy—note-for-fucking-note as Makoto played it, pausing intermittently if she needed a moment to remember some part of a passage. Astounding!

After she finished, we all clapped our heads off; then I asked her how she possibly still remembered it.

“Well, I have kind of a photographic memory when it comes to music.”

I guess the fuck so.

makoto
Some of the most jaw-dropping performances I have ever seen
were complements of this guy right here; Makoto Ozone

For the next fifteen minutes, Bella talked at length about Makoto’s influence on her playing. She demonstrated key examples of his technique and improvisational style, then tied it all back to more Tatum and Peterson references. It was a hell of a segment. And again, it was time warp central around here as my common bonds with these people continued to surface… even in the most unlikely and unusual ways. Makoto and those old Performance Center tapes were a huge source of inspiration for me. What are the odds that both Bella and I, living on opposite ends of the globe, could’ve been so moved by such utterly obscure recordings?

After class was over, I joined her onstage to give her a hug and tell her how blown away I was with her playing. As we stood and talked for a moment, I couldn’t help but notice how large her hands were, relative to the rest of her body. I casually reached for one of her hands and placed it palm-to-palm against one of mine. Her fingers were actually longer. Incredible, given that I outweigh her by 100 pounds! She laughed it off and said that she’s tried to make the best of her “deformity” through the years.

She invited me back to her spacious private study for a cup of green tea. It was adjoined to the presentation room, much like mine was, and wall-to-wall with old vinyl records, tapes, CDs, scores, and method books. We’re talking thousands of titles here. There was another grand piano in this room, along with a small bank of keyboards, a couple desktop computers, and a small monitor system. I could tell she spent a lot of hours in here every day, so I asked questions about her process.

She said that she meditates from 4:00 to 5:00 AM every morning, eats a light breakfast, then practices piano from 5:15 to 11:45, taking a fifteen-minute break every two hours. After lunch, she spends the afternoon teaching, doing kung fu or yoga, going out for a jog, or taking care of other “normal life stuff.” Then she has 5:00 to 8:00 PM earmarked for composition, violin practice, or doing sessions, followed by her final two hours of piano practice, starting at 9:00 PM. That’s eight hours a day of piano, six days a week, plus all of her other musical activities. Her efforts bore the sweetest fruit. Saturdays, by the way, were completely “free form,” as she called it.

I asked her more specifically about what she’s been working on with those keyboards, and she sprang up to give me a demo. She hit a single power button and everything lit up, including the two separate computer monitors. She told me she’s been composing music for a documentary about Joseph Campbell and was having “a blast” blending a variety of musical styles with samples of authentic instruments from the respective mythological eras the film covered. Just then, an interview of Campbell popped up on the screen, and a richly textured orchestral piece with a decidedly Asian undertone kicked in. She then began improvising on a keyboard with a remarkable Chinese flute patch; it sounded both breathy and hollow, as if someone was actually blowing into it.

This led to a discussion about some of the advanced technologies they had created here in Zentauria to replicate key sounds. “For example,” she said, “we’ve actually had pretty good luck with guitar tones. Here’s a decent replication.” Then she dove right into the middle of Van Halen’s “Eruption,” manipulating a small bar on the side of the keyboard to mimic Eddie’s vibrato and wammy bar moves. She played about half of the original solo note-for-note perfect, then stepped off into the stratosphere with another thirty-two bars of Van Halen-style improvisation that, technically speaking, was a whole other level. But this wasn’t just some keyboardist’s skilled attempt at emulating a historic guitar tone and performer. This was spot-on, next-level re-creation! It was astonishing.

From there, she clicked buttons, accessed patches, and played perfect excerpts of Jimi Hendrix with his crackling Marshalls, Jeff Beck with his screaming solo sound from “Led Boots,” and a healthy slice of Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover,” majestic tone intact. She nailed each of their distinctive lead sounds to the wall and held true to their individual phrasing, vocabularies, and subtleties. I thought her flawless representation of these guitar icons was alarming, given her roots as a virtuoso classical and jazz pianist.

ericB&W
Watching this bad motherfucker (Eric Johnson)
with his trio back in the early days, would inspire me
to pursue my own trio-based solo direction later

Next up was a blazing Paganini caprice, played with a patch that was created from an early 18th century Stradivarius. You could hear the rosin of the bow, the timbre of the wood. And Bella would gently manipulate that bar to emulate the delicate vibrato of a master violinist.

“Bravo,” I said as I clapped. “Damn… sounds like the real deal.”

“Well, I’ve been playing a bunch of Paganini on my violin lately, so I guess I have a decent insight into what it’s really supposed to sound like.”

A pianist playing Paganini? On a violin? As their second instrument? This woman was killing me.

As a flagship example of both this technology and her freakish musicianship, she pulled up a John Coltrane tenor patch that was so uncanny it gave me chills. And again, most impressive was her performance… her deep knowledge of the nuances of Coltrane’s playing and her ability to manipulate the keyboard to make it sound like the main man himself was present in the room with us. She clicked a few switches on another keyboard and pulled up that smoky Jimmy Garrison upright bass sound, then launched into a brisk walking progression of “Impressions” with her left hand while playing the melody, followed by two choruses of Trane’s exact solo from the original Impulse recording, with her right hand. I swear my eyes got watery, it was so fucking good.

On the third chorus, she veered away from Coltrane’s original solo and continued with a more frenzied version of his signature improvisation. I presumed she had merely swapped out a few choruses from some later recording of “Impressions” when he really started taking things outside. But when I asked her afterward, she said she was just “doodling” for those last few choruses. (Shit!) Then, when I asked her what the transcription process was like in copping Trane’s original solo, she looked confused.

“Transcription? I just remember what he played.”

This woman was reproducing John Coltrane, in meticulous detail, on a plastic fucking keyboard, from memory! Unreal.

I told her that if I were forced to live out my days on a deserted island and could only listen to one artist for the rest of my life, I would choose Coltrane. She smiled and said, “Good choice.”

tranesoprano
Coltrane: mastery of one’s instrument
to the point of absolute transcension.
A worthy goal for any musician…

She clicked another button and started playing the piano intro to “My Favorite Things,” with that huge McCoy Tyner sound. Then, while somehow maintaining the vamp with her left hand, she clicked another button on the other board and simultaneously launched into some opening improv with that angelic Coltrane soprano tone before settling into the melody. It literally sounded like Tyner and Trane were standing before me, doing an impromptu duet. Now my eyes really began to water over. This was crazy. And not just because of the dexterity, the recall, the knowledge of the genre, the tones, and all the obvious mechanics required to pull this off. It was because of the absolute stone-accurate authenticity with which she executed their parts. It was like being at a séance.

This whole experience brought to mind how I am oftentimes envious of those who have the luxury of a single-minded focus. Sure, Bella is a true Renaissance person with multiple interests and talents, just like everyone else around here. But her primary mission every day is to set her ass on that piano stool and play. I miss the simplicity of those times in my life. Perhaps the full “harem of muses” I always talk about will leave me the fuck alone at some point so I can enjoy a monogamous run with just one… the one who would have me play drums all day, every day.

_______________________

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Welcome to More Hell: Recording Drums for the First Vinnie Vincent Invasion Album – Part 2

VVIbackcover

In Part 1 of Welcome to Hell, we talked in great detail about the behind-the-scenes particulars of the Vinnie Vincent Invasion debut recording.  We also talked about the excruciating process of having my drum tracks endure a beat-by-beat analysis against a drum machine reference track, under the watchful eyes and ears of one very meticulous Mr. Vincent.  But, we managed to end on a high note, as we (seemingly) finished up drum tracks right before Christmas break ’85, and I headed back home to Texas for the holidays.

In Part 2, we pick up where we left off and return to the fire for more punishment…

***********

Tracking Madness – Round 2

After the holiday break, things were quiet out west.  I was to hang out in Houston until the record was in the can, then we would talk about me coming back out to LA for the album cover photos and all the pre-release promo stuff.  Things were cool and casual…  until that fateful phone call from Dana Strum just a couple weeks into the new year.

“Uh…. Bobby. Uh… there have been some new developments regarding the drum tracks.”

My heart jumped up into my throat.

“Shit. Like what?”

He then proceeded to tell me about the manic number of hours that he, Mikey and Vinnie had been putting into this “new” drum track direction since I split. He had not wanted to call me any sooner than he had to.

Apparently, after I went home and they began tracking guitar solos, Vinnie started hearing things again… namely kick drums and snares, “out of sync” with the drum machine. How this was possible, given the amount of effort we all had just put into making things “perfect,” I’ll never know. But there these guys were, spending untold more days and nights in the studio, massacring these perfectly good tracks with a new protocol. This involved sampling my kick and snare sounds, then selectively allowing the drum machine to “override” my drum tracks in those select places where Vinnie felt like the drums were off. From there, as I recall, they ended up deferring to the machine kick and snare for most of the groove sections, but they kept all of my original fills from round one! This became problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was how my original hi-hat, ride and crash parts were lining up with the “new” kick and snare parts.

Bottom line? Dana said it was time for me to jump on a flight and head back out to LA so I could redo all of my hi-hat, ride and crash parts.  We would use mainly drum machine kick and snare in the groove sections, but keep all the original fills.  What the fuck?

When I asked about the airline ticket situation, Dana very diplomatically said something about, “Ya know.. it’s been difficult getting through this… everyone’s pretty fried… I think we all need to pull together and just do what we gotta do…” etc. Translation? Pay for your own motherfuckin’ plane ticket and get out here asap, and let’s make this thing right before Vinnie fires your ass! 

I would never know exactly how close Vinnie may or may not have been to this, but I wasn’t about to find out.  So I had to go back to Keith Karnaky at The Drum Shop to borrow all of those cymbals again, and make up some lame excuse about how we needed to “tweak some more parts” or something. Then I got my ass back to LA within a day or two.

I’ll never forget the dread I felt on that brisk LA morning when Dana and Mikey picked me up curbside near where I was staying to go back to the studio. “Didn’t we already go through this once?” they joked, as I got in the car. Then on the way back to Baby-O, they told me all about the lunacy they had been up to the past few weeks.  Sounded like an even bigger nightmare than before. But I still couldn’t get an accurate read on how Vinnie was feeling about me… especially since Dana was trying to downplay things, saying something about how Vinnie realized this drum machine approach was what we should’ve done all along.

But when we got settled in at the studio and Vinnie showed up shortly thereafter, it was a much more tense vibe than I could have anticipated.

“Do you have any idea how much money you’ve cost me,” was the first thing he said to me, eyes glaring through glittery blue eye shadow

Fuck.

I didn’t even know how to respond. I think I said something stupid like, “But the fills were okay, right?”

“Yeah, but you can’t make a record on fills alone!” he replied.

And so, we began again. This time, I was sitting in a standard tracking room with hi-hat and cymbals only, playing along with some whacked-out hybrid tracks comprised of both real and drum machine grooves, plus my original live fills. Super bizarre. And yes, my hi-hat and ride cymbal accompaniments would fall under the same laser scrutiny that we went through last time, except in a much more strained and toxic atmosphere.

At one point during this round two process, things got so overbearingly analytical, it was becoming hard to discern what we were even hearing anymore.  “Wait… is that fourth snare a bit off? Was that an original snare, or a drum machine replacement snare? Didn’t we already replace it?  Wait, play it back again. No, that snare’s okay… but the one before it is a little rushed, isn’t it? Shit… Mikey, play it one more time.” We were all starting to lose it.

I remember one time we were trying to replace a snare that Vinnie insisted was off. But when Dana went to punch, the machine didn’t go into record for some reason, so nothing had actually been “fixed.” Kevin, our second, noticed this and was just about to blurt out that the punch didn’t happen.  But Dana shot him a shut-the-fuck-up glare that would’ve had Mike Tyson cowering under the console, and he remained quiet. Then Dana calmly rolled the tape back for Vinnie, knowing nothing had changed, and hit play. Sure enough, Vinnie said, “That’s better. Let’s move on.”  Everyone quietly shook their heads, knowing that we had officially stepped off into a backwards-ass abyss of Twilight Zone insanity. Anything could happen at that point.

These were dark days in the studio… especially since I felt like my drumming “incompetence” had driven us to this unorthodox way of trying to piece together acceptable drum tracks. Once again, though, my studio allies (Dana and Mikey at this point), helped me keep a perspective as we just put our heads down and got it done.

After a week or so, we finally completed this second round of tracking to little fanfare. There wasn’t really any sort of celebratory tone in finishing; we were all burnt to a crisp. And while Vinnie seemed cool with things, the rest of us were quietly regretful that the original, bad-ass theater recordings were just a memory, and instead, we now had these fucking patchwork, mishmash tracks that were a shadow of what they should’ve been. But, we were all living in a sort of technological haze of denial, justifying the outcome as “contemporary” Def Leppard-esque tracks… which was quite a stretch. (A poor man’s Def Leppard, maybe, but not nearly as cool.)

VVIarticle
Early Faces mag article

So I flew back to Houston, returned my big ol’ heavy bag of cymbals to Keith Karnaky at The Drum Shop, then settled into a light depression, post this extremely disillusioning experience.  Again, I was supposed to just hang out and wait for them to finish lead vocals, guitar solos, backgrounds, and mixing, and then at some point in the spring, head on back for all of the promo activity. But it was a rough couple weeks for me mentally. Everyone tried to pass it off as “the modern approach to recording that we should have taken all along,” but I wasn’t buying it. The shit we did the first time around was fucking epic.  I was sure Dana and Mikey agreed, as well.

And as it turned out, so would our manager, George Sewitt.

Tracking Madness – Round 3

Some time in early February ’86, George came out west from NY to meet with the LA label folks and check up on our progress. Remember, this was pre-Internet and pre-digital files, so, short of coming down to the studio, the only way to let someone hear something was to mail them a cassette tape. At this point, George hadn’t heard any music beyond some of our initial tracks from round one… although he had heard plenty of crazy studio stories from Strum in the form of nightly updates via telephone, after Vinnie went home each evening.

Once George hit LA, they sat him down in the control room and started playing him some of our latest roughs.

“What the fuck happened to the drums?” he asked. “This sounds like dogshit!”

And after a spirited but brief debate, that was it: I was about to get the phone call I could’ve only dreamed of receiving.

“Uh…. Bobby. Uh… there have been some new developments regarding the drum tracks,” Dana said, but in a much more relaxed tone than last time.

“What the hell? What now?” I asked.

“Well, my man,” Dana continued, “it appears that everyone else hates this new drum track direction.  Sewitt flipped, and now Mr. Vincent has had a change of heart about things.  We’ll need for you to head back out and do these tracks the right way… all over again.”

“You’re shittin’ me!”

“Nope. And Chrysalis will be picking up your flight this time, that’s for damn sure!” Dana said.

“Holy Mother of Christ! Are you serious?”

“Yes! Go round up your cymbals, pack your shit, and get your ass back out here!” he said.

I got off the phone in a daze. I simply didn’t know how to process this double injection of vindication and dread. The upside? I get to redo drums!  The downside? I get to redo drums! Ultimately, I saw it as a way to right the wrong of what went down with this round two bullshit.  I was a man possessed.

I was also a man who had to, once again, go back to Keith Karnaky at The Drum Shop and ask to borrow all those cymbals yet again.  This time, I leveled with him and told him about the “back-alley abortion” we had been through up to this point in the recording process, and how I had the chance to make things right this time.  As usual, K.K. was the coolest, and he let me walk with all of those cymbals one last time.

Three days later, I’m back in LA, walking into Baby-O Studios. I saw Mikey and Dana in the control room and we all just laughed. It was one of those rare times in life where the overall absurdity level of a situation negated anything you could possibly express about it. Fortunately, though, there would be a noticeably lighter vibe in the air this time.

Vinnie-VincentDana-Strum
Vinnie and Dana from our first tour…

When Vinnie showed up a bit later, there was absolutely no attempt at any sort of explanation or apology for this whole thing. Nor did I expect any, really. I believe he said something philosophical about how we probably should’ve stayed with our “first instinct” or something to that effect, and that was it. Nothing more was ever said between us about the crazy twists and turns we encountered recording drums on the first VVI record.

Later that afternoon, I found myself behind the drums, back in that drafty old theater downstairs.  Mark Edwards was there.  The Yamaha drums were there.  Most of those mics were there. The PA feed up in Studio B, however, was not there, because that studio had since been locked out by George Clinton. Nonetheless, we were going to do our best to replicate the way things were the first time around.

And we did… our best, that is. I remember we were all happy just to get all live drums back on this thing. But, at this point, we were way over-budget on the drums, and also, we had a ticking clock with regard to how long we could be in the theater. Things were a bit more rushed.  Also, it seems like there was some weirdness regarding keeping some of the initial fills or something, I don’t exactly recall.  So, while we did go back to live grooves, it was never going to be quite as cool and spontaneous as it was the first time through.

And yes, Vinnie was still on board with plenty of drum machine obsessing, and this dragged shit out.  In fact, I remember running out of time in the theater before we could get to “Boyz Are Gonna Rock.” Or maybe, it was that Vinnie decided he was unhappy with our round three version of it. In any case, the final version of “Boyz” happened with the drums set up in the main studio tracking room upstairs, with a whacked combo of grooves from this final round three session and some of the original fills left intact (since they still sounded so monstrous). Tragic… but indeed, we had finally crossed the Rubicon.

Moving On (and Initial Impressions)

At this point, we were back in celebration mode. Drums truly were done!  Along the way, the guys had been making more headway with solos and lead vocals, both of which were turning out incredible. I’ll never forget hearing some of Robert Fleischman’s vocal tracks, soloed in that control room; just his pipes and a mic, blasting through the monitors. Good God, that motherfucker could sing! (Still can, by the way.)  It sounded like every syllable he sang was wrenched from the deepest part of his guts.  And yet, there was an effortlessness, an ease, and a bone-rattling soulfulness about it all.  The hair on my arms stood up as I listened, and his tracks on that record are still among my favorite from any title in that genre.

robert
Mr. Fleischman

Meanwhile, Vinnie and Dana were putting together these crazy, off-the-hook solos that would cut through your skull like a chainsaw. When I first heard them, it was almost shocking… this sonic barrage of notes. There was notably more urgency and adventurousness in this round of solos, as opposed to the way Vinnie played on the original demos. It took a little getting used to, but yet, it was so in-your-face, we would just laugh when the playbacks were going down. Thirty years later – love him or hate him – no one, and I mean no one, can play like Vinnie Vincent. So you can imagine how we were feeling about these solos back then.  It was unprecedented. There was no one around to even compare him to.

Still, if I’m being candid, I think even then I preferred the direction of his original demo solos. They seemed to breathe a bit more.  They still had a lot of his frantic, signature shred elements, but those passages were interwoven with more bluesy, soulful licks which, to my ears, made for more musical solos. But, as I alluded to earlier, the Dana Strum Punching Extravaganza capability gave Vinnie a wide-open canvas to string together these crazy clusters of notes to his heart’s desire, and he went apeshit with it.

Don’t get me wrong; I still love his playing on the album. The first VVI remains my go-to record if I want to strap on the headphones and annihilate some brain cells with unmercifully over-the-top guitars and first-rate arena rock anthems. It’s just that he was such a multi-dimensional player – so seasoned and accomplished in so many ways – that I think it would’ve been more true to his whole trip had he visited all of those dimensions in his soloing.  (This “less is more” commentary is brought to you by a guy who would go on to release a 20-minute drum solo on a double-live CD, so… what the hell do I know?)

Tragic Punchline

Once I settled back into the slower pace of life back home in Houston, it was hurry up and wait… times ten. Man, things took forever:  The rest of the tracking.  The mixes. The mastering. On and on it went. I would touch base with the guys by phone from time to time, and everyone’s spirits were up, but I simply could not get any of these motherfuckers to send me some mixes. It was killing me.  I would’ve severed my left testicle with a butter knife just to hear a rough mix of something complete. I would hound Strum about this, and he would assure me that something would be “in the mail” shortly. But after days of waiting for the mailman to turn up with a cassette, I would call Dana back only to get more excuses about how he hadn’t had time to drop me something… but he would soon. It was almost as if he didn’t want me to hear the final mixes.

Finally, our day of reckoning arrived late spring/early summer.  Dana was flying out to Houston to catch up with Sweet Savage, a band he had produced, who were playing a show at a local club.  I had arranged to pick his ass up at the airport and, naturally, he would have to play something for me now.  Hell, the record was already mixed and mastered; there was no way out of it. So… he gets in the van, cues up the tape to “Twisted” (which would turn out to have one of the heavier drum mixes on the record), and blasts the shit out of it until the speakers were distorting.  Truth is, he was, shall we say, reluctant to have me hear these mixes.  Why? Because the guitars had been mixed so unbearably hot, and the drums so comparatively low, that he figured I would flip out.  But actually, playing “Twisted” first was a wise move, even though I found it odd at the time. The featured tom parts sounded present and punchy, and that tune had some of the most intense drum work from all the sessions.  Everything else on the track was bangin’, as well, and this put me in a favorable mindset to hear the whole record. I was thrilled. (A clever guy, that Mr. Strum!)

At some point thereafter, though, I would play my cassette copy of the album on various systems, for various people, at various volumes, and it became evident in a hurry that there were issues with the final mix. Among other things, the guitars were crazy loud, and many key drum parts, particularly some of the more intricate fills, were way down in the mix. In fact, I could barely discern some of what I played, and I was the one who actually played the shit!

Plus, something was lost in translation with regard to the drum “performance” aspect of the tracks. I was beating the shit out of those drums in a huge room, delivering good performances, and even our initial playback in the control room revealed that. The grooves were thumpin’ and the takes were sounding massive – right on the two-inch tape, raw as hell. I just knew that once they did their post-production magic to everything, we would have some world-class sounding tracks on our hands.  But such was not the case.  Even to this day, the drum mix is actually my least favorite part of the debut record.

And this leads us to the most tragic punchline of all: Given all we went through to record those drum tracks, the fact that they wound up being such an inconsequential aspect of the mix is truly a devastating irony.

This is still, to this day, a tough pill for me to choke down.

VVIdebut
Still have a great deal of sentiment around this record…

The Big Why?

It’s no secret that Vinnie has been regarded through the years as somewhat of a “problem child” in the industry, both in his dealings with Kiss, and also with the Invasion. I can’t speak to the Kiss situation, for obvious reasons. I’ve heard a lot about those dealings from Vinnie, and a little from Gene and, well, who knows what the real truth is there.

As for this debut album studio nightmare, the story has been recounted numerous times through the years, and for those who already have an impression that Vinnie is some kind of incorrigible asshole, this story provides excellent kindling. Accordingly, I’ve had countless fans and friends through the years ask me, in all earnestness, “Is Vinnie Vincent really a dick?”

And my answer remains:  No. I would not characterize him that way at all.

So then how does one explain the certifiable studio insanity we all endured?  Surely, that was the work of a narcissistic madman, looking to impose his evil will on a young musician, perhaps as some sort of subconscious response to the “evil will” that was undoubtedly imposed upon him by Gene and Paul, right?

Truthfully… I never saw it that way, although I’m sure one could attempt to make some kind of case around this. I mean, he did seem pretty adamant that I change my name, in the same way that the Kiss guys were supposedly adamant that he change his. And apparently, the Kiss guys wielded a lot of control over him in the studio in terms of what and how he played, and this was what he appeared to be doing with me.

Still… I never felt like that was the case; even to this day.

How about some kind of OCD type vibe as an explanation? Nowadays, we think nothing of diagnosing folks with some form of this. But back then, it wasn’t largely talked about, and we were all far less familiar with it.  One could make a case that his behavior had all the classic symptoms.  It’s like the guy who can’t leave his house until he knows that all the soup cans are facing label-out in the pantry… and then he has trouble leaving the house without going back and checking on the soup cans multiple times before he actually leaves. Here, Vinnie appeared to have an obsession with the tracks being perfect against the machine, and I know there are maybe a few “behind the scenes” things that a few of us there were privy to that might support this case.

Still… while it might be a behavioral match, I’m less inclined to write it off as a “clinical” syndrome.

To me, it was an issue of greater complexity than any of us will ever know – including Vinnie himself, in my opinion – but here’s my best explanation:

The man was simply a perfectionist who was trying to create an oil painting with watercolors. He was wanting to hear these triggered, programmed-sounding Mutt Lange-style drums du jour, when we were set up to deliver more of a classic, raw, acoustic-drums-in-a-big-room-with-a-live-drummer-bashing kind of thing.  But… none of us really knew this at the time.

Consider the context.  Up until the early 80s, virtually everything had live drums on it.  Pop, rock, soul, even disco. But Vinnie was someone who liked all kinds of music, and I knew he listened to a lot of the standard pop stuff from the mid-80s, as well. (Forever a student of good songwriting, no matter the genre.) At the same time, Vinnie was a serious player, and he appreciated serious musicianship.  So I think Vinnie was having trouble finding a balance between these two opposing concepts: he loved the modern, rock-solid, big drum approach of either programmed or programmed-sounding drums; but he also loved a drummer who could play a bunch of crazy shit, as well.  So these sessions were largely about Vinnie trying to reconcile these two concepts… without really knowing he was trying to reconcile them.

To what extent we were all equipped to fully be able to reconcile these counter concepts – technology-wise or otherwise – will forever be unknown.  We certainly did the best we could with what we had.

As for me, if I’ve come across at any point in these writings as a whiny little bitch who felt victimized by a mean Mr. Vincent… hey, “don’t cry for me, Argentina.” I’m the better musician for having endured the rigors of those sessions, especially for my maiden voyage into major label recording.  I’ve had plenty of tough days of studio recording since, but nothing – and I mean nothing – compared to the first VVI record. And I regret nothing… well, except maybe that there was never any documentation of that original, untouched version of “I Wanna Be Your Victim.” But seriously, it’s all good.

BRandPatrick
A full-circle moment with Lita Ford band-mate, Patrick Kennison,

on Kiss Kruise V, Halloween night, 2015

A final question I get from time to time: Would I ever work with Vinnie Vincent again?  My answer? A few prerequisite inquiries aside… hell yes. Vinnie Vincent is a bad motherfucker, and truly bad motherfuckers are almost as extinct these days as the main man himself.

***********

Beyond this agonizing first album recording odyssey, the only other time I felt like things were really coming off the rails was when Vinnie thought Dana Strum, Mark Slaughter and I were pulling a band mutiny on him, and he had a shyster of a manager standing nearby, whispering in his ear, looking to run off with a big pot of money. This was all going down during our final tour; an apocalyptic summer of the most dysfunctional shenanigans I have ever heard of in the biz.

But that, my friends, is, of course… another story.

 

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 In case you missed part one, here it is:

Welcome To Hell: Recording Drums for the First Vinnie Vincent Invasion Album – Part 1

*   *   *   *   *

And here’s the first memoir of this VVI series about my audition experience:

“Go West, Young Man!” – Reflections on the Vinnie Vincent Invasion audition, 30 Years Later

 

Thanks for reading…

Posted in The Artist Realm | Tagged | 16 Comments

Stranger in a Strange Land

Here’s an excerpt from my book, Zentauria: My Season in the Warrior Utopia.  The book is essentially an 11-week documentation of life with a secretive utopian community, on a small island off the east coast of Africa.  I wrote it journal-style, with a conversational narrative, but I believe the themes, experiences and insights covered throughout might be useful – even inspiring – to others.

ZentauriaKindleThis entry is from the end of the first week, just as I’m getting settled into life “in the land of the enlightened.”

Alien

Day 7 – 3:33 AM (Guest Quarters)

I am seated at a massive mahogany desk in front of my laptop, surrounded by candles, African art, and the chatter of nearby monkeys. I’ve been staying here in these guest quarters for seven days now, and it already feels like home. It is situated at the end of a row of four other similar structures just outside the Mecca, amongst four acres of exquisite jungle terrain. Mine is called the Giza Hut for its Egyptian décor and various pyramid references, the most blatant of which is the Chamber: a windowless, airtight bedroom, located down a long flight of stairs near the kitchen, twenty-five feet underground. And when I turn off the lights down there and sink into that big, beautiful bed, I am back in the womb, suspended in complete darkness and silence. This is rapidly becoming the second place on the planet where I feel 100% comfortable… the other place that is truly me.

The rest of the Giza Hut is like a spacious and elegant Manhattan loft, with dark, hand-carved furnishings, plum carpet, and lush, textured walls, canvassed in deeply hued fabrics and paint. Windows are ample around here, with each one offering a unique “portrait” of the neighboring Zentauria terrain.

eastafricasunsetSometimes I’ll crack a few open either during the day or evening and enjoy the refreshing jasmine breezes. (For full immersion into fresh air and a meditative outdoor ambience, there’s a black spiral staircase in the media room that leads to a Zen garden-themed rooftop terrace.) At the same time, gorgeous Egyptian and Asian draperies are also plentiful, so if you’re in more of a reclusive mood, this place can “go dark” in a hurry.

There is an artful and unusual coexistence of technology and aesthetics here. Flat screen monitors share wall space with oil paintings; various electronics reside comfortably next to antiques and sculptures; kitchen appliances dissolve into colorful hand-woven baskets of fruit. It is the yin and the yang, the old and the new. You feel connected to the ancient, museum-like ambience here without being disconnected from all that is leading-edge and modern.

Speaking of ambience, I’ve heard rumblings about the rich history of this structure, which dates back to the early 18th century. I take them all to heart. There is a deeply-rooted energy in this place. The walls feel as if they’ve retained the vibrations of a million prayers by a thousand monks, soaked up over 300 years. It feels good just to be in here. And I have enjoyed my daily ritual of coming back “home,” lighting up the candles and incense, fixing some peppermint tea, putting on some Coltrane, and opening up a vein here at this desk. I remain easily amused… even 10,000 miles from home.

header_COLTRANE-CHURCHTrane!!!

As for how the other aspects of life in Zentauria are shaping up so far… damn! This place is quite literally like dying and going to heaven. I got all set up in my work space at the conservatory yesterday. It’s a striking two-room studio in a back hall near the percussion department. The drum room is spacious, comfortable, and decked out with everything I need to practice or demonstrate things, including a multimedia projection rig. They have several rows of chairs on hand near the back wall for master classes and what they call “public observation.”

Then my office/private quarters is set up in a space behind this room, and it is over the top: killer art, nice lamps and furniture, lots of interesting books and music, and rugs and draperies I could only describe as old-world royal. This place is like walking into the study of a medieval European castle. (They told me the desk in there was hand-carved ash from 16th century Italy.) There’s even a private “servant quarters” in the very back that’s set up like a studio apartment with basic furnishings, a full bathroom, and a kitchenette. I could feasibly stay there for days at a time, which I might be inclined to do if I didn’t love the Giza Hut so much. We’ll see.

These people are so generous, it’s mind-blowing. I have two main apprentices and one personal assistant. They are basically around to help out with anything I need, anytime, large or small. Incredibly, the two main guys, Logus and Tong (both percussion students), gathered a bunch of drums, cymbals, hardware, and Latin percussion instruments from a holding area at the conservatory and reconstructed my exact drum set-up, based on pictures and video from my website. I could not believe how accurate it was, right down to my intricate 10-foot pedal setup. At the same time, my assistant, Jarna Tszyu (last name pronounced “Zoo”), has been all over it. She’s a university student who takes this gig very seriously and has been invaluable in getting me all set up with day-to-day logistics like food, supplies, how commerce works (which is a whole other trippy story), and anything else I’ve needed to know.

Everything here in Zentauria seems to be some combination of practice and service. My service schedule, as discussed, will consist of a couple presentations during the week (in the form of an observation period, class, or lecture—my choice), and at least one solo concert appearance, where I can choose whatever kind of ensemble or format I want. Otherwise, I’m like a researcher, or an investigative reporter… free to cruise about the island, check things out, talk to whoever I want, then document all of my findings and observations.

Needless to say, things move very fast around here once conclusions are reached. Jin took me on Zentauria’s own PTV (public television) yesterday and introduced me to the community via an informal interview setting. He asked me a lot of questions about my background, my past lives and my meeting with Q, and what I found so compelling about Zentauria. He would often interject things to the camera in different languages (Chinese? Zentaurian?), but then quickly return back to English with a childlike smile, realizing that the dumb-ass American before him spoke only one language. They also rolled a few video clips of me playing drums and had me read a few excerpts of my writing from various manuscripts. It was basically an on-camera welcoming to the island. At times, I felt compelled to subtly bolster my résumé, so as to appear more worthy of being there. But they didn’t seem to give a shit about my social status or (minuscule) level of fame in the rest of the world. That’s clearly not why I’m here.

Jin also told everyone I had carte blanche to observe the community and document my experiences here. If I didn’t know any better, I would think the Council and the citizens of Zentauria were looking for me to document the particulars of this place through the filter of a westerner.

So… looks like it’s official: I am now an honorary Zentaurian.

_______________________

Check out our official Zentauria page here for ordering info and more excerpts.

Paperback and Kindle versions available direct from Amazon. Just click the link below:

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Welcome To Hell: Recording Drums for the First Vinnie Vincent Invasion Album – Part 1

VVIdebut

As I described in the memoir, “Go West, Young Man!” – Reflections on the Vinnie Vincent Invasion audition, 30 Years Later, landing the VVI gig out of a once-in-a-lifetime audition opportunity was one of the most unforgettable memories I’ve had in my professional career. Unfortunately, recording the first Invasion album two months later would also be one of my most “unforgettable memories”… but for reasons I would rather forget!

So pull up a chair and settle in for the complete story, as I attempt to recount it for you here – in all of if its excruciating detail – 30 years later. But first, let’s start with this whole “Bobby Rock” name-change thing, as it could prove relevant in understanding the bigger picture of our journey into hell….

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A “Bobby Rock” is Born

Once I got the Vinnie Vincent Invasion gig after that fateful audition experience, we all went to the Chrysalis offices to meet up with the record company suits. It was then that I first realized my new bandmates thought my last name was Rock, not Brock. It turns out that Dana misunderstood me when I left that first answering machine message about the audition. So here I was, getting introduced to everyone as “our new drummer, Bobby Rock.” Of course, I couldn’t say anything on the spot, as it would’ve been awkward to correct Vinnie in front of the record company people about my last name, so I went along with it.

While I hung in Houston before returning to LA to start work on the first record, Vinnie did a shitload of interviews talking about his new drummer, Bobby Rock, who drove down from Texas and blew them all away. I remember thinking: Oh shit… we never talked about this hokey-ass Bobby Rock thing. I’ll have to talk to them about it when I go back to LA.

Two months later, I had my chance. At the studio during one of the initial recording sessions, Vinnie, Dana and I were hanging out in the lounge and I said, “By the way guys, I’ve been meaning to mention, Rock isn’t really my last name.”

“It is now,” Vinnie said, with a big smile.

We all laughed… but then I started to make my case to use my real name.

“Well, I’m just not sure if it’s the right…” I started to say.

“No, it’s perfect!” Vinnie interjected. “Your poster is going to be all over the bedroom walls of kids around the world. This band is going to be bigger than life, and you will be bigger than life. Bobby Rock is a much better name for this.”

Granted, the mid-80s were the time for these kind of caricature-like names (Nikki Sixx, Rikki Rockett, Blackie Lawless, Tracii Guns, etc.), so no one really flinched at the prospect of such a name-change. Still, I pressed him a bit.

“Well… yeah, I hear what you’re saying, but it just sounds so ‘Hollywood’ – so cliché – and not like the name of a truly serious player, ya know? Almost like if someone called himself ‘Johnny Star’ or something.”

Vinnie got serious. “Well, that worked out okay for Ringo.”

Uhhh, true. And at that point, there wasn’t much more I could say.

I would go on to consult a few more trusted advisor types, including our manager, George Sewitt. And since no one had any real problem with it – especially since it was just one letter off from my birth name – I went with Rock and got used to it pretty fast.

Actually, there was one person who, like me, thought the Bobby Rock thing was a little silly, and he implored me not to change my name: our singer, Robert Fleischman. And while his points were well taken, I decided to take the leap into “Bigger-Than-Life-ville” anyway (although I would occasionally struggle with the decision at key junctures in the future).

One other little tid-bit: I actually went by “Bob” more often than “Bobby” back then. So when I brought this up to Dana Strum and asked if I should go with “Bob Rock” or “Bobby Rock” (this was before anyone knew about the producer, Bob Rock, by the way), here’s how Dana advised me to decide:

“Imagine we’re out on tour somewhere, and you’re banging some slut in your hotel room. Would you picture her calling out your name like “Ooohhhh, Bob!” or “Ooohhhh, Bobby!”?

“Well, I guess she would probably say ‘Bobby.'” I replied.

“Then go with Bobby Rock,” he said.

And that, my friends, was the profound and spiritually fortuitous way that I arrived at Bobby Rock. Gotta love the 80s!

VVIhitparader
An early VVI article in Hit Parader mag

Setting the Stage

The sessions officially got underway at Baby-O Studios in Hollywood in late fall of ’85, with Vinnie and Dana co-producing. It was an interesting time in the recording industry. Almost everything you heard in the commercial pop, R&B, and dance music sphere was programmed drums. Same with TV themes and movie soundtracks. Those big, fake drum tracks had infested virtually every realm of popular music… hard rock excluded.

But even in our idiom, this influence was starting to seep in, perhaps most notably with Def Leppard’s Pyromania, which had come out a year or two prior. There was a machine-like accuracy and spit-shine polish to those drum tracks – and, indeed, the overall production approach – that gave it a very “modern” sound; one that would go on to influence the landscape of rock recording in the years ahead. Even the latest Van Halen record, 1984, had a fairly synthetic drum sound, although it still managed to retain Alex’s signature live feel.

With all of this in mind, Dana had lobbied for doing the record in a very “modern” way. There would be a simple drum machine part used as a metronomic reference for each song, and we would record the album in reverse order: Vinnie would record all rhythm guitar tracks first, then Dana would drop in bass guitar, and then I would “replace” the drum machine tracks with live drums.

Typically, you would either record all rhythm tracks simultaneously – guitar, bass and drums – or at least lay down keeper drum tracks first. So this was a rather unorthodox method of tracking that, presumably, would be a best-of-both-worlds approach: guitar and bass would have that mechanical precision since they would be cut to a machine, but then you would drop the drums in last to preserve some of that live performance fire, all while maintaining the “perfection” of the drum machine foundation. Sounded promising… and probably would’ve been under different circumstances. But I digress.

Let the Tracking Commence

The first couple weeks of recording were a breezy, joyous time. Once guitar tones were all set and ready to go, Dana would sit at the helm of the console and work the tape machine, while Vinnie sat next to him and played his ass off. I was basically free to come and go as I liked, but I pretty much just hung around the studio like a proverbial fly on the wall and grooved to the incredible tracks these guys were putting together every day.

And man, you talk about a scary fucking guitar tone. On the other side of the glass in the tracking room, I remember there being at least six different guitar heads, arranged on their sides in a semi circle, with an oscillating fan going back-and-forth to keep the tubes cool. Then, there were various guitar cabinets, strategically placed around the studio, with an array of different mics positioned around the room in key places; some close to the cabinets to capture Vinnie’s searing pick attack, others further away for that “arena” room ambience. All of this gear was somehow connected together with clusters of black cables, snaking their way along the floor or into various patch bay points. It was like the movie set of a sci-fi film in there.

I’m not sure how or why I ended up walking through that room a few times while Vinnie was tracking, but it was so unbearably loud, I remember thinking that if a small mammal were to somehow find himself scurrying across the studio floor at that moment, his little brains would surely come oozing out of his ears! It was literally painful to be in there. But… the way the guitars hit the tape was undeniable. (And if you take a close listen, for example, to the intro of “Shoot You Full Of Love,” or the open guitar solo stuff at the end of “Animal,” you can actually hear how hot those guitars were hitting the two-inch. Fucking awesome!)

I’m sure our engineer, Mikey Davis, had his fair share of input on helping to get guitar sounds. But again, it was almost always Dana working the machine, doing the actual recording. Dana had an inexhaustible work ethic, and was a master “puncher.” By that I mean, he could “punch” into record mode for virtually any part of a guitar passage for a repair, then “punch” out just after with razor-sharp accuracy, so there was seldom any evidence of the edit. Or, even more typically, he could pick up a take from virtually anywhere in a slew of chords, whammy-bar licks, or solo riffs, offering Vinnie unlimited creative freedom to piece things together.

These days, with digital editing being almost the exclusive way everyone records, these type of edits can be done much easier, and risk-free of accidentally erasing some piece you wanted to leave intact. But back then, it was extremely risky to punch in and out of any pass, because you were actually recording over shit on the master. So, if you fucked up the punch, the performer would have to redo the part all over again or, worse, you could inadvertently mow over some “magical” part of a performance. This could be disastrous.

But there Dana was, fearlessly punching together these incredible takes of Vinnie, hours a day. And while it was Vinnie’s monster riffs and true guitar genius that propelled the sessions, let’s just say that Dana was a “facilitator” of virtually anything that Vinnie heard in his head or spontaneously attempted to play. (Ultimately, Dana’s prolific punching skills would, in my opinion, alter the inevitable direction that Vinnie would take later in the process when it came time to lay down all of his solos.)

Once rhythm guitar tracks were done, Dana’s bass tracks were dropped in over a few days time with a minimal amount of fuss, as I recall. He pulled up a ballsy, growling bass tone that sounded monstrous with Vinnie’s guitar parts, and he and Mikey started mowing down takes. Vinnie would hang nearby with his cup of herbal tea for input and suggestions. Dana laid down lots of cool, hooky bass parts that served the tracks well without detracting from any of Vinnie’s classic riffs. There’s an art to that, and a skill to nailing the shit down to the click as easily as he did.

Two down, one to go, and rhythm section tracks would be in the can.

vinnievincentlive
The V-man, back in his Kiss days…

Drum Daze

With all of the rhythm guitar and bass tracks locked in, the big day had finally arrived; time to start tracking drums. And what a production it was to get everything dialed in before the red lights on the tape machine lit up.

Baby-O Studios was set up on the second floor of a historic old Hollywood building. Directly underneath it was a dilapidated old theater that had been vacant for quite some time. Word was, Van Halen filmed their “Jump” video on the theater stage, and that is precisely where we set up the drums. A local drummer named Mark Edwards was hired to bring in his kit for me to play, and also to serve in a sort of drum tech role, handling head changes, tuning, etc. To be clear, though, Mark was no mere drum tech. He was a world-class drummer in his own right, known for his work with the legendary band, Steeler, and currently playing with guitarist Doug Aldrich in a popular LA band called Lion. He was also an experienced studio drummer who knew how to get great tones out of his Yamaha Recording Series kit, hence Mikey and Dana’s decision to hire him.

We got the drums set up in the center of the stage. It was a big double bass kit, grand piano white, with two 26″ kicks, three rack toms, two floor toms, and my ever-present 6″, 8″ and 10″ roto-toms. There were a few different high-end snares, as well, but what we wound up using escapes me. We might have rented these from the infamous Paul “Jaimo” Jamieson, who was one of the top-call drum rental/cartage guys in LA for years. There was also a wide array of cymbals, mainly Paistes, and most of which I had borrowed from a very generous Keith Karnaky, owner of The Drum Shop in Houston.

Once the kit was dialed in and I started hitting the drums in that cavernous space, we all knew we were on to something pretty special. Simply put, they sounded like fucking cannons going off in there. This was basically a giant room, comprised of concrete and wood, with interesting and asymmetrical angles everywhere. With that in mind, Dana, Mikey, and our second engineer, Kevin, took a great deal of care with mic placement. In addition to the usual close miking and standard issue overhead positionings, they were very strategic about choosing multiple places around the theater for additional mics to capture that magical ambience… some as far as 50 feet away from the kit. They even set up some baffling at certain points to better contain the room sound at particularly favorable “sonic pockets.” But that was just the half of it.

Being that this was the overkill 80s, it wasn’t enough just to have a world-class “drum theater” to record in. Once all of the tracking room mics were in place, they arranged to split the signal from my close mics so that one feed went directly into the control room, and a second feed went to a separate PA system that was set up in studio B upstairs, where various mics had been strategically placed to capture that sound. As we all know, drums take on a special tone when blasted through a PA system. So now, in addition to all of the magic coming at them from our gutted theater downstairs, they also had the option of bringing in these drum sounds from the PA in studio B. Then, when you blended together all three of these sources – close mics on the kit, all of the various ambient mics around the theater, and the “stadium” drum sounds from the PA – it sounded like the end of the fucking world. There was even talk about getting an editor from Mix magazine to come down and do an article on this unprecedented drum recording process. We were flying high, and we hadn’t even started tracking yet!

Once everything was finally ready to go, all the street level entry points of the theater had to be locked and chained again… which meant that we had to establish a creative way for me to actually get down there to record, direct from the second floor control room area. This involved constructing a makeshift “catwalk” that I had to crawl through, before walking across a 10-foot plank, and then shimmying down to the theater stage. (No, I’m not joking.) It was some real Spider-Man kind of shit just to get in and out of there, but I didn’t care. We were going to nail down some revolutionary drum tracks, by God!

Another oddity was this; they had arranged for there to be a video camera on me at all times so they could see me from a TV monitor in the control room. But I could never see them. So throughout the sessions – which would prove to be famously arduous – this created a bizarre “big brother” kind of feeling as I sat there in the dungeon-like ambience of the theater. (But we’ll get to that soon enough.)

Tracking Madness – Round 1

I’ll never forget the moment before we started tracking the first song. I was shitting myself, to be honest. I had obviously recorded in various studios before, but nothing at this kind of high-stakes, major label level. And I remember Dana and the guys joking, saying “You better nail these drum parts, Bobby, or we’ll send your ass back to Texas!”

I turned to Mark, who was seated in a chair nearby about 20 feet away. “Say bro, they said they would send me home if I don’t get this right.”

“I’m pretty sure they were just joking with you,” Mark reassured me. But man, I was so fucking anxious about this, I probably thought they were serious.

First song up: “I Wanna Be Your Victim.” Tape starts rolling, and I start pounding. It seems like we got through a verse and a chorus before we stopped for some reason. I should point out that there had been zero pre-production done in terms of figuring out drum parts, so we would be constructing them on the fly. One of the first things I remember hearing through my headphones between takes, was Vinnie asking Dana how accurately I was playing up against the drum machine reference part. “He’s right on it!” Dana assured him.

We carried on, and Dana’s punching prowess continued to come in handy because, again, we were essentially composing things as we went along. So if Vinnie wanted me to play a more adventurous fill somewhere, no problem. Dana would just punch in at that point and I would continue the take from there. And I should also mention that Vinnie was all about elaborate, super-chopsy fills: fast up-and-down the toms stuff; bombastic double-bass riffing; intricate snare/cymbal combinations. He loved that shit. Meanwhile, I think Dana preferred simpler, “attitude” type fills, but would typically defer to Vinnie’s preference. Although at one point along the way, I remember Dana asking us, “Why do all of these fills have to be so fast and notey?” Too many notes? Believe me, he was asking the wrong two guys that question!

As we continued to build the track, I could see that Vinnie was an absolute fanatic about all of my grooves and fills being perfectly in sync with the machine. This meant that even if I laid down a chorus that sounded great with the guitar and bass, if he heard any discrepancy against the machine anywhere, I would have to do the whole section over again. It was a bitch, but we eventually made it through the first song.

Once Vinnie and Dana had listened down from top-to-bottom a time or two and were both satisfied that I had nailed it, they invited me up to the control room to have a final listen before moving on to the next tune. This would be the first time I heard everything together through proper monitors, and man, it was a moment in time. Mikey blasted it through the “big speakers,” and truly, the track was magnificent. It had this massive, arena-style wall-of-sound production quality – even in its raw state – combined with a super-vibey live performance feel. It sounded like three bad-ass mofos, on top of their game, ripping through the riffs of this tune, live in the studio, like the fucking place was on fire. There was a unique band chemistry already sizzling off the tape, anchored by this mile-wide groove. I’m telling you, the track was exploding out of the speakers like napalm.

In fact, I remember listening to “Victim” while standing in front of the console, as my rib cage was getting pummeled by kick drum and bass guitar. And I remember feeling like I was in the middle of a train track with the glaring light of a locomotive blazing straight toward me. That was the pure, sonic experience of the music; this shit was S-L-A-M-M-I-N’!

We were all thrilled, just beside ourselves with how huge it sounded. And again, this was just the rhythm tracks, minus solos, vocals or mixing. Daaaaamn!

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One of the original VVI promo shots; our scaled-down “street look.”

Once we all settled back down, it was decided that we would listen to the track one more time with the drum machine back in the mix so we could do a final double-check for accuracy. But remember, we had already been very stringent about how every groove and fill matched up with the machine while we were tracking. Sure enough, as the song played down, the drums were so locked with the machine – which was notably lower in the mix at this point – you barely noticed it. The track was a done deal in my mind, so I was bobbing my head to the groove in the back of the control room, relieved that we had popped the cherry on our first song, and just out of my skin with how epic things were sounding.

Suddenly, midway through the track, Vinnie’s index finger shot up toward the studio monitors and he blurted out, “There! Right there! Did you hear that kick drum? It’s off.”

Huh?

Mikey rolls the tape back about 30 seconds and we all listen from that point.

“There!” Vinnie repeated. “That third kick after the second snare fill. It’s off with the machine.”

So again, Mikey rolls it back a few bars, then solos just the drum machine and my drum track. Indeed, on that kick drum in question, there was a slight “flamming” effect, meaning that the kick was a micro mili-second ahead of the machine kick. Mind you, we would never had heard this minor, inconsequential discrepancy had the machine not been playing, as well; in other words, as the listener would be hearing it, minus the machine. But, Vinnie did hear it, and just by principle, it had to be fixed. Naturally, the rest of us thought this was ridiculous, but it was way too soon in our relationship with Vinnie for anyone to question him too much. So… it was back down to the dungeon so Dana could punch into a perfectly good track, to fix one “pushed” kick drum, that no one would ever hear.

And so the nightmare began.

Chasing the Devil’s Tail

Dana found a way to punch me in and out as I “fixed” the kick drum in question. But then upon a playback that involved live drums and drum machine only, Vinnie heard a snare I had just played slightly off with the machine. So now we had to punch back into the new punched part and try to fix that. And so with this heightened new level of scrutiny, it became a game of odds to fix these single note discrepancies. What were the odds that I could play perfectly enough to fix the questionable note… but also play the rest of the new passage perfectly, as well? And I mean perfect as in “drum machine certified” perfect. Likewise, what were the odds that Dana could successfully punch in and out of a pass with an acceptable level of transparent precision? This became the theme of this “round one” attempt at nailing down drum tracks.

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This pretty much sums up our situation. (Image by John Schwegal)

The next 10 or so days were an impossibly aggravating blur of start-stop-check-start-punch-wait-check-start-stop-start-punch-stop-check-sigh-wait. The playback in my headphones was always the whole track – guitar, bass, live drums and machine – so it was difficult to evaluate how accurately I had just played something. But in the control room, it was a different scene. Within a couple days, we had arrived at a point where I was consistently playing so dead-on with the machine that Vinnie found it necessary to hard-pan each part to its own monitor so he could better discern how perfectly everything lined up: my drum tracks would be panned hard left, and the machine would be hard right. And as the playback went down – typically with the guitar and bass tracks muted so as not to “get in the way” of the analyzation process – everyone would be absolutely quiet and still as every single note was evaluated. And if Vinnie thought he heard something, the tape would be wound back for further examination.

Meanwhile, I would be sitting behind the drums in that darkened, cold-ass theater, with a chilly film of sweat blanketing my skin, hearing some arbitrary five-second excerpt of the take being looped over and over again, with no idea what they were listening for, let alone talking about. I would usually just hear Dana or Mikey click into the talkback with a “One moment, Bobby,” and that was it. It could be anywhere from 30 seconds to ten minutes before the next update… and always with the robotic red glow of that video camera light on me. The electric eye. Always there. Big brother in the fucking house.

It would usually be Dana’s voice next. “Bobby, we’re gonna jump back in at the top of the second verse and grab something real quick. Just play along…” And then; start-stop-check-start-punch-wait-check-start-stop-start-punch-stop-check-sigh-wait. Other times, it would be Vinnie on the talkback, usually with a considerably less diplomatic tone.

“Bobby, it’s sounding very amateur right now…” or “It sounds really local,” meaning that he thought I was playing like some half-assed local band drummer. In other words, I needed to play even more machine-like.

I recognize that Vinnie had no obligation whatsoever to speak to me diplomatically. This was his gig, his record deal, and I was just a lucky young punk from Texas. And in retrospect, I don’t think Vinnie was trying to be a prick, or had some kind of sadistic intention of making my life hell in the studio. In fact, I seldom remember there even being much malice in his tone as he said these things. He was generally calm and matter-of-fact in his delivery.

Instead, I just think he was oblivious to how his wording of things could actually be hindering the result he was looking for. I mean, man… the entire situation was challenging enough as it was, so all of the condescending commentary only added to the relentless mind-fucking that was going on in my head. Honestly, I reached a point somewhere in the middle of all this where I doubted my abilities as a drummer: What the hell is wrong with me? Am I that shitty of a player that we can barely punch together takes? Maybe I need to go back to playing bars because I’m just not good enough to perform at this level yet…

Dana, on the other hand, was notably more empathetic. Throughout this entire process, he was extremely mindful of how I was likely interpreting things, and how it was in everyone’s best interest for him to mitigate the potential head-tripping by keeping all communications light, constructive, and respectful.

I should also point out that all of my studio allies – Mark Edwards, Dana, and Mikey – were constantly assuring me that the lunacy we were all experiencing here was by no means “industry standard” in a session… that I was playing well, and we should not have to be wasting time pandering to this kind of senselessness.

Unfortunately, the net result of this crazy-high level of scrutiny and obsessive micro-punching was, of course, that we were stripping these drum tracks of their very soul. It is in the ultra-subtle “push-pull” against the machine – even as a bit of flamming may occasionally occur – that a true live feel is captured. It’s what separates all the greatest classic rock tracks that we love, from much of the quantized and homogenized productions we hear these days.

Granted, that original pass of “I Wanna Be Your Victim” had plenty of punches in it. But it was based around big chunks of really solid live performance… which is why it retained its live feel. These new tracks were basically a punched-together patchwork quilt of percussive puzzle pieces. Trying to make the shit drum machine-perfect sterilized the hardcore groove factor right out of it. So tragic.

Getting through “round one” was an around-the-clock proposition of nerve-shattering patience, dogged perseverance, and a sort of mental warfare. And it seemed to have no end. Mercifully, though, we “officially” finished drum tracks late one evening, to the euphoric relief of all parties involved. We made it! There were hugs and back-slaps. And although I felt like we had sacrificed a lot of the spontaneous, live-drummer-in-a-big-room magic we initially captured before this insanity began, I was still elated. And starting early the next morning, I had just enough time to drive the old Ford van all the way back to Houston for the Christmas holidays. Life was good, and all was well.

Or so I thought….

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Friends, I hate to have to bookmark it here, but this shit is getting long! Stay tuned for more torture… including not one but two more complete rounds of tracking; behind the scenes impressions on guitar solos and vocals; the cruel and tragic irony of this entire process; and my personal response to the most enduring question I get about these hellish sessions: “Why?”

_____________

Click here for Part Two:

Welcome to More Hell: Recording Drums for the First Vinnie Vincent Invasion Album – Part 2

*   *   *   *   *

And here’s the first memoir of this VVI series about my audition experience:

“Go West, Young Man!” – Reflections on the Vinnie Vincent Invasion audition, 30 Years Later

Thanks for reading…

 

 

 

In case you missed the first entry of this series, here it is:

“Go West, Young Man!” – Reflections on the Vinnie Vincent Invasion audition, 30 Years Later

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Chasing the Muse into Spain and North Africa: Writer’s Retreat – 2015

For the past number of years now, I’ve been taking an annual writer’s retreat with my childhood friend and fellow writer/musician brother, Watson Davis. He and his wife, Audrey, had been living in Dallas for awhile, so I would travel there during the Christmas break each year (before connecting with family), and we would hunker down in their crib for several days and step off into a parallel universe of all things writing: talk of our various projects; plot points, story arcs, and other crucial challenges; brainstorming and refinement of ideas; writing techniques and software aids; editing, revision, and more dreaded editing; general commiseration about process and, of course, a whole lot of writing. (And with an extensive home gym and a fridge full of vegan viddles, I would generally only leave their place for a run – that’s it.)

Of course, we would welcome the distraction of lots of football and plenty of movies to rock the story muse. Always great times, and now an unshakeable tradition.

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With my main man, “Dr.” Watson Davis at the Prodo in Spain. 
Of all the pics we both snapped on this trip, 
this lame-ass selfie was the only one of the doctor and I!

This past year, however, my friends uprooted their world and moved to Spain.  So, it was decided that the writer’s retreat would have to continue across the pond, and that it would have to go down a bit earlier in the year so we could enjoy some optimal weather.  Also, it would have to include some additional travel, seeing as how crazy picturesque Spain is, and how intriguing Morocco is. Who was I to argue?

Madrid – Part 1

Let me first say that, as far as I can recollect, this might have been the first time I traveled overseas when I was NOT actually playing shows. It was a weird feeling, to be honest. I would find myself having “soundcheck flashbacks” mid-afternoon… like I would suddenly snap my head upright and think, “Holy shit… what time is soundcheck today?  Am I late?” … only to realize I was basically there as a common tourist, for a change.

By the time we hit Madrid after more than 13 total hours in the air, it was late morning, so we hit the ground running. But first, there was the drive through Madrid en route to the hotel… and one of my favorite things about Europe; all of that timeless architecture.  Snapped a few random pics and was reminded, once again, of how comparatively new America is in the grand scheme. Most of the buildings we all see over here everyday are what?  Less than a century old, for the most part? Over there, it’s another story…

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Our hotel was right near the Royal Palace so, naturally, we had to take a peek.

6palacewindowView from the hotel room; the Royal Palace

Man… these motherfuckers know how to live large, let me tell you – even though it remains only a “temporary” residence for the royal fam these days.  If it were me, I would never leave… nor would I have hundreds of tourists traipsing through my crib every day.  Actually, I’m glad they do allow for that, because there is an unspeakable amount of great art and beauty in there.  You really need a few days to cruise through the place and fully drink it all in.

7palaceceilingIn the foyer area…

A bit later, we scoped out the Temple Debod; a real-deal Egyptian temple which was dismantled, transplanted, then rebuilt in Madrid. A bizarre but stunning cultural juxtaposition.

8egyptianexportThe Temple

Day two, still in Madrid, found us cruising over to the Prado before catching our flight to Morocco. This is one bad-ass museum, and the fact that it plays home to the infamous Goya “black” paintings was a special bonus. These are a real treat to see in person; somehow even darker and more disturbing than in photos. Plus, we virtually had the exhibit to ourselves for a few minutes, which created an even more contemplative atmosphere with which to take in these killer paintings.

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Goya statue outside the Prado…

Tangier, Morocco

My friends had arranged for a private guide named Said (pronounced “Sa-eed”) to take us around for the two days we would be in North Africa. So after a quick flight to Tangier, he met us at the airport, got us settled into our hotel, then led us by foot through the town square casbah nearby. This place just oozed of an old world feel indicative of a setting where densely stacked buildings can be 1000 years old. It’s a vibe, for sure, and we loved it there.

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At the spice market…

As we strolled the narrow streets in a labrynth of cold, cracked stone and vibrant colors, spice markets, fruit stands, gift shops and general stores were plentiful.  Of course, we had to drop into a few, most notably, perhaps, a huge, three story art and furnishings shop that was packed so tightly with shit, it was almost impossible to decide on anything.

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Take your pick!

But we all managed to grab a little something to memorialize our time there. I nabbed a small sandstone camel sculpture, and a cool African desert landscape painting that I would drag around in a cardboard tube for the next five days.

Danger Zone?

Day two in Tangier had us taking an early road trip. But first, a nice early morning run was in order. I was looking forward to doing what I often do on the road; taking in the sites of a town on foot with a 5 to 8 mile run. However, this idea was squelched by both the late night and early morning front counter hotel attendants, both of whom implored me NOT to go running through the streets of Tangier before 7:00 AM… and if I did, not to take my iPhone or any other valuables with me. What? Why? After more than 30 years of road travel, I’ve gotten pretty good at assessing the “danger quotient” of a city.  And so far, I was not picking up any kind of violent, confrontational kind of vibe from these folks, especially when compared to certain American cities… including my own beloved home neighborhood in LA, and I have no qualms about running through those streets in the middle of the night.

I didn’t get it. This is a region of the world known for pick-pockets and hustlers, not the gangbangers and pistol-wielding robbers we have in Big City, USA. (Guns are illegal as hell over there, in fact.) What could happen?  Would I have four of five of these skinny little Arab guys chasing me down the street, trying to take my iPhone from me? I couldn’t see it.

But – after thinking about it – I had to admit that I simply didn’t know the culture over there well enough NOT to take their advice. So I reluctantly stayed put and created a 45-minute workout with the various paths and stairways of the hilly, gated grounds of the hotel. This included some heart-pumping cardio intervals, intermingled with push-ups near the pool and pull-ups from the upper edge of a stairwell.

Sure enough, as I was finishing up at around 7:00 AM, the nearby town square – which had been eerily quiet through the night and early morning hours – started buzzing with life. When I asked Said and the day shift manager about this safety issue just before we left for the day, they both laughed at me. “What? A big strong American guy like you afraid to go for a run through town? Hahahahaha!” Then, of course, I felt foolish.

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Me and Said

I was like, “Motherfuckers, it was your night-shift colleagues who told me not to go. What the hell?” We all had a good laugh, and Said enjoyed busting my balls about it throughout the day.  Man, I would’ve loved to have taken that early morning run.  Maybe next time.

Lixus and Asilah

The “tour” continued that morning with a scenic spin through Tangier, and all of its multi-cultural density.

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Murals, instead of the usual ugly-ass graffiti we get…

Then, it was a trek an hour or so south to scope the ancient Roman ruins of Lixus.  Wanna talk old structures? How about seven centuries BC?  Man, if these stone walls could talk.

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Lixus ruins…

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Standing on top of a lot of history…
about 700 years BC worth, to be exact

From there we cruised on foot through the isolated confines of the “beach town” Asilah. I remember thinking how rad it would be to keep a little pad there and spend a couple months out of the year just hanging, writing, and digging the breeze of the Mediterranean. Another life, perhaps.

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Saw some camels by the beach on the way back to the hotel. It is, of course, against my “religion” to ride them, but I did have a brief bonding moment with one of the youngsters. Very sweet animals… kind of like a cross between a horse and a cow, vibe-wise.

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The Food Sitch

As mentioned, there were no shows to do on this trip… which meant that there was no tour manager, or promoter ready to oblige my “pain in the ass” vegan diet, or interpreter standing nearby for any special restaurant accommodations, or any of the other special perks that make following a vegan diet easier overseas. No, I would basically be on my own this time. And I must say, between the communication gap and the slim pickings of vegan food offered at most of the places we went, it was not easy.

In Spain, vegetable paella was usually the safest bet when dining out.  This is a special rice and veggie dish you could find at most places. Tapas are also big over there (basically a wide variety of appetizers served at restaurants and bars), but most of those were animal products-based, although we did get lucky a few times.  So basically, I relied on my own supplies, fruit from the market for my daily smoothie (which I would make in my hotel room), and… veggie paella.

tablesettingCouscous and veggies… all day long in Tangier

In Morocco, it was all about couscous and veggies. I could usually find some kind of vegan bread to enjoy with these meals, but just like in Spain, I definitely had to supplement with supplies I brought with me: smoothies with The Ultimate Meal smoothie mix (which I have every day at home, anyway); Clif bars and trail mix for snacks; and black bean soup and instant rice on standby, ready to roll.

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Fresh fruit; always a welcome sight over there…
and a non-negotiable for snacks and smoothies

Also, not to sound like a prima donna, but I am still blown away by the fact that American does not offer a vegan meal in either their first or business-class accommodations. There are at least four different categories of special meals available there. including Muslim, kosher, and even vegetarian (which typically includes some form of dairy). But no vegan option? C’mon, motherfuckers!  Are there really so few of us out there?  (Don’t answer that!)

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Salad, cooked veggies, and warm nuts; “it’s what’s for dinner”…
on an American flight!

Back to Spain; Destination – Retreat House!

The next day we connected through Casablanca and wound up touching down in Valencia, about an hour’s ride north of my friend’s place on the east coast. We enjoyed a scenic drive there, then settled into our “writer’s retreat” mode… sort of. It’s just so crazy beautiful around there, it would have been insane to not leave their house. And with them being situated right near the breathtaking Cumbre del Sol, I enjoyed a couple of the most scenic runs I have possibly ever had – anywhere. We’re talking rolling hills (whose steep inclines make for quite a workout), 360 degree postcard views, a California climate with clear skies at about 80 degrees, and the ever-present Mediterranean in the distance – the richest blues and greens you’ve ever seen – sparkling in the sun. (It made me forget how badly my lungs were burning!)

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Part of the route…

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View from the top…

As for the actual work this time, my friend’s open air villa could not have provided a more writer-friendly environment.  At one point I joked with Watson, saying “if you ever get writer’s block around here, you have much deeper issues going on!”

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View from the “writer’s den”…

My main objective for this retreat was to lock down a publishing schedule for the following year. I’ve been sitting on so much near-completed material for so long, it’s time to start cranking the shit out there. Modern publishing methods make it easier than ever, in many ways.  Otherwise, I dabbled with different sections from about three different manuscripts, and managed to crank out a complete memoir about my Vinnie Vincent Invasion audition, the 30th anniversary of which went down during this trip. People seemed to dig the behind-the-scenes perspective of things, so I might wind up publishing a collection of this kind of non-fiction, memoir-type shit.  We’ll see.

Until the next one…

BR

Scope the VVI audition memoir HERE:

Scope out my latest book HERE:

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“Go West, Young Man!” – Reflections on the Vinnie Vincent Invasion audition, 30 Years Later

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Last week marked the 30th anniversary of my Vinnie Vincent Invasion audition. And since I’m on my annual “writer’s retreat” at the moment, firmly in the headspace of writing, I figured I would do a little stream-of-consciousness riffing about that whole crazy, magical, and dare I say, “destined,” audition experience.

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Tuesday, October 1st, 1985, SIR Studios on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. There are so many things I remember – with great detail and clarity – about that day, and even about the months leading up to it. Frankly, it’s hard to believe three full decades have since trickled through the hourglass.

Motels, Vans and Cover Bands

As a matter of context, consider where I was at the time, what I was up to, and how unlikely it was for me to even get a shot at the gig. I had spent most of that year on the road with a band called “Diamond Romeo,” zig-zagging all over the South and Midwest, playing club shows almost every night for $150 a week. Band and crew toured around in an oversized van and a huge truck packed with gear. We played nearly four hours a night on hot, smoky stages, and I slept on the floor of a motel room I shared with three other band guys, living off of peanut butter sandwiches and soup that I heated up on a hot plate. It was a pretty strenuous gig. I was playing full-out through sets of all hard rock covers, and my nightly drum solo was always well over 10 minutes (as it provided our singer with a well-needed mid-set break). But, my chops were up, up, up, and I felt like I was playing better than ever.

Although the band was perpetually on the road, I would soon realize that there wasn’t much room for advancement beyond the cover circuit we were on. And I noticed that a few of our fellow club circuit bands had been routing themselves all the way west to LA, where the real shit was going down. I knew the west coast was my destiny, but I had no clue how to get there or what to do once I did, since I figured I would be going out there as a drummer for hire.

So… I decided to reach out to a few of my colleagues who had actually been there and see if I could get a clue. First call – Joey C. Jones, front man for a band called Sweet Savage; one of the top-drawing bands on the circuit. I had heard that Sweet Savage had just been in LA recording an EP with this bassist, producer guy named Dana Strum, who was also connected to guitarist Vinnie Vincent. I was also aware that Vinnie – who had left Kiss a year or two prior – was putting a new band together and had everyone dialed in but the drummer.  Man… that was it! That would be the perfect gig for me. But how in the fuck does this 22-year old kid from Houston get a shot at that? Certainly Vinnie would have a line of LA guys ready to pounce, wouldn’t he?

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Catching up with Joey C. Jones in Dallas recently

Nonetheless, Joey was super cool. He told me the ins-and-outs of the LA scene and gave me a few phone numbers… including Dana Strum’s. So a bit later that afternoon, with my heart beating in my throat, I called Dana’s number and got his answering machine. I wound up leaving a bold and rambling message, which, in retrospect, must’ve sounded pretty ridiculous. But it was just ridiculous enough to get his attention,

I found out later that Vinnie and Dana were actually grabbing lunch together at the Hamburger Hamlet next to the Chrysalis Records building off of Sunset at the exact time Dana went to the restaurant payphone to check his messages.  Clearly amused by my rather confident pleadings, he went back to the table and had this now infamous exchange with Vinnie:

“Hey, I just found our new drummer,” Dana said jokingly. ” He just left me a message. Some kid named Bobby Rock from Texas. Says he’s ready to drive out here and audition.”

“Fuck ’em,” said Vinnie.

“No, no… I think we should give him a shot. I mean, how fucking funny would it be to have this kid drive all the way here just to bomb out at an audition, and then have to drive all the way back home?”

“True,” said Vinnie. And they both had a good chuckle.

A day or two later, Dana did return the call, and I further made my case for an audition. By the end of the conversation, he basically said, “Okay, we’ll give you a shot. I’ll be back in touch when we lock down an audition time.”  I thanked him profusely and told him to let me know when to drive out to LA. I had already decided that I wanted to use my own drums for the audition, so flying there wasn’t going to be an option.

Hurry Up and Wait

I wish I could say the audition was immediately forthcoming… but it wasn’t. It was at least six agonizing weeks later, after various delays, and it felt like six months. I was basically in limbo, off the road and living back with my parents at the house I grew up in, with no money, and no other choice but to wait around for the phone to ring.

When the call finally came – at around 1:00 AM central time, with my mom answering the call out of a deep sleep! – I was handed the phone and Dana told me that the first round of the process would involve 10-minute screening auditions, where each guy comes in and plays by himself, for the band guys, but minus any jamming with the band. If you passed that step, then you go to step two and actually get to play with the band.  So basically, I would be driving 1500 miles on fumes, with no guarantee of anything beyond those initial 10 minutes.  Plus, to even get to LA, I had to borrow money from my parents and sister for food and gas.

Going West

I hugged my parents and left early on a Sunday morning. It was just me and my chocolate brown ’79 Ford Econoline van, packed with a road-worn set of chrome Pearls. I would take the good ol’ I-10 all the way across the country.

I remember pulling into a rest area somewhere near the Texas/New Mexico border late that night, walking back from the pisser – fall chill in the air, and that desert black sky with its explosion of stars – then climbing into the back of the van, pulling a pillow out of one my bass drums, grabbing a blanket, then clearing just enough room to stretch out on the floor between the various road cases.

That whole scene is still vivid in my mind: I was trying to fall asleep, anxious about the audition, and a little paranoid about my current surroundings. I remember the constant surging of headlights though the rear window of the van, casting moving shapes of shadow and light all around me; cars, trucks, and earth-rumbling 18-wheelers coming and going all night; crunchy gravel footsteps outside the van’s sliding side door, fading into concrete shuffles; and the recurring chorus of muffled voices, near and far. It was hard to sleep, even though I was deep-fried and delirious from a long day of driving.

But then, there was this other feeling that would elbow out all that anxiety… a deep sense of knowing, in the pit of my gut.  Even though I may have been sleeping with my drums, in the back of a beat-up van in a glorified parking lot, and living on borrowed money, I just had a feeling. And at the risk of overdramatizing the moment here, I distinctly remember finally dozing off that night, wrapped in a weathered green blanket, feeling a sense of blissful isolation from my immediate surroundings… immersed in a sense of deep connectedness to some inevitable destiny on the west coast that I was on an absolute collision course to hit.  I can’t fully explain it, and I didn’t know it at the time, but as it would turn out, that audition would be one of the truly most destined moments I had ever experienced.

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The original VVI promo shot

Approaching the Moment 

As I got back on the road in the AM and the miles were clicking by, this feeling of exhilaration grew.  I mean, I was still super nervous about the audition… let me be clear about that. But this other empowered feeling kept drifting in and taking over. In fact, I remember filling up my van with gas along the way and some guy – assuming I was a musician by my appearance – asked who I played for.

“Vinnie Vincent,” I said.

“The guy from Kiss?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Cool!” he said.

I smiled to myself as I climbed back in the van a few moments later.  Damn!  Already telling motherfuckers you’ve got the gig? Man… you better deliver some serious shit tomorrow, fool!

One other fortuitous thing happened en route that’s worth mentioning: Somewhere in Arizona later that morning, I saw two Mexican guys in their twenties, stranded on the side of the road, in the middle of nowheresville. I pulled over to help. They spoke very broken English, but somehow conveyed that they were trying to get to the next exit, some 30 miles away. I said I would take them. They both jumped in the back of the van, even though the passenger seat would’ve been available for one of them, and I had a split second of thinking this might not have been a good idea. But then… that feeling was there.  Destiny.  I was supposed to bail these guys out. And in helping them reach their destined location that day, I somehow would karmically ensure that I would reach my (more metaphorical) destined location in LA the next day.  Granted, I’m sure I was caught up in all kinds of mental and spiritual grandiosity-of-the-moment kind of shit… but it all seemed to feed the fire.

I had arranged to crash at my boy Tim Young’s apartment in LA.  He was my old college roommate and a great friend, and he also offered to go to the audition as my drum tech and help me get the kit set up.  The evening of my arrival, we drove the short distance from his place – near the corner of La Brea and Melrose – to the audition site at SIR.  We just wanted to stake it out and know where we were going to be headed the next afternoon. It was quite a feat to get any sleep on his couch that night. I was amped up from fear and excitement.

Destiny: VVI – The Audition

We pulled up to SIR the next afternoon and saw all the makings of a typical cattle call audition. There was a herd of long-haired rock drummers, all standing in a line next to their stacked drum kits, waiting to go in, set up, and do their best for this token “screening” audition. When it was my turn, Tim Young walked in first holding a stack of toms, and they all looked a little perplexed. “This fucking waiter-looking guy is Bobby Rock from Texas?” But there was immediate relief when I walked in behind him, and they saw he was just my “lowly” tech!

So I met the guys and we had a little small talk. There he was: Vinnie Vincent. Rock star at large, long black hair, eyeliner kickin’, and tight pants tucked inside leather boots. I also met singer Robert Fleischman and, of course, Dana Strum, my “point person.”  Everyone was cordial, but reserved. I got the impression that they had been there awhile and had probably already had enough drumming madness for one day.

Once I get seated behind the kit and ready to go, the three of them took a seat on a couch that was set up about 15 or 20 feet in front of the drums, directly in my line of fire.  Vinnie said something like, “Just play a basic rock groove like you would if we were jamming in an arena some place.”

So I kicked into a simple AC/DC-type beat, making sure I was hitting hard and it was groovin’.  I remember the drums sounded full and ambient in the room, and although I had been fairly nervous just before go-time, I immediately felt at home there, so the shit was flowing pretty good.

They all seemed receptive to what I was playing… heads lightly bobbing, looks of interest and perhaps even pleasant surprise. So I started mixing it up a bit, throwing in a little funky syncopation, and letting a few more adventurous multi-tom and double-bass riffs fly. This definitely caught their attention as smiles broke across their faces, and I noticed a few head-nodding glances toward each other.

At this point, ten minutes had come and gone, and we were now stepping into a bizarre, almost drum clinic-like atmosphere, where I started throwing all kinds of crazy shit at them. Now they were really lit up… well, mainly Vinnie and Robert. I think Dana appreciated the musicianship but, ever the pragmatic one, was probably questioning the relevance of a lot of this kind of playing beyond a nightly drum solo.

But it was too late.  We were now 20-plus minutes into it, and I was breaking out the serious Latin-influenced 4-way independence stuff… which was even less common three decades ago.  They seemed to go nuts over this.

30 minutes and counting.

I was on a proverbial roll. I felt like I could play anything. They even started playing a little “stump the drummer,” requesting that I play certain tricky things… mainly for their amusement, it seemed.

“I noticed you can play those fast 32nd-note rolls going down the toms from high to low,” Robert said.  “But can you go in the opposite direction, from low to high?”

Ever the Billy Cobham fanatic, of course I could. So I did… fast and hard. (This type of up-and-down the toms riffing would actually wind up on the record at the end of a crazy tune called “Twisted.”)  They all just shook their heads and laughed.

Then Vinnie requested a variation of something that required a fair bit of ambidexterity.  Fortunately, it was the kind of thing I practiced for hours and hours in a Berklee College of Music practice room several years prior, so I could do it, and I did… exaggerating the shit, making it even more polyrhythmic. Again… smiles, raised eyebrows, head-shaking.  It was like I was a machine. (But really, I suppose I was just lucky that I could oblige every request!)

40 minutes and counting.

Finally, Vinnie asked me to finish up with a drum solo. I remember thinking (but obviously not saying), Holmes, what the fuck do you think I’ve been doing the past 40 minutes?  But I realized he was just curious to hear what my trip might look like in the context of a more traditional solo spot. So I launched into a final four or five-minute solo with the most bombastic ending I could manage, and they all stood up and applauded. It was quite a moment.

Afterward, the vibe was all positive, and we chatted for a few. I remember Vinnie being surprised about my age, and very complimentary about my playing. Dana was basically, “Great job. We’ll be calling you tomorrow.”  Robert was a bit more forthright about my status, as he saw it. I’ll never forget what he said:

“Unless someone walks in here with three arms, you’ve got the gig!”

Another thing I recall is when they opened the studio door to continue with the auditions, all but one of the other guys had split. (My friend Tim said that as the audition dragged on and the playing got crazier, guys started packing up their gear and bailing.)  And as I was talking to Robert and the final guy walked in – looking like he was on his way to a top 40 gig at the Holiday Inn – I couldn’t help but think he wasn’t going to be a good fit here.  Nor did Robert.

“Stick around,” Robert said in a slightly hushed tone. “This shouldn’t take long.”

robertlitabobby
Hanging with Robert Fleischman at a recent Lita Ford show

Ironically, for as much pinpoint detail as I remember about so much of this entire experience, I don’t actually recall the moment I was told I officially got the gig. I’m pretty sure it was either later that night or possibly the next day. But I do remember that there was no question about it. I was buzzing with elation and adrenaline all the way back to the apartment. It felt like I had just been hired on the spot, but they needed to go through the formality of discussing it among themselves, telling their manager, etc. But man…even all these years later, it’s hard to fully express the absolute exhilaration I felt from landing this gig. It was a sweet vindication from all the struggle, disillusionment, and uncertainty I had experienced in the biz up to that point.

Meet the Brass

Once I was locked in, it was decided that we would start recording the debut album in December, and that I would head back to Houston in the interim. But first, they wanted me to tag along to a meeting with the Chrysalis Records brass.  No big agenda, as I recall, just an “appearance” at the label with the official line-up intact, now that I had been brought into the fold.  Vinnie had been signed for awhile, but it was time to show the suits that the Vinnie Vincent Invasion was a real life entity, ready to shake up the scene.

A day or so later, I met Vinnie, Dana, and Robert over at Victoria Station in Universal City, then we all drove over to Chrysalis Records together.  Back then, you dressed up for virtually every occasion, so we were looking like a rock band as we all peacocked our way through the reception area and into the office of Ron Fair, an up-and-coming Chrysalis exec.  (Yes, that Ron Fair; the A&R man, producer, and songwriter who would go on to a huge career with Christina Aguilera, the Black Eyed Peas, and a host of others. Strange that he would be the first real industry player I would meet.)

Ten minutes into the meeting, Ron said, “Chris Wright is in today.  Maybe you guys should say hello.”  He then picked up the phone, talked to a secretary, then said, “Yes, he’ll see you now.”  And just like that, we were stepping into the office of the man who discovered Jethro Tull and co-founded Chrysalis Records nearly 20 years prior.

Holy shit!

He stood from behind his desk as we each stepped up for a handshake.  ‘…and this is our drummer, Bobby Rock.”

“Hello, Bobby… nice to meet you,” he said in his distinguished English accent as we shook hands.

Holy shit!

Then we all took our seats in front of his desk and had a casual powwow about the upcoming record and the year ahead, partnering up with Chrysalis for “global domination.”  Vinnie did most of the talking.  I just sat there quietly, trying to look as cool and unaffected as possible… like this was no big thing. But what I was really thinking was, What the fuck? Just a few days ago, I was sleeping with my drums in the back of my van, trying to stay warm at some ghetto fucking rest area, hoping my funds would hold out until I got to LA. Today, I’m hanging out with teased hair and eyeliner in a real record company meeting, at an office address off of Sunset Blvd. that I used to see on the back of my Jethro Tull and UFO albums, sitting across from one of the most powerful execs in the biz. This is fucking insane!

And these are the extremes we live with in this crazy biz.  It truly can go one way or the other, overnight.

Aftermath

After the meeting, we all went next door and had dinner at the very same Hamburger Hamlet where Dana had first picked up my voice message some six or eight weeks before.  We had gone full circle, you might say. But at this point, I still had not heard any music… not even the demo that got Vinnie signed.  So before heading out of town the next day, I connected with Dana and he gave me a cassette of some of the stuff I was to learn for the record.  Wow.  Those early demos were spectacular.  I heard “Boyz Are Gonna Rock,” “Shoot You Full Of Love,” and “No Substitute,” back to back, just as Chrysalis first heard ’em, and just like they would eventually appear on the album. The shit was slammin’, and now I was even more fired up.  This thing is going to be huge, I thought, as I cranked up the tape in my van and cruised back onto the ol’ I-10, headed east to Houston.

***********

Indeed, we did have a pretty good run. The record would come out roughly nine months after we started it, and the band would hit the road with Alice Cooper, and then Iron Maiden, on two separate tours.  The record would eventually be marketed as “the fastest-selling debut in the history of Chrysalis Records” and we would shoot a video, do a bunch of press, make a lot of noise, and enjoy a healthy buzz in the industry.  However, Robert Fleischman would not remain in the band.  Once the recording was done and we did the initial album cover photo shoot, things didn’t work out with Robert (business stuff between him, Vinnie, Vinnie’s manager, perhaps the label… I never knew exactly what). So Mark Slaughter was hired in late summer of ’86 to step in and take over front man duties.

VVImark
Early promo shot with Mark Slaughter

As for the making of the first VVI record starting in December of ’85, that would turn out to be one of the most agonizing experiences of my entire career.  But that, my friends, is a whole other story…

 ______________________

 Here’s part one of the VVI debut LP recording experience:

Welcome To Hell: Recording Drums for the First Vinnie Vincent Invasion Album – Part 1

*   *   *   *   *

And here’s part two of the VVI debut LP recording experience:

Welcome to More Hell: Recording Drums for the First Vinnie Vincent Invasion Album – Part 2

 

Thanks for reading…

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Prologue (book excerpt from Zentauria)

Here’s an excerpt from my book, Zentauria: My Season in the Warrior Utopia.  The book is essentially an 11-week documentation of life with a secretive utopian community, on a small island off the east coast of Africa.  I wrote it journal-style, with a conversational narrative, but I believe the themes, experiences and insights covered throughout might be useful – even inspiring – to others.

ZentauriaKindleHere’s the Prologue, which articulates both the deep history of the island, and my personal connection to it:

Prologue

THE KING of all the land lived in the house of rock; a massive granite structure that took untold amounts of struggle and strife to build. Thousands of citizens basked in the radiance of the king and his empire, as resources were abundant and all was good for a seeming eternity. But then, there was a climate change, of sorts, and the once plentiful resources dried up or fell out of favor, depending on who you ask. This led to the inevitable exodus of the townsfolk, followed by the reluctant exile of the king. It was a spectacular free-fall into irrelevance.

Sounds like the music business, doesn’t it?

Actually, I’m talking about Africa’s Great Zimbabwe era of the 15th century. Must’ve been a brutal time for the king, I tell ya… fucking brutal! But the king was a pretty resilient guy, and he responded to this obliteration of fortune like any dignified ruler would; he disappeared. That’s right. He and his sizable inner-circle relocated to some primo real estate acquired by the royal family during better times—a pristine, undeveloped island just thirty kilometers east of the African coastline—to contemplate life and, eventually, start things anew.

zimbabwe-ruinsThe stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe, circa 15th century

From this inauspicious beginning, a much greater and grander empire would be born. But not without a few epic shifts and twists. It would be one thing to survive on the island, but yet another to truly thrive. And what the king rediscovered about himself was that he was here to thrive, and thrive large. But how? What could be cultivated with the resources at hand to create a compelling, inspiring, and sustainable empire?

This question became the lofty theme of a daily sunset ritual; an active group meditation that took place among the swaying acacias near the shoreline, as the sun melted fire-orange into the horizon. A perfect row of nearly fifty shirtless warriors would all stand quietly with heads bowed and eyes closed, waiting, while the king slowly strolled back and forth behind them, whispering expectantly to the God Force. Every day they did this.

GreatZwarriorsAnd then one day, he got his answer.

THE MONK washed ashore in a splintered caravel during the exact time of said ritual. He hailed from the Shaolin traditions of Ming dynasty China, but had traveled extensively throughout Europe as both a mercenary and confidante to the region’s most influential. Fascinated by the synchronicity of the monk’s arrival, the king urged him and his colorful European shipmates to stick around. Soon, the monk would develop an enormous vision for the island, and then infect the king with this vision. The king, in turn, would become obsessed with its manifestation.

This was the birth of Zentauria.

* * * * * * * *

ZENTAURIA was officially established back in 1463 as an experimental, multi-cultural community designed to foster the highest levels of human potential in the arts, sciences, and esoteric spiritual practices. Part university, part think-tank, part mind/body retreat, Zentauria was intended to be the ultimate live/work environment for some of the world’s most progressive thinkers, artists, and spiritual practitioners. To this end, it would also serve as an inspirational polestar for those wishing to study art, science, or religion, join an apprenticeship, or simply experience the ambience of a high-vibrational community. And, of course, it would become a coveted destination for the world’s richest and most powerful; a magical adventure worth many future moons of tall tales and bragging rights.

Zentauria’s “super-hub” coastal location would serve as a neutral ground between the creative epicenter of Renaissance-era Europe and the spiritual nucleus of Asia’s deeply rooted Zen culture. And within two short decades of serving its initial purpose and hosting many of the world’s most highly regarded artists, monks, and warriors, Zentauria evolved into its own self-sufficient community, with quite an eclectic range of permanent citizens known as Zentaurians.

Through the first two centuries, the fifty square miles of island real estate that comprise Zentauria would change ownership several times and survive a series of international political upheavals. But it would ultimately emerge as its own autonomously governed country in 1763, the year of its 300th anniversary. It would also go on to represent human potential and self-actualization in a way no other culture ever has.

* * * * * * * *

Zentauria’s extreme isolation from the rest of the world has stemmed primarily from the rigid passport/visitation policies the country has consistently upheld in an effort to preserve its utopian qualities. It has been nearly impossible to penetrate this community on any level, and this has given the island a hallowed mystique in certain circles. (By the way, “Zentauria” is the native name for the island and not how it would appear in certain world atlas listings.)

More recently, however, policies have loosened, as some of the new leaders have become more receptive to sharing their rich culture with the rest of the world, albeit on a limited basis. Accordingly, they have invited a few of the world’s brightest leaders, speakers, and thinkers over to Zentauria with the intention of establishing a more global dialogue and a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas. And here is where the shifts and twists of my own journey would create an epic opportunity in the form of an extended invite…

Enter: My Season in the Warrior Utopia.

IMAGINE a secretive community of self-actualized super-beings, whose citizens live without conflict, disease, or prejudice, and who are among the most highly-functioning on the planet, physically, mentally, and creatively. Imagine a people whose enlightened spiritual sense flows through every aspect of their daily lives; from their work, physical training, intellectual pursuits and relationships, to their meditation practices, sexuality, and extreme reverence for planet and animals.

Now imagine living among these joyous, evolved beings for eleven weeks as an active part of their community… free to observe, explore, and document all facets of their rich history and futuristic present. What might you see? What would you learn? How might you be changed from this extraordinary opportunity, and what would you want the world to know about your observations and experiences there?

These are the questions that turned me into a madman over there, as I feverishly attempted to soak it all in and write it all down. It’s the kind of place where you don’t want to go to sleep, for fear that you might miss out on something life-altering. And yet, sleep is your only reprieve from a higher-vibrational ambience that could grind your senses into fairy-dust if you aren’t careful. But I did my best to capture as much as I could, and now I have my own magical adventure to tell you about in the pages ahead.

So climb aboard my flying carpet and let’s soar into the land of the enlightened, the “warrior utopia.” Let’s live among the evolutionarily elite—in the most magnificent culture of metaphor and archetype on earth—and allow our vibration, our creativity, our skills, our intellect, our physicality, our sensuality, our passion, and our compassion to be elevated to heights unimagined. Let’s find out, once and for all, who we are, why we’re here, what really matters, and how we can make the best of things this time through. Let’s learn to walk the talk of the masters before us, so that we can more fully Project the Magnificence and, when the time is right, bring our story to a graceful conclusion, without hesitation or regret.

Here’s to the journey…

Bobby Rock
Los Angeles

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Check out our official Zentauria page here for ordering info and more excerpts.

Paperback and Kindle versions available direct from Amazon. Just click the link below:

 amazon-white-logo

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